"There isn't a lot of science behind couples therapy, but there is science behind how couples act," said co-editor and co-author Benjamin Le, a social psychologist at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. "This is building that bridge between researchers and clinicians."
The authors determined the questions they would tackle via online polls and submissions from their students. They also set up a website, scienceofrelationships.com, where they continue the conversation.
Le and Harman chatted by phone recently about common, nagging questions, many of which are included in the book.
Are we drawn to someone like our mother/father?
Le: There's a lot of work about how parents have interacted with their young children as a form of secure attachment as opposed to promoting an anxious or avoidant attachment. The attachment style is ingrained in the child and can be carried on to romantic partners. If the parent was not consistently nurturing or there for the child, the child will have expectations that their partner can't be relied upon. Studies show people will choose dissatisfaction if it's consistent with their expectations, versus things that make them change the way they see the world.
Harman: It may or may not be a healthy dynamic, but it feels comfortable. If people don't have a lot of self-worth because of early parenting, they enter relationships where that person confirms how they already feel about themselves. It makes it hard to improve and grow and change.
What does that say about the advisability of divorce?
Le: There's work on attachment styles and pairings. It's actually quite common to have a couple where one person is avoidant and the other is anxious and very worried and jealous. Those relationships tend not to have a lot of satisfaction, but they're tremendously stable and common. Those relationships lasted just as long as people who were secure and healthy. So it depends on how you measure relationship success. Did they stay together, or are they happy?
Harman: If parents aren't modeling what type of relationship they want their child to see as normal, parents have to make that decision. Note that divorce does differentially impact men and women.
Sometimes, even if a partner wants to leave, they just can't. Financially it will really hurt them, women especially, if they end up carrying the child care burden.
Many times, even if you're unhappy, being able to support your family is another really important thing.
Wow, that's heavy. Let's move to, what makes someone hot, and others not?
Harman: The research would say that if exposure to something is increased, even subliminally, you'll like it more. Other factors contribute to whether you'd find that person attractive to date, but that's one. So, with online matchmaking sites, at first you might see profiles that aren't attractive, but the more you see them, they may not seem so bad. Some sites capitalize on that, where a member can pay more to have their photos featured daily. That frequent exposure will create greater liking.
Are people less happy after they get married?
Harman: Sadly, when you look at satisfaction, yeah, it drops, especially once children come along. But once children go off to college, it picks up again. In some of the longitudinal work, it's not quite at the same level. But life happens. When you first are together, especially if you're younger, the demands of life are very different. By what metric are you measuring satisfaction? Across the long term, people might find different things satisfying.
Le: In the honeymoon phase, you're learning a lot about someone who's new. It can promote satisfaction and it's good for one's self-concept. Dissatisfaction occurs because you know that person and there's no novelty. Relationships become boring. New activities can buffer couples from having a decline. Those things do need to be physically and intellectually stimulating. If you like to watch movies, that's not enough, because it's passive. But if you like to hike, those sorts of activities that are more physical tend to jump-start satisfaction.
Are we meant to be monogamous?
Le: That's a loaded question. What's best, versus what we're hard-wired to do, are two separate things. In ancestral times non-monogamists had more offspring. That's a totally different question from what non-monogamy does to a relationship. It's important to note that the environments that adaptations took hold in are different from the environment we're in now. Our ancestral environment is adaptive to salty and fatty foods. We carry that with us. We love cheeseburgers and French fries. It's not currently adaptive in our environment. And monogamy now doesn't carry all of the benefits it once had economically.
Harman: There's such a cultural value to maintaining relationships and families. If one conforms to it, it's adaptive because you're fitting in to the societal norm and not stigmatized. But a lot of people are exploring relationships outside the hetero monogamous norm. Promoting marriage, to one life partner forever, when you have rates of divorce upward of 50 percent, is making people question, how adaptive is this?
Can fighting be good or is it a bad sign?
Harman: Conflict is inevitable. There's some work on couples' four styles of dealing with it. One is voice, where you can openly discuss it and it's constructive. Loyalty is another, where you wait and see if it'll get better; it's positive in that you're not acting out, but it's very passive. More destructive is a passive-aggressive style ... where you ignore the partner and say things that have nothing to do with the problem. The last is exit, where you leave the room, slam the door, threaten to leave. Any time you start using negativity it takes a lot of other positive acts to reverse it.
Le: Couples who are thinking about the future, they step back and think about discussing this in ways that will make us both happy. Throwing something might make me feel good now, but it's bad for the long term. Some work looks at the ways people are able to squelch the impulse to lash out. It looks at things in the environment that reduce the ability to exert self-control, like ego depletion, where energy is worn down after a long day at work where you can't lash out and now your partner does something, and that muscle of self-control is weakened. That can even cross over to domestic abuse.
Is day care good or bad for kids?
Le: In research, as long as mothers could do what they wanted, that benefited the children. If she wanted to work and put kids in day care, it's good. If she wants to stay home but has to work outside, then day care is bad.