Authors Posts by Shauna Springer, Ph.D.

Shauna Springer, Ph.D.

Shauna Springer, Ph.D.
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Shauna Springer, Ph.D., earned her undergraduate degree in English literature from Harvard University and her doctoral degree in counseling psychology from the University of Florida. She is currently a staff psychologist in the Veterans Health Care System of Northern California, where she runs a couples clinic to help veterans reconnect with their spouses following combat deployments. She has particular expertise in marital counseling, stressor effects on marriage, trauma recovery, and women’s issues. She has also worked in a successful private practice, three university counseling centers, and a clinic specialized in the treatment of OCD and other anxiety disorders. She has co-authored several publications in professional journals and books. Her research has been presented at multiple conferences and she was awarded the McLaughlin Dissertation Research Award for her meta-analysis of stressor effects on marriage in an aggregated sample of over 164,000 married individuals. In 2008, she organized and coordinated The Lifestyle Poll Project, a study of over 1,200 well-educated women. In February 2012, she published her first book, Marriage, for Equals: The Successful Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples (marriageforequals.com).

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divorce rate

Research shows the divorce rate of well-educated couples is likely to be less

Dr. Phil (McGraw) once commented during a relationship-advice episode: “We got a 50 percent divorce rate in America. I mean you got about a one in two chance of marriage working. And that is when both people are running towards each other as fast as they can get there. They want to get married. They are excited about it. They are coming together and they crash instead of mesh. So you got a one in two shot if both of you are really leaning forward and excited about it.”i

Despite what Dr. Phil may believe, the fact that half of all marriages end in divorce does not mean that for any given wedding, there is a 50/50 chance that the marriage will be successful. Overlooking the fact that the 50 percent divorce rate is based on all couples, not just those who are “really leaning forward and excited about it”, the general logic of the 50 percent divorce probability myth is like saying:

Marriage is a gamble, not unlike a game of roulette. Half the numbers are black and half are red. You drop your ball in the circle and watch it spin around and around. There is a 50 percent chance that it will land on a red number, and if it does land on red, your relationship will end in divorce.

The truth is both undeniable and uncomfortable to proclaim: Well-educated couples are much less likely to divorce relative to less well-educated couples. In 2008, I collected data on a targeted sample of more than 1,200 of some of the most intelligent, well-resourced women of my generation (the Lifestyle Poll Project). The vast majority of the respondents in my sample (98 percent) are college graduates, and more than half of the sample graduated from Harvard University.

In the married portion of this sample (just over 600 in total), fewer than 6 percent had divorced, despite the fact that the average length of marriage was 4.3 years (the third year of year of marriage is generally associated with the highest risk of divorce).ii  The vast majority (86 percent) described their marriages as either “very happy” (24 percent), “extremely happy” (51 percent), or “perfect” (11 percent). An additional 8 percent said that they are “happy,” leaving only 6 percent that reported feeling “a little unhappy” (4 percent), “fairly unhappy” (2 percent), or “extremely unhappy” (<1 percent). The overwhelming majority (91 percent) would marry their current husband again, and nearly the same proportion (89 percent) “rarely” or “never” wish that they had not married their husbands.

In addition to asking about their own marriages, I also asked my respondents how their parents’ marriages have fared. In this relatively privileged sample, nearly 80 percent reported that their parents’ marriages were still intact—nowhere near the widely cited 50 percent divorce rate for the population at large.

The purpose of this blog, The Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples, will be to drill down and discuss the factors that explain why this particular set of people— and those like them— have incredibly successful relationships relative to the general population. The reasons for such different outcomes are complex and range from contextual factors such as the ability to afford luxury vacations and “rooms of their own” in their sprawling homes to a number of specific personality traits and life-building strategies of those in the marriages.

In addition to analyzing these very successful marriages, the blog will cover topics related to living a thoughtful life, including posts on topics like the psychology of winning your dream home (when competing with cash buyers with less insight), conversations to have before deciding whether or not to have children, why some of the wealthiest people feel the most financially insecure, and strategies for avoiding resentment when splitting up chores at home. My goal is that readers will gain insights that directly improve the quality of their lives and marriages. Hope you join me in this series of blog posts!

i. Dr. Phil Show, aired on Thursday, March 19, 2008.

ii.“By the numbers: the State of Divorce,” Time Magazine, Sept. 2000, p. 74.

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attractiveness

The Beer Goggle Effect at play on the ABC Show “The Bachelor”

Ever heard of the beer goggle effect? Some creative researchers, referring to themselves as “vigilant in the honky tonk as well as in the laboratory,” aimed to test the Country and Western “beer goggle” hypothesis that “all the girls get prettier at closing time.” They found good support for this theory—perceived attractiveness of members of the opposite sex increased around closing time at the bars.  This result was repeated in 2010 by a group of Australian researchers, and the finding held even when researchers polled participants who had not been drinking alcohol.*

Based on the results of these studies, the “beer goggle effect” is not actually about beer—it’s about something else entirely. That something is the scarcity principle. The scarcity principle is the very same principle that salespeople use routinely to increase the purchasing interest of potential consumers (“We have one more left in the warehouse…someone else expressed interest in this house earlier today, so we’d better submit the highest offer you can afford as soon as possible…Call now—the remarkable ‘thneed’  is available only while supplies last…”).** So, in the context of a bar that is closing, when our options are scarce, what is available becomes more attractive.

When we consider the setting of a bar that is about to close, what we have in a sense is a temporarily shrunken world. In a shrunken world, with fewer options at hand, people begin to ask themselves, “Of the options that are present, which one is most appealing to me?” They often begin to mentally cast themselves into romantic fantasies involving whoever may be available. 

Any Christian teenager who has ever been on a short-term mission trip to a foreign land is familiar with this phenomenon—it is a variant of the “beer goggle” effect and I have often heard it referred to as having “mission goggles.” Speaking from firsthand experience, the essence of having “mission goggles” is that at the start of a summer long mission trip, even if your first thought is, “Too bad there aren’t any cute boys on this trip,” when you are swept off to a foreign land where you are forced to rely on others in a number of uncomfortable situations, inevitably, by the end of the trip, one of the boys ends up looking like Hugh Jackman. The same thing happens at science camps and band camps across the country every summer – hundreds of scrawny boys and girls get magically transformed into Hugh Jackman and Charlize Theron.

This is why the shrunken-world element is so important in The Bachelor—it effectively reduces the range of choices to one man, which increases the appetitive (and competitive) drives of the contestants.  In fact, separating the contestants from the bachelor packs a double punch. It not only prevents contestants from seeing the bachelor when he is not “on,” but also ensures that the powerful principle of scarcity will be tapped to full effect.

Making the bachelor’s intrusions into the bachelorette pad unpredictable, and on his terms, builds the false reality that he is a very powerful man of the world who keeps others waiting on his schedule and whims. In the grips of the beer/mission goggle effect, rarely will a typical contestant say “you know, he is not really my type” or “I’m actually not that attracted to him.”

With only one object of potential attraction present, it is comical to hear women with very different personalities say things like “He’s perfect for me…it’s almost as if we were meant to be together.” These types of statements are frequently confessed during the filming and are always stated in the absence of any real information about who this man is. Of course, the viewers are looking at the bachelor from an outside perspective and are much more likely to say things like “I wouldn’t marry a guy like that.”

Sure, the producers edit what is on screen, and certainly, contestants have fame-seeking motives as well as love-connection ones, but if people were feeling this type of thing, they would probably leave the show more often than they do or would signal in some other way their relative disinterest, perhaps by occasionally making themselves slightly less physically available to the bachelor’s romantic overtures.  Think about it—how many times has a contestant on the show turned her face away at the approach of a bachelor’s wet mouth, even in cases when she has seen him making out with someone else not 30 seconds previously?

If even one other suitor were on the show, it would diminish the scarcity principle. If the show were not “The Bachelor” but “The Bachelors”, surely some of the women might find themselves evaluating the situation differently and thinking about the degree of fit between their own personalities and each of the suitors (although, even then, after a few weeks, one of the available bachelors is bound to start looking like Hugh Jackman to each of the women).

*Pennebaker, J.W., Dyer, M.A., Caulkins, S.R., Litowitz, L., Ackreman, P.L., Anderson, D.B., & McGraw, K.M. (1979). “Don’t the Girls Get Prettier at Closing Time: A Country and Western Application to Psychology.”Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 5: 122-125, p. 125.

Johnco, C., Wheeler, L., and Taylor, A. (2010). “They do get Prettier at Closing Time: A Repeated Measures Study of the Closing-time Effect and Alcohol. Social Influence, 5: 261-271.

**Seuss, D. (1971). The Lorax. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

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marrying

What is a sufficient courtship length?

When I give talks on how to make wise decisions about love relationships, the burning question that someone almost always asks is, “How long do I have to wait?” The phrasing of this question illustrates the fact that waiting can feel like working against the tide of biology and the romantic rush of falling in love and making it official.

To this question, I respond that most of the things that are worth achieving in life require us to delay gratification and to prioritize restraint over indulgence in more primitive drives. Recall Walter Mischel’s marshmallow study which showed the value of the ability to delay gratification.* Mischel offered a group of four year-old children one large, puffy marshmallow but told them all that if they would wait for him to run an errand, they could have not one, but two, lovely marshmallows.

Some of the four-year-olds were able to control their impulse to snatch up and consume their marshmallows for the duration of Mischel’s 15–20-minute errand (which must have felt like several lifetimes for these four-year-olds). Others could not. Mischel followed up with his subjects many years later and found that the ability to control impulses and delay gratification was associated with success in many different areas of life as an adult.

So, in the realm to waiting a sufficient length of time before marrying, are you willing to wait for an endless supply of lovely marshmallows, or do you want to bite down, right now, on something that resembles a marshmallow but may well turn into a bag of pus once you’ve committed? I wonder if this explains why the Spanish word esposas means both “wives” and “handcuffs”?

But, of course, pointing out that not rushing into a pre-mature commitment is very difficult when we’re in love doesn’t really address the question at hand—that is, how long is it until the cocaine-rush of initial infatuation wears off and you can make a good decision?

Some marital experts would argue that two years is a good amount of time to wait. If you are looking for a general rule of thumb, then two years is probably a good length of time for most people, but I don’t personally favor any hard-and-fast rule about how long a courtship should be. I think it depends completely on the character of the people involved, how often they see each other, in what situation(s) they spend their time dating, and how intentional they are about discovering their degree of fit. In some cases, it may be wise to wait three or more years before making a decision, and in other cases, a couple may be able to make a wise decision in less than two years.

As I write this, I’m imagining that some readers may be thinking, “Three years? Really? That seems like much too long!” If you are thinking along these lines, the question to ask is, “When might it be wise to wait three years or longer?” To this, I would say, a lengthy courtship would be wise any time three years (or more) have passed but you still know relatively little about each other.

For example, consider the case of a courtship that has played out during multiple successive military deployments. A military combat deployment is one of the most emotionally super-charged environments imaginable. Life and death may be at stake daily. The threat of loss of the other boosts attraction considerably for both partners. Lack of access to each other, paired with short-lived reunions during R & R weekends, fuels unrealisticfantasies of the true potential of the relationship. Real compatibility is hard to assess based on limited opportunities for interaction. The fantasy script of the stateside partner incorporates the potent thought, “My partner is a hero,” and all sorts of positive traits are then linked to this global perception. On the flip side, it’s quite heady stuff to be told that you are the person a soldier holds in his or her heart amidst the chaos of war. In this case, a much longer courtship may be necessary if you want to make a good decision.

Extending the courtship period in all cases will progressively minimize your relative risk of developing lasting regrets down the line. Getting married is described as a leap of faith for a reason, but when you wait a significant length of time before you “make it official,” the leap is not nearly so great.

In each audience that I’ve spoken to about marital decision-making, there is almost always someone who raises a hand and says, “My parents fell in love and got married a month later, and they’ve been completely happy together for the last 50 years.” The core of this statement is an assertion that lifelong happy marriages are possible with very short courtships. I wouldn’t disagree with this. My point is that it’s a matter of relative risk. Sure, a handful of marriages might thrive after short courtships, but for every one of these examples, a much greater number end in divorce.

So, in all cases, if we were to honestly weigh the emotional, psychological, and financial costs of a bad decision, wouldn’t wisdom in all cases suggest a relatively long courtship?

 

*Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., and Rodriguez, M. (1989). “Delay of Gratification in Children.” Science, 244, 933-938.

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love and respect

Love and Respect – A best-seller built on a faulty premise

Last week, I intentionally deviated from a series of critical pieces and ventured into the realm of positive psychology. In discussing the beneficial aspects of travelling alone within the context of a committed relationship, I hoped to inspire others to reap the rewards of solitary wanderings. The problem is that barely anyone read the last blog – my total readership suddenly dropped by over 60%.

So I guess that you like your blogs served up ornery. On that note, here is the very subject to draw out the most “ornery” part of me…

Emerson Eggerichs, best-selling author of Love and Respect*, asserts: “Women need love. Men need respect. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.”** The foundation for his platinum-level former book-of-the-year is a theorized gender difference he identified by posing this question:

If you were forced to choose one of the following, which would you prefer to endure…to be left alone and unloved in the world, or to feel inadequate and disrespected by  everyone?

In his original sample of 400 males, 74% said that if they were forced to choose, they would prefer feeling alone and unloved rather than feeling disrespected and inadequate (p.49). He collected data on a female sample and found that a comparable majority would rather feel disrespected and inadequate than alone and unloved. Based on this data, Eggerichs concluded that a wife “needs love just as she needs air to breathe” and a husband “needs respect just as he needs air to breathe” (p. 37).

As early as page 1 of his book, Eggerichs begins to shape the argument that wives’ failure to show respect to their husbands is the reason that many marriages end in divorce. As he explains, “What we have missed is the husband’s need for respect. This book is about how the wife can fulfill her need to be loved by giving her husband what he needs—respect” (p. 1). A few pages later, he asserts, “Husbands are made to be respected, want respect, and expect respect. Many wives fail to deliver. The result is that five out of ten marriages land in divorce court” (p. 6).

At times, I thought that Eggerichs might begin to see how disrespect is at the core of many marital problems for wives as well as for husbands. For example, he says that a wife “yearns to be honored, valued and prized as a precious equal” (p. 11) and that wives “fear being a doormat,” (p. 53) and informs his male readers that a wife will feel “esteemed” when “you are proud of her and all that she does” and when “you value her opinion in the grey areas as not wrong but just different and valid” (p. 73). Why not just substitute the word “esteemed” with the word “respected?”

To test my theory that respect is equally critical for many women as for many men, I set out to profile the marriages of some of the smartest women I have known and their equally capable friends (The Lifestyle Poll). The first phase of data collection for The Lifestyle Poll was based heavily on a Harvard college graduate sample. In this group of 300 women, 75% reported that they would rather feel alone and unloved than disrespected and inadequate.

In other words, within this group of highly educated, accomplished women, the tendency to favor respect over love was equivalent in degree to the preference expressed among males that was used to launch a best-selling book predicated on what now seems to be an inaccurate assumption of a consistent gender difference.

Because word of the Lifestyle Poll project spread through informal social networks, the overall composition of the sample remained highly educated and very accomplished, but as time passed, the sample became less homogeneously Harvardian. Even in this somewhat more diversified sample of more than 1200 women, however, a definite majority (65%) reported that they would rather feel alone and unloved than disrespected and inadequate.

Of course, I’m not saying that all women would prefer to feel alone and unloved any more than I’m saying that all women would prefer to feel disrespected and inadequate. My sample is a highly targeted sample, and I can no more generalize my results to all women than anyone studying a particular group of people.

Even though I would roundly criticize what I see as the sexist underpinnings of his book, I nonetheless feel that Eggerichs states some profound truths with great clarity. He argues very persuasively that respect is a core, and absolutely necessary, element of a good marriage(albeit more for males than for females, in his view) and provides a number of compelling illustrations to show how a shift toward unconditional respect can give new life to a marriage.

If he highlights a universal truth, then it is one that applies to both genders. For example, his concept of “the crazy cycle” is the idea that without love from her husband, a wife reacts without respect, and that without respect from his wife, a husband reacts without love. Instead of this formulation, I would suggest that the crazy-making pattern is that when one partner fails to meet the other partner’s deepest needs for both love and respect, the second partner will react defensively and fail to meet the first partner’s deepest needs for both love and respect in return.

It may be easier to sell a book by drawing blanket conclusions about large groups of people, but a thoughtful approach requires assessing the unique character and qualities of each person and each close relationship. Maybe men and women do not live on such different planets after all?

 

*Eggerichs, E. (2004). Love & Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs

**Eggerichs, E. Accessed March 4, 2011. www.loveandrespect.com

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respect

 Women Who Value Respect Over Love (Part II)

In my last blog post, I challenged the notion that women generally feel that “being loved” is more important than “being respected” in their marriages. In my clinical practice with couples, I have repeatedly witnessed the ways in which disrespect is at the core of many marital problems for wives as well as for husbands. To test my theory that respect is equally critical for many women as for many men, in 2008, I profiled a sizable group of well-educated females (The Lifestyle Poll). In my sample of 300 women, 75% reported that they would rather feel alone and unloved than disrespected and inadequate.

Since my results were in direct opposition to those observed by Emerson Eggerichs, the author ofLove and Respect, I wanted to understand more deeply what makes respect so important to the women in my study. In a follow-up study, I wanted to understand whether respect or love feels more important to those my sample in the larger social context (outside of marriage).

So, in the supplemental open-ended questions of my survey, I probed further, asking, “In the Lifestyle Poll, there is a question that reads, …’If you had to choose between feeling alone and unloved by everyone in the world or feeling disrespected and inadequate by everyone in the world, what would you choose?’ Can you comment on which situation would be WORSE to bear and why?

As a gut reaction, many Lifestyle Poll respondents pointed out the ridiculous nature of this question. That is, how can one separate the two? How in the world is it possible to feel loved when one is treated disrespectfully (and, further, in which parallel universe would anyone ever have to make such a depressing choice)?

The thing is that this question was not designed to evoke the state of things in the natural world—it was designed to illuminate a theorized difference between men and women in terms of driving psychological needs. To provide a fair sense of balance in the responses that were submitted, I have included some thoughtful responses from some of the women who would rather feel disrespected than unloved (in a way that mirrors Eggerichs’ theory of gender differences):

  • I would rather be disrespected and made to feel inadequate. My biggest insecurity revolves around not being loved (particularly in a romantic fashion). I think I could not live without love and knowing someone accepts me as I am.
  • I think it would be worse to be alone and unloved, unless of course the people who loved you also made you feel disrespected and inadequate. I hope I would somehow find the strength to bear the criticism of the world, as long as I thought I was on the right path, whereas the idea that no one loved me would be horribly isolating and life would have a lot less meaning
  • They’d both feel pretty awful, but I think humans really need love to survive. Love from someone who disrespects you and believes you to be inadequate might be hard to take—I’d question whether that actually is love. But I’d still take lack of respect over complete lack of love.

As I’ve mentioned, the majority of the respondents in the Lifestyle Poll sample, however, would rather feel unloved than disrespected. Here are some of the thoughtful responses from participants who voiced this preference:

  • Disrespected and inadequate would be worse to bear because it implies you’re “useless” in the world. But if you were feeling alone and unloved, it implies that this is due to your own interaction with others and you can still be respected for something that you might have contributed to the greater good of society.
  • Worst scenario for me: Feeling disrespected and inadequate by everyone in the world. I never want to not be an asset or of assistance to another or a group, especially if I have a talent or skill to elevate the group or project.
  • Respect for yourself and others is key. My family has always valued education and independence.  So being alone isn’t that scary to me. It’s not ideal, but I’d rather be alone, successful in my career, and making a difference in society than be with someone who disrespects me and makes me feel inadequate. I have worked too long and too hard, and I am proud of my accomplishments, so no one should make me feel bad about myself!
  • This was a very difficult question! I think I chose to be alone and unloved, because I assumed that at least I would love myself in that situation. In the second scenario, there was a comment about “feeling inadequate”—I wouldn’t want to have internalized others’ disparagement of me.
  • I feel like I would choose being alone and unloved, mainly because the situation of being disrespected and made to feel inadequate by everyone but being loved by them doesn’t even make sense given my understanding of love. In other words, alone and unloved is inherent in both of those choices. So I’d rather be alone and unloved and respected and not made to feel inadequate (so that I can love myself).
  • Feeling disrespected and inadequate is much harder…especially disrespected…I have a strong personality, so that one would be much harder for me.
  • Though both situations are bad, I chose the first because it represents a bubble around you, which I think is easier to manage; the second situation represents a constant bursting of that bubble by people. In the first situation—being alone and unloved—you are alienated, but the second one—being disrespected—is intrusive, aggressive and also alienating.
  • The worse situation would be being disrespected and made to feel inadequate by everyone. As a woman, I consider RESPECT to be an extremely important characteristic. If you don’t have respect, people will always think of you as inadequate, not worthy, etc. Eventually this would impair your own sense of self-worth and self-confidence.
  • That’s interesting…I think I would choose to feel alone and unloved…because in my heart of hearts I know it could never be true because God is omnipresent and He loves me beyond what anyone in the world could fathom. I don’t think I could tolerate being disrespected by everyone…
  • Being disrespected and made to feel inadequate by everyone would be horrible. It would affect your career and self-esteem, and you’d get no satisfaction in life.
  • I don’t see how these are different. If a person is belittled, that person is not loved. And yes, I would rather be alone than be with others who made me feel like that.
  • If you’re being disrespected and made to feel inadequate, it doesn’t sound like you’re being loved, either. I don’t mind being alone; it’s not the best thing, but sometimes togetherness grates on me too. I don’t think it’s tolerable to be constantly belittled.
  • This is a silly question because each choice can’t exist by itself. Feeling unloved makes you feel inadequate. The only way I am informed to answer is that I’ve felt lonely at times and it didn’t kill me, so I’d say the other thing—no respect—is worse.
  • I think if the people who “loved” me made me feel disrespected and inadequate, I could not call that feeling “loved.”

These responses speak for themselves, illuminating many of the core reasons that respect is of primary importance to these well-educated women. In looking at all of the data, no matter which preference was indicated, the underlying message is clear: there is no love without respect.

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relationships

Tread cautiously with long-distance and internet-mediated relationships

Long distance relationships and internet-mediated relationships are two types of courtships that are especially vulnerable to decision-making based on relatively little information over a potentially lengthy period of time. In a long distance relationship, when you visit your partner, you get to leave your normal life behind and can immerse yourself in their world, far from the stress and routine of your own life where you are typically assured of a warm, loving reception. As such, this type of relationship may be especially protected from the intrusion of mundane, stressful elements of day-to-day life.

The shared delusion of mutual flawlessness thrives in such a context. With the distance and the lack of face time, it is relatively easy to maintain illusions of mutual perfection, thereby extending the time during which each of you project and perceive unrealistic fantasies. Because the limited time you spend together can feel so magical (remember, the scarcity principle intensifies your hunger to see each other), you may begin to feel certain that you have found “the One.”

It is important to bear this in mind, because people in love often overestimate the actual potential of a succession of steamy phone conversations and weekend dalliances to translate into a successful life partnership. Almost anyone can be accommodating, flexible, and attentive for a long weekend, but this says very little about how accommodating, flexible, and attentive that person will be when you see them every day, year after year.

The natural tendency in many long distance relationships is to enjoy each other in the seclusion of a love-nest setting when visiting each other. Recognize and resist this tendency. Seek information that helps you see the other person from different angles. For example, spend some time with the friends of this person and ask yourself whether you like his or her friends. Would these friends be people you would choose as friends yourself? Does he or she maintain a close friendship with anyone who is disrespectful and rude to other people? It’s also helpful to clue in to how your love interest talks about exes and how he or she describes the breakup of past relationships.

Ask them about their dating history and how their past relationships have ended. In some cases, you may need to find out whether their past relationships have actually ended! If, for example, someone says that all of their exes are “total psychos,” what does this tell you about them? It may be a tipoff that they have untreated trauma. Alternatively, they may be projecting their own deficiencies onto their past partners. This kind of statement might signal an inability to take ownership for their part in past relationship problems and may predict that someday, they will regale their friends with stories of how you are the latest in a long line of “psychos” that they somehow keep picking.

I had previously mentioned that it would be unwise to relocate on the basis of an internet-only relationship. To be clear, I’m not saying that relationships that begin through an internet correspondence are a bad idea at all. A good number of my friends and acquaintances have met and married some high-quality partners with the help of online dating services. Some of these friends have eventually relocated to be near the person they met through the internet.

Internet dating services have become main stream and are now a widely accepted forum for meeting potential partners. All things considered, you are probably more likely to meet a high-quality partner through a quality online dating service than in any singles bar scene. What I am saying is that in the case of internet-mediated relationships, as in the case of long distance relationships, proactive assessment of the other person’s character is especially important. The potential for distorted perceptions and false impressions is highest when there is little to no accountability. How many people have internet profiles that read as follows?

Plain-looking SWM of average intelligence, with boorish manners, a shrunken chest, chicken legs, and a large inheritance he did not earn seeks female that will look good as an accessory in his convertible candy-apple red Roadster.

OR

Sexy SWF who has no life plan, a lousy work ethic, and no earning potential seeks affluent, handsome male who will support her out-of-control shopping addiction.

Of course, these are exaggerations, but no less so than the positivelybiased exaggerations featured in many personal ads and online bios (in which parallel universe does this assemblage of all these “stunningly attractive, extremely successful” people exist?).

Because of the tendency to over-exaggerate positive features and downplay negative aspects of the self in the world of online dating, it is especially important to separate fact from fiction, to slow down and consider information from multiple sources. You cannot do this if your entire relationship occurs over the computer. Before you make a significant commitment to any relationship, it is critical to view your leading man or woman in multiple lights.

The bottom line is that when you are trying to assess the character of someone, there is no substitute for real-time information (that is, what they say in the heat of the moment, and, of even greater importance, what their body language communicates while they are saying it). So, without impulsively relocating your life to be with your long distance love or someone you meet online, it is important to find ways to spend a significant amount of time in the same place during the dating phase of your relationship.

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soul mates

An argument for the reality of “soul mates”

For the final blog in a series of four posts about the fallacy of the soul mate, I’d like to utterly reverse my position and assert that soul mates do in fact exist. I’m not turning on my heel because of some reader’s sagacious and compelling response to an earlier post. Nor do I do so because I’m weary of writing posts that put me the role of a connubial killjoy, but rather because I do in fact believe that soul mates exist … just not at all in the way that we traditionally conceive of the concept.

While I do not believe there is such a thing as “finding your perfectly matched soul mate,” I’ve seen plenty of evidence that we can become each other’s soul mates as the result of a deep and lasting love relationship. If humans can develop finely honed skills in music, athletics, and language arts, wouldn’t it be equally possible for them to become perfectly suited and completely irreplaceable to their spouses? A musical genius develops perfect pitch and can create soul-stirring compositions of musical beauty. The best soccer players combine incredible footwork skills with a holistic awareness of the playing field; at the highest levels of play, soccer becomes a game of angles, similar to billiards. Someone who becomes fluent in a language “thinks” in that language—there is no effortful retrieval once the language becomes second nature.

Along these lines, for a couple in the later stages of a satisfying marriage, effective and respectful negotiation of challenges has become habitual. Love and respect for each other have been practiced so repeatedly that thoughts of separation or divorce are completely alien. The partnership has become so multifaceted and the compatibilities so intricately dovetailed that one’s spouse could never be replaced by anyone else.Two individuals who have become perfect for and irreplaceable to each other have become soul mates. In this way, soul mates become each other’s “one in a billion perfect match.” This for me is the form that a soul mate takes in one’s life.

I suspect that happily married couples eventually pass a threshold into this last, most rewarding stage of marriage. The transition point into the stage of becoming each other’s soul mate would be different for each couple, and some couples would arrive earlier than others. (Sadly, many couples never even come close to achieving this). Perhaps this shift is the result of successful reconnection at a certain key transition point, such as the reconnection that follows the launching of adult children or the transition to retirement. However, this is not a passive process – marriages don’t get better as a function of time alone, but rather they get better as a function of two partners continuing to treat each other with love and respect despite the challenges life brings.

Whenever two individuals do become each other’s soul mate, the remaining years of marriage are grounded in security and a rare and special form of earned intimacy. As I see it, during the soul mate phase of a well-nurtured marriage, the developmental tasks would be to celebrate and make meaning of the life you have lived together, operating as sacred keepers of each other’s history, and to become generative together towards others. One hallmark of couples who have passed into the “soul mate” phase of their marriage is that they continually bless and inspire others through the way they treat each other and those around them. Another hallmark is the “widower” effect – when two people become one, it is often the case that the death of one is closely followed by the death of the other. This isn’t merely romantic nonsense propagated by Hollywood movie-makers – this actually happens with notable frequency for closely-bonded pairs.*

In the final stages of marriage, the love that can be created is a deeper, more satisfying level of love than anything that anyone encounters in the initial cocaine-rush phase of a relationship. In one sense, to make a comparison between the experiences of love at these two relationship stages is like comparing apples and oranges. I would argue that love of a deep and meaningful kind is only possible when based on real knowledge. If being loved is based on being known for who you are and cherished despite your flaws, then the feelings one has during the initial cocaine-rush phase of a relationship can’t be love. These feelings would be some combination of other pleasurable things like hope and attraction, and illusions of the soul-mate variety.

What feels a lot like love in the cocaine-rush phase does not compare to the love that couples may enjoy in the final phase of an exceptional marriage. If you doubt that this is true, consider the difference between the giddy feelings of being in love with someone you’ve known for a short time and the feelings of love you would have for someone who has been your journeying partner for the past 60 years of your life—the person who has been by your side through thick and thin, who has believed in you and invested in you.

If this is difficult to picture, then, as an analogy, imagine the way it would feel to move into your dream home, full of excitement and thrilling plans for the future (in parallel to the cocaine-rush phase of a relationship). Now, imagine the feelings of love and attachment you would have about the same home after making every square inch of the home suited to your personal tastes and filling it with layer upon layer of joyful memories over the course of a full and rich life (in parallel to the tested romanticism phase). The feelings you would have in either case cannot be compared as equals, but I would guess that most of us would cry harder if the home full of memories caught fire.

In some ways, despite my strong criticism of the concept of soul mates, I’m a (grounded) romantic at heart. My book (Marriage, for Equals: The Successful Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples) and most of my blog posts are essentially about how to find someone with the raw potential to become your soul mate and to create the kind of bond with them that will allow you to become each other’s true soul mate. Thanks for joining me in this series!

* Abel, E.L. and Kruger, M.L. (2009). “The Widowhood Effect: A Comparison of Jews and Catholics.” Omega, 59, 325-337.

Elwert, F., and Christakis, N.A. (2008). “The Effect of Widowhood on Mortality by the Causes of Death of Both Spouses.” American Journal of Public Health, 98, 2092-2098.

Hart, C.L., Hole, D.J., Lawlor, D.A., Smith, G.D., and Lever, T.F. (2007). “Effect of Conjugal Bereavement on Mortality of the Bereaved Spouse in Participants of the Renfrew/Paisley Study.” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 61, 455-460.

Helsing, K.J., Comstock, G. W., and Szklo, M. (1982). “Causes of Death in a Widowed Population.” American Journal of Epidemiology, 116, 524-532.

Parkes, C.M., Benjamin, B., and Fitzgerald, R.G. (1969). “Broken Heart: A Statistical Study of Increased Mortality Among Widowers.” British Journal of Medicine, 1, 740-743.

Schaefer, C., Quesenberry, C.P, and Wi, S. (1995). “Mortality Following Conjugal Bereavement and the Effects of a Shared Environment.” American Journal of Epidemiology, 141, 1142-1152.

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soul mate

Well-educated people do not usually believe in “soul mates.”

In addition to dating a potential spouse for several years before marriage, well-educated people do not typically believe in the concept of a “soul mate.” In the research that informed my book, Marriage, for Equals: The Successful Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples, the vast majority (81 percent) of the 1200+ participants in my survey of well-educated women rejected the philosophy of the soul mate, favoring instead the possibility of more than one potentially well-suited partner.

To my mind, the idea of finding one’s “soul mate” has about as much basis in truth as the idea that each of us has a doppelganger (an “evil twin”) and that if we somehow chance to meet up, a bloody duel will surely ensue because one of us must die.

The idea of a soul mate comes from the ancient tale of Aristophanes, a comic playwright and contemporary of Plato. He told a story of some two-headed hermaphroditic giants who were cleaved apart by a jealous Zeus, fated thereafter to forever seek their other halves. If you can look past the unromantic image of two-headed giants lumbering around on four legs, I suppose there is some romantic appeal to the idea of the one-in-a-million quality of one’s supposed soul mate.

The concept of finding a soul mate is riddled with logical errors, however, the biggest of which is the idea that our personalities are fixed and unchanging over the course of life (a close second would be the statistical improbability that teenagers in towns with tiny populations across America seem to keep meeting their soul mates in their very own high schools).

In other words, the soul mate idea implies that we are the way we are (with a number of fixed attributes and personality factors) and that there is one other person who is a perfect match for us due to their collection of complementary attributes and personal qualities. The goal in finding one’s soul mate is to identify this person, and the assumption is that once this person has been correctly identified, it will be smooth sailing because the two halves have become reunited. In this way, the soul mate script is fundamentally a happily-ever-after script. This script surely has a place in fairy tales, but not in real life.

In the book Crucial Conversations, author and philosopher May Sarton depicts the character of a wife who has outgrown her husband. This discontented wife says, “One of the things I’ve been wondering…is whether all marriages don’t have the seeds of dissolution in them. Can people be expected to keep on growing at the same rate?”*

How, then, do we reconcile the idea of soul mates or of finding “the One” with the frequently uttered statement “we’ve grown apart over the years”? The wide use of this explanation for the dissolution of marriage demonstrates that the soul mate notion overlooks a critical truth—that we are not static but are instead in a continual process of growth and change. Of course, the speed of change depends on a number of factors: On the positive side, things like adaptability and openness to positive influence, and on the negative side, things like weakness of character and areas of unhealthy rigidity.

Life circumstances can sometimes also compel significant changes in personal philosophies and approaches to life. Significant traumas can completely uproot a previously established sense of trust in others and will often change someone’s personality greatly. More than half of the women who responded to my survey (The Lifestyle Poll) (a total of 633 women) reported that they’ve experienced an event that has made them a “much less trusting person than they used to be.” For example, here are three illustrative responses to the open-ended question “What has been your biggest personal betrayal and how has this shaped the person you are today?”

I have been repeatedly broken up with by boyfriends I really liked (and thought had long-term potential). This has made me insecure about my worthiness of being loved (i.e. what is wrong with me that this keeps happening?) I think it makes me make the same mistakes over and over out of desperation.

My father left my mother and me and pretty much his entire family over 10 years ago. I’m still not sure the extent of things he was involved in to cause him to do that…to me it was very much out of character. But it made me believe that you can NEVER really know someone…only what they want you to see. I think I tend to look for negative outcomes in my relationships with men and I’m not very trusting at all…I don’t give a lot of people the benefit of the doubt.

I had a bad relationship with someone who dated/courted me (even though he had a long-distance girlfriend at the time). But, in public, he kept our relationship secret. He then unexpectedly cut off all ties with me with no explanation (but I later found he was dating someone else and their relationship was very public). I wondered whether he was ashamed of me and I wondered why I let myself be deluded by his charm. Now, I am much more cautious about people. I tend to distrust men’s friendliness towards me and I try to avoid men who are too friendly, too outgoing (basically men who remind me of this person).

In addition to the effects of traumas, adoption of a new belief system or withdrawal from previously held beliefs is also associated with sweeping and often permanent changes in personality. Thus, we can never count on the notion of having met our soul mates to keep us together through all the changes that life brings; to do so would be to build our marriages on a foundation of shifting sand.

The next several blogs will further describe how a belief in “soul mates” often sets couples up for failure.

*Sarton, M. (1975). Crucial Conversations. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, p. 112.

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