Give up the “please like me” gamble
For women, the quality relationships with romantic partners, friends, acquaintances and even parents has an enormous impact on overall happiness. Negative interpersonal vibes are particularly threatening. Longstanding theories in the social science literature suggest that self-image, self-esteem and the identity of women are tied to having harmonious relationships in ways that are not true for men. Unlike male friendship, which is often based on shared enjoyment of particular activities, the hallmarks of female friendship are self-disclosure and emotional support. Girls learn as early as elementary school that having a certain number of friends and being “liked” is a type of tender. To accumulate this currency, girls are often socialized to hide parts of themselves to keep others happy and to make their relationships pleasingly smooth for others.Why playing to win the hearts of others hurts women
As I discuss in my book, Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy: Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships, one of the consequences of too much dedication to winning the adoration of others is a loss of freedom. Girls and women in this trap are not always as free as their male counterparts to healthfully manage conflict in relationships. Most damaging of all is the loss over time of the aptitude for ending toxic relationships.
Part of female conditioning often says that to be a girl you need to be liked by and friends with everyone. Some take this so deeply to heart that they won’t turn away even from highly unhappy relationships. For them, failure, even just one case, raises the specter of being intrinsically unlikeable.
So conflict in relationships can have a different meaning for women than for men. Girls learn early on that being “liked” and “pleasing” has a huge impact on how they are treated by caregivers, teachers and friends. Girls are not always granted the same freedoms to separate psychologically from their parents or to be “different” from those they are closest to — as a result they often feel they have to go along to get along.
Unhappy Relationships Increase Women’s Mortality
What is astounding, however, is the deeply hurtful impact that unhappy relationships may have on women’s self-esteem and mental health. New research is showing that relationship quality not only impacts physical and psychological health, but specifically the mortality of women. “Telomeres” are repetitive structures at the end of chromosomes that help to support its longevity. Each time a cell replicates itself, telomeres shorten; the length of telomeres are believed to be an indication of mortality.
Researchers found that the number of “ambivalent” relationships a person has is associated with increased cellular aging as indicated by telomere length (even after controlling for number of variables including age and health behaviors). The association between ambivalent relationships and shorter telomere length was primarily found to be true for women — but not so for men. An ambivalent relationship is characterized by high proportions of both positive and negative interactions/experiences.
Take the case of Laurie
This is not surprising when you stop to consider the toll it would take on a girl to have a lifetime of unhappy relationships while, at the same time, her identity is firmly rooted in being liked by others. Take for example the case of Laurie, a 22-year-old recent college graduate. Laurie is vulnerable as she begins to navigate the scary world of being out on her own. She moves to a new town and works hard to attract male desire and female friendship. Within a year, she has hooked up with a number of male peers and has five female roommates whom she hangs out with on a regular basis. But there is emotional turmoil under the surface. Laurie continuously feels pressure to do what her roommates want to do socially. She does not like their choices and yet at the same time is terrified of being alone. She hooks up with guys in hopes that one will finally see her true self and make a commitment. She feels lonely. She is surrounded by people, but people who do not truly know her or care about her in a meaningful way. What further complicates matters is that she has no idea how to find the kind of relationships that would feel good to her. With no exit strategy, she just continues to maintain the status quo, never recognizing the full impact that these ambivalent relationships are having on her psychological wellbeing and physical health. Far too frequently, a pattern such as Laurie’s may start in high school, where a teenager is so frightened of her peer group turning against her that she is always accommodating others. If a pattern such as this continues without intervention, 22-year-old-Laurie becomes a 42-year-old-woman, who is still striving to win hearts, all the while feeling perpetually alone and unknown — even with a husband and family.
Here are 5 steps to playing for keeps in your relationships
1. Consider the ratio of positive to negative experiences in each of your relationships. Relationships can be supportive (high positive interactions/low negative interactions), unpleasant (low positive interactions/high in negative interactions), or indifferent (Low in both positive and negative interactions), or ambivalent (high in both positive and negative interactions). Negative relationships are characterized by high conflict, indifference and emotional insensitivity and are often more obvious to spot and, because there is little to no payoff, are easier to end. Be particularly aware of your ‘ambivalent’ relationships, where it is not all bad– but there is still a lot of bad. Know where your relationships fall on this spectrum
2. Remember: it is better for your psychological and physical health to have quality not necessarily quantity in relationships. Your goal is for the ratio of positive experiences and interactions to exceed the negative ones.
3. If you are noticing a few ambivalent or negative relationships, stop and reflect. All healthy relationships have conflict. Consider if you are managing conflict effectively, try to understand your role—work to change what you need to change.
4. Then, consider talking to the other member in this relationship–your friend, mother, father, your romantic partner. If you feel the ratio is not in your favor, tell them what you see about yourself in these negative encounters and how you are working on your role. Do they notice the negative interactions too? Are they willing to work on it with you?
5. Many stay connected to people in romance and friendship who bring them in equal proportions happiness and heartache. Sometimes the desire to please, results in relationships that on the surface appear conflict free but in reality carry many hidden, negative consequences. If you are in a relationship that is unpredictable and causes you interpersonal distress and if you have tried unsuccessfully to work on it with the other–it is time to consider ending the relationship. Your time will be better spent working to find healthier connections with others.
Reference: Uchino, B.N., Cawthon, R.M., Smith, T.W., Light, K.C., McKenzie, J., Carlisle, M., Gunn, H., Birmingham, W., & Bowen, K. (2012). Social relationships and health: Is feeling positive, negative, or both (ambivalent) about your social ties related to telomeres? Health Psychology, 31.
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