Volume 2, Issue 5: May 2018
Are you interested in how marriage has changed over time, why those changes have made some marriages better and others worse, and how we can improve our own marriage? Check out my bestselling new book!
Quote of the Month
Timeless insights from scientists, philosophers, novelists, and other wise souls
“It never occurred to me that our lives, until then so closely interwoven, could unravel and separate over a thing like that. But the fact was, I suppose, there were powerful tides tugging us apart by then, and it only needed something like that to finish the task. If we’d understood that back then—who knows?—maybe we’d have kept a tighter hold of one another.” (Never Let Me Go)
Five things I'm thinking about this month
1. One of the key variables of interest to researchers studying human mating is the extent to which people are, at a given moment in time, seeking a short-term versus a long-term partner. I have long doubted—in my “In Defense of Tinder” op-ed, for example—whether such a dichotomy actually characterizes how most people go about dating. Don’t they instead go on a first date hoping that there’s mutual attraction but open-minded about whether the relationship will be short-term or long-term? Isn’t the primary goal to determine whether there’s enough attraction to warrant a second date—and then perhaps a third, a fourth, and so on? Eventually, of course, they figure out whether they want things to get serious, but, by and large, that’s a conclusion that emerges over time rather than a mentality characterizing their headspace from the start. Well, a major new article from Paul Eastwick and his collaborators not only provides clear support for this we’ll-figure-it-out-as-we-go-along prediction (check out Figure 7 on p. 767 of the article), but begins building a broad theoretical model for considering how relationships develop over time. This article promises to launch a significant scholarly discussion about how people transition from strangers to established relationship partners.
2. Although I take no pleasure in other people’s suffering, I was relieved to see a guilty verdict last month in Bill Cosby’s aggravated indecent assault case. The #MeToo Movement has spawned an essential and long-overdue reckoning with sexual harassment and assault, including nuanced conversations about the gray areas. But for those conversations to be as productive as they need to be, we need to work toward consensus on behaviors that are unambiguously beyond the pale. If we can’t reach consensus about cases like Cosby’s (drugging women in order to assault them) and Harvey Weinstein’s (using violence and severe coercion to assault women, assuming the extensive reporting is valid), it’s hard to imagine us having the necessary discussions surrounding less pathological cases. As we work toward such discussions, one starting point could be Lisa Feldman Barrett’s new Time article titled, “Why Men Need to Stop Relying on Non-Verbal Consent.” “Without verbal consent,” Feldman Barret argues, “two people’s brains can perceive exactly the same events very differently. They can, in effect, be experiencing different situations.” She concludes that the recent push toward affirmative, verbal consent is essential: “Face and body movements aren’t a language. They are not a replacement for words. Even words aren’t guaranteed to be heard, but they’re less likely to be misunderstood.”
3. One of life’s great challenges is determining how much effort we should invest in seeking out the best options among a set of choices rather than settling for options that are sufficient for our needs. New research from David Newman and colleagues investigates the consequences of seeking to optimize our friendship choices rather than adopting a sufficiency mentality. It turns out that the extent to which people seek to optimize (as assessed with self-report items like “I won’t settle for second best when I choose who to spend my time with”) is, paradoxically, linked to greater unhappiness—less satisfaction with life, lower self-esteem, a deeper sense of regret. In the words of Peter Ustinov: “I do not believe that friends are necessarily the people you like best; they are merely the people who got there first.” Perhaps he wasn’t merely describing reality as he saw it; perhaps he was offering prescriptive advice for a well-lived life.
4. One of the great achievements of second-wave feminism is sensitizing individuals to the consequences of the massive gender inequity in housework, which The Feminine Mystique (Betty Friedan, 1963) identified as unfulfilling drudgery. Over the past half-century, the size of this inequity is diminished,but it has nonetheless remained stubbornly large. With this heterosexual backdrop in mind, it’s been fun to watch research roll in demonstrating that gay couples tend to be quite equitable in the division of household labor. Without the shackles of gender expectations, gay men and lesbians do a pretty good job of working toward a 50/50 split. But new research reveals that all bets are off once the first baby arrives. As summarized in this New York Times article, parenthood tends to push one partner into the primary breadwinner role and the other into the primary homemaker role—even among same-sex couples. “It’s not a masculine or a feminine thing,” says Jared Hunt, a new parent in a same-sex relationship; “it is just what we do to function as a couple and have our family work.” It’ll be interesting to see how such division of labor, when divorced from gender norms, influences happiness and relationship quality over time.
5. At some point or another, most of us will have to decide whether to make a major sacrifice for our relationship, and yet few of us have useful tools for helping us make such decisions. How can we decide whether we should we be willing to have a child even though we’d rather not or to leave a job we love to move to a new city to support our partner’s career? In a recent Dear Therapist column in The Atlantic, Lori Gottlieb responds to a young man whose girlfriend wants him to delay his graduate training to accompany her while she pursues her own graduate training. What I like about Gottlieb’s response is her emphasis on the importance of why rather than what, which is a key idea that I teach my Kellogg MBA students in my course on the fundamentals of negotiation. When focusing on the what (“she’s asking me to delay my graduate training”), it’s easy to get into a battle of self-righteousness. When focusing on why (“she’s asking me to work with her to find a way to make our relationship last through a tumultuous time”), we often find ourselves working together to solve a complicated problem. The shift in focus from what to why is often accompanied by a shift in resolution orientation from defending my position to working together to solve a problem. Such shifts aren’t sufficient to figure out whether to make the sacrifice in question, of course, but they can help us work toward a wiser choice.
A dispatch from the mascot of the Relationships And Motivation Lab (RAMLAB)
It’s been a fun month in the RAMLAB. Our postdoc Katie Carswell had her first lead-authored paper accepted in the premier journal in social psychology. Keep an eye on future issues of this newsletter to learn more on this work. For now—congratulations, Katie!
Some fun, unexpected tidbits came in regarding The All-Or-Nothing Marriage. A stranger from Florida generously took the time to send Eli a lovely thank-you card for writing the book (photo below). And HuffPost published another enthusiastic review of the book, this time from the vantage point of Marlene Wasserman, a clinical sexologist and couple and sex therapist.
Meanwhile, fellow Northwestern alumnus Dan Pink came to town to talk about When, his terrific new book, and Eli got to interview him about it for the Family Action Network (photo below). And speaking of Northwestern alumni, we’d all like to congratulate Meghan Markle on her marriage to a rather hunky English chap.