Volume 2, Issue 10: October 2018
The All-Or-Nothing Marriage
Quote of the Month
Timeless insights from scientists, philosophers, novelists, and other wise souls
“How I long to fall just a little bit,
To dance out of the lines and stray from the light,
But I fear that to fall in love with you
Is to fall from a great and gruesome height.”
Five things I'm thinking about this month
1. It feels like the culture wars have gone into hyperdrive, especially with all of the madness surrounding the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. With the #MeToo movement as backdrop, Christine Blasey Ford delivered devastating testimony about being sexually assault as a teenager. Kavanaugh expressed fury about the way he’d been treated by Democrats and the media. Donald Trump, who has clocked more than a dozen sexual abuse allegations of his own (and who regularly incites “Lock her up!” chants at his rallies), lamented how an accusation of sexual harassment or assault can, without due process, ruin a man’s life. Conservatives picked up the mantle, launching a #HimToo hashtag on Twitter to support men who have been falsely accused of sexual impropriety. Into this distressing cultural brew—which coincides with heightened awareness of cases in which white people call the police to report black people who are actually doing nothing wrong (#BlackLivesMatter)—comes this sad little story that captures so much about where America is right now. The story involves a white woman who felt pressure against her butt and believed that somebody had groped her. After years (even millennia) in which women were reluctant to speak up about sexual assault, perhaps we should be heartened that she took the initiative to call the police (#MeToo). But things didn’t go well from there. The alleged perpetrator was a nine-year-old black boy, whose mother perceived racist intent. Harsh words were exchanged. In contrast to many he-said/she-said situations, this event was recorded, and the bystander’s smartphone video revealed that the allegation was indeed false. What actually happened is that the boy’s backpack had brushed against the woman’s butt without his awareness, turning the call to the police into an odd case of #HimToo. And just to add public shaming (#Cyberbullying?) to the concoction, more than eight million people have viewed the video on social media, with many viewers excoriating the woman as a callous racist. Confronted with video evidence, the woman apologized, although disagreement festers and anger simmers about the role that race played in the whole messy process. It’s a complicated, heart-wrenching time.
2. Meanwhile, the psychotherapist and speaker Esther Perel offers a unique view into the lives of individuals who are dealing with heart-wrenching experiences on a more intimate scale. In collaboration with Audible, she produces “Where Should We Begin?”, a gripping podcast in which she invites listeners into her office to witness one-time-only therapy sessions. She just launched the third season, called The Arc of Love (free for Audible subscribers), which is every bit as compelling as the first two. Many of us have been to a therapist, but very few have witnessed a therapy session for people other than ourselves. And virtually nobody has witnessed a therapy session conducted by a maestro like Perel. While listening in on these sessions, I am always aware what a privilege it is to witness relational and therapeutic genius in action. That feeling is especially powerful when the psychological breakthroughs bring the people on Perel’s couch to tears, often causing me to bark at passersby: “I’m not crying—you’re crying!”
3. For those of us seeking to do a little self-improvement in our romantic relationship instead of (or in additional to) seeking professional help, a new scholarly article offers concrete evidence for how we can sustain sexual desire. This article, from Amy Muise and her collaborators, demonstrates that engaging in novel and exciting activities together heightens sexual desire. One study revealed that people were 25% more likely to have sex on days when they engaged in higher-than-typical levels of such behaviors. Another study employed experimental procedures, randomly assigning some participants to read a fabricated article touting the benefits of engaging in novel and exciting activities together, and to engage in such behaviors as much as possible over the ensuing 72 hours (Friday to Monday). Relative to participants who were randomly assigned to a control condition—who did not read an article and who were not asked to alter their behavior—participants in the experimental condition exhibited greater sexual desire for their partner. Participants who were randomly assigned to a third condition in which they read a fabricated article touting the benefits of engaging in familiar and comfortable activities together and encouraged to engage in such behaviors, exhibited intermediate levels of sexual desire. These results provide compelling evidence for the idea that engaging in novel and exciting activities is a promising avenue for keeping passion strong.
4. Speaking of new scientific knowledge, this article offers a cautionary tale regarding the tendency to generalize findings from one group of people to another. In this research, Jaclyn Ross and her collaborators replicated the well-established finding that the tendency to withdraw when our partner makes demands of us is linked to worse relationship functioning. What’s so important about this research, however, is that she investigated this demand-withdrawal process not only among the sorts of middle-class couples that typically sign up for relationships studies, but also among the sorts of socioeconomically disadvantaged couples that rarely make their way to our research laboratories. It turns out that the demand-withdrawal pattern that is so reliably associated with relationship troubles in middle-class couples is actually associated with better relationship functioning in poorer couples. That is, among couples enduring the economic and psychological stress that comes with poverty, withdrawing in response to a partner’s demands—which can de-escalate conflict—appears to be better for the relationship, on average, than engaging actively with those demands. The authors’ conclusion is powerful: “Efforts to change couple communication without appreciating the larger social and economic contexts of those behaviors may be counterproductive.”
5. What about the initiation of new romantic relationships? Well, we’re starting to get some significant clues about how Facebook’s new dating service is going to work. According to this article in TechCrunch, Facebook is now conducting its first major test—in Colombia. It’s a fraught time for Facebook to be launching a new service so focused on user’s intimate lives, what with the Cambridge Analytica scandal and other concerns linked to privacy and fake news. On the other hand, if there’s a company that has a real chance of building a successful matchmaking algorithm—something that nobody has done thus far—it’s Facebook. The company possesses unparalleled knowledge about how users respond to various stimuli (cat photos, event invitations, etc.) and unparalleled information about what users share (political news, funny GIFs, etc.). They also possess exceptional skill in computational research methods. I’m not necessarily optimistic that they’ll be able to build a matchmaking algorithm that actually works, but I do think that their approach offers the greatest probability of success. I’m intrigued to see how things play out.
A dispatch from the mascot of the Relationships And Motivation Lab (RAMLAB)
We in the RAMLAB have been loving the transition to fall. Erin and Emma have been enjoying their first month of graduate school, and Eli has been sharing his latest research with companies like Amazon and Abbot Downing.
In a rather awkward turn of events, Eli has decided to dress up as me for Halloween, so he ordered the costume in the photo below. If you know a dog that would like to go trick-or-treating with him, the other costume below might work nicely. Meanwhile, Eli is trying to convince his daughter to dress up as a Dutch masterpiece.