Has the quest for that one perfect partner, the never-ending search for the ideal done us more harm than good? There is growing evidence that an idealistic search for love can hinder the enjoyment and fulfilment of what you already have. The following is excerpted from Polly Schulman’s article at Psychology Today (http://psychologytoday.com ).
The divorce rate has stayed constant at nearly 50 percent for the last two decades. The ease with which we enter and dissolve unions makes marriage seem like a prime-time spectator sport, whether it’s Britney Spears in Vegas or bimbos chasing after the Bachelor.
Long live the new marriage! We once prized the institution for the practical pairing of a cash-producing father and a home-building mother. Now we want it all—a partner who reflects our taste and status, who sees us for who we are, who loves us for all the “right” reasons, who helps us become the person we want to be. We’ve done away with a rigid social order, adopting instead an even more onerous obligation: the mandate to find a perfect match. Anything short of this ideal prompts us to ask: Is this all there is? Am I as happy as I should be? Could there be somebody out there who’s better for me? As often as not, we answer yes to that last question and fall victim to our own great expectations.
That somebody is, of course, our soul mate, the man or woman who will counter our weaknesses, amplify our strengths and provide the unflagging support and respect that is the essence of a contemporary relationship. The reality is that few marriages or partnerships consistently live up to this ideal. The result is a commitment limbo, in which we care deeply for our partner but keep one stealthy foot out the door of our hearts. In so doing, we subject the relationship to constant review: Would I be happier, smarter, a better person with someone else? It’s a painful modern quandary. “Nothing has produced more unhappiness than the concept of the soul mate,” says Atlanta psychiatrist Frank Pittman [....
... ] Many of us either dodge the decision to commit or commit without fully relinquishing the right to keep looking—opting for an arrangement psychotherapist Terrence Real terms “stable ambiguity.” “You park on the border of the relationship, so you’re in it but not of it,” he says. There are a million ways to do that: You can be in a relationship but not be sure it’s really the right one, have an eye open for a better deal or something on the side, choose someone impossible or far away.
Yet commitment and marriage offer real physical and financial rewards. Touting the benefits of marriage may sound like conservative policy rhetoric, but nonpartisan sociological research backs it up: Committed partners have it all over singles, at least on average. Married people are more financially stable, according to Linda Waite, a sociologist at the University of Chicago and a coauthor of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially Both married men and married women have more assets on average than singles; for women, the differential is huge.
The benefits go beyond the piggy bank. Married people, particularly men, tend to live longer than people who aren’t married. Couples also live better: When people expect to stay together, says Waite, they pool their resources, increasing their individual standard of living. They also pool their expertise—in cooking, say, or financial management. In general, women improve men’s health by putting a stop to stupid bachelor tricks and bugging their husbands to exercise and eat their vegetables. Plus, people who aren’t comparing their partners to someone else in bed have less trouble performing and are more emotionally satisfied with sex. The relationship doesn’t have to be wonderful for life to get better, says Waite: The statistics hold true for mediocre marriages as well as for passionate ones.
The pragmatic benefits of partnership used to be foremost in our minds. The idea of marriage as a vehicle for self-fulfillment and happiness is relatively new, says Paul Amato, professor of sociology, demography and family studies at Penn State University. Surveys of high school and college students 50 or 60 years ago found that most wanted to get married in order to have children or own a home. Now, most report that they plan to get married for love. This increased emphasis on emotional fulfillment within marriage leaves couples ill-prepared for the realities they will probably face.
Because the early phase of a relationship is marked by excitement and idealization, “many romantic, passionate couples expect to have that excitement forever,” says Barry McCarthy, a clinical psychologist and coauthor—with his wife, Emily McCarthy—of Getting It Right the First Time: Creating a Healthy Marriage. Longing for the charged energy of the early days, people look elsewhere or split up.
Flagging passion is often interpreted as the death knell of a relationship. You begin to wonder whether you’re really right for each other after all. You’re comfortable together, but you don’t really connect the way you used to. Wouldn’t it be more honest—and braver—to just admit that it’s not working and call it off? “People are made to feel that remaining in a marriage that doesn’t make you blissfully happy is an act of existential cowardice,” says Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco psychologist.
Coleman says that the constant cultural pressure to have it all—a great sex life, a wonderful family—has made people ashamed of their less-than-perfect relationships and question whether such unions are worth hanging on to. Feelings of dissatisfaction or disappointment are natural, but they can seem intolerable when standards are sky-high. “It’s a recent historical event that people expect to get so much from individual partners,” says Coleman, author of The Marriage Makeover: Finding Happiness in Imperfect Harmony in which he advises couples in lackluster marriages to stick it out—especially if they have kids. “There’s an enormous amount of pressure on marriages to live up to an unrealistic ideal.” [...
...] In fact, argue psychologists and marital advocates, there’s no such thing as true compatibility. “Marriage is a disagreement machine,” says Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. “All couples disagree about all the same things. We have a highly romanticized notion that if we were with the right person, we wouldn’t fight.” Discord springs eternal over money, kids, sex and leisure time, but psychologist John Gottman has shown that long-term, happily married couples disagree about these things just as much as couples who divorce.
“There is a mythology of ‘the wrong person,’” agrees Pittman. “All marriages are incompatible. All marriages are between people from different families, people who have a different view of things. The magic is to develop binocular vision, to see life through your partner’s eyes as well as through your own.”
The realization that we’re not going to get everything we want from a partner is not just sobering, it’s downright miserable. But it is also a necessary step in building a mature relationship, according to Real, who has written about the subject in How Can I Get Through to You? Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women
. “The paradox of intimacy is that our ability to stay close rests on our ability to tolerate solitude inside a relationship,” he says. “A central aspect of grown-up love is grief. All of us long for—and think we deserve—perfection.” We can hardly be blamed for striving for bliss and self-fulfillment in our romantic lives—our inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness is guaranteed in the first blueprint of [..modern] society.
This same respect for our own needs spurred the divorce-law reforms of the 1960s and 1970s. During that era, “The culture shifted to emphasize individual satisfaction, and marriage was part of that,” explains Paul Amato, who has followed more than 2,000 families for 20 years in a long-term study of marriage and divorce. Amato says that this shift did some good by freeing people from abusive and intolerable marriages. But it had an unintended side effect: encouraging people to abandon relationships that may be worth salvaging. In a society hell-bent on individual achievement and autonomy, working on a difficult relationship may get short shrift, says psychiatrist Peter Kramer, author of Should You Leave?
“So much of what we learn has to do with the self, the ego, rather than giving over the self to things like a relationship,” Kramer says. In our competitive world, we’re rewarded for our individual achievements rather than for how we help others. We value independence over cooperation, and sacrifices for values like loyalty and continuity seem foolish. “I think we get the divorce rate that we deserve as a culture.”
The steadfast focus on our own potential may turn a partner into an accessory in the quest for self-actualization, says Maggie Robbins, a therapist in New York City. “We think that this person should reflect the beauty and perfection that is the inner me—or, more often, that this person should compensate for the yuckiness and mess that is the inner me,” says Robbins. “This is what makes you tell your wife, ‘Lose some weight—you’re making me look bad,’ not ‘Lose some weight, you’re at risk for diabetes.’” [...
...] The urge to find a soul mate is not fueled just by notions of romantic manifest destiny. Trends in the workforce and in the media create a sense of limitless romantic possibility. According to Scott South, a demographer at SUNY-Albany, proximity to potential partners has a powerful effect on relationships. South and his colleagues found higher divorce rates among people living in communities or working in professions where they encounter lots of potential partners—people who match them in age, race and education level. “These results hold true not just for unhappy marriages but also for happy ones,” says South.
The temptations aren’t always living, breathing people. According to research by psychologists Sara Gutierres and Douglas Kenrick, both of Arizona State University, we find reasonably attractive people less appealing when we’ve just seen a hunk or a hottie—and we’re bombarded daily by images of gorgeous models and actors. When we watch Lord of the Rings, Viggo Mortensen’s kingly mien and Liv Tyler’s elfin charm can make our husbands and wives look all too schlumpy.
Kramer sees a similar pull in the narratives that surround us. “The number of stories that tell us about other lives we could lead—in magazine articles, television shows, books—has increased enormously. We have an enormous reservoir of possibilities,” says Kramer.
And these possibilities can drive us to despair. Too many choices have been shown to stymie consumers, and an array of alternative mates is no exception. In an era when marriages were difficult to dissolve, couples rated their marriages as more satisfying than do today’s couples, for whom divorce is a clear option, according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
While we expect marriage to be “happily ever after,” the truth is that for most people, neither marriage nor divorce seem to have a decisive impact on happiness. Although Waite’s research shows that married people are happier than their single counterparts, other studies have found that after a couple years of marriage, people are just about as happy (or unhappy) as they were before settling down. And assuming that marriage will automatically provide contentment is itself a surefire recipe for misery.
“Marriage is not supposed to make you happy. It is supposed to make you married,” says Pittman. “When you are all the way in your marriage, you are free to do useful things, become a better person.” A committed relationship allows you to drop pretenses and seductions, expose your weaknesses, be yourself—and know that you will be loved, warts and all. “A real relationship is the collision of my humanity and yours, in all its joy and limitations,” says Real. “How partners handle that collision is what determines the quality of their relationship.”
Such a down-to-earth view of marriage is hardly romantic, but that doesn’t mean it’s not profound: An authentic relationship with another person, says Pittman, is “one of the first steps toward connecting with the human condition—which is necessary if you’re going to become fulfilled as a human being.” If we accept these humble terms, the quest for a soul mate might just be a noble pursuit after all.
Psychologists have long studied the grunts and winks of nonverbal communication, the vocal tones and facial expressions that carry emotion. A warm tone of voice, a hostile stare — both have the same meaning in Terre Haute or Timbuktu, and are among dozens of signals that form a universal human vocabulary.
But in recent years some researchers have begun to focus on a different, often more subtle kind of wordless communication: physical contact. Momentary touches, they say — whether an exuberant high five, a warm hand on the shoulder, or a creepy touch to the arm — can communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions, and sometimes do so more quickly and accurately than words.
“It is the first language we learn,” said Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life” (Norton, 2009), and remains, he said, “our richest means of emotional expression” throughout life.
The evidence that such messages can lead to clear, almost immediate changes in how people think and behave is accumulating fast. Students who received a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who did not, studies have found. A sympathetic touch from a doctor leaves people with the impression that the visit lasted twice as long, compared with estimates from people who were untouched. Research by Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute in Miami has found that a massage from a loved one can not only ease pain but also soothe depression and strengthen a relationship.
In a series of experiments led by Matthew Hertenstein, a psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana, volunteers tried to communicate a list of emotions by touching a blindfolded stranger. The participants were able to communicate eight distinct emotions, from gratitude to disgust to love, some with about percent accuracy.
“We used to think that touch only served to intensify communicated emotions,” Dr. Hertenstein said. Now it turns out to be “a much more differentiated signaling system than we had imagined.”
To see whether a rich vocabulary of supportive touch is in fact related to performance, scientists at Berkeley recently analyzed interactions in one of the most physically expressive arenas on earth: professional basketball. Michael W. Kraus led a research team that coded every bump, hug and high five in a single game played by each team in the National Basketball Association early last season.
In a paper due out this year in the journal Emotion, Mr. Kraus and his co-authors, Cassy Huang and Dr. Keltner, report that with a few exceptions, good teams tended to be touchier than bad ones. The most touch-bonded teams were the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, currently two of the league’s top teams; at the bottom were the mediocre Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Bobcats.
The same was true, more or less, for players. The touchiest player was Kevin Garnett, the Celtics’ star big man, followed by star forwards Chris Bosh of the Toronto Raptors and Carlos Boozer of the Utah Jazz. “Within milliseconds of shooting a free throw, Garnett has reached out and touched four guys,” Dr. Keltner said.
To correct for the possibility that the better teams touch more often simply because they are winning, the researchers rated performance based not on points or victories but on a sophisticated measure of how efficiently players and teams managed the ball — their ratio of assists to giveaways, for example. And even after the high expectations surrounding the more talented teams were taken into account, the correlation persisted. Players who made contact with teammates most consistently and longest tended to rate highest on measures of performance, and the teams with those players seemed to get the most out of their talent.
The study fell short of showing that touch caused the better performance, Dr. Kraus acknowledged. “We still have to test this in a controlled lab environment,” he said.
If a high five or an equivalent can in fact enhance performance, on the field or in the office, that may be because it reduces stress. A warm touch seems to set off the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps create a sensation of trust, and to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
In the brain, prefrontal areas, which help regulate emotion, can relax, freeing them for another of their primary purposes: problem solving. In effect, the body interprets a supportive touch as “I’ll share the load.”
“We think that humans build relationships precisely for this reason, to distribute problem solving across brains,” said James A. Coan, a a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “We are wired to literally share the processing load, and this is the signal we’re getting when we receive support through touch.”
The same is certainly true of partnerships, and especially the romantic kind, psychologists say. In a recent experiment, researchers led by Christopher Oveis of Harvard conducted five-minute interviews with couples, prompting each pair to discuss difficult periods in their relationship.
The investigators scored the frequency and length of touching that each couple, seated side by side, engaged in. In an interview, Dr. Oveis said that the results were preliminary.
“But it looks so far like the couples who touch more are reporting more satisfaction in the relationship,” he said. Again, it’s not clear which came first, the touching or the satisfaction. But in romantic relationships, one has been known to lead to the other. Or at least, so the anecdotal evidence suggests.
I love using technology to engage and reach people in therapy. For me, it started with the relaxation cassette tape! I frequently use the internet,email, PowerPoint narratives and mp3′s and even Twitter and this Blog with clients. A Minneapolis center is experimenting with Ipods as an intervention tool with ASD youth. The wonderful book “Getting IT” is a must for anyone interested in using technology with children and youth in the areas of mental heath and disability. I thoroughly recommend it.
This story from Reuters
Sue Pederson knows that the teenage boys in her treatment program have trouble making conversation. They may not know what to talk about; or once they get started, when to shut up.
That’s one of the striking features of people with Asperger’s syndrome: they struggle with the social skills that come so naturally to others.
But about a year ago, Pederson, a psychologist, and her colleagues at the Fraser Child & Family Center in Minneapolis found a new way to reach these students — right through their headphones.
They’re using iPods, which play music and videos, to teach them how to fit in.
It may have started out as a form of entertainment, but Pederson says this kind of technology is turning into an unexpected boon for children and teenagers with special needs. The devices, it turns out, can be crammed with the kind of information they need to get through the day. While it’s still experimental, she said, “I think it’s going to spread like wildfire.”
With Asperger’s, a form of autism, people lack the inner voice that tells them what is, or is not, appropriate behavior. At Fraser, Pederson’s staff came up with the idea of programming iPods to act as an electronic substitute for that missing voice.
In this case, the staff helped students create a series of short videos and slide shows on how to behave in different social settings. Some are barely 30 seconds long: How to carry on a conversation (“Let the other person talk AND change the topic…”); how to respect other people’s boundaries, and think before they speak (“Use your filter!”)
In the world of special education, these scripts are known as “social stories,” used to teach basic social skills. “It’s a mental checklist for things to think about when you’re interacting with other people,” explained Mandy Henderson, who works with Fraser’s Asperger’s program.
As part of the Fraser project, the students can transfer the videos onto their iPods, and replay them over and over, to drive the lessons home.
Jack O’Riley, of Eagan, said it’s just what his 15-year-old son P.J. needed. “This really hit the mark,” he said. Like many kids with Asperger’s, P.J. is baffled by the normal rhythms of social interaction: in conversation, he may blurt out too much information, or say nothing at all, his father says.
At the same time, P.J. is easily distracted and has a hard time staying on task, another common trait of Asperger’s. For years, O’Riley posted laminated signs around the house to remind his son how to get through the day — take a shower, brush his teeth, get ready for school.
Now, with the videos developed at Fraser, “we can plug this stuff into his little ‘extended memory,’” O’Riley said. P.J. is building a library of videos on his iPhone, so they’ll be at his fingertips. “He can pull up a topic on his ‘to do list’ and find everything he needs to know,” his father said.
Sixteen-year-old Myles Lund of Lakeville, another student in the Fraser program, said he’s learned to use the iPod to help control his emotions by playing his favorite music. “It helps take my mind off of it,” he said. At the same time, Myles, who says he rarely initiates a conversation, agrees the videos can help in social situations. “I just pull out my iPod and go through a list of things to talk about.”
The staffers at Fraser came up with the idea after they noticed how students with Asperger’s would use iPods as a calming device, to block out noise or other distractions. “We just started thinking how else can we use this technology,” said Pederson. They got a $7,500 private grant to buy the iPods and other equipment, and started experimenting.
Jim Ball, an adviser to the Autism Society of America, said similar projects are popping up around the country. Some people are designing adaptations for smart phones, Palm Pilots and other devices to fill the same need, he said.
“This is just another way of prompting kids when they’re in situations when they don’t know what to do,” said Ball, who works with autistic children in New Jersey. “The technology gives them the ability to be independent.”
Ball noted the devices could work especially well with Asperger’s kids, because they’re often far more comfortable with electronic gadgets than they are with people. “It’s a machine; they don’t have to react to it, they don’t have to understand it,” Ball said. “They just need to know how to work it. And they do.”
Another advantage, especially for teenagers, is that they won’t stand out using this kind of device, noted Pederson. “If you walk into a family reunion and you’ve got a teenager with an iPod, nobody bats an eye,” she said.
Barbara Luskin, a psychologist with the Autism Society of Minnesota, agrees. “Adolescents with Asperger’s, like all adolescents, don’t want to look different,” she said. If the device just blends in with everyone else’s, she said, “you’re much more likely to use it.”
So far, there appear to be few commercial products aimed at this market, but that may be changing. The Conover Co., a special-education software company in Appleton, Wis., recently adapted its “Functional Skills System” for the iPod Touch. But the package, which sells for $3,500, is mainly marketed to schools and other organizations.
Fraser, meanwhile, is hoping to get another grant to expand its iPod program.
Ball, of the Autism Society, predicts this is just the beginning. “I think that technology is limitless in its potential for working with kids,” he said.
In July 2002 I had a ( and I know I am sounding melodramatic here) life-changing and career rattling experience when I attended a two day workshop with Colorado-area Marriage and Family Health Center director and psychotherapist Dr David Schnarch, in Sydney,Australia. (UPDATE: also see a related post HERE)
Schnarch is plugged as the “rightful heir” to sex science pioneers Masters and Johnson. But he’s not their disciple. In the 1950s they introduced the idea that sex was a natural function and should be regarded as such. At one level, that was tremendously liberating, he says. But at another level it was an inherently pathological model in which sexual difficulties (or dysfunction, as they became known post-Masters and Johnson) were treated as abnormal. In fact, says Schnarch, sexual difficulties are a normal part of the healthy development of an emotional relationship between adults.
We were a mixed group that arrived at the Mary McKillop Centre for the workshop. Dr. Schnarch went to some trouble to make us all feel at home (even forsaking his tie, as is the custom in this part of the world).
He warned us it would be “like drinking from a fire hose” and he was right. There was so much practical wisdom in what he was saying that it was hard to take it all in. But we did. People changed over those two days. I did.
At the same time I became more and more excited at the robust promise of Dr. Schnarch’s work. It is increasingly accepted that he is offering a new paradigm in sexual and marital therapy, however I see this paradigm as offering new approaches to all forms of psychotherapy. To be able to approach clients from a genuinely non-pathologizing stance, and to work in such a way that I am speaking to and drawing on the best of them is a goal often promised but rarely, if ever, delivered on till now.
Materials in Dr Schnarch’s Passionate Marriage series highlight how common issues about intimate sexual relationships and common problems with sex and intimacy are really part of a system: Marriage is a natural “people-growing process” and the inevitable sexual boredom, lack of passion, and communication difficulties are the drive wheels and grindstones of adult development. Relationships are shaped by more than unresolved childhood issues, past “wounds,” and family-of-origin problems. Even when these are non-existent, marriage becomes contentious because the growth processes in emotionally committed relationships surface in sexual interactions and other intimate exchanges. These are not situational problems to be solved and avoided. Rather, they are dilemmas to go through because they make us grow capable of the intimate sexual relationships and eroticism we seek. Common sexual and relationship difficulties are midpoints in the evolution of healthy relationships rather than signs of personal inadequacy, incompatibility, or falling out of love.
Passionate Marriage focuses on life-long sexual development rather than merely curing sexual dysfunctions or improving sexual relationships (it does this too). Most people never reach their sexual potential–and those who do are generally well into their 40s, 50s, and 60s. This is a pleasant surprise to many people because it’s common to confuse genital prime with sexual prime. In reality, we are more capable of intensely intimate sexual relationships and blatant eroticism as we mature. Most people are much better in bed as they get older. Sexual potential and cellulite are highly correlated!
Instead of emphasizing listening skills, communication, compromise, or negotiation, Passionate Marriage shows how “your relationship with yourself” controls both intimate connection and sexual desire for your partner. This revolutionary approach offers concrete ways to use your sexuality to build a stronger sense of yourself while getting closer to your partner. Most marital enrichment approaches emphasize other-validated intimacy: expecting empathy, reciprocity, and validation from your partner when you disclose. Passionate Marriage emphasizes self-validated intimacy: validating and accepting your own disclosures, and learning to soothe your own heart. This shift allows you to use emotional gridlock, difficulties being intimate, and problems in your sexual relationship like sexual boredom, and low desire to develop yourself while creating a more intimate, passionate, loving relationship with your partner.
This approach has lots of practical applications. Passionate Marriage decodes the “language” of sex, showing how your interactions in your sexual relationship reveal you, your partner, and your relationship. Discover new psychological “styles” of having sex and dimensions of sexual experience. Learn how eyes-open sex (and orgasms) can bring hot passion and new intimacy to your relationship–and make you grow. What partners learn about maintaining themselves in their intimate sexual relationships has immediate application outside the bedroom too. Although better sex doesn’t automatically make for a better relationship, the personal growth required to enhance the sexual and intimate aspects of relationship is the same growth that improves relationships in other ways, often at the same time.
Rather than focusing on “touch techniques,” the book Passionate Marriage and associated workshops emphasize intimate and emotional connection during sexual interaction. Expect explicit discussion of sexual behavior, practical tips, and details of couples’ going through the “people-growing” crucibles inherent in emotionally committed relationships.
These books are essential resources for all married or committed couples, not just those who think they are in trouble. More over the next few weeks.
Questions? Leave them in the comments. email me via the link on the right or tweet them.
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- Good Health Equal Good Sex, Researchers Say (medhealthwriter.blogspot.com)