Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Looking for Love (that lasts)

A lot of people are looking for love. Not only are most people looking for love (unless they’ve found it), most people want that love to be lifelong, with one person, in marriage. Of course, just wanting something to happen doesn’t make it happen. While it’s easy these days to slide into any old relationship, finding that one that will last takes some work.

Increasingly, I and others who focus on marriage and relationships have turned attention to who people pick in the first place, not just how well things go after they pick. So, how do you pick well? How can a person up their chances of finding lasting love? In my book on commitment, The Power of Commitment, I wrote a little section called “Mate Selection 101.” It’s short and basic but the ideas are powerful. If you are looking for love—love that lasts—here are some ideas for you to consider from my book.

[The Excerpt]

Mate Selection 101

Surprisingly, marriage scholars and researchers have not devoted a great deal of attention over the past decades to good mate selection. Sociologist Norval Glenn at the University of Texas has noted that this is a serious gap in the field, and I think he is right. There are surely useful studies in this area, but people have not been given enough guidance about how to make a good choice.

I will close this chapter by presenting a very simple list based on many years of research, many years of counseling couples, and reading and thinking about this issue. The more of these things you are able to do when you are searching for a mate and thinking about marriage, the better your odds will be of making a wise choice.

* Get to know the person very well before deciding to marry. One thing you can do is take the time to work together through a detailed list of core expectations to see just how compatible you are. (For guidelines on how to do this, you might check out one of the books I've co-authored.)

* Do not make this crucial decision in a period of emotional infatuation.

* Date the person for a long time.

* Observe how the person treats not only you but his or her friends. Learn as much as you can about the person's priorities and values.

* Give more weight than your heart may want to how closely the person shares your most essential beliefs (including religious) and values in life.

* Wait until you are 22 or older to make such an important decision. What you think you are looking for can change a lot.

* Get the opinion of friends and family who are not likely to tell you only what you want to hear.

* Wait until you are married to live together. It may not increase your risk to do otherwise, but there is no evidence that it will increase your risk to wait.

I offer no guarantees but these ideas just might help.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What Women Want (and men, too)

Various studies show that people are not always very accurate in understanding their choices, including choices in dating. Love may not always be blind but 20/20 vision seems pretty much out of the question.

Here’s an example from a study published last year (2008) by Paul Eastwick and Eli Finkel at Northwestern University. To make a (very) complicated story brief, they found, on average, that men say that what they are looking for most in a woman is good looks while women say that what they are looking for most in a man is earning potential. Those are tendencies found in various studies over many years, so this is not shocking. However, using speed-dating methods with follow-ups over time, the researchers found that both men and women were most influenced by physical attraction followed by earning potential. Men and women seem to want physically attractive partners who also bring home the bacon. Sizzle.

This could mean that women have become more like men or it could be that there has always been less of a real difference between men and women, and newer methods are better at uncovering what people may really want. I personally think things have changed in how attraction, dating, and mating work. It’s worth thinking about what all this means when it comes to life-long love, since that’s what most people want. If you are looking for love, it’s especially important to think about what you want and need on a host of dimensions so that everything does not ride on looks or money.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Short Selling

I was thinking today about some follow-ups to my last post. One of the most interesting things about the “arbitrary coherence” concept is the arbitrary part. Not only can prices stick in the mind and affect what one is willing to pay or do, they stick nearly as well (maybe just as well) even when they are arbitrary. That’s a big part the point. Our minds are so oriented toward having anchor points to connect things to that we’ll anchor away even if the anchor is put down in a poor spot. The first price I see in the store for a new flat screen TV may set me in motion to evaluate all other TVs according to that first price. Of course, those prices could seem arbitrary to the shopper but they are very purposeful for the store. Smart stores are careful about what prices you see, and when, so they can herd you toward what they most want you to buy. That’s no dig on stores, they are just being smart. But choosers can be smart, also.

A practical point about relationships: People can have an artificially low sense of themselves because of how they have been treated or what they have experienced. How they were treated, by family growing up or by past loves, can have little to do with their own worth but it still may stick, at least for a time. The danger for anyone who has had difficult relationships in the past is selling themselves short in the future.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Stuck On You: Arbitrary Coherence

I see psychology as one of the cheerier social sciences. Of course, I’m biased. What many see as the dismal (social) science is the field of economics. Both fields study human behavior, often at different levels, but sometimes on the same level—that of the individual.

At the individual level, economists have found a very intriguing and reliable pattern that they call “arbitrary coherence.” (Like any good scientists, they come up with fancy names for what they study and talk about. Bravo fellow geekoids.) Arbitrary coherence occurs when we are exposed to a price for something and that price sort of sticks (coheres) in our minds. The price can be (and often is) arbitrary, hence the term, but once the price is out there and gets stuck into our heads, we come to expect that price to be THE price, and we value things based on this original, somewhat arbitrary set point.

This principle has been confirmed in many ingenious studies. It’s also why marketers will try to get you hooked on a higher price than the one they are planning to get you to pay for something. That higher price is an important part of the strategy because it becomes your comparison so that the price they hope to get you to pay starts looking good to you. The one becomes your reference point, and then you use that reference point to evaluate the other.

How could this principle apply to relationships? While it may seem crass, it’s very easy to apply market thinking to relationship dynamics—especially in the mating game but also in ongoing relationships like marriage. This has been done a lot in the field of economics, with a preeminent example being the work of Gary Becker who has applied economic thinking to family relationships. (For a particularly fascinating, recent treatment of such issues, I recommend one of my favorite, popular books written by an economist: Steve Harford’s, The Logic of Life. It contains some brutally honest discussions of things like changes in sexual relationships of teens or what happens to dating/mating dynamics in cities where there are more people of one sex than the other.)

I think about how experiences in relationships and cultural messages “set the price” or worth of people in the relationship market. In other words, who can attract and hang onto who, and for how long. Starting with family experiences and then accelerating into dating and longer-term relationships, a person’s experiences with others must play a major role in determining their own sense of their worth to others. If one experiences a series of painful rejections (is there any other kind?) or ends up having to give up a lot of what they value (or what their values are) to attract others, those things will impact how one sees the self.

All of this creates another commercial for the value of making decisions in relationships rather than just letting things happen. The whole idea of arbitrary coherence implies that our set points about worth and value become automatic and unexamined but, nevertheless, effect what happens to us—what we’re going after, what we’re willing to accept, what we accept and should not, and so forth. Deciding gives us a better shot at setting our own price on what we value and who we will be.

* Update on 7-25-13.  There is a post I wrote later in this year (2009) that makes for a great follow-up to this piece.  Check it out at:  http://slidingvsdeciding.blogspot.com/2009/08/black-jack-or-roulette-you-choose.html

Monday, March 16, 2009

Fear and Humiliation

I recently was able to hear a talk by Robert Brooks. He is a researcher and psychologist specializing in the resilience of children. He has a book called “Raising Resilient Children.” The book is excellent. In the talk I heard him give, he said something I found interesting. (Actually, he said a number of interesting things, but I’ll focus.) He said that people fear humiliation more than failure. Since he focuses on children, his point was that to help a child be resilient we need to overcome his or her fear of humiliation.

To me, one thing this means is that parents and other caregivers need to help children have experiences where failure is an option but humiliation is not. Success and failure can teach one how to grow. Humiliation teaches a person he’s defective.

How might this apply to adults and romantic relationships? In all our books and materials for couples, my colleagues and I stress the power of emotional safety. It’s what people seem to want most and it’s something relationships cannot do (well) without. It’s also not easy to hang onto it when times are tough. Most everyone can do a bit better—or a lot better—than they often do in order to make it safe for loved ones to connect. If more families were humiliation free zones, a lot of things would go a lot better in life.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Making the Cut

What do commitment and deciding have in common? They are both related to the need to choose among options in life. Commitment means making a choice to give up other choices.

Think of any type of commitment in life. Commitments involve deciding what is chosen and what is being left behind.

Here’s where it gets interesting, at least to me, because I like words. The word “decide” comes from a French word dating to the 1300s that literally means “to cut” or “to cut off.” Deciding is about coming to a point where something is cut off from something else. A part is chosen—hopefully the best part—and the illusion of hanging on to the whole, to everything, is given up.

In this way of thinking, commitment is counter cultural. The cultural messages we are inundated with encourage us to hang onto everything—to cut off no options, to have it all. Having a lot of options in life is great, but maybe not so great if one never decides what matters most.

[If you want to see the root of the word decide, check out a website such as www.etymonline.com]

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Marshmallow Time

A big part of being a decider when it comes to important things in life is sticking to what you have decided. That’s part of what commitment is all about. Unless you’ve only been alive for, say, 15 minutes or so, you know it’s not always easy to stick to what you decided you wanted to do.

I recently came across a report that summarizes some amazing research on willpower and the ability to resist temptation. The link to the article is at the bottom of this post.

The author, Eric Wargo, first mentions pretty cool studies that were done long ago where they tested children to see how many would choose to wait a little while to get two marshmallows instead of getting one marshmallow RIGHT NOW! Kind of like a lot of life, right? You could ask yourself, “am I a one or two marshmallow kind of person?” Quite an existential question, isn’t it? For some reason, I’m hearing a variation of this question with Clint Eastwood’s voice from the movie “Dirty Harry.” Sort of goes like this: “You must be asking yourself if you really have a shot at two marshmallows or just one. Do you feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?” Perhaps I have some marshmallow trauma to work through.

Back to the point. Wargo goes on to describe some pretty amazing research on self-control. Studies show that a person’s ability to resist temptation gets worn down. When you have to keep it together for awhile, doing whatever you wanted or thought you should do can get harder for a bit. Your willpower gets tired and it’s easier to just let go after a period of being more disciplined. As Wargo puts it, self-control is a limited resource. Partly what this means is that even if you do a great job on waiting for two marshmallows, you might then have trouble with the M & Ms. (Excuse me. I’ll be back in a few minutes.)

Think about that a moment. How many times have you found it harder to stick with what you thought you should do after you had to do things that required either self-control or some difficult decisions? Here’s what I think this means. When your decider has been working pretty hard, your slider is going to really want you to cut it some slack. If nothing much is at stake, that’s just fine. Slide away. In fact, when you’ve been working hard on something or really pushing your self-control, letting go in some creative or healthy ways is a good thing. But the warning in these findings is more about how it can be hard to stick to something we’ve decided is important when we’re worn down by something else.

As Wargo points out, if we want to stick to things we planned to do (or stick to being who we want to be), we have to watch out for the times when our decider is tired out. Imagine all the ways this plays out in life! Diets, exercise, work, or your commitment to your partner . . .

If you want to go deeper, here’s the link.