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Episode 24

In our two-episode interview with Dr. Ben Karney, we learn how and why some relationships manage to remain satisfying over time while others tend to deteriorate.

We discuss what questions people should be asking themselves before getting married (but usually don’t), how cultural institutions reward married couples, the positive correlation between effective communication and sex, and question how much of marriage success comes down to luck.

Two of our favorite takeaways from this conversation are 1. There is no “right time” to have a difficult conversation. 2. Work is a distraction from relationships, not vice versa.

Dr. Ben Karney has spent the past 15 years studying change and stability in intimate relationships, especially in the early years of marriage. He co-directs the Relationship Institute at UCLA and is a two-time recipient of the National Council on Family Relation’s Reuben Hill Research and Theory Award for outstanding contributions to family science.


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No transcript found for this episode.

In this week’s two-part episode, we speak with Dr. Ben Karney, a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles and an adjunct behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation. Dr. Karney specializes in interpersonal relationships, specifically marriage, and focuses his research on identifying the major determinants of separation versus stability in long-term partnerships. 

Dr. Karney walks us through the real questions people should be asking themselves before getting married (but usually don’t), the variables that help couples overcome stress and adversity, why connection trumps cooperation in healthy relationships, and the reason so much of marriage success comes down to… luck.

First things first: How difficult is marriage, really?

Suffice to say one of history’s greatest geniuses couldn’t quite master it. Dr. Karney kicks off the episode by pointing out a sobering reality: Albert Einstein, the man behind the theory of relativity and E=MC2, lived a life riddled with chaotic, broken relationships. But, there’s hope! Before you throw up your arms and admit defeat, keep reading for transformative advice on making intimacy last. 

You can be the smartest man of the 21st Century – and still find intimacy challenging. That’s how hard intimacy is.

Define “falling out of love” 

Dr. Karney defines “falling out of love” as the unwanted realization that you no longer wish to commit to someone you previously believed you could. He points out that we as social beings are notoriously unlikely to change our minds, especially if we have declared our opinions or beliefs about something publicly, but mysteriously, our feelings surrounding love often change. 

What’s so mysterious about love is that it changes when it shouldn’t, even though we don’t want it to, and even though other beliefs don’t – this one does.

Context is Key: How Environmental Factors Impact Marriage 

Dr. Karney’s lab has studied thousands of couples over the last 25 years, most often newlywed couples (he notes that the vast majority of the research has been focused on heterosexual couples, although they are eager to study same sex couples in the future) to examine how the external context of a relationship — economic, social, and health factors — impacts intimacy. The research points to this:

Intimate relationships are hugely affected by events that are totally outside the relationship and beyond the couple’s control.

The current cultural mindset — largely fed by the insatiable self-help industry — has put the onus of a relationship’s success or failure on us (or our partner), while disregarding external stressors. So when things fall apart, we carry the burden. The truth is, some people are dealt a bad hand, while others are graced with luck, and relationships are going to be easier for people with better luck. This idea of luck playing a major role in successful relationships mirrors Malcolm Gladwell’s theory in

Outliers: The Story of Success.

Stress is a Test

Intimacy is easy when things are going well, but the real strength of your bond with another person can only be tested in moments or periods of difficulty. We learn most about our compatibility with our partner during trying times.

Instead of asking, ‘Is this a person I enjoy the good times with?’ we should be asking, ‘Is this a person I want to share the bad times with?’

Studying Stress: What Helps Couples Overcome Adversity?

Dr. Karney’s lab looks at three general variables:

  • Qualities of the individuals (personality traits, vulnerabilities, capabilities)
  • Quality of the processes or behavior between the partners (communication skills)
  • The environment in which the relationship is taking place, including social connections

Dive deeper into Dr. Karney’s research on stress and newlyweds here.

Cooperation and Connection

Dr. Karney’s lab is currently conducting research to study the relationship between cooperation (or agreement) and affiliation (or connection) between couples. The results have thus far shown that the level of connection greater influences relationship satisfaction than the level of cooperation in a couple. In simpler terms:

Relationships are not about agreeing, they’re about connecting.

Agree to Disagree

Most disagreements can be settled with a compromise or can even exist within a relationship perpetually without threatening the longevity of the partnership. Agree to disagree! Every relationship will have their own individual “problems” or “disagreements” that don’t necessarily need a resolution. Instead of thinking, “These are the problems we need to solve!” think, “These are the problems we need to learn to live with.”  Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe.

Dig Into More Research by Dr. Karney

No additional resources found for this episode.

About the Expert

Benjamin Karney

Benjamin Karney

Professor of Social Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an adjunct behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation. He is an expert on interpersonal relationships, especially marriage, and has done extensive research on how relationship processes and interactions are constrained or enhanced by the contexts in which they take place.

Episode Discussion

Home Forums Episodes 24 & 25: “Why Relationships Fail vs. Flourish” with Ben Karney

  • Episodes 24 & 25: “Why Relationships Fail vs. Flourish” with Ben Karney

  • Valentina 

    October 12, 2020 at 12:20 pm
    • What did you learn about yourself?
    • What did you learn about culture?
    • What was your favorite quote?
    • What surprised you most?
    • What is one way you can enact what you learned in your own life?
    • How can we each help shift the culture and the conversation surrounding this topic?
  • Sarah

    October 16, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    I never realized how much relationship comes down to luck! It makes so much sense how much external factors can contribute to stress. For example, you’re car breaks down and you are your partner cannot afford to fix this. If you do not have the proper resources to mend these stressors this can affect aspects of your relationship as well. I loved that you mentioned that stress is the test, when everything goes wrong that’s when you find out who your partner is. Speak volumes!

    • Hope

      October 19, 2020 at 8:28 am

      I completely agree! I think the most important thing to absorb from this episode is that yes, stress impacts our relationships and we CAN blame issues on said stress…but really how we choose to handle things is what truly impacts our relationships. Having resources to help mend these stressors are extremely helpful, however, I do think that you and your partner need to have the “stress talk” before a stressor is created. I think being open and communicating with your partner about how you handle stress and what you may need (or may not need) from them during these moments; can lead to an overall healthier relationship that will be able to go over the bumps of life easier than just expecting your partner to read your mind.

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