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