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Episode 25: Why Relationships Fail vs. Flourish (2/2)

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.  _________________________________ To check out show notes from our podcast episodes and learn more about BBXX visit bbxx.world. If you’ve enjoyed listening, please take one minute to write a review for our podcast. We would also sincerely appreciate it if you would give us your feedback using the link on our website or by emailing hello@bbxx.world. Any questions, concerns, ideas, or suggestions are always more than welcome!
The transcript wasn’t added for this episode.

In our second episode 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, we continue to discuss the importance of accepting (and even welcoming) disagreements in relationships, instead of viewing differences of opinion as destructive. We also delve deeper into Dr. Karney’s research that examines how and why some relationships manage to remain satisfying over time, while others fizzle out, or worse, deteriorate. 

Agree to Disagree (Cont’d)

It’s a hard truth: there is no right time to have a difficult conversation with your partner. But the reality is, in order to build and nurture genuine intimacy, difficult topics need to be discussed, despite the discord that may arise. Dr. Karney points out that all too often partners avoid addressing serious topics out of fear of disagreement and/or fear of discovering they dislike something about their partner. “Ignorance is bliss,” we think. But here’s the thing: disagreeing is a part of intimacy

Societal Shift: How Has Marriage Changed?

Marriage is, and has always been, a socially constructed institution. So inevitably, as society has changed, so have the constructs created within it. Let’s take a look at precisely how the concept of marriage has shifted. 

  • Dr. Andrew J. Cherlin, a Professor of Public Policy at John Hopkins University notes that marriage once marked the beginning of a young adult’s life, but now in today’s society marriage “has become the capstone experience of personal life.” Now more than ever, marriage is the cherry on top of well-established careers and personal lives.
  • We’re also seeing a class-related divergence when it comes to marriage. Studies have shown that college-educated couples are frequently postponing marriage until after solidifying their careers, and as a result, divorce rates among this demographic have decreased. While those without a college degree are either not marrying at all or are marrying much earlier, with higher rates of divorce. 

The Marriage Privilege 

We live in a culture that loves, idealizes, and praises marriage. Unsurprisingly, this translates into legal, social, and cultural privileges for married couples. Higher tax breaks, property laws, hospital laws that allow visitation from spouses, while barring un-married partners, etc. — countless examples show how we privilege married couples over unmarried ones.

“Singlism”

Social Psychologist Bella DePaulo has coined the term “singlism” to describe the “discrimination, stigmatization, marginalizing, and stereotyping” of single people in modern society. In her book, “Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After,” she challenges the common myths of singlehood and encourages society to reframe its outdated ideas surrounding single people (e.g. they are miserable and lonely and their life is tragic).

Self-Expansion Theory

Social Psychologist Arthur Aron developed the concept “Self-Expansion Theory” to describe 

the universal human desire to grow and increase one’s potential efficacy (hence the $10-billion business of self-care). According to this theory, people are motivated to foster close relationships in order to expand their identities by including the “other into the self.”

Self-Expansion Theory (Cont’d)

This is why it’s so thrilling when our partner shares with us their music taste, cooking tricks, chess skills, obscure trivia facts, and encyclopedic knowledge of South American birds — by partnering with this person we unconsciously incorporate their interests and knowledge as our own.

Expand As a Couple

In order to keep a relationship exciting and stimulating, Arthur Aron suggests that couples “expand” together by learning new skills and/or seeking out novel experiences (note: “novel” does’t have to mean physically arousing). Dr. Karney quotes Esther Perel, a notable psychotherapist known for her work on relationships and sexuality, who claims both familiarity and novelty are essential components of a healthy relationship. 

Infidelity as a Form of Self-Expansion

According to Esther Perel, people don’t always cheat because they are unhappy or dissatisfied with their relationships. She argues that many times people stray as a form of “self-seeking,” or the need to search for a lost or hidden part of themselves. Under the theory of self-expansion, infidelity can be understood as a misguided attempt to grow or expand.

Communication is Sexy

“Does a good emotional connection lead to better sex? Or does a good sexual connection lead to a better intimate bond?” Dr. Karney says both things happen. Studies show that couples who communicate more effectively also have better sex. But on the flip-side, a good sexual connection can compensate for other vulnerabilities or weaknesses in a relationship — up to a certain point.

Sex is both a product of a good relationship and something couple’s can do to make a relationship better.

Cuddle Up!

Sexuality and Relationship Researcher and Social Psychologist Amy Muise conducted research that found that couples who cuddled and practiced post-sex affection reported greater sexual and relationship satisfaction — independent of the quality of the sex itself. 

Dig Into More Research

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.

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