Where’s the Love?

Among the many paradoxes of human communication, is that of expressing affection. We often see affection as entirely good for relationships, but let’s face it; relationships are never that simple. Sure, if our partners want our affection, then expressing it can dramatically improve our relationships. But when our partners misunderstand or deny our affectionate advances, we may then feel hurt, afraid, or even angry. As equal participants in a relationship, we must then walk a fine line between freely expressing affection and playing it cool.

In a recent article published in Women’s Health, Casey Gueren (2013) attempts to help us navigate this fine line. The article cites a study by Horan and Carton (2014) in which participants reported withholding affection from their partners around five times a week. Their reported reasons for withholding affection ranged from not wanting to embarrass a partner to trying to punish them. Gueren accurately identifies that the most common reason (reported by 22 of the 36 participants) for withholding affection was to avoid appearing too needy or clingy.

Gueren argues that withholding affection isn’t necessarily bad for a relationship, as most of the participants withheld affection for harmless reasons. However, she warns us not to withhold too much affection, as we may then miss out on the “major benefits” of a relationship. This is true, as affection can promote feelings of intimacy, warmth, and security and can even be beneficial to physical health (Floyd & Pauley, 2011).

Furthermore, Gueren identifies warning signs for when we may be holding back affection too much in a relationship. She warns us that withholding out of spite or to get back at our partner won’t get us what we want. (Partners aren’t usually mind readers, thank goodness.) Gueren also mentions that if you’re playing it too cool in your relationship, you might miss out on the benefits of being in an affectionate relationship, such as decreased blood pressure and stress.

Gueren ends with some thoughtful advice on how to be more perceptive of our own tendencies to withhold affection. She tells us to ask ourselves why we are withholding. If we’re just not feeling lovey-dovey, then there’s no reason to fake it. But if we’re trying to punish our partners, we should recognize that this isn’t the best way to deal with whatever issue we’re going through. Instead, she urges us to communicate our feelings with our partners, which will be much more beneficial in the long run. Her bottom line is simple, but it is music to Communications scholars’ ears.

Overall, Gueren’s advice is on point and based on quality research in the field. She successfully identifies the pitfalls of withholding affection and even encourages self-awareness and open communication. While Gueren seems to have done her research, we can’t always trust journalists who interpret the research to do the same. Relationships are complicated and paradoxical, and there is almost never one solution to a problem. Be cautious of articles that that oversimplify issues or provide you with only one answer. Like affectionate expression, journalism is good, except when it isn’t.

Carton, S. T., & Horan, S. M. (2014). A diary examination of romantic and sexual partners withholding affectionate messages. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31(2), 221-246.

Floyd, K., & Pauley, P. M. (2011). Affectionate communication is good, except when it isn’t: On the dark side of expressing affection. The dark side of close relationships II. (pp. 145-173) Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, New York, NY.

Gueren, C., (2013, July 29). Are you showing enough affection? Women’s Health. Retrieved from http://www.womenshealthmag.com/sex-and-relationships/be-more-affectionate
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Who’s Your Money Match?

Money isn’t romantic. In fact, it’s seen as taboo in many relationships. We’ve all grown up with stories about falling in love regardless of financial disparities (e.g. the pauper marrying the princess), and we love these stories because they are beautiful. We wouldn’t want the princess to reject the pauper, would we? But in real life, money inevitably plays a role in our relationships, and it’s a good idea to start thinking about how well you and your partner deal with your finances.

Financial compatibility seems to be the new word around town. In a 2013 article of Women’s Health, Molly Triffin argues that financial compatibility can actually predict relational happiness. The article cites a study by TD Ameritrade, which found that even though only 5% of people thought money was important when choosing a partner, 40% of them admitted that they argue about money and that they don’t really trust their partners with financial decisions. In other words, there seems to be some serious discrepancies in how people understand money in relationships.

Triffin continues by giving several pieces of advice about how to tell if you and your partner are a good “money match.” First, she suggests that couples need to start bringing up the money conversation. (You know, fun things like credit scores, debt, and spending habits.) This isn’t bad advice, as many couples would rather talk about sex and infidelity than money (Atwood, 2012). Knowing whether your partner is a “saver” or a “spender” is also a good thing to learn before tying the knot. A recent study showed that Tightwads tend to marry Spendthrifts, and the degree to which they have opposite tendencies predicts financial conflict (Rick, Small, & Finkel, 2011).

Triffin also advises couples to “think ahead” when it comes to your partner’s spending tendencies. For example, if your boyfriend buys you diamond earrings, you might be thrilled, but imagine if your husband drops a ton of cash using your joint account. It’s important to imagine how your partner’s spending habits might translate to your marriage. Triffin aptly notes that we can’t expect our partners to change once we are married, so we need to look at how attractive their financial tendencies are, no matter how unromantic that might sound.

It’s not all about thinking ahead though; Triffin also advises couples to “spot red flags” right away. Taking note of any subtle instances where your partner reveals their tendency to be financially controlling (e.g. criticizing you for buying a new dress) may save you pain in the long run. There are many financial decisions that need to be made in marriage, and issues of power and control may arise. Furthermore, any secretiveness your partner has about their finances may be another type of red flag. Although some studies argue that certain secrets may be good for marriage (Finenauer & Hazam, 2000), financial secrets do not seem to be one of them.

While this article presents some overt simplifications of certain aspects of marriage (e.g. “A ton of divorces are caused by financial conflicts”), it does successfully get readers to think about money and marriage. Triffin argues that the first step of finding our money match is to simply speak to our partners about our concerns. Of course, this is easier said than done, but in the end it may be what makes or breaks our relationships. So romantics, take heart! If you’re a princess, you can still marry a pauper, but make sure you think about whether you’ll live “happily ever after” while supporting his pauper ways.

References:

Atwood, J. D. (2012). Couples and money: The last taboo. American Journal of Family Therapy, 40(1), 1-19. doi:10.1080/01926187.2011.600674

Finkenauer, C., & Hazam, H. (2000). Disclosure and secrecy in marriage: Do both contribute to marital satisfaction? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships,17(2), 245-263. doi:8080/10.1177/0265407500172005

Rick, S. I., Small, D. A., & Finkel, E. J. (2011). Fatal (fiscal) attraction: Spendthrifts and tightwads in marriage. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), 48(2), 228-237. doi:10.1509/jmkr.48.2.228

Triffin, M., (2013, April 22). Are you a good money match? Women’s Health. Retrieved from http://www.womenshealthmag.com/sex-and-relationships/are-you-a-good-money-match

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I Will Survive (This Breakup)

Breakups rock our world. By the time we’re in our mid-20s, most of us have experienced our fair share of doozies. (You know, crying on the bathroom floor, playing angry love songs on repeat…) But seriously, we all revert to infancy when we experience this sort of emotional turmoil, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of that. Substantial research suggests that adult romantic relationships are really just “adult versions” of infant-caregiver bonds. It makes sense, then, that breaking up almost feels like losing a parent. Even if the breakup was “the right thing to do,” we often still crave the bond we once had with our ex. That’s just a part of being the intelligent infants that we are.

Although we all go through similar pain, our breakup experiences are vastly different. Some of us will crave certain aspects of the relationship that we’ve lost, such as the support, reassurance, or security that our partner once gave us. Others will cut all ties and never look back. But there is conflicting research on exactly how much rumination we should be doing post-breakup. Research on grief work indicates that reflection is part of moving on, but recent studies argue that it can put us in a worse mood and is counterproductive to breakup recovery.

Some research suggests that attachment styles may have much to do with how we handle breakups. As opposed to a secure attachment style (which is just as it sounds), a person with an anxious attachment style will worry excessively about a partner abandoning or rejecting them. On the other hand, a person with an avoidant attachment style will be uncomfortable with closeness and will prefer to remain independent within a relationship. In a recent study, Fagundes (2012) examined how reflecting on negative emotions after a breakup impacts how well we emotionally adjust to the breakup. The research hypothesized that rumination is especially harmful for anxiously attached people, as they tend to continue to use their partners as attachment figures after the relationship is over.

In Fagundes’ study, 108 undergraduate students were recruited who had recently ended a romantic relationship. (What a charming sample!) The participants were examined twice over a one month period, and the results were as expected. The participants who reported high levels of reflection post-breakup were less likely to recover emotionally from the breakup one month later, particularly if they were in the anxiously attached category. In fact, anxiously attached individuals had a hard time emotionally adjusting in general.

While these results may seem obvious, breakups affect our health (both mentally and often physically) and thus require serious consideration. In particular, adolescents are at a heightened risk of depression and suicide after a breakup, and for those adolescents who fit into the anxious attachment category, breakups are particularly difficult. While much of the grief work literature suggests that working through emotions is a good thing, encouraging anxiously attached individuals to reflect on their breakup may lead to more serious health implications.

So be aware. Popular articles may claim that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to break up, but it’s clear that coping with a breakup is an individual process that requires individual coping strategies. If you do break ties with your partner, the best advice may simply be to recognize and accept your own process. If you’re able to do that, you’ll be one step closer to appreciating the beauty of single life once again.

Fagundes, C. P. (2012). Getting over you: Contributions of attachment theory for postbreakup emotional adjustment. Personal Relationships, 19(1), 37–50. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01336.x

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
― 
Rumi

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Love Your Weight (And Love Your Friend’s Weight Too)

We live in a society obsessed with weight, and it seems that the more we worry, the more we gain. Young women are particularly prone to weight concern, which is problematic because weight is widely recognized as a part of a person’s self-concept. This means that if a women is unhappy with her weight, she may then feel inadequate, or unhappy with herself. But there’s more to it than that. It turns out that the people who surround us may actually have a significant impact on our weight too. Research has now revealed the link between social networks and physical health. In particular, an accepting social environment has actually been shown to aid weight loss.

Little is known, however, about how women perceive messages from their social networks about weight. A weight-acceptance message is a positive message that reassures you that your weight is acceptable. But as we all know, communication about weight is a tricky matter, and sometimes a well-intentioned message is not taken as such. In a new study by Logel et al. (2014), the researchers tested whether perceived weight-acceptance messages (as opposed to weight-loss pressure or dismissive messages) helped young women maintain a healthy weight over time by reducing weight concern. This study contributes to the growing body of research that tests the assumption that weight concern is the only element that effects weight loss or maintenance.

The researchers observed 187 university-age women, and data was collected 3 times over a 9-month period. In the study, the researchers recorded the participants’ level of weight concerns and Body Mass Indexes (BMI) over time. The participants were then asked whether or not they received particular messages about weight from a close friend, parent, or romantic partner. These messages were then totaled, and the accumulated perceived messages were compared to changes in weight concern and BMI over time.

Consistent with research showing that many young women worry about weight, 93.3% of the participants indicated that they had expressed weight concern to at least one close other during that time period. But weight concern alone did not predict BMI change over time. As predicted, women with especially high weight concern tended to maintain their weight when they received more weight-acceptance messages. When participants only perceived minimal acceptance messages about weight in response to their concerns, they tended to gain weight. Furthermore, perceived weight-loss pressure also caused women to gain weight over time.

On the surface, this study suggests that social context does have a significant effect on weight concern, and ultimately weight change or maintenance. If we look deeper, though, this issue is more urgent than it appears. For a woman who exists in a social network that criticizes her weight, her own weight concern may actually reflect her fear of social rejection. (And remember that a whopping 93.3% of participants in the study expressed some form of weight concern.) This should not only make you think about the people who surround you, but also about how you talk with them about weight.

Regardless of whether your friends need to lose a few pounds, your job (as a member of their social network) is simply to embrace their weight and accept them as the utterly perfect beings that they are. You possess the power to liberate the women in your life from the fear of social rejection and give them the freedom to create their own weight-management goals. Just think of how different the world would be, if all women had allies like that.

Logel, C., Stinson, D. A., Gunn, G. R., Wood, J. V., Holmes, J. G., & Cameron, J. J. (2014). A little acceptance is good for your health: Interpersonal messages and weight change over time. Personal Relationships, , n/a–n/a. doi:10.1111/pere.12050

“To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.”
Simone de Beauvoir

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Humor is Sexy! (When it’s friendly)

We all know that having a good sense of humor will get you far in life. In the dating sphere, humor is one of the most highly sought-after qualities in a mate. Funny men are supposedly better at getting dates and both sexes use more humor early on in relationships. Even once couples are married, the ability to make each other laugh is correlated with higher marital satisfaction. Humor for the win!

Although the sexiness of humor may seem obvious, it is actually quite difficult for attraction researchers to explain. The process of sexual selection occurs because humans tend to mate with other humans that have qualities that will help their offspring survive. It’s easy, then, to understand how social status (for men) and physical attractiveness (for women) would fit into the process of sexual selection. Attractive women physically display fertility and social status reflects men’s access to resources. But unlike these two qualities, humor does not have an obvious connection to offspring survival.

There are tentative explanations for how humor fits into sexual selection. Some argue that humor indirectly informs mate selection by reflecting the qualities of warmth and competence. (Competence is associated with resource acquisition and warmth implies an ability to share those resources.) Research tends to categorize humor into two broad types: affiliative (positive) and aggressive (negative). DiDonato and Machel (2013) tested how these positive and negative humor styles affect attraction in the context of both short term and long term relationships. In essence, the purpose of the study was to see if the style of humor predicts romantic attraction.

The researchers asked 251 undergraduate students to read relationship vignettes that depicted either positive or negative humor styles. Positive humor styles are obviously friendly, and negative humor styles usually involve sarcasm or some negative act, such as a potential suitor pouring your drink on the ground before asking if he can buy you one. The vignettes asked the participants to imagine a stranger coming up to them and flirting with them using one of four humor tactics. (It’s debatable whether the vignettes were actually funny, but we can’t expect researchers to be comedians too…) The participants were then asked to evaluate their short or long-term romantic interest in the stranger as well as the stranger’s competence and warmth.

Not surprisingly, men reported higher overall romantic interest over women (we women are cautious with our eggs!) When prospective partners used positive humor, short and long-term relationships were more appealing for both sexes. However, when the stranger used negative humor, they were only perceived as more suitable for the short-term. Positive humor also produced stronger perceptions of competence and warmth than negative humor styles.

So, if you’re looking for a fling, go ahead and use sarcasm all you want. But if you use your sense of humor right (in a nice, friendly way), it may help your crush see you as a kind and intelligent long-term partner. More than that, this study reveals that your specific humor style actually shows others, even subconsciously, what kind of person you really are. For that reason, I’d like to think nice guys (who use positive humor styles) don’t actually finish last.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”  -Erma Bombeck

DiDonato, T. E., Bedminster, M. C., & Machel, J. J. (2013). My funny valentine: How humor styles affect romantic interest. Personal Relationships, 20(2), 374–390. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2012.01410.x

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Facebook: The Jealousy Machine

Let’s face it. When we’re romantically interested in someone, we want to know everything we can about that person. Our search for information may involve a small (or large) amount of “Facebook stalking” before we know them well. But Facebook has created new challenges for those of us who are already in relationships. While it’s an easy and public way to monitor our partner’s behavior, it can also lead to situations that prompt unnecessary jealousy. (Like when you find that your boyfriend is posting messages on the wall of a girl you don’t know! Grrr.)

There are some general differences in how men and women experience jealousy in relationships. Women are more likely to be jealous when her partner commits an emotional infidelity, while men are more responsive to sexual infidelities. Women are also more likely to communicate about jealousy, while men would rather not know details and avoid the subject. Furthermore, women are more likely to engage in behavioral jealousy, which in this context would mean actively monitoring her partner’s Facebook page and searching for evidence of betrayal. To test gender disparities in modern behavioral jealousy, Muise, Christofides, and Desmarais (2014), hypothesized that women were more likely to engage in Facebook stalking in response to jealousy than men.

In the study, 160 undergraduate students were given a fictitious Facebook environment to interact with. They were then shown their hypothetical partner’s profile page with a photo of their partner with an attractive person of the opposite sex. The participants were told that this attractive person was a mutual friend, their partner’s cousin, or someone they didn’t know. After reporting their jealousy levels, they were then allowed to spend time searching through both their partner’s fictitious account as well as the attractive person’s to gain more information on this conundrum. Researchers timed the participants as they stalked.

Across all of the conditions (unknown, friend, cousin), women reported higher levels of jealousy. However, women were the most jealous of the unknown person and spent the most time searching the unknown intruder’s page. However, men reported significantly more jealousy in response to the mutual friend than either of the other conditions, but didn’t spend much time investigating the friend.

These results reflect findings of previous studies on the differences between the ways that men and women experience and react to jealousy. While women want to talk about jealousy and spend more time investigating people they suspect, men would rather not know the details of the situation (or talk about it). Thus, even though the men were the most jealous of the friend, they avoided investigating that person.

Modern relationships are intertwined with modern technology, and new complications inevitably arise. While it’s easy to get discouraged with our current situation, this research shows us that men and women react to jealousy in the same ways they always have. In the advent of the invention of new and even more complex digital technologies, we must remember that humans don’t change much, but our world does. Studies like these help us recognize how we bring our humanness to technology, and that’s one thing technology can’t show us.

Muise, A., Christofides, E., & Desmarais, S. (2014). “Creeping” or just information seeking? gender differences in partner monitoring in response to jealousy on facebook. Personal Relationships, 21(1), 35–50. doi:10.1111/pere.12014

“Everyone gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” -Gertrude Stein

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Gain from her Pain: It’s Evolution!

Imagine an obnoxiously attractive person of the same sex walking toward you on the street. Let’s say it’s someone that you would consider “competition.” Suddenly, a bus drives by and covers them with mud. How do you feel? If you’re a human, you’ll probably experience some level of schadenfreude. This German word roughly translates to “harm joy,” and means taking pleasure in another person’s pain. Although it seems somewhat evil, this feeling may actually have evolutionary roots.

In evolutionary terms, men are attracted to women who have physical qualities that express fertility, such as a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio and youthful, clear skin. Women, on the other hand, try to attract men who are willing invest resources in them. Men demonstrate this quality with their social status, physical strength, and/or ambition. When you consider your own value as a potential mate, you must first look at the surrounding competition to see how you stack up. Whether you are male or female, being able assess and compare “mate value” helps you find and secure a mate. So, if another person’s mate value drops, you’ll probably experience some amount of schadenfreude.

In two studies by Colyn and Gordon (2013), the researchers tested this human tendency to compare ourselves to others based on mate value. They argued that schadenfreude actually serves as a mate value tracking mechanism, which allows us to sense when a competitor has lost value as well as our resulting gain. The researchers hypothesized that women would feel schadenfreude more powerfully when a same-gender friend experienced some loss in physical attractiveness. They also proposed that men would feel schadenfreude more powerfully when other male friends experienced some loss in social status.

The researchers asked 299 undergraduate college students to write down an instance where they felt schadenfreude toward a same-sex friend, then to rate a series of hypothetical misfortunes that could happen to this friend. These misfortunes ranged from STDs and bad haircuts to tripping in front of members of the opposite sex. Interestingly, all but one of the participants was able to recall feeling schadenfreude toward a friend at some point, which seems to make college friendships synonymous with wishing the worst for each other. (Oh we are wicked!)

The studies revealed that women did indeed take pleasure in their friends’ pain when the misfortunes were related to some reduction in physical attractiveness. Men, on the other hand, felt more schadenfreude when their male friends were embarrassed socially. The studies did not prove, however, that men or women felt their mate values rose as a result of a misfortune happening to a friend.

Yes, this all seems like depressing news, but don’t give up on friendship yet! Keep in mind that the study tested only college students who generally haven’t yet developed what we might consider “life-long friends.” Also, the closer the subjects were to their friends, the less schadenfreude they experienced, and none of the participants felt schadenfreude when physical pain was involved. 

It does seem that as we get older, we become more selective about our friendships, causing us to gravitate to those who give us strength, who cry with us, and who hold us closely when times are tough. So, while it’s okay to be cautious around competitive college friends, we might also understand friendship as an evolving process that we are quite capable of molding into something beautiful. We know when we’ve found our allies, and when we do, we never let them go.

Colyn, L. A., & Gordon, A. K. (2013). Schadenfreude as a mate-value-tracking mechanism. Personal Relationships, 20(3), 524–545. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2012.01422.x

“A flower does not think of competing to the flower next to it. It just blooms.” -Sensei Ogui

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