February 1st, 2015

Psychologist looks at both sides of love

In recognition of the month-long celebration of love that is February, we spoke with K. Daniel O’Leary, Ph.D., distinguished professor of clinical psychology at Stony Brook University, whose research has looked at both the positive and negative aspects of modern relationships.

On one side, O’Leary and colleagues released a study in 2012 that showed that the prevalence of intense feelings of love persist longer in monogamous relationships than previously thought. On the other side, the prevalence of physical aggression between partners is also higher than one might expect, especially in newlyweds.

O’Leary has written a number of books and articles on the topic of relationships, served on several scientific and editorial boards and was installed to the National Academies of Practice in Psychology. His research focuses on marital therapy, the relationship between marital and child problems, the etiology and treatment of spouse abuse and the alcohol abuse/partner abuse link.

New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter spoke with O’Leary about his work along with some recommendations of how psychologists can approach the topic of abuse and recommendations on how to help clients keep the love alive.

Q:  In your 2012 study, what did you find about the numbers of married couples who reported being “intensely in love?”

 A: In that first study, a U.S. sample, 39 percent of men and 41 percent of women after 10 years in a relationship said that they were intensely in love. When we looked at a New York sample and then a large sample in Spain, the percentages were somewhat lower. The bottom line is that at least a quarter of the people in the U.S. report being intensely in love even if married 10 years or more.

Q: What factors affect these results?

 A: Not surprisingly, the key factors are frequency of affection, doing things with a partner that are novel, and, for women in particular, being happy with life in general. One of the most important things is how frequently one thinks positively about a partner during the daytime.

The thing that might be of interest is that the frequency of sexual intercourse was not as highly associated with intense love. We did find a small percentage of people who report being intensely in love even without sexual intimacy but the crucial thing is that that only occurred if they also reported frequent physical affection.

Q: How did you define “intensely in love?”

 A: We purposely did not define it. We did not want them to react to our definition but to give us a sense of basically whether they feel if they are intensely in love. How would they rate the intensity of their relationship on a 7-point scale from very intensely in love to not at all in love? Essentially about a quarter of the respondents rated it a 7.

Q: You said that people often expect that number to be lower. Why do we assume that?

 A: We actually expected it to be lower ourselves. There is a view that love is very intense in the first six months to a year and that it tails off after that. Possibly one thing that accounted for higher numbers even at 10 years and more is because of great communication or doing things they like or parenting well together.

Q:  It is nice to hear positive results. But, you work more on the other side of relationships …when things go bad, right?

A:  I am a clinical psychologist at Stony Brook and we see people having problems in their relationships. We also do work for the courts evaluating couples. So, my work has been more on the dysfunctional side of relationships and what it is that makes them dysfunctional.

Q:  What key findings can you report about what makes a relationship dysfunctional?

A:  Not surprisingly, a factor that makes them dysfunctional is whether there is physical or psychological aggression.

Unfortunately, one of the things we discovered 25 years ago is that in young couples about to be married, about one-third report that they push each other, slap each other, or kick each other and have done so within the past year.

That was a pretty big surprise to us. These people are just about to be married and we thought, “Who would be getting married if they are hitting and slapping each other?” But, it turns out, hitting and slapping and pushing each other is pretty common.

It is also the case that those people are more likely to separate and divorce. We are not talking about battering, but what we call “common couple aggression.” And they both engage in it. The wife initiates it as often as the husband.

We also know that psychological aggression, particularly in the form of name calling and saying things that go to the heart of one’s being, are as likely as physical aggression to lead to discontent. To take it even a step further, if you look at women in shelters because their husbands beat them up, it is the extent of the verbal or psychological aggression, more than how many times they were hit, that is predictive of whether a woman wants to return to her spouse.

Q: What feeds this type of behavior?

 A: I think it is partly media-related. When we have done focus groups and ask about the aggression, the participants say it is not a big deal. An unfortunate thing is that this stuff begins around 17 or 18 years of age. When people start to do this it releases a rationale that it is okay to do and it continues.

The good news, of course, is that even if a third of young people hit one another in early marriage and during engagement – there is also 70 percent of the population who never engage in physical aggression against a partner.

Q: Is this common couple aggression linked to more extreme forms of spousal abuse?

 A: My sense is that the severe form of physical violence in relationships, often called battering, occurs in about five percent of the population. Fortunately, studies have shown that aggression declines across each decade. If you look at the likelihood of being physically aggressive when one is 55, we are talking about only eight or nine percent of the population.

But unfortunately, a small subgroup of men who are hitters go on to other forms of pretty nasty aggression. And this is often associated with substance abuse.

 Q: As you mentioned, long-term intense love is linked to spending time together, sharing hobbies and frequent affection. This advice would be good for therapists to recommend to clients. What would you tell psychologists when it comes to the darker side of love?

A:  The crucial message is this: first of all, one needs to ask about whether there is physical aggression in a relationship because many therapists do not. This includes myself; we had a marital clinic for decades but only in the past 20 years did we begin to ask. For a couple experiencing marital problems, the likelihood of physical aggression is more like 40-50 percent.

The second thing is how to ask. Don’t ask if a partner is abusive but rather, if in the past year has there been any physical aggression in the form of pushing, slapping, shoving. People don’t really report physical aggression as the most important thing going wrong in their relationship. They will usually say that they have problems communicating or with arguing. Ask about it and ask in a concrete way.

And maybe the third message is don’t be particularly alarmed if you find out there is physical aggression because, as I said, it occurs in 40-50 percent of couples who come in for help. 

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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