February 1st, 2015

The psychology of romantic relationships

PHOTO BY TOM CROKE
Margaret S. Clark, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Yale University, noted that when a romantic relationship moves from initiation to commitment, needs change.

Consider all the songs, poems, magazine articles and novels that focus on romance and it would appear that nearly everyone is looking for love. Sometimes finding Mr. or Ms. Right may be relatively easy, but establishing a romantic relationship typically involves some distinct behavioral patterns and maintaining that relationship requires nurturing.

“When trying to form a relationship, you are on your best behavior,” said Margaret S. Clark, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Yale University, adding that three processes are important to relationship initiation: strategic self-presentation, partner evaluation and self-protection. “You must present yourself to a partner in a manner that makes you a desirable potential partner. We dress better, likely groom ourselves more carefully, pay careful attention to what the other seems to want to do or say and actually give more help than we seek,” she said.

Furthermore, each individual typically assesses a potential partner during the initial stages. “At the same time you are presenting yourself as a potential partner, you are evaluating whether the other person is a desirable partner for you,” Clark noted. Also, individuals tend to be protective of their feelings. “People do not want to be rejected. It’s painful. Thus, they engage in a good deal of self-protection during relationship initiation,” she said. “They may downplay their true interest. They may not ask for help lest they be turned down.”

Additionally, people may avoid “socially diagnostic situations,” those in which they receive feedback regarding whether people like them or not.

When the relationship moves from initiation to commitment, needs change. “After you are in a committed relationship, you become more authentic, although you should still manage your negative side,” Clark said. “You become willing to reveal your vulnerabilities and are still concerned about the other, but feel they should care for you.”

The key elements of long-lasting romantic relationships include trust, a sense of security, mutual agreement to care about the other, responsiveness to the other’s welfare without expecting payment and engaging in activities that appeal to both parties, according to Clark. “You lose your self-consciousness when engaged in mutually enjoyable activities. Both derive benefits,” she said. But sometimes relationships falter and need professional help to get back on track.

Mark Sorensen, Ph.D., private practitioner in Newton, Mass., said that frequent conflicts, bickering and arguments followed by no effort to reduce the episodes or lack of physical affection create an “emotional gulf” and drive couples to counseling.

When couples come to Sorensen, he solicits the reasons for the visit. “Each partner may have a different goal, so creating an alliance with the client is important,” Sorensen said. “I never set up a second visit during the initial visit. It’s important that the couple choose me. They both need to feel comfortable with me.”

As counseling proceeds, Sorensen encourages the couple to have conversations about situations in a non-defensive way. He said, “When regular attention is given to a relationship, the harder it is for grievances to remain underground.” He also advises couples to create more openness and to be more receptive. “When you focus on where the other person is coming from, conflict resolves and you are already in a state of reconciliation.”

More importantly, cultivating an attitude of humility fosters greater understanding, according to Sorensen. When there is disagreement, he advises couples to consider in what way their partner may be right. “It will soften the conflict. Sometimes a couple gets lost in judgment of one another,” he said. “I am more apt to encourage couples to use warmth and touch and practice appreciation. Focus on the positives. Everyone wants to be loving and be loved. Getting distracted by defensiveness and habits takes away from deeper intentions.”

Sorensen added that maintaining a loving relationship requires acceptance, curiosity and prioritizing kindness and love. “Embrace your own imperfections and your partner’s. Get into the habit of recognizing there is a lot about your partner that you don’t know. The experience of your interest creates and strengthens an attachment, a bond,” he said.

Empathetic listening is also central to a successful relationship, said Rosemary McCullough, M.A., Ph.D., owner of New England Counseling Associates in Portland, Maine. “Empathetic listening enables the couple to increase their understanding of each other’s needs,” she said. “At the heart of work with couples is that once a person is heard, they become curious and are able to model this type of listening at home.”

During sessions, McCullough conducts an exercise in which one person describes a need while the other person listens and repeats what they have heard. “This is modeling what they need to do at home,” she said. And home is where some of the work takes place. McCullough considers the home a sanctuary where couples can connect with each other away from the outside world. “I suggest couples have a weekly family meeting and include children, if there are any. At a basic level, they should talk for 30 minutes to an hour. This is family time where grievances are aired. This creates an environment in which couples feel safe.”

McCullough said that a relationship comprises three identities: each individual plus the couple. “Each person is their own identity and as a couple, they can be a source of wisdom, respect and honor,” she said. But when couples therapy reaches an impasse, she could recommend individual therapy. “Sometimes one person needs deeper work. In individual therapy you can do more work with the person than you can in couples therapy. I try to help them figure out what the spouse needs.”

McCullough added that the way people respond also makes a difference. “We can only control how we respond. We can’t control the person,” she said. “Appropriate and controlled responses can help break negative patterns. Arguing is a toxic way of communicating.”

Marriage, as well as a committed relationship, is a choice and involves sacrifice, McCullough said. “It’s easy to do your own thing. But in marriage you’re dealing with another human being. It’s an act of altruism every day, putting someone else’s needs before yours.”

By Phyllis Hanlon

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