“Follow your heart but take your brain with you.” Relationship science has come a long way since Alfred Adler shared those words of wisdom, but they remain just as applicable today as when he wrote them in the 1920s.
Modern scientific studies, ranging from smelling T-shirts (seriously) to connecting couples to skin and heart monitors while they discuss a topic of conflict, have changed our understanding of the scientific underpinnings of relationships. These studies have also informed improved approaches to bringing “your brain with you” as you follow your heart.
Our professional experience, both as relationship counselors and as instructors of undergraduate courses on intimate relationships, has cemented our belief in using the science of relationship to help both educators and individuals heed Adler’s words. In this article, we present 10 intimate relationship research findings that (we think) every counselor should know.
10) Health: Connection and intimacy improve health. Romantic relationships are correlated with overall well-being. More and more studies are showing that maintaining an intimate relationship provides protective factors in both emotional and physical health. Specifically, individuals who are engaged in a romantic relationship tend to report lower responses to pain, elevated immune responses, increased longevity and a greater ability to moderate their brain’s response to threat. A broader societal focus on enhancing the potential for individuals to form and maintain healthy connections with others could improve general health and life satisfaction for a significant portion of the adult population.
9) Changing trends and times: Culture matters in relationship. Relationship-related norms have changed dramatically during the past five decades. No longer is marriage the presupposed path of a relationship, nor does marriage generally have the staying power of previous years. Increased rates of cohabitation before marriage (60 percent today compared with 5 percent in 1960) and advanced age at time of first marriage are two more signs that times have changed. Furthermore, 41 percent of babies are now born out of wedlock, compared with 5 percent in the 1960s. The fluidity of many of today’s relationships can create complex co-parenting landscapes that have consequences for the individuals involved and their children.
As counselors, our beliefs may be textured by demographic patterns of a prior generation. How might our beliefs and values influence our work? What are our attitudes toward the institution of marriage? Cohabitation? Divorce? What does the term traditional family currently mean?
Our awareness of changing relationship trends and the contemporary influences that have resulted in these changes provide an essential backdrop to our practice as counselors. Of the many influences that have led to the ongoing shift in modern norms concerning relationships, three stand out.
- Economics: In industrialized societies, individuals are better able to support themselves without relying on a partner to fill in the gaps. Women in particular are less financially dependent than in previous generations and, therefore, less tied to marriage as a fundamental need.
- Individualism: Western cultures have a stronger focus on self. In part, this means that individuals want more out of their relationships — more excitement, more passion, more devotion — and feel justified in seeking new partners if these needs aren’t being met.
- Technology: Technology has opened up the dating world, expanding potential partner choice from a very limited geographical proximity to a literally global “market.” Via social media and online dating sites, individuals can compare their partners’ perceived shortcomings with an infinite number of alternatives. In addition, a long-distance romance ignited through Skype is easily snuffed out when one partner returns to “single status” on Facebook or other media. In such instances, the ease of technology can deny individuals the growth opportunities that result from the discomfort of breaking up in a sensitive fashion.
8) Growth beliefs: The downside of a soul mate. The belief in a one-and-only soul mate is a very enticing notion. The prospect of finding that one person who is “perfect” for us or whom we were “meant” to be with seems embedded in our cultural lexicon. According to some scholars, the notion of the soul mate dates back to ancient Egypt some 5,000 years ago, but it is a belief that still largely persists in our culture today. A 2011 Marist poll found that 73 percent of Americans believed that destiny would lead them to their soul mate; the percentages of women (71 percent) and men (74 percent) who held this belief were roughly the same.
Belief in a soul mate is closely aligned with what modern researchers refer to as “destiny beliefs.” In contrast, people who hold “growth beliefs” adhere to the outlook that relationships naturally involve conflict and that challenges in the relationship can be overcome. It is easy to see how growth beliefs can translate into an approach that embraces conflict and struggle as inherent elements of relationships. People who are higher in their growth beliefs about relationships tend to deliberately engage in more relationship-maintaining behaviors and actively plan ways to resolve conflict in relationships than do those who are lower in their growth beliefs. Individuals with strong growth beliefs tend to view relationship conflict as normal and often interpret this conflict as an opportunity for growth and expansion.
Counselors who understand these differences are better poised to support their clients as they struggle to identify well-suited partners and to help ground their clients with a more realistic view of long-term relationships.
7) Perpetual problems: Not all problems should be fixed. Conflict makes frequent and unavoidable appearances in every relationship. Commonly, couples view the sources of conflict as problems to be fixed or solved. However, well-known relationship researchers Julie and John Gottman report that an astounding 69 percent of relationship problems are perpetual. These problems don’t have a solution and are therefore not going to get “fixed.”
Couples who approach all problems with a “solve it” mentality will find themselves in gridlock — terrain that is wrought with frustration and angst. It is critical that counselors reframe this gridlock and shift the focus away from resolution. In other words, help clients stop trying to fix every problem. Instead, focus on dialogue around the problem through a lens of compassion and understanding. Counselors can coach their couples as they develop the skills necessary to soften the edges of conflict and elicit the emotional security necessary for each partner to feel safe inside this process.
6) The magic ratio: Bad is stronger than good. Although negative interactions play an important role in relationships (for example, challenging an unfulfilling status quo or shining light on unproductive communication patterns), couples and families attending counseling are often there because they lack a healthy balance of positive and negative interactions. They are in a state that Robert Weiss referred to as “negative sentiment override.” For a healthy balance of positives and negatives, the “magic ratio” is 5 positives (minimum) for every 1 negative.
According to the Gottman Institute, the 5-to-1 ratio is typical of conflicted couples that are at relatively low risk for divorce. Among happy couples, however, that ratio is about 20-to-1. Thus, when working with couples and families, aim for positive sentiment override and assist clients with understanding their partners’ perception of negatives and positives. One partner may think that he or she is engaging in a positive interaction, but the other partner may not experience it as such. In a way, strength-based counseling is a modeling of this balance of negatives and positives. A helpful exercise for counselors is aiming to keep track of their own perceived positive-negative ratio in interactions with clients.
Acknowledging the need to increase positive interactions does not diminish the need to thoughtfully address the important role of negativity in relationships. As counselors know, all negative interactions are not created equal. A few guidelines for navigating negative interactions can provide clients with concrete tools.
First, when introducing a topic that may be perceived as negative, it helps to use a “softened startup.” Basics of this approach include beginning slowly and neutrally, using I statements, choosing an appropriate time to bring the topic up and placing emphasis on making a request as opposed to an accusation.
Even with these softened techniques in mind, negative feelings in the aftermath of conflict can still arise, but repair attempts can re-establish the healthy balance of negatives and positives. Repair attempts refer to acts that lower tension from a negative interaction. These may include suggesting a timeout, offering an apology, using a gentle demeanor or engaging in a kind act. Whatever the case, repair attempts, softened startups and a focus on increasing positive interactions are all aimed at nudging a couple into positive sentiment override and reaching that magic ratio.
5) Psychophysiology: A calm brain is more thoughtful and compassionate. In the context of love, an alarmed brain is a brain that is not at its best. Relationship researchers now have sophisticated tools to study the neurological and autonomic underpinnings of emotion. Diffuse physiological arousal occurs when emotional triggers elevate an individual’s heart rate approximately 20 beats per minute above typical. In this state, an individual’s ability to access compassion and empathy, laugh, listen or express affection is severely limited. Each of these actions is known to diffuse, or at least soften, hostile conflict.
Counselors can provide clients with important relationship tools by helping them understand their idiosyncratic triggers and teaching them how to moderate the impact of these triggers on their physiology. Individuals can learn myriad mind-body techniques that moderate physiological arousal and activate the body’s natural relaxation response.
4) Androgyny: Traditional gender roles can be detrimental to couples. Gender roles in society serve the function of defining roles based on sex. However, the simplistic, dichotomous view commonly reinforced by societal norms can be quite limiting and can negatively affect intimate relationships. Historically, the terms masculine traits and feminine traits have been used, but today’s researchers predominantly apply the terms instrumental and expressive to refer to different traits. Instrumental traits refer to task-oriented behaviors — for example, assertiveness, ambition, decisiveness, rationality and self-reliance. Expressive traits refer to traits involving emotional and social skills, including characteristics such as tenderness, compassion, empathy, warmth and sensitivity to others.
Stereotyped gender roles have generally reinforced either instrumental traits or expressive traits based on a person’s sex identification. However, research continues to demonstrate the untoward effects of such narrow, stereotyped roles. For example, numerous studies have found that adherence to traditional stereotyped gender roles is significantly associated with relationship violence and justification of violence. Additionally, in a 2006 study, Heather Helms and colleagues found that spouses who follow stereotyped gender roles tend to have marriages that are less satisfying and happy than do couples that have more nontraditional gender roles.
There may be a tendency, because of socialization, to think of instrumental and expressive traits as opposite ends of a continuum. More accurately, these traits are essentially sets of skills, and a person can be low or high in these skills. The ability to utilize instrumental and expressive traits fluidly as dictated by the situation has been shown to be associated with more contented relationships. For numerous reasons, holding tightly to traditional gender roles can be detrimental for individuals and society. By teaching and cultivating awareness of the benefits of androgyny (embodying both instrumental and expressive traits), counselors can help couples build more satisfying relationships and become more well-adjusted individuals.
3) Passion paradox: Passion can have a downside. The novelty that accompanies young romantic love quickens our hearts and fills us with renewed vigor and passion. Some individuals report feeling superhuman and, indeed, many can tolerate pain at levels that would be quite unpleasant absent the vision of their new lover’s face to stimulate the release of pain-muting hormones.
However exciting and fun these passionate feelings may be though, they can also cloud our judgment and push our behaviors in directions that may not serve our best interests. For example, the flood of feel-good hormones that accompany a new relationship can mask the evidence of traits that are unhealthy for long-term relationships, such as reactive jealousy, possessiveness, dependency and so on. Similarly, in the early stages of a relationship, a couple may make choices (cohabiting, becoming pregnant, etc.) that the partners might avoid or delay if they were viewing each other with more clarity. In other words, commitment decisions might best be made after the novelty of a new relationship has waned and the realities of the partners’ true characteristics have had a chance to surface.
By addressing the common confusion between passion and intimacy, and discussing the normative processes of passion, counselors can help clients understand and respond thoughtfully to the developmental progression of most relationships.
2) Conflict and dialectics: Conflict and dialectics are ubiquitous. One of the most basic rules of conflict is that it is unavoidable. However, clients and counselors alike sometimes approach conflict as something to be snuffed out or avoided at all costs. Counselors can help improve intimate relationships by encouraging clients to approach conflict as an important thread woven into the fabric of relationships and teaching them to develop relationship skills to navigate conflict in a way that promotes personal and relational growth.
Research into relational dialectics — meaning the opposing tensions, motivations or philosophies that exist in intimate relationships — informs our approaches to dealing with conflict. Examples of these dialectics include autonomy/connection, openness/closedness, stability/change and integration/separation. According to dialectical theory, each of these domains contains a tension that can never fully be resolved. For example, working toward stability and predictability in a relationship can jeopardize the needs of one partner (or both partners) for change and unpredictability, which may result in a mundane relationship that lacks excitement. Providing psychoeducation about the inevitability of dialectics can soften its energy inside a relationship and open pathways for intimacy that may otherwise be thwarted.
1) Sexuality: “Good enough sex” is good enough. With few exceptions, cultures all over the world continue to accept a double standard inside the sexual relationship. Particular to Western culture, males are expected to want sex all the time, and success is determined primarily by the occurrence of orgasm. Females are expected to be sexually quiet and to fall in line with the whims of their husbands or boyfriends, and success is a secondary consideration reflecting male technique and his ability to “deliver” an orgasm to the female.
Ubiquitous messages from media serve to reinforce these roles. Although not a simple task, proponents of egalitarian sexuality encourage couples to avoid falling prey to the gender stereotypes that can inhibit sexual freedom. An expanded (and, sexual researchers might say, superior) version of sexuality emphasizes a focus on multiple facets beyond orgasm — nongenital touch, emotional intimacy, fun and stress release, to name a few — that can be cultivated in any relationship.
This “Good-Enough Sex” model, first introduced by Michael Metz and Barry McCarthy, challenges aforementioned stereotypes and instead emphasizes flexibility (with regard to expectation and prescribed roles), egalitarian desire and pleasure. A major premise of this model is a focus on realistic expectations. According to Metz and McCarthy, the couple that understands and accepts that up to 15 percent of sexual encounters will be dissatisfying is more likely to persevere and reconnect than is the couple that erroneously expects all sex to be “successful.”
Given that dysfunctional sexuality can erode couple intimacy, it is worthwhile to assess and explore this domain of the couple relationship with clients. Counselors can help clients untangle the embedded socialized behaviors that disrupt the pleasure processes and provide information regarding realistic sexual expectations.
As highlighted in this article, recent advances in relationship science provide counselors with new tools, techniques and insights to apply to their practice. As scientific study deepens our understanding of the mechanisms, motives and context of relationships, we are better equipped to help individuals and couples come to a better understanding of healthy relationships, their partners and themselves.
Relationships are inseparable from human history, yet the cultural context of relationships is ever changing — perhaps seldom more so than in recent decades. Cognizance of the drivers and impacts of these changing norms, as well as the cultural proclivities we inherit from the idiosyncratic nature of our own upbringing, can further empower our work. Staying abreast of the burgeoning field of relationship-related research is a daunting task, yet never have counselors been better equipped to help others take their brain with them as they follow their heart.
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Sara Polanchek is the clinical director in the Department of Counselor Education and Supervision at the University of Montana in Missoula. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sidney Shaw is core faculty in the clinical mental health counseling program at Walden University and a certified trainer for the International Center for Clinical Excellence. Contact him at email@example.com
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org