Many of you have likely noticed that I have been on an extended hiatus from blogging due to an especially crazy 2014, filled with lots of big events and life changes that have kept me exceptionally busy. One of those events was my wedding on September 13th to Justin Hepler, my partner of almost 4 years -- who also happens to be a social psychologist (yes, we are actually labmates-turned-work-rivals-turned-friends-turned-romantic-partners-turned-spouses, thereby serving as living proof that going to graduate school can sometimes work out better than signing up for Match.com).
Although neither Justin nor I specialized in romantic relationship research ourselves, we certainly had to become well-acquainted with the literature over the course of our graduate school training in social psychology. And, as you might expect, when two social psychologists date each other, it seems like it would be rather silly for them to ignore everything that they know about the well-established factors contributing to successful (and unsuccessful) relationships.
When we sat down to craft our wedding ceremony (with our very close friend, bridesmaid, and licensed wedding officiant extraordinaire Genevieve Dreizen), we discovered pages and pages of biblical, literary, and otherwise inspirational readings that we could choose to include in our ceremony. However, even though many of those readings were perfectly lovely, we simply didn't feel that most of them reflected the qualities that we actually aim to incorporate into our marriage -- the scientific, empirical, well-researched factors that are linked to relationship success.
So we wrote our own.
Below, I've shared with you the reading that Justin and I wrote together for our wedding ceremony -- along with the "citation" packets that we left on our guests' dinner tables with summaries and references for the discussed studies (because of course we did). Our reading may not have the traditional ring of 1 Corinthians 13, or the flowing prose of Kahlil Gibran -- but it is empirically supported. And I think that's gotta count for something!
As psychologists, Melanie and Justin know that one of the most challenging tasks in a person’s life is successfully navigating romantic relationships. Fortunately, due to their careers, they are familiar with many of the scientifically supported behaviors that help promote happy and healthy relationships.
As Melanie and Justin join in marriage, they would like to reflect on these lessons to acknowledge that the success of their relationship won’t depend on chance – it will depend on their commitment to treating each other in ways that are proven to help relationships flourish. With that in mind, here is some empirically supported relationship advice that Melanie and Justin strive to use and intend to continue using to help forge a loving and lasting marriage.
On a daily basis, think about what your spouse does that you value, and verbally express your gratitude. No one is perfect, and focusing on your partner’s shortcomings while overlooking their desirable qualities doesn’t enhance anyone’s enjoyment of the relationship –- not your partner’s, and not your own. So Melanie, when Justin is ready to go to bed a solid three hours before you, let him know that you appreciate how conscientious he’s being. And Justin, when Melanie frenetically dances around the house to Tropi-Pop tunes at 11 PM on a Tuesday, let her know you appreciate her spirit and vim.
However, everyone fights occasionally, and what determines whether couples stay together isn’t whether they fight, but how they fight. When disagreements arise, listen to your partner, acknowledge the role you had in the conflict, focus on specific behaviors rather than criticizing your partner’s personality, and share concerns in a polite, empathetic manner. Respect each other in good times and bad.
It’s also important to create shared positive experiences. Hobbies are a great way to do this, and some are better than others for promoting good relationships. Activities that let you face challenges together as a team are an ideal way to build a stronger bond. As a bonus, exciting activities that increase your heart rate will let you benefit from misattribution of arousal. So, for the sake of your relationship, continue traveling, exploring, mud-running, moving cross-country, and taking risks — as a team.
Although it’s good to do things together, it’s also important to support each other’s personal freedom and autonomy. People enter into relationships because they admire the other individual. Help your partner continue to be that individual by respecting their personal goals and interests. Sometimes that’s as simple as asking questions to show your support. So don’t worry, Justin, there’s no need to sign up for Zumba yourself -- but do continue to ask Melanie how it went whenever she comes home from teaching a class.
As Melanie and Justin are both scientists, they’ve made sure to cite their sources for these tips. On your dinner tables tonight, you’ll find a packet with summaries and citations for all of these studies if you’re interested in learning more.
ADVICE #1: On a daily basis, think about what your spouse does that you value, and verbally express your gratitude.
Gratitude can act like a “booster shot” of sorts for romantic relationships; in one study, couples that reported feeling gratitude towards their partners for everyday acts of kindness (like picking up their favorite coffee from Starbucks or doing the dishes without being asked) experienced higher levels of relationship quality and satisfaction the next day. This means that expressing thanks and gratitude for the things your partner does is not only good for your partner’s happiness, as the one being thanked — it increases your level of happiness and satisfaction with your relationship as well.
It’s also not the case that people who express more gratitude are simply more satisfied because they happen to have nicer romantic partners. This bump in satisfaction is specifically related to gratitude; relationship partners who felt “indebted” to their partners for these everyday acts of kindness did not demonstrate the same spike in relationship satisfaction. Furthermore, couples who were instructed to express gratitude towards their romantic partners experienced these spikes in relationship satisfaction as well, even if they had not been habitually expressing gratitude before the experiment started. This shows that it’s not the fact that couples who express gratitude towards each other are somehow qualitatively different than those that do not — gratitude itself is important.
Algoe, S.B., Gable, S.L., & Maisel, N.C. (2010). It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 17, 217-233.
Gordon, C.L., Arnette, R.A.M., & Smith, R.E. (2011). Have you thanked your spouse today?: Felt and expressed gratitude among married couples. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 339-343.
You can also find a blog post that Melanie wrote on the importance of feeling (and expressing) gratitude in romantic relationships at the following link: http://bit.ly/weddinggratitude
ADVICE #2: Everyone fights occasionally, and what determines whether couples stay together isn’t whether they fight, but rather how they fight. When disagreements arise, listen to your partner, acknowledge the role you had in the conflict, focus on specific behaviors rather than criticizing your partner’s personality, and share concerns in a polite, empathetic manner. Respect each other in good times and bad.
Two decades ago, a team of researchers led by psychologist John Gottman recorded married couples talking for 15 minutes about a recent conflict that they were having in their relationship, and then carefully scrutinized these recordings to see how happy and unhappy couples behaved differently. After keeping track of these couples and noting which ones ended up getting divorced over the course of the next 14 years, Gottman eventually realized that there were just four behaviors that could be used to predict which couples would still be married 14 years later — with 93% accuracy.
First, couples that eventually divorced had fights filled with much more contempt (a strong mix of anger and disgust) towards each other. Second, they tended to turn their complaints into some sort of “defect” about their partners’ personalities; rather than voicing constructive complaints about a behavior, situation, or incident, they specifically made negative trait (not state) attributions and attacked the person, not the behavior. Third, members of these couples tended to “play the victim” in their fights, denying responsibility for any role that they might play in a conflict or trying to “prove” during a fight that their partners were “more wrong” than they were. And fourth, members of couples may also stonewall their partners by completely tuning out during the discussion and ignoring the partner while he/she is speaking, possibly by texting or playing Candy Crush while the partner is trying to voice concerns.
Gottman, J., & Levenson, R. (2002). A Two-Factor Model for Predicting When a Couple Will Divorce: Exploratory Analyses Using 14-Year Longitudinal Data. Family Process, 41, 83-96.
Carrere, S., & Gottman, J.M. (1999). Predicting Divorce among Newlyweds from the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion. Family Process, 38, 293-301.
Gottman, J.M., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting Marital Happiness and Stability from Newlywed Interactions. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 5-22.
You can also find a blog post that Melanie wrote on these behaviors (and Kim Kardashian) at the following link: http://bit.ly/divorcebehaviors
ADVICE #3: Exciting activities that increase your heart rate will let you benefit from misattribution of arousal. So for the sake of your relationship continue traveling, exploring, mud-running, moving cross-country, and taking risks — as a team.
People typically assume that we process emotional experiences in a fairly straightforward way: First comes the target, and then comes the emotion related to it. Something makes you mad, so then you feel mad. Something makes you happy, so then you feel happy. But our bodies aren’t quite so logical. Most of the time what we feel is not really “anger” or “happiness” but simply arousal — an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and sensory alertness. When there’s an obvious reason why our bodies have responded this way (e.g. a fight), it’s easy to attribute this arousal to a distinct emotion (e.g. anger).
However, sometimes this mechanism can misfire. In one famous study, two researchers instructed one group of men to walk across a shaky, dangerous-feeling suspension bridge, 200 feet above rocks and shallow rapids. Another group of men walked across a safe, stable bridge. After stepping off the bridge, each participant was approached by a woman who offered him her name and phone number. The men in the “scary bridge” condition were significantly more likely to accept the phone number, call the woman, and ask her out on a date. After experiencing the fear-induced arousal from the bridge, the men all “misattributed” this arousal as sexual attraction when they saw the woman immediately afterward; when asked why they called her, the men often indicated that they were aroused by her, but never thought to mention anything about the fact that they had just stepped off of a terrifying bridge. They didn’t realize that the arousal they were experiencing actually had very little to do with the woman herself.
This happens more often than we realize. People will sometimes experience ambiguous arousal first, and then search the environment around them to find possible targets that they can label as an explanation second. If you’re amped up on a drug designed to raise your general level of body arousal (like epinephrine) but you don’t realize that the drug is the arousal’s cause, you can end up inferring the cause based on the emotions you witness in those around you. If you see a euphoric person, you will mislabel your arousal as “euphoria” and feel really, manically happy; if you see an angry person, you will misidentify the same arousal as “anger” and feel angry. In the case of the shaky bridge, the participants accidentally attributed (at least some of) their fear-based arousal to sexual attraction.
What this means is that if you’re looking to spice up your marriage, we have some great date ideas for you. Might we suggest a scary movie or a trip to your local amusement park for a ride on some roller coasters? Or, you could always join us for our next Spartan Race — we’ll see you in Sacramento on October 25th!
Dutton, D.G., & Aron, A.P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510-517.
Schachter, S., & Singer, J.E. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69, 379-399.
You can also find a blog post that Melanie wrote on misattribution of arousal at the following link: http://bit.ly/arousalmisattribution
ADVICE #4: Although it’s good to do things together, it’s also important to support each other’s personal freedom and autonomy. Help your partner continue to be that individual by respecting their personal goals and interests.
First and foremost, one thing is clear from the research — if you have goals, it’s helpful to have a (good) relationship partner. According to the famous artist Michelangelo, sculpting is a process by which “the artist releases an ideal figure from the block of stone in which it slumbers.” Recently, researchers have used this idea to describe something known as the Michelangelo Phenomenon. According to this theory, romantic partners have the capability to reveal the “ideal self” hiding within our never-perfect “actual selves” by encouraging and supporting the pursuit of personal goals, thereby helping each other reach heights far greater than those that would have been reached without the other partner’s support. As a result, each partner can enjoy greater success at attaining his or her ideal-self goals, and can become better people than they would be without the influence of that relationship. Research on this phenomenon has shown that when partners respond actively and supportively to the pursuit of “ideal self” goals, it can actually help people be objectively more successful at pursuing those goals.
Secondly, although today is all about being united and intertwined, personal autonomy is also important. People who feel more autonomous (i.e., independent, self-sufficient, and in control of one’s own life & behavior) also experience greater relationship satisfaction after disagreements and report fewer defensive & more understanding responses to conflict. Although it may seem like a paradox, people who feel more independent & self-sufficient on their own actually report feeling more comfortable and secure with the idea of being dependent (at times) on their partners.
Drigotas, S. M. (2002). The Michelangelo Phenomenon and personal well-being. Journal of Personality, 70, 59–77.
Drigotas, S. M., Rusbult, C. E., Wieselquist, J., & Whitton, S. W. (1999). Close partner as sculptor of the ideal self: Behavioral affirmation and the Michelangelo Phenomenon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 293-323.
Knee, C. R., Lonsbary, C., Canevello, A., & Patrick, H. (2005). Self-determination and conflict in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 997-1009.
For a blog post (not written by Melanie) on the importance of autonomy in relationships, see: http://bit.ly/autonomysupport
If you are interested, you can click here for a downloadable PDF containing the reading and the "citation packets" that we placed on the reception dinner tables. You are absolutely welcome to use this reading -- or a personalized-to-you version of it -- in your own wedding. You don't *have* to let me know if you do, but I would love hearing about it!
Image from our wedding courtesy of our incredible and highly-recommended wedding photographer, Mark Kopko.
I would also like to give credit where credit is due and acknowledge that much of this reading was inspired by a piece by Samantha Joel on her science-based wedding vows, published both at Science of Relationships and the Huffington Post. She mentions more research that we didn't get into in our reading, so I highly recommend checking out those links if you would like to see more!