Blinded by love

Think you know the score? Think again

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Illustrations by Hal Mayforth

Everything your mom told you about relationships was wrong. Well, maybe not everything. For instance, she was totally right about not moving in with your boyfriend.

That’s according to research presented by Matthew D. Johnson, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Marriage and Family Studies Laboratory at Binghamton University. Johnson gave a talk titled “25 Empirical Results about Relationships in 50 Minutes” during a recent Dickinson Forum. The evening speaker series, organized by Dickinson Community Faculty Master Jeffrey Barker, gives undergraduates a chance to learn something new from Binghamton professors in a casual setting. Johnson’s talk, held in the new Chenango Champlain Collegiate Center, unfolded as a fireside chat on dating, marriage, sex and parenthood.

Here are just a few of the surprising points he made, with support from research conducted around the world:

1. Good sex can make up for bad communication.

“We don’t need to say anything more about that, do we?” Johnson asks, to loud laughter.

2. Having kids won’t make you and your spouse happier, though parenthood may keep you together.

“An unplanned transition to parenthood is much harder than a planned one,” he says. “But either way, this is one of the few things that lowers both relationship satisfaction and the likelihood of divorce.”

3. Androgynous individuals have the best relationships.

“This isn’t about manly women or womanly men. It’s about a roughneck who can soothe a crying baby and about a daycare worker who can overhaul an engine,” he says. Think of some stereotypical masculine traits — forceful, willing to take risks, self-reliant, competitive. Now think of some stereotypical feminine traits — loyal, sympathetic, cheerful, gentle. Picture masculinity on one axis and femininity on the other. If you are high on feminine traits and low on masculine traits, you’re in the feminine category. If you’re high on masculine traits and low on feminine ones, you’re in the masculine category. Low on both? You’re in the undifferentiated category. High on both? You’re in the androgynous category.

“Guess what?” Johnson says. “Androgynous individuals have higher self-esteem, lower anxiety, more emotional intelligence. They change to meet the situation. They accept what they cannot change. And they have better relationships.”

4. Stressful events strengthen some relationships.

This is visible in marriage rates as well as divorce rates in a region hit by a significant hurricane, for instance. If couples were doing well and came through a difficult time together, they may decide to marry. Those who were unhappy to begin with may decide to split after a crisis. 

“For a long time, we thought about stressful events as necessarily leading to worse things in relationships,” says Johnson, who has conducted work in this area. “But we’re learning more and more that they can strengthen some.”

5. Forget “opposites attract.” You’re most attracted to someone like you!

“By and large, if you’re psychologically healthy, you see yourself as someone who’s above average but you have one or two little foibles,” Johnson says.

You can see this in a study that measured “the pratfall effect,” in which research subjects were asked who is most attractive: a game show contestant who got every answer right, one who got most of them wrong, one who got the answers right but spilled a drink at the end, or one who got them wrong and spilled a drink. Most people choose the contestant who got the answers right and spilled a drink. The researchers speculated that people liked this contestant best because he or she reminded them of themselves.

“Who’s most attractive to you?” Johnson asks. “You!”

6. Women’s sexuality is more fluid than men’s sexuality.

This bit of information comes from a study that measured the blood flow to subjects’ genitalia while they were shown videos of sex between two men, two women, as well as a woman and a man. Essentially: Women, straight and lesbian alike, were aroused by all of the videos to about the same degree. Gay men were aroused far more by videos of two men than the other two, and straight men were aroused far less by videos of two men than the other two.

To partly address the nature vs. nurture question, male-to-female transsexuals (who were genetically male but — through medical and behavioral intervention — were physically and socially female) were tested. They responded the same as the men in the study.

7. Support from your partner isn’t always helpful.

Women who go on a diet lose more weight with uninvolved husbands, Johnson says, and heart attack victims recover more slowly with more support. In one study, law students who were studying for the bar exam reported increased anxiety and depression on days when their partner gave them support.

“Invisible” support, given without the other person taking note, is the best kind to give your partner, Johnson says.

Mom was right about some things

1. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.

“There is good news here,” Johnson says. “You can tell your partner something is bugging you. You can complain; you just can’t be a jerk.” His advice? Use an XYZ statement. “‘When you do X in situation Y, I feel Z.’ That’s the perfect way to complain to your partner. Don’t ever resort to name-calling.”

2. Don’t live together before you get married.

Premarital cohabitation leads to lower marital satisfaction and higher rates of divorce.

“They’ve been studying this nine ways to Sunday, and this is not accounted for by how religious you are, how conservative you are, how much you value marriage,” he says. “There are several hypotheses that are beginning to gather support. One is the idea of ‘sliding vs. deciding.’ If you are not living together and you decide to get married, that is a major decision. If you are living with that person, you might slide into the marriage.”

Johnson peppered his talk with pop culture references, mentioning Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston and at one point quoting a snippet of a Johnny Cash song. His enthusiasm was infectious; at least a dozen students sat down to listen after hearing him as they wandered through the lounge.

“Intimate relationships drive so much of our happiness,” he says, speaking on another afternoon in the lab where he counsels couples one day a week. “This permeates everything in our lives. Shining an empirical light on this helps answer the questions people have been trying to answer since there were people. Philosophers, artists, musicians, poets: Everyone is trying to understand intimate relationships, and so am I. As a psychologist, I’m trying to do it from a scientific perspective and help people at the same time.”


Take a free relationship quiz developed by Matthew D. Johnson’s lab.
Follow Matthew D. Johnson on Twitter at @mdjphd.