Valentine’s day is behind us and, for many, its passing comes with a sigh of relief. As I am currently single I wasn’t pressured into participating in the holiday’s annual, and largely empty, gestures. But I did observe many men and women dutifully purchasing trinkets, candy, or flowers from the local grocery store to bring home to their partners as symbols of their affections.
I think what I find dismaying is that the holiday condenses our romantic rituals into a singular, annual event. In my book, Wild Connection: What animal courtship and mating tell us about human relationships, I consider how we might be inspired to change our perceptions about our own relationship behavior by looking through a biological lens and exploring how animals engage in relationships with each other.
One key difference when it comes to rituals is that when other species form long-term bonds, they have daily behaviors that serve to maintain the pair bond and demonstrate continued commitment to the partnership.
Siamangs, a type of gibbon, are a great example of this. They are pretty famous for their singing; two siamangs in a relationship sing together every day (video here). Their duet has three separate parts—the introduction, the organizing, and the great cal and is made up of barks, booms, and screams. The pair will sing for about l15 minutes, and, most important, they continue this ritual every year they are together. New siamang pairs might fumble through the song for a bit before they get it just right. However, once they do learn to coordinate they don’t just bang out a few notes after a couple of years and call it a day. No, they go through the whole sequence every time, every single day. And it’s not just singing that takes place: They spend a considerable amount of time grooming each other and just hanging out with one another as well.
While siamangs sing when they get up, French angelfish couples take another approach. Because life on the coral reef means sometimes a pair has to spend time apart, it’s important that when they come back together they re-establish their connection. How do French angelfish accomplish this? By twirling around each other every time they come back together.
I suppose that French angelfish twirling is akin to dancing, but various species of grebe, a group of freshwater birds, have some of the most elaborate water dancing rituals around. They glide and rush through the water, almost lifting themselves out, necks arched seductively. Tango, anyone? But at the end there is no exchange of roses, simply reeds.
Forget “The Rules.” Stop believing “He’s just not into you.” In fact, skip all the self-help confusion that instructs you on how to morph yourself into the perfect match for Mr. (or Ms.) Right.
People who are genuinely happy with their romantic choices spend more energy working on their own self-development than on appearing a certain way to attract love. Instead of focusing on playing the game to entice a partner, put your focus on these five principles and, over time, the right match for you will present itself:
1. Understand yourself, sexually and emotionally. If you have not done the work ofunderstanding yourself emotionally and sexually, you will enter romantic relationships from an emotionally dependent place. You may have the unrealistic hope that someone else will know how to understand you and make you happy—even when you, yourself, may not know. Directly communicating to your partners about your emotions and your sexual side is important; hoping others will intuitively perceive who you are emotionally and what you need sexually is a fantasy. Make a conscious effort to become aware of your ongoing emotional reactions to the people and events in your life. Observe and label your emotional reactions. Reflect on your feelings and talk with people about how you feel or what you are noticing about yourself, without expecting them to put you back together again.
2. Believe what people show and say about themselves. It is common when attracted to someone to want to rationalize their poor behavior. If someone treats you with disrespect or chronically lets you down, take this as data about whom he or she is as a person. If you try to talk with someone and he or she dismisses you or rationalizes mistreatment of you, take this seriously; this may not be a suitable match. If a man says he is not looking for “anything serious” or he needs a lot of “space,” let him go. This person is not in the same place you are and may not want the same things you want.Believe what people communicate about themselves. If they are acting immaturely or disrespectfully, or saying things that hurt you, move on. It is not your job to show someone a better way; it is your job to work on growing as a person.
3. Avoid “sextimacy.” As I describe in Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy, sextimacy is a cycle of working to achieve emotional intimacy through hastened sex. If you are hoping that a sexual relationship will eventually lead to a more emotionally intimate or committed relationship, cease and desist: Research shows relationships that start with sex before emotional intimacy is present typically do not become committed unions. You will spend your time hoping and working to get someone to change or “step up to the plate” when you could be putting your energy into growing as a person and finding someone who likes the person you have become.
4. Separate psychologically from your parents. This is no easy task and many think they have done so when, in reality, they have not. As an adult, if you continue to allow your parents to meet all of your emotional needs then you siphon off some of the energy that needs to go into your romantic attachments. As much as possible, little by little, work to be independent of your parents. This does not mean you can’t enjoy their company, spend time with them, and share what you wish with them about your life. It does mean: Work to become comfortable making your own decisions. Excessively asking for their opinion, reassurance, or guidance, or allowing them to control your life means you are not living for yourself. And if you allow your parents to continually do the heavy lifting for you, then you will not be a whole person when the right match presents itself. Entering into a romantic relationship believing that the person is going to take care of you in the way your parents have can turn a healthy match into a toxic one. You have to be in control of your own life, self-aware of your goals, needs and emotions.
When asked about sexual orientation, a person typically will respond with thegender of their preferred sexual partner. Is it a same-sex partner, an opposite-sex one, or both? In a paper published August 22, 2016, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Michael Seto writes that the age of one’s sexual partner may be as stable an element of sexual orientation as gender.
GLAAD defines sexual orientation as “the scientifically accurate term for an individual’s enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to members of the same and/or opposite sex, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and heterosexual (straight) orientations.” In this definition, gender is the sole criterion to establish sexual orientation. But Seto seeks to define sexual orientation more broadly, including “a stable tendency to preferentially orient—in terms of attention, interest, attraction, and genital arousal—to particular classes of sexual stimuli.” He emphasizes classes of stimuli that include age, rather than gender alone. He uses the term chronophilia to describe a preferential treatment of certain age categories.
Much of Seto’s previous work has been on the forensic study of pedophilia, but in this paper he broadens his discussion to other age preferences. His research focuses on men because, as he says, there is almost no research on chronophilias in women. In addressing age, he does not limit age to the chronological age but includes physical and sexual maturity. Sexual age, then, is reflected in body size and shape, secondary sexual characteristics, and other visible signs of age such as wrinkled skin and white hair. Seto also incorporates psychological features of maturity such as intelligence, kindness and an agreeable sense of humor.
Seto argues that “we have an incomplete understanding of how human sexuality is oriented if we focus only on gender as the important dimension.”
How often does age factor into sexual attraction? The default position when considering sexual attraction is typically two sexually mature, young adults, engaged is conventional sexual activities, the most common representation of sexual activities fed to audiences in movies and television, but a study ofpornography gives us a window into the hidden world of sexual desire and sexual fantasy.
Attraction to an older man or woman is common enough for the Urban Dictionary to have an entry for DILF (Dads I’d like to f***)–a crude but specific term–and a Google search for DILF turns up nearly 1.7 million hits. Sites included heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual references. If you wish to filter your search, Google recommends searching for naked DILF, gay DILF, black DILF and monster DILF. “Tumblr” has categories for dream daddies, hot daddies, and bear daddies. “Silver Daddies,” one of the largest chat sites for intergenerational gay relationships posts over 155,000 profiles from a wide variety of countries and cultures.
The most studied aspect of sexual orientation is gender with age being the second most studied, but age has been studied almost exclusively in the context of pedophilia, and most research on gay men has centered on young, urban men. Huge gaps exist in our knowledge of maturity as it relates to sexual orientation. Seto writes, “I am not aware of any empirical research on individuals attracted to middle-age [or older] persons.”
Seto focuses on four features of sexual orientation—age of onset, neurobiological correlates, association with romantic and sexual behavior, and stability over time.
In researching Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, a Psychiatrist’s Own Story, I had the opportunity to interview a large number of younger gay men in intergenerational relationships, and I found some common themes:
- A large majority–if not most–of them believed they have always been attracted to someone fifteen to twenty years older or more, and as they age, that age difference in their attraction persists.
- Many were or had been in enduring relationships, and frequently as the older man has grown frail, the younger partner had become the primary care provider.
- Demands are often made of the younger man to explain his attraction to an older man, even though he doesn’t understand it himself; older men were rarely asked to defend their choice.
- The younger man often explains his attraction with words like wisdom, experience, sensitivity, a life well-lived, but the attraction was clearly very erotic as well.
- Most resent any implication that their relationship is based on a wish to exploit the older partner, e.g. “a sugar daddy.”
- Although these younger men often questioned if their relationship with their father was responsible for their attraction, they were about equally split between those who had a good relationship with their father and those with a bad or no relationship.
Do you feel that you can truly be yourself with your partner, or are you always hiding something? Do you fear that if your partner knew what was going on in all corners of your mind that your relationship would end?
One of the most frequently quoted lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is uttered by the somewhat laughable (though tragic) character Polonius: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” New research from Yi Nan Wang at Beijing Normal University shows that this advice is wise, but that being true to yourself shouldn’t come at the cost of stepping over your partner’s needs. Showing your true self can, in some cases, mean expressing views that your partner would find offensive or upsetting. In balanced authenticity, you reach that optimal level of taking the feelings of your partner into account while still allowing your true self to shine through.
The presidential election is one conceivable area of contention between you and your intimate partner. Maybe you can’t stand the candidate your partner favors and struggle to suppress the urge to express exactly what bothers you about this person. Every time you see a story that portrays your partner’s candidate in an unfavorable light, you want to use it to show your partner just why he or she would be a terrible president. However, if you speak your mind, you run the risk of sounding harsh and judgmental to your partner.
People in a close relationship often agree with each other on important social or political issues, but they can also come at the same topic from completely different perspectives—even while still loving each other very much. How can you feel true to your own values but also, while still expressing them, keep your relationship strong? Wang’s research provides clues on how you can achieve balanced authenticity without threatening a relationship.
According to Wang, people risk their relationship when their desire for agency (a focus only on the self) isn’t in harmony with their desire for communion (focusing on others to the exclusion of the self). You can’t follow your own pursuit of truth, the theory goes, unless you also recognize that other people have needs and ideas as well. By the same token, you don’t want to be so directed by others that you lose touch with your own values and principles. Even with your closest partner—or perhaps especially so—you want to find an ideal, middle ground.
Wang initially developed a 17-item scale to assess “Authenticity in Relationships” (known as the AIRS) which she tested on several samples of Chinese adults. Her primary focus was examining the relationship between AIRS scores and measures of well-being, based on the premise that the balanced authenticity she was testing would be related to higher levels of personal satisfaction. The 17 items were statistically boiled down to 3 scales, each with 3 items.
See how you would answer these 9 items below, and then I’ll explain what the scores mean.
Rate each item from 1 to 5, or from disagree to agree strongly:
- I always hide my true thoughts for fear of others’ disapproval.
- I usually try to cater to others.
- I do not dare to tell others the truth due to caring for their feelings.
- I am fully aware of when to insist on myself and when to compromise.
- I always find ways to reconcile my need and other’s requirements.
- I would neither give up the real me nor make others hard to accept.
- I usually tell the truth without concern about how others will think of me.
- I just speak my mind without taking care of others’ feelings.
- I always offend people by speaking frankly.
Each set of 3 items corresponds to one of the 3 types of authenticity:
- Items 1-3 represent other-distorted authenticity, in which you give up your feelings for those of others.
- Items 4-6 represent balanced authenticity, or the ability to express yourself while taking the views and needs of others into account.
- Items 7-9 represent egocentric authenticity, or the tendency to place a value on expressing yourself even though you might hurt or offend others.
If you search online, you’ll see articles about the difficulties of making new friends after age 30 or so, and advice about joining groups to help you meet new people.
Many of us struggle with loneliness at different stages in their lives—maybe you’ve moved to a new area, lost a spouse or parent, or left a sociable job. I used to work in an office with people I’d known for years and conduct phone interviews most of the day. It was fun. Now I’m working at home and much of my research is online.
More of us now work remotely or spend our time on emails, rather than meeting people in person or talking on the phone. As many as 15-30 percent of the people around us chronically feel lonely.
But as I’ve turned 55, I’ve noticed a happy tendency I didn’t expect—reunions with lost friends from the past.
Don’t underestimate the importance of friendship: Philosophers and artists have historically valued friendship as our most prized and significant relationship. “Each friend represents a world in us, a world not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born,” said Anais Nin. Such a world can be re-born, as well.
In just a few years, I’m newly in touch with at least six people after years of silence. The old friendship chemistry is there, but deepened by our experiences in between. And I also feel the romance of a new bond.
We shouldn’t underestimate the grief of losing a friend. When a friend cuts you off, you are “losing a self,” writes the philosopher Alexander Nehamas in “On Friendship.” That self can return, and be harmonized with your other selves.
We may need a catalyst—a death, retirement, or a child reaching a milestone. If you parted with a friend because of anger, you (or they) might now feel more forgiving.
One friend I knew when we were 13 and I spent an intense year before her family moved away. She found me through Facebook when her stepdaughter turned 13, saying she kept remembering herself at that age. She had become a psychologist, and I write about psychology. There was plenty to keep us connected.
Another childhood friend found me in her thirties when she married. I attended the wedding and we’ve been in touch for the last 20 years.
A friend in her fifties called me out of the blue, crying, when her mother died.
You might think you’ve lost friends because you’ve made mistakes, and decide you’re a social misfit—boring, too needy, too long-winded, too quiet, too something. We think that we lack the charm or perceptiveness required to attract company.
Rekindling old friendships can help soothe those fears.
Loneliness can make you doubt your social skills, but it’s more likely that you’re suffering from performance anxiety, some research has concluded. A lost friend may have become anxious, too. Maybe you built up a career while your friend emphasized family. Maybe you’re both nervous about being judged. Maybe she’s worried she’s boring. Maybe you think she sees you as incomplete because you didn’t have kids or marry.
Break the impasse. Being able to laugh again with someone who knew you at 12 or 22 can go a long way to help you accept your life.
If you’re thinking about reaching out—or someone contacts you—think about the reasons you drifted apart, but don’t dwell on conflicts, blaming yourself or your friend.
If you do get together, try to talk through any rough history—eventually. You don’t have to do so right away. When you’re making an overture to a lost friend, it’s fine to start with a casual Facebook message or text, and judge your friend’s willingness to open up.
When you talk, you might well find it wasn’t about you after all—or that it wasn’t about you in the way you think. I’m always amazed at how communication can feel like a miracle, changing my world in an hour. Small things make big differences.
Especially if you’re grieving, rekindling old friendships can deepen your sense of personal history. You’ve lost a daily presence—a mother or husband—and a witness to many years of memories. Your friend may not become a daily presence again. But she can be a witness to the past you shared together, recalling your wedding or your mother’s odd collection of bathrobes.
Your health and happiness will both benefit from reconnecting and staying connected. In areview of studies over 34 years, researchers concluded that feeling isolated or lonely upped your chances of dying young by about 30 percent, for both men and women. It also increases your risk for dementia, depression and heart disease.
One of my dear friends, who is nearly 70, often talks about two friends of his, one he’d known since high school, the other since college. I assumed they’d remained in touch for all that time. But when I told him I was thinking of writing this post, he confided to me that both of those friends came back into his life in his mid-50s after a long silence. Those rekindled friendships can really last!
Don’t expect too much. You may never spend the time together you once did. But don’t expect too little. Love can always surprise you, again.
Unless everyone is in agreement that a parting of the ways is a good thing, the farewell process can be challenging. Perhaps you’ve decided it’s time to break up with your long-term partner, or that a person you’ve hired isn’t working out so well. We know that one of the key features of a successful ending is that the person being “ended” is allowed to save face. A new paper by Irish organizational psychologist Corina Grace shows, from apsychodynamic standpoint, why we find endings in general to be so tough.
The area that Grace examines—corporate mergers and acquisitions (M&A)—is not typically grist for the psychoanalytic mill. She points out that despite the most optimistic predictions, M&As rarely go as planned. This is because, she proposes, “M&As are highly emotional events for all concerned and can stir up very primitive responses” (p. 135). A merger, she believes, triggers feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. When you have to say goodbye to one corporate structure, even though it may be large and impersonal, you risk feeling abandoned. However, because corporations try to put a positive face on these processes, the people involved don’t feel that they have a safe outlet for expressing their feelings of loss.
M&As are made even more difficult when they occur, as they often do, without sufficient time to prepare all parties involved. In part, the rapidity with which these are entered into reflects a desire, Grace argues, to defend against the anxiety that accompanies the entire corporate restructuring. The “quick-fix” mindset leaves everyone poorly prepared to go through their own, as she terms it, “grieving” process. As a result, they can become depressed, both as individuals and among the group as a whole: “In organizations this shows up in such behaviours as burnout, absenteeism, low morale and decline in performance” (p. 138). It’s up to the leaders, the CEOs, to provide an environment in which employees feel supported as they work through this process.
In the case analysis Grace conducted, Company A took over Company B with a vengeance. The message Company A communicated was that Company B was essentially dead. The bosses came from Company A, as did all the policies including petty ones (or not so petty, depending on your point of view) such as how people paid for their morning cup of tea. This “symbolic annihilation” (p. 140) feels like death and loss to those of the vanquished Company B. When Company A took over the physical offices of Company B, furthermore, the downtrodden Company B employees felt the “terror of engulfment.” This is pretty strong stuff.
In the wake of all of these powerful, negative emotions, it was no wonder that those Company B employees who remained in their jobs were miserable (many of them left after the M&A). Had they been listened to instead, these consequences could have been avoided, in Grace’s analysis: “Staying near and present, listening at all levels and providing containment to the individual’s trauma and distress is an important function of anyone working with such groups” (p. 146).
Moving from the corporate to the interpersonal sphere in general, Grace’s article gives us one important guideline to following helping people through an ending. Combined with what we know about that process of “saving face,” we can arrive at these five tips to get you through those difficult endings in your life:
- Recognize that any ending has meaning: The Grace article shows us that endings trigger feelings of loss and potentially death. To sweep people’s anxieties and fearabout the ending can leave them vulnerable to feelings of sadness and grief.
- Don’t run roughshod over the other person’s rights: If something as petty as the coffee money can become a source of irritation in a corporate takeover, imagine how people feel when they have important relationships taken away.
- Give people you’re ending things with a chance to express their feelings.Whether it’s guilt or impatience that leads you to want to pull the plug on the relationship as quickly as possible, other people involved need to be able to let you know how they feel. You can’t give them everything they want, but you can alleviate their sense of abandonment by being there as a sounding board.
- Provide a face-saving exit: Even if the person you’re ending things with has been completely terrible, in your opinion, there’s no point in being ruthless. Help the person form a narrative that preserves his or her sense of identity. The ending, though painful at the time, can eventually be rewritten with a less dire interpretation.
- Take the high road: If you know you’re ending something that has to end, do so graciously. Perhaps you’re asking your partner to move out of the home you’ve shared and built together. All of a sudden, the things in your house that you haven’t cared at all about become of primary importance. Your soon-to-be-ex starts to claim the fake Tiffany lamp that you’ve never particularly liked, and now you can’t imagine yourself living without it. Let it go. Or if you have a newfound desire to hang onto it, then find a way to discuss, maturely, how to handle the situation.
If I’m being honest, the ultimatum wasn’t areal ultimatum.
After five years of dating, I told my boyfriend that if he didn’t propose by Christmas, we were over. At the time, I considered this less a threat and more a way to expedite the inevitable—marriage, family, an otherwise perfect union. I was inspired by a friend of mine, who had made a similar, albeit less eloquent demand to shit or get off the pot to her now-husband. In her case, it had proven a successful strategy.
That my boyfriend wouldn’t choose me and marriage was unthinkable, unconscionable, unbelievable—and yet that’s exactly what happened. On the final day of the ultimatum, he presented me not with a ring and a proposal, but the promise of one day soon. When I expressed my disappointment, he chided me for giving him an ultimatum at all. He saw me as an emotional terrorist holding our relationship hostage—and like the U.S.government, he did not negotiate with terrorists.
It didn’t matter that countless times before, he had actually said he wanted us to get married and or that he couldn’t imagine a future without me. Nor did he acknowledge the fact that we were quickly approaching our mid-30s, nearing the end of my prime childbearing years. It was irrelevant that he had already hinted at a proposal the year prior. To him, none of these were good reasons. They were for me.
Don’t Threaten Me
As much as I’d like to play the victim in this situation, it is 100 percent my choice to stay in this relationship. And I have made my share of mistakes, the most egregious of which was presenting him with the ultimatum in the first place. Talk radio host Laura Schlessinger writes on her website, “The reason most ultimatums don’t work is that the person making it is not ready to follow through.” In other words, the only rule of ultimatums is to make sure you’re willing to follow through.
Clearly, I wasn’t.
A few lines later, Schlessinger adds: “One of the dumber ultimatums I hear people make is, ‘If you don’t marry me, I’m leaving.’ It’s just ridiculous. Who wants to get married to someone they have to threaten into marrying?”
Like I said, I’ve made my share of mistakes.
It’s been about nine months since my demands were not met. They still have not been met. We’ve engaged in dozens of fights and quarrels—the particularly bad ones escalate to days of silence or camping out on the couch. We are still together, but our situation is tense and tentative and has all the fun of living by an active volcano.
Love Without Marriage
A couple years ago, I wrote about my disappointment in not being married yet. The pieceresonated with other women in long-term relationships with loving partners who just couldn’t seem to take their relationship to the next, legal level. I received—and still receive—emails from women asking me if I’m married yet and how long I was willing to wait. I answer no, and I don’t know.
I’ve looked to science, and asked relationship experts and friends both married and unmarried for better answers. What I’ve found is that there isn’t one. When it comes to your relationship, only you and your partner can decide what’s right and wrong. How can a third party, even in his or her infinite wisdom, ever fully grasp or understand what goes on either of your hearts?
They can’t. No one can—except maybe someone who’s going through it too.
Enter Abby*, a 31-year-old from Alberta, Canada, and the first woman I’ve met in a romantic situation that resembles mine. Abby reached out to me after she read my first article and shared with me her own situation: After nearly 15 years with her boyfriend—including a decade living together—the prospect of marriage is still nowhere in sight. Out of fascination and, perhaps, fear, I knew I had to learn how and why she chooses to stay in this relationship, despite her obvious desire and his obvious reluctance to get married.
Abby met her boyfriend in high school. He was one year younger than her but she knew right away that she “didn’t want to be with anyone else.” Still it wasn’t until their mid-20s, several years into their relationship, that she started thinking about wedding bells, though it seemed like she was the only one. “He has never come out and said he doesn’t want to get married. He has said that he would like to get married but that it’s not something he has to do with his life,” she says.
While her boyfriend is open to talking about marriage, Abby says, he does not like to linger on the subject. And she doesn’t press him either: “I feel scared to ask why. Maybe I’m afraid of what the answer might be.”
Abby and her boyfriend have shared major life events, including buying a home together, going on vacations, and adopting a dog. They’ve also supported one another through two economic recessions. These are all healthy, normal hallmarks of being in a committed relationship, right? At least this is what she tells friends and family who have been “breathing down [her] back weekly for the last five years” wondering why she still isn’t married.
Most people in a romantic relationship yearn for a passionate sex life. And at the beginning of the relationship the heady honeymoon phase or the days of early elation passionate sex usually comes easily. Alas, over time, as routines set in and other pressing matters grab our attention, passion wanes and sexual satisfaction decreases. Thishappens to many couples.
But not to all of them. Some couples manage to keep their fires burning hot through their many years together. What’s their secret? What distinguishes them from couples who have lost their mojo? This question is important not only because most of us want our sex life to be satisfying and long-lasting, but also because satisfaction in sex is a major cause of relationship satisfaction and stability.
According to the research, one factor affecting sexual satisfaction over time is the partners’ relationship orientation—how each of them views their interactions. Research has focused on two approaches in this context: exchange orientation and communal strength orientation.
Exchange-oriented people tend to think of the relationship as a “what’s in it for me?” quid pro quo. They focus on the trade-off aspects of being together and look to give as much (or as little) as they expect to get. In contrast, people high on communal strength orientation tend to focus on the needs of others. They do this out of love and a desire to improve the relationship, not out of obligation or fear.
People with a sexual communal-strength orientation are more likely to maintain the initial sexual enthusiasm throughout a long relationship, mainly because they are attuned to the needs of their partner and find real satisfaction in meeting those needs. If your partner considers your orgasm no less important than their own, then your sex life will be better, now and in the future. Communal bonds are more satisfying than business transactions. This is as true on the street as it is in the bedroom.
Are you high in sexual communal strength? Here’s a quick quiz offered by the Canadian researcher Amy Muise that can be used to measure people’s levels of sexual communal strength (rated 0=not at all, 4=extremely):
- How far would you be willing to go to meet your partner’s sexual needs?
- How high a priority for you is meeting the sexual needs of your partner?
- How likely are you to sacrifice your own needs to meet the sexual needs of your partner?
- How happy do you feel when satisfying your partner’s sexual needs?
Another ingredient in the recipe for maintaining sexual satisfaction over time is physicalhealth. Good sex may happen, as they say, chiefly between the ears; but it also happens between the legs. “All you’ve got is your health,” said your mother (OK, mine). And she was right, again—even in regards to sex. Good blood flow (a function of physical health) is no less important for good sex than good communication, because good blood flow makes sexual function possible in men and women.
For example, in 2009 Julia Heiman of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and her colleagues published a large study involving more than a thousand couples from five countries (Brazil, Germany, Spain, U.S., and Japan) who were in long-term relationships (the median length was 25 years).
High levels of sexual function (erection for men, vaginal lubrication for women; high desire and orgasmic capacity for both) predicted satisfaction during sex in men and women alike. Not surprisingly, higher frequency of recent sex predicted increased sexual satisfaction for both men and women. (Interestingly, and contrary to conventional stereotypes, a lower number of sexual partners predicted higher satisfaction among men. The authors speculate that these results may be due to the fact that unsatisfied men change partners more often, or that experienced men may be less content with the relative monotony of marital sex).
Because adults with secure relationship styles are trusting and self-confident, they are rather slow at responding to the smoke. And especially if others are present, they’re slow at evacuating the room. They seem to put the needs of others before themselves, and they see to it that their colleagues are ready to leave before they do so themselves.
Deciding as a group how to respond to an emergency can take time. And in some cases, a group response can be too slow. But here’s where people with anxious and avoidant relationship styles contribute to the survival of the group.
Anxious adults are constantly on the look-out for potential threats. In relationships, this means that they’re suspicious of their friends and intimate partners, and their repeated demands for proof of commitment tend to drive others away. This, of course, only confirms their prior belief that other people are not to be trusted.
In the smoking computer experiment, though, anxious adults noticed the smoke faster than the secure or avoidant adults. And when they were in groups, they were quick to voice their concerns. Thus, anxious adults serve the role of sentinel, looking out for potential threats to the group.
Avoidant adults tend to view themselves as more capable than others. Hence, they prefer working alone to collaborating, and this aloofness is often interpreted as self-centeredness by others. The relationships that avoidant adults enter into tend to be shallow and easy to break.
When avoidant adults took part in the smoking computer experiment, they were slow to interpret the smoke as a danger, but once they did, they quickly evacuated the room. In group situations, they tended to leave without warning others. This seemingly selfish behavior, however, benefited the group. That is, avoidant adults are extremely good at self-preservation, and once they detect a means of escape for themselves, others quickly follow.
It’s an old truism that everyone’s unique. And yet, for more than a century, psychologists in the field of individual differences have sought a small number of categories or dimensions for dividing people into personality types.
Based on the personality theory of Carl Jung, the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator classifies people into sixteen personality types. The Big Five, perhaps the most widely accepted personality theory today, proposes five dimensions of personality, with each of us having a unique score on each of the five dimensions.
Another way to classify people is in terms of their relationship styles. In the mid-twentieth century, British psychologist John Bowlby developed his well-known attachment theory, based on his studies of orphans during and after World War II. The theory was further developed by his student Mary Ainsworth.
Attachment is the deep emotional bond that develops between the newborn infant and itscaregiver, almost always the mother. Most children develop a secure attachment with Mom, knowing that they can rely on her as a safe base from which to explore the world. But others form an insecure attachment. On the one hand, children with anxious attachment are clingy and fussy—they don’t trust Mom, and they lack confidence to strike out on their own. On the other hand, children with avoidant attachment are aloof and independent—they also don’t trust Mom, but they’ve learned how meet their emotional needs by themselves.
It’s generally assumed that childhood attachment serves as the model for adult relationships, and there’s some evidence from longitudinal studies that support this notion. At any rate, we can certainly see secure, anxious, and avoidant relationship styles playing out in adult interactions. Secure adults form trusting relationships with others, anxious adults often drive others away with their lack of trust, and avoidant adults remain aloof and fiercely independent in their relationships.
As a description of relationship styles, there’s nothing wrong with labeling people as secure, anxious, or avoidant. All too often, though, we treat one category as “normal” and the others as “deviant.” If you recognize yourself as having an anxious or avoidant relationship style, you’ve no doubt experienced shame and a loss of self-worth for your “abnormal” behavior.
In a recent article, Israeli psychologists Tsachi Ein-Dor and Gilad Hirschberger argue that it’s high time psychologists recognize that adults with anxious or avoidant relationship styles are not broken or in need of fixing. Rather, they play important roles in human society that those with secure attachments cannot fill.
Taking an evolutionary approach, Ein-Dor and Hirschberger build on the arguments of U.C. Davis psychologist Jay Belsky and his colleagues. Belsky has proposed that under certain environmental conditions an insecure attachment style may be more adaptive. When resources are scarce, demanding children may get more than their fair share. And when Mom is overwhelmed, children are better off learning soon how to fend for themselves.
Ein-Dor and Hirschberger argue, however, that it isn’t just in extreme situations that insecure attachment styles are adaptive. Rather, even in ordinary circumstances, all of us benefit from having some anxious and avoidant types in our group. This is especially true when the group as a whole is faced with a threat and needs to decide how to respond.
The researchers set up a mock-dangerous situation to see how adults with different relationship styles respond when they are alone and in groups. As participants sat at a keyboard completing a task, non-toxic smoke started to spew forth from the computer. The researchers were looking to see how long it would take them to recognize the potential danger and to leave the room.
There’s no great mystery in understanding why couples become less sexually active as their relationship matures: As passionate love mellows into a relationship characterized byintimacy and companionship, long-term couples will almost certainly have sex less frequently. The demands of daily life and the reality of taking care of a household mean that many couples devote less time exclusively to their physical relationship.
But it’s an issue worth addressing: We may prefer not to think about our parents or grandparents having sex, but plenty of older couples maintain physical intimacy in their later years. There are real benefits in continuing sexual activity throughout life, as shown by researchers studying sexual life expectancy. If for no other reason than to support your long-term mental and physical well-being, figuring out the formula for staying sexually active with your long-term partner is a good idea.
To answer the question of what keeps the sexual spark alive in long-term relationships, University of Toronto psychologist Amy Muise and her collaborators (2013) studied 44 couples who were in relationships lasting from 3 to 39 years. On average, these couples had been together approximately 11 years. All were living together; about two-thirds were married; and about half had children. These couples, then, represented a range of length and types of relationship and family status.
Unlike so many studies on relationships that involve undergraduates completing questionnaires over the course of an hour or so for experimental credit, the participants in this study answered questions 10 minutes each night for three weeks. They were paid a modest amount ($40), and about three-quarters of them also responded to a follow-up survey about four months after completing the daily ratings.
Finding Out What Works
Maintaining strong sexual connections, Muise and her team argued, requires that each partner in the couple put the other partner’s needs first. Like the impoverished couple in O’Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” a partner in a successful long-term relationship is willing to sacrifice what he or she needs to be happy in order to please the other person. Rather than foreshadowing a woeful ending, however, the self-sacrificing made within happy couples should bring joy to both partners. This view of relationships, known as thecommunal model, contrasts with the exchange model, in which Partner A weighs his or her own contributions against those of Partner B. Couples strong on exchange motivationonly help partners who will help them in turn.
In a relationship characterized by high communal strength, for example, you would be willing to give up the convenience of a relatively short commute to work if by moving a bit further away, your partner would also have a shorter distance to travel. In the exchangerelationship, you’d only make this sacrifice if your partner would agree to some other condition, such as contributing more to household chores or helping out more with child care.
If you’re a communal type of person, the benefits of a relationship premised on this model would seem obvious. Your partner’s happiness becomes more important than your own, and there’s an inner satisfaction and even delight that you get out of giving. Making the logical jump to the sexual domain of your relationship, wanting to please your partner can be more of a turn-on than expecting your partner to reciprocate your every sensual gesture.
There’s more to long-lasting sex than wanting to please your partner, however. Muise and her team believed that scoring high on approach motivation would also benefit your long-term satisfaction in the bedroom. In high approach motivation, you look to sex for thepleasures it provides, either to yourself or your partner. Why else would someone want to have sex, you might ask? Consider, for example, situations in which sex primarily provides a distraction from problems. In avoidance motivation, partners regard sex significantly as a form of stress reduction or escapism.
Putting these two dimensions together, Muise and team believed that couples high in bothcommunal and approach motivation would have sexual relationships that would most likely withstand the test of time. In their study, they measured communal relationship strength with questions such as, “How large a cost would you incur to meet a need of your partner?” and communal sexual strength by asking, for example, “How high a priority for you is meeting the sexual needs of your partner?”
In their daily rating questions, participants reported whether or not they had had sex that day, and each time, they were to indicate whether it was to enhance their (or their partner’s) pleasure (approach) or if it was to avoid feeling upset, either for themselves or their partners (avoidance). The participants also provided overall ratings of their relationship happiness, sexual desire, and preference for alternative relationships. On average, participants reported having sexual activity once a week, with a range of once per day to once every 10 days.
By following their participants over the 3-week period (plus the four-month follow-up), Muise and her collaborators were able to track the connection between sexual motivation, desire, and relationship satisfaction. As they expected, the partners with higher levels of sexual communal strength (and not just general communal strength) had higher levels of sexual desire, especially if they were also higher in approach motivation. These findings persisted over time—the higher the communal/approach motivation, the less decline couples showed in relationship satisfaction.
Bringing It Home
There is a clear take-home message in this research: Using sex in exchange for other favors reaps few rewards in a long-term relationship. You also will find diminishing returns from using sex as a way to escape either your problems, your partner’s problems, or those that plague you as a couple in general.
Julie Spira isn’t just any writer. She bills herself as an expert on Internet dating, and wrote a book called The Perils of Cyber Dating. When, in 2005, she met The Doctor on an online dating site, Spira was positive she’d finally found The One.
“He seemed very solid and close to his family,” Spira recalls. He made it clear on their first date that, after the end of a lengthy marriage and a year of serial dating, he was looking for an enduring relationship. “That was very appealing to me.”
She took it as a sign of his integrity. It didn’t hurt that he was handsome, too. Eight months of exclusive dating later, The Doctor asked her to marry him.
They planned a simple wedding. But first, they put their individual homes up for sale so they could buy a place together. They went house-hunting together nearly every weekend. When her father got sick, The Doctor saved his life.
Fourteen months into their engagement, Spira received an email from her fiancé titled, simply, “Please Read This.” She put the message aside to savor after work and other commitments. When she finally clicked on it, she wished she hadn’t. “The email had an attached document. It said I was not the woman for him, that the relationship was over, and to please send back the ring. It said my belongings would be delivered tomorrow,” Spira says. “I sat there and my whole body started to shake.”
Spira had to plaster on a happy face for a few days her parents were renewing their marriage vows at a family party on the other side of the country and she wasn’t yet ready to tell anyone about the broken engagement. “I wore my ring. I pretended my fiancé had an emergency and couldn’t make it. Then I went to my room and sobbed in secret.” Once home, she cried every day for a month. Then another electronic communiqué arrived from The Doctor. It said, in its entirety,
“Are you OK?”
That was all she ever heard from him.
The breakup left her socially paralyzed. She didn’t, couldn’t, date, even after many months. She remains single today, three years later. Disappointment ignites anger when she thinks about what happened. “It was cowardly and cruel. Where’s the human side of it? Where’s the respect from someone who was devoted to you for two years?” It’s scant comfort when people tell her that Berger dumped Carrie by Post-it note on Sex and the City. “With email, you don’t even have a guarantee that the person got your message.”
Saying good-bye is heartbreaking, and most of us are total jerks about it. Bad dumping behavior is booming, especially among the young. In one recent survey, 24 percent of respondents aged 13 to 17 said it was completely OK to break up with someone by texting, and 26 percent of them admitted to doing so. “It’s always been hard to break up with someone face to face,” says Stanford University sociologist Clifford Nass, author ofThe Man Who Lied to His Laptop, “but lack of social skills makes it harder. And we’re learning fewer and fewer social skills.”
As a result, remote shortcuts like electronic endings look deceptively appealing although, at the very least, they chip away at the self-respect of the dumpers and deprive dumpees of a needed shot at closure. Little wonder that hypersensitivity to rejection is on the rise, and it’s contributing to large increases in stalking behavior, especially on college campuses. More than 3 million people report being stalking victims each year, the ultimate measure of collective cluelessness about ending love affairs well.