Saturday, 31 March 2012

The science of falling in love and how to stay in love

Online dating has taken over from meeting in the pub or going on a blind date as the 'normal' way of looking for a mate. 

And then, couples who meet online wait on average 18.5 months before getting married, compared to 42 months for those who met in a non-internet way.

All online sites do some sort of matching, from a simple attempt to fill your list of requirements for 'a man or woman between these ages in this approximate region' to complex analytical algorithms based on an in depth questionnaire and continuous monitoring of successful matches.

Latest Research in UK by E-Harmony

The Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University helped E-Harmony develop its system when the on-line dating agency launched in the UK in 2008. The company devotes 40% of its resources to technology, development and the science of relationships. It funds a laboratory, based in California, where a team of PhD researchers analyse the traits of human relationships.
E-Harmony published its latest study at the end of March 2012. The research is based on the hundreds of thousands of connections between the site's 2 million British members with the aim of finding 'great date' indicators. Like much research its findings tell us a lot of what we already know.

Here are some headlines:

  • Men and women who conform to gender stereotypes receive more online interest
  • Women are less interested in communicating with men who enjoy shopping (or at least who admit to it online!)
  • Men tend to steer clear of women in a position of authority. (There is a site for people in uniform which may help if this is your preference).
  • Men are the main initiators of conversation, just like in the offline world.
  • Apparently we're not attracted to people with the same sense of humour as our own, though a sense of humour is often cited as a major requirement, laughter being the best of all medicines. I'm not sure how I would describe my sense of humour and I'm certainly not going to ask Jenny to tell me!
  • Couch potatoes get left on the couch. No-one wants to date them.
  • Yoga is the most appealing form of exercise in a potential partner. Though any sporty activity is taken as a sign of someone looking after themselves and appeals to both men and women.

It's all in the science, they say

E-Harmony puts a lot of emphasis on its system and the scientific work to hone it. Their in-depth questionnaire finds out about your values, beliefs, attitudes, personality, family background and much more.Their results point to similarity predicting relationship satisfaction, while in the long term differences can turn into disagreements and eventually conflict. They say 'when you are more similar to each other on the important things, you are less likely to get into a fight'.

Their conclusion is people want to find someone who is like them.

Our experience

How does this stack up with what we see everyday with the couples who come to us for help with relationship issues?
The requirement for similarity is a key driver for about 85% of the world's population, who perceive similarity as safety and difference as danger - or at least the unknown. This same driver can be the basis of prejudice, race hate and bigotry. (See previous article on sameness / difference patterns).

We certainly find couples in conflict have usually fallen out over a 'difference' they find hard to reconcile or to understand. Phrases like "I thought I knew you!" and "I never realised this about you!" and "We are talking a different language!" are common. In these cases we act as interpreters and help the couple check out the true meaning behind the words. We also hold up a mirror to let them see what they are up to and the steps of their relationship dance.

But we cannot agree that successful relationships depend on finding someone the same as you.  

The case for difference

Virginia Satir, a renowned 20th Century family therapist from the USA, said 
“… we meet on the basis of our sameness and grow on the basis of our differences.”

This matches our experience more closely. Couples who embrace their differences and look to understand them form a stronger team. True it takes effort but the results are worth it.

At the practical level, for example, a risk taker and a cautious partner might support each other to try something new, eg skiing, abseiling, meditation or yoga etc. 
In our case tandem riding in the new forest

While we may have similar views on many important issues, or similar cultures, there are many other minor differences that it's valuable to explore: a preference for looking at the bigger picture or the detail; a tendency to be motivated towards future goals, versus problem avoidance etc. (See our language and behaviour series).Embracing each other's differences leads to personal growth within the relationship and a closer more lasting bond.

What's important to you in your life?

Like us, E-harmony place a lot of emphasis on the importance of values and beliefs. One of the key exercises we help couples with is an in depth exploration of their 'values', those things they hold most important in their life. From love, kindness, warmth, children, family, to money, security, strength, possessions. When our couples explore these and see and hear their partner's similar - or different values - a lot of information comes out into the open. This often reveals causes of dissatisfaction or unmet needs in the relationship and also explains what had previously been considered random or strange behaviour by one or both of them.

Meeting our deepest needs

The biggest and most securely hidden potential 'problem' in any relationship can't be found through an algorithm. This is the basic human need to be important in someone else's life, to be loved for who we are and to have someone, who is unconditionally there for us. When this need is not met or worse, ignored, trashed or overlooked, we find ourself threatened at the most basic level and seek to find safety via flight, fight or freeze.

As we help couples recognise this need in each other and heal the inadvertent trampling of each other's needs, then a relationship can blossom and grow to the benefit of the couple and everyone close to them.

How about your relationship?

What do you think is the secret of your relationship's success?
What are the subjects you fall out about most often?

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