Perhaps no area in psychology is as laden with myths as that of close relationships. First and foremost, love and infatuation are strong emotions. Our feelings of happiness on a daily basis reflect the ups and downs of our relationship life. Strong emotions cause us to look for information to guide us so that we can maximize pleasure and reduce pain. As a result, we may look in the wrong places for advice on how to have fulfilling relationships.
The media capitalize on our thirst for relationship knowledge. Unfortunately, they often get it wrong. Popular magazines, entertainment TV shows and websites often focus on the unhappy celebrity relationships, sensational statistics, and distortion of population trends. Most recently, a team of statisticians developed a formula to predict the odds that a celebrity couple will get divorced. If we take this material too seriously, we may very well end up thwarting the very needs we hope to satisfy.
As in the celebrity divorce formula, most of the myths about relationships are negatively framed. Great love stories do occasionally grab our attention, as in the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. However captivating these fairy tale romances can be, they pale in comparison to the fascination we have when royal relationships go south.
With this background in mind, let's take a look at the Top Ten Myths along with a brief summary of the evidence to show why they're myths:
1. Half of marriages end in divorce. The odds of divorce are highly overstated. As I showed in a previous blog posting, the actual probability is much lower when you take into account the frequent divorcers (the "divorce prone"), age at first marriage, and the fact that though the divorce rate per year is half the marriage rate, the same people marrying each year are not the same ones getting divorced (with the exception of Kim Kardashian). In reality, about 10 percent of the adult population in the U.S. is currently divorced.
2. The birth of a first child ruins a marriage. The so-called "transition to parenthood" in which a couple goes from a twosome to a threesome (or more) was identified many years ago as the roughest time for a couple. Family life cycle researchers talked about the U-shaped curve of marital satisfaction with the bottom of the U occurring right after children were born. The problem with their research was that they didn't actually follow couples through the transition: they simply compared couples at different stages of the family life cycle from dating through widowhood. When researchers started following couples through the transition to parenthood, they found that many new parents felt their relationship had improved. One of the strongest predictors of satisfaction following the birth of the child was, for women, the feeling that the couple was equally dividing household duties. When it comes right down to it, couple satisfaction following childbirth boils down to who does the dishes.
3. Couples counseling doesn't work. The popular media often portrays a stereotyped image of couples counseling, featuring such parodies as couples throwing pillows at each other or at least hurling insults while the therapist helplessly looks on. The New York Times recently reinforced this unfortunate impression. Stimulated by this article's inaccuracies, I wrote a recent blog posting featuring the five principles of effective couples therapy as shown by research carried out at UCLA. Couples can benefit from the therapy, as long as it adopts these evidence-based approaches. If you're seeking counseling, make sure that your therapist is using a method that incorporates the elements known to work.
4. It’s better to live together before getting married. We can dismiss this myth fairly readily. According to the “cohabitation effect,” couples who live together before getting engaged are more likely to have their marriages end in divorce. The key here is that they live together before they actually get engaged. Once engaged, couples living together prior to marriage do not experience negative effects on their marriage’s duration. The reason for the cohabitation effect makes sense. Couples who decide to marry after living together may do so out of simple inertia. When they moved in together, the people who experience the cohabitation effect didn’t have a particularly strong romantic attraction. Once living together, they may have found it convenient to enter into marriage. Having drifted into that state, they find it just as easy to drift out. They are also more likely to be unhappy during the time that they’re together (Rhoades, Stanley, and Markman, 2009). It’s important to realize that the cohabitation effect doesn’t occur among every couple who find love once they start living together. It’s just that the odds favor people who make a commitment first, and then marry prior to deciding to share their living quarters.
5. Relationships between opposites are more successful than the ones between people who are similar. Does like attract like, or do opposites attract? It’s possible that people are initially attracted to those who they perceive as most unlike them, but the bulk of relationship evidence argues in favor of similarity as the glue that holds a relationship together. Opposites may feel fascination in the yin’s who meet their yang’s, but over the long-term, people who share similar outlooks on life are more likely to experience the type of love that gets them through the challenges that life presents to them. When their infatuation eventually simmers down, what’s left will be the comforting feel of companionship due to their enjoyment of shared interests.
6. The empty nest devastates a woman’s mental health. The myth of the miserable empty nester may have had some truth to it decades ago, before women were as likely to employed outside the home. However, even if true back in the 60s and 70s, it is certainly not so today. If anything, women’s mental health may suffer in particular ways if their empty nest becomes filled again. A survey of more than 15,000 midlife Canadian women of sexual activity showed that women whose children were still living in the home were less likely to have intercourse than their empty nester counterparts (Fraser et al, 2004). Though they obviously still love their children, many empty nesters seem to enjoy the freedom that comes with having the house to themselves.
7. Older adults don’t have sex. As long as we’re talking about mid-life adults, let’s move on to examine myths about sex in older adults. There’s really only one myth worth talking about, and that’s the idea that they don’t have it. As much as younger adults would prefer not to think about their grandparents having sex, the fact is that they do. A survey of over 3,000 Americans conducted by researchers at the National Opinion Research Center reported that 38 percent of men and 17 percebt of women between ages 75 and 85 years engaged in sexual intercourse. The only reason for the gender disparity is that there are more women than men alive during that age period, meaning that heterosexual women have fewer opportunities, though not necessarily interest. Older adults don’t limit their sexual activity to intercourse. About one-quarter of the oldest men and over a third of reported that they engage in oral sex. As Masters and Johnson once remarked, the only requirement for older adult women to be able to enjoy an active sex life is “an interested and interesting partner.”
8. Gay relationships are different from straight. Many myths abound regarding the dynamics of gay relationships. One of the most prevalent is that gays are less likely to be faithful to their partners, particularly if they are homosexual men. The Gay Couples Study currently being carried out on a small sample of men in California focuses on the long-term relationships among gay men and shows that many actually do believe in open relationships. However, this small sample may not be more largely representative. A large analysis of all of the available research on homosexual relationships (Peplau & Fingerhut, 2007) carried out on both men and women suggests that there are more similarities than differences between same and other-sex couples.
9. It’s better not to let your partner know when you’re upset. Many people mistakenly believe that they’re better off covering up their feelings of distress when something is going wrong in their relationship. However, engagement, not avoidance, is a far better conflict resolution strategy. When couples avoid conflict, they are more likely to feel stressed and unhappy, feelings that will inevitably affect their everyday behavior in ways that interfere with relationship quality. Once they do express their feelings, they are then more likely to communicate in maladaptive ways, such as yelling or berating the partner. At that point, the resentment they create will add to their stress, and the negative cycle will continue. Far better to break the cycle before it starts by using adaptive communication strategies that allow each partner to feel heard and supported. The relationship conflict that can ensue if you don't can also affect your health, as we know from research on marital problems and obesity.
10. Sibling rivalry ends after childhood. Although sibling relationships tend to be the longest that people have in life, they are not always the most positive. Many siblings actually do get along very well, but those who were rivals in childhood are likely to remain rivals throughout their adult years. The situation is worse for people whose parents fostered the rivalry by favoring one child over the other (or at least giving that impression). Siblings who feel that their parents loved the other children more can carry this resentment for decades (Suitor et al., 2009). As silly as sibling rivalry may seem among people in their 60s, it’s theoretically possible for them to relate to each other as they did when they were toddlers.
After reading these corrections to the top ten myths, I hope you’ve gained insight into your own feelings toward the people close to you and the relationships that can contribute to your personal fulfillment.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012
Fraser, J., Maticka-Tyndale, E., & Smylie, L. (2004). Sexuality of Canadian women at midlife. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 13, 171–188.
Peplau, A. & Fingerhut, A.W. (2007). The close relationships of lesbians and gay men. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 405-424.
Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). The pre-engagement cohabitation effect: A replication and extension of previous findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 107–111.
Suitor, J. J., Sechrist, J., Plikuhn, M., Pardo, S. T., Gilligan, M., & Pillemer, K. (2009). The role of perceived maternal favoritism in sibling relations in midlife. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 1026–1038.