Do the once uncool kids end up being better partners?

A study that was published this month in the journal Child Development came to the conclusion that the cool kids from junior high end up being the marginalized adults by the time they reach their early 20’s. Apparently, cool younger kids only hang out with the best looking kids and often run with older kids (because that is really cool) who may be a bad influence- and experiment with drugs and sex and get into petty crime because they think it’s cool or perhaps it’s another way to stand out.

According to the study, as they move into high school, their popularity quotient drops as other kids are more focused and serious and more mature about school and being responsible. This leads the once cool kids to struggle to try and find a way to fit in more and when they can’t- they often start to become marginalized and drift towards the kids who are less stable and mature. Over time, this worsens and by their 20’s they are often high school drop outs, have a criminal history, and/or are underemployed or unemployed and drifting.

The theory behind why is rather simple- they miss out on important developmental phases and experiences that their uncool peers get to have. This leaves them socially and psychologically delayed- which of course has nothing to do with IQ.

Several things came to mind when I read the study. The first is child actors/musicians who grow into dysfunctional young adults- think Lindsay Lohan and Justin Bieber to name only two of many. They grew up way to fast and took on adult roles before they were emotionally and developmentally ready. By the time they reached their early 20’s, they were missing some critical experiences that would have prepared them for being responsible adults. Now both struggle with substance abuse and criminal behavior.

I also thought about all the young adults who struggle to set and keep goals, stay in school, hold down jobs- and have healthy relationships. They are often attractive, charismatic and intelligent- but just can’t seem to get their act together. Were they cool kids once? Are bad boys often ex cool kids and is this why they just can’t get it together in their relationships and make healthy commitments?

If you were one of the quiet ones, painfully shy, a geek or a nerd or just more of a loner- it looks like now is your time to be cool. You went through all those difficult adolescent stages with your eyes wide open and you learned a lot along the way. For anyone who is planning to attend a school reunion soon or who has the opportunity to connect with old schoolmates online- don’t rule out any uncool kids from your past. According to this study- they could hold the greatest potential for a healthy relationship and satisfying partnership.

What is it about the movie HER?

It sounds completely implausible- a man falling in love with the (software) voice of his computer. Yet the movie released in 2013 that portrays such a relationship continues to be on the most popular list. Maybe in part because it is actually believable, moving and even romantic. The main character, Theodore, has withdrawn from the world following his separation from his wife- and “She” is Sam, the sultry voice that wakes him up, organizes his life, keeps him on his schedule and even wishes him goodnight, every night. It’s easy to see how Sam comes to be the surrogate for his wife as she provides what every good and loving partner does- through communicating concern, offering nurturance, using softness- all with a strong dose of sex appeal. This gives a whole new meaning to the concept of a Stepford Wife.

Our attraction to this story and how well it resonates with us, says much about our present attitude towards relating and connecting with others. In-person conversation has given way to emailing and texting. Even when couples are in the same space (for instance at home) they often text each other rather than move to the same room to have a conversation. It’s not unusual to see a couple out at a restaurant with each on their phone, texting and/or talking to someone who is not present physically. Communicating and connecting via cyber space is convenient, requires less time and effort and leads to shallow, less personal, and even one-dimensional interactions. Even virtual sex has become a big turn-on for many as it’s quick and easy and requires no commitment, not even for the night.

Maybe that’s the core issue in this movie and why it strikes such a chord with the audience Sam fulfills his needs but asks for nothing back. She doesn’t challenge him, argue, or make demands- which can be very attractive to a guy who has shut down emotionally and feels he has nothing to give. She is a classic enabler whose presence in Theodore’s life leaves him stagnant and without any motivation to change his circumstances for the better. Will technology push us all closer to a life of emotional and even physical disconnection from one another? I don’t know about you, but this movie leaves me longing for the romantic classics with strong lead characters who were fully present and actively and passionately engaged with one another. Maybe an anecdote could be to bring back silent films- no talk, but so much interaction.

Couple’s communication is helped by food

We have all heard that low blood sugar can lead to anger, among other things. But how much do we actually focus on the role of food on our moods and relationships? According to findings just published in the Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences, missing a meal can indeed be very bad for your relationship.

In their study, 107 married couples tested their blood sugar levels before their first morning meal and again before bedtime. Each participant was also given a voodoo doll that represented their partner, and they were told to insert up to 51 pins daily, depending on how angry they felt with their spouse.

You guessed it- those with the lowest nighttime blood sugar levels used the most pins. Women overall used more pins, but the difference was not significant. After 21 days the couples were taken to a lab and told that they were going to compete with one another on how fast they could press a button- in order to test aggressive behavior. The winners would then be able to blast their partner with a loud noise through their headphones. Fortunately, they were actually doing this to the computer- but did not know it. Guess who did the most blasting? Those with the lowest nighttime blood sugar levels blasted their partners more frequently and louder.

The conclusion therefore is that if couples eat before having that difficult or potentially heated discussion, their levels of anger and aggression will be down and easier to manage in general. Makes sense- and I plan to remember this when I work with couples on improving communication- which virtually all couples cite as one of the major issues contributing to their relationship problems.

Sleeping apart could be good for your relationship

When couples marry the last thing they probably ever imagine is that they might end up sleeping in separate bedrooms. Historically, sleeping apart has been seen as a marital red flag. It meant that a couple was no longer intimate or were in such a bad place that they needed to have their own space- to stay married but live as separately as possible.

Now there is evidence that this is not necessarily the case at all. Good Morning America did a segment on couples who have helped their relationships by sleeping in separate bedrooms. They made the decision because their sleeping habits were so misaligned that it was leading to sleeplessness, arguments, and increasing anger and conflict. According to Arianne and Nate Cohen, who were guests on the show- sleeping apart has brought them closer. By having their own rooms they have each found greater privacy and autonomy without the other having to sacrifice in order for that to happen.

Apparently 30 to 40 percent of couples sleep apart at night due to snoring and clashing bedtimes and evening routines. Couples sleeping apart report that the decision to do so helped to save their marriages and allowed each of them to take better care of their own needs without creating greater distance from their partner. They report that their sex lives have improved and the resentment that used to come between them has lessened to the extent that their marriages are better than they ever were. They still get to cuddle, share some pillow time- then separate as each follows the routine that best suits them and leaves them feeling refreshed and renewed in the morning.

If you find you are having difficulty negotiating bedroom time in the evenings with your significant other and/or can’t get a good night’s rest due to their routines or sleeping behavior- try sleeping apart. All you give up is the time you will spend dreaming- peacefully, contentedly and soundly.

Could “Chick Flicks” replace couples counseling?

The results of a new study were published in December in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. The researchers, lead author Ronald Rogge (of The University of Rochester), Thomas Bradbury (the Relationship Institute at UCLA), and others found that discussing five (relationship) movies a month could cut the three-year divorce rate in half. The long-term study included 174 newlywed couples who participated throughout their first three years of marriage. They were randomly assigned to one of three groups- conflict management, compassion and acceptance training, and relationship awareness through film- and the movie-and talk approach was just as effective as the more intensive therapist-led methods. The results suggest that couples know when what they are doing is right or wrong- however, they don’t think about their behavior as it is occurring, and this leads to conflict and divorce.

The researchers were excited when they thought about how this model could be adapted to help couples in general- and it is something they could do on their own. In this study, participants were given 47 movies to take home and were asked to watch one a week for the next month, followed by a 45 minute discussion. The results were the same as the more intensive and professionally led groups the other couples were assigned to.

So what is different between this approach and couples watching movies together as a general course in their lives? One is that all the movies have an intimate relationship that is central to the plot- chick flicks, in other words. The other is that they then discuss the characters and this helps develop insights into their behavior and how it impacts their partner.

My only concern with how this would translate into a regular marital intervention is that guys have to be dragged to chick flicks. Maybe this is why the result does not happen more often outside of the study- guys don’t go to them, end of story. I also wondered if the guys who would be willing to go at all or more often are more “in touch with their feminine sides.” No, this is not a negative- it’s just that some guys are more open to this and to experiencing something that is outside the typical “guy” experience. If a guy is naturally more this way- wouldn’t he naturally be more tuned into his partner and her feelings/needs?

However, these couples were randomly assigned to this group and given this as homework- and it was effective. So, if we can somehow get our men to go to these more often and discuss their thoughts about them afterwards, could we all be more happily married? Definitely something to think about if you have hit a rough spot with your mate.

Why Mars and Venus need a translator

Back before Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus came out, I was often accused of being sexist in my thinking. When I observed certain dynamics in the way women and men communicated- I would point out why this was so. Women and men have different hard wiring in their brains that creates these differences, period. This is NOT new information- I have certainly known and talked about this for years. However, a study has FINALLY been completed and published that validates this belief- and suddenly, it’s OK to see and acknowledge our differences.

Researchers at The University of Pennsylvania just published their brain connectivity study in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences. What they found were striking differences in the neural wiring of men and women’s brains. Essentially their findings showed wiring in males that was structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action. Think immediate physical threat- and the need to run or stand and fight- with no time to weigh other issues or factors beyond the immediate danger. In contrast, the wiring of women’s brains facilitates communication between analytical and intuitive processes. Think, immediate danger, factor in choices for responding, consideration about who is also at risk, coming up with a plan of action, etc. In other words, women often apply multi-tasking- which could lead to deadly consequences.

If you compare these two, it’s obvious that males are wired to act quickly and find immediate resolutions to problems. They don’t take the time to consider feelings, look at different options or factor in anything that isn’t pragmatic and specific to addressing the problem. This helps to explain why guys can appear impatient with women when they want to talk about their feelings and talk through problems- often resisting immediate feedback or solutions that a guy offers. Women use a great deal more intuition. They factor in a number of variables and want to take time to process feelings. You could almost say that we think through to solutions using intuition over pragmatic reasoning- and are actually spot on a lot of the time. However, many men feel this is invalid, illogical and a waste of time. They can jump to the conclusion that she only wants to complain and not solve a problem and women in turn often believe he has no interest in their feelings and just doesn’t care about how a situation is impacting them. Both are wrong and right.

In my role as a couple’s therapist I point out these differences and how they shape our perceptions, problems solving approaches and overall behavior. When both individuals can better understand where the other is coming from, the negative assumptions and defensive behavior diminish and allow them to find a middle ground on which to communicate and work together.

Hooking up is bad for your mental health

Sara Sandberg-Thomas of Ohio State University is the lead author of a recently released study that links casual sex to mental health problems in teens and young adults. Teens with symptoms of depression were more likely to engage in casual sex and to seriously consider suicide several years later as young adults. There have been questions in the past about casual sex and it’s effect on mental health and this study provides evidence that engaging in casual sex has a negative effect on mental health over time. The study also found that the results were the same for both men and women, which was unexpected.

10,000 teens and tweens from 80 high schools and 52 middle schools were interviewed- then the same group was interviewed again when they reached 18 to 26 years of age. They were asked about their sexual activity and screened for signs of depression and and any suicidal ideation.

29 percent of participants reported engaging in casual sex- which was defined as a relationship in which he or she was hooking up, but not dating. 33 percent of males and 24 percent of females overall reported engaging in hook-up relationships. It’s important to note that those who had serious depression and thoughts of suicide were more likely to be engaging in these casual sexual relationships as young adults.

Casual sex among tweens and teens was also shown to lead to greater mental health problems as young adults. For each additional sexual encounter the odds of suicidal thoughts went up by 18 percent. Of note is that casual sex in late teens and early 20’s was not linked to suicidal ideation in young adults as it was for those in their tweens and early teens. Apparently the earlier someone engages in casual sex, the greater their probability of having suicidal thoughts in young adulthood.

The study can be useful not only to parents and those who work with children, but it may also provide some clues to any adults out there who have a history of depression and suicidal ideation beginning in adolescence. Casual sex may be a symptom that points to how someone copes with low self-esteem, stress and other issues- and engaging in this behavior could in turn exacerbate those feelings of low self-esteem and hopelessness that are often present in people who are suicidal.

How we cope with and address what’s eating us can change the course of our lives- and this study provides real proof of this.

Pay attention to your gut before saying “I do”

A new study out of Florida State University on using your gut when making the decision to get married was published online this week in the Journal Science. It found that newlyweds had unconscious positive or negative gut feelings about their partners that they were not consciously aware of. These feelings actually predicted the satisfaction and survival of their marriages several years later.

Essentially, the study used photos of the person’s spouse along with a series of positive and negative words. The photo was only shown for a couple of seconds, enough time to recognize the person- and then they were given a positive and negative word and had to push a button for only one of them. The design left no time to construct an answer- it was instant and knee-jerk, often referred to as a gut reaction. Remember the word association game where someone says a word and you immediately say the first thing that comes into your mind? It’s much like that except a picture is used.

135 heterosexual couples who had been married within the past 6 months participated. The couples also filled out a marital satisfaction survey- and these came out as very positive across the board regardless of what the other part of the experiment showed. They were asked to reevaluate their marriage for four years at six month intervals, using the same questionnaire. Over time, their responses on both the questionnaire and their reactions to photos came closer together and showed a more consistent response. Twelve of the couples divorced within the four years the study was conducted- and their responses supported this outcome.

What this boils down to is that many people ignore their feelings, brush them under the rug, push them aside in order to achieve the goal of marriage- and then over time find that they can’t hide from these feelings anymore. In my work with couples I encounter this too frequently- folks who had doubts but either ignored them or rationalized them. They usually write them off as the typical “cold feet” experience that can happen before taking such a major step. However, as we discuss their pre-marriage concerns it becomes clear that there were many red flags and signs that said STOP and THINK that they ignored.

It will be nice for therapists like me to actually have a study to back up what we have been trying to tell couples for years- if it doesn’t feel right, slow down and delay making that huge commitment.

There’s no honor among cheaters

There are a couple of cautionary tales to this story. One is that some websites lie outright and others play with the truth through omissions, false promises- and sexy and untruthful marketing. The second is that if someone is capable of lying to someone else, they will do the same to you if it was in their best interest.

Ashley Madison is a website created for married people who want to cheat on their spouses. Apparently it is doing well and growing. A new Portuguese language version of the site was being launched and its creators hired a woman to write fake profiles of sexy, beautiful women that would draw lots of male users. According to this employee her job required her to write 1,000 fake profiles in three weeks and she is now suing Ashley Madison due to a disability caused by the enormous amount of keyboarding she had to do. The employee, Doriana Silva is seeking a total of 20 million to compensate for her being used this way for their enrichment and 1 million for general damages. According to Silva, she had no idea that what she was doing was deceitful; instead she believed it was a normal practice in this industry.

So, we have a website designed to help married people cheat, a company making large profits by providing a service that encourages and enables infidelity, and an ex-employee who says that she had no idea the 1,000 fake profiles she wrote were wrong and should be better compensated due to their high profits and the harm she suffered providing all those fake profiles to deceive potential users.

The suit was filed last year but is caught up in legal limbo. Best case scenario, they would go broke from the suit and all the bad publicity- and this woman would be truly unable to keyboard again. If you are thinking about cheating due to boredom, a lack of good sex, or any reason someone would cheat rather than get a divorce- consider your next moves carefully. You could end up with a fake new lust object and a marriage headed to divorce court.

Her success can lower his self-esteem

A recent study out of the University of Florida found that a woman’s success made her partner feel worse about himself, even though the men who participated weren’t even aware that their self-esteem had been affected in this way. Not too surprising is that the women in the study were unaffected by their partner’s successes or failures.

The lead author of the study, Kate Ratliff attributed the results to the different ways that men and women respond to competition. Males are more competitive, apparently even with their mates- and this study shines a light on how men perceive their partner’s success as their failure, regardless of whether they were in a direct competition or not. The study also theorized that that the men (from the US and Netherlands) might have been reacting to culturally reinforced expectations of traditional roles in which the male is dominant- and would therefore be threatened by a woman who was elevated by success.

It’s notable that the age of the subjects were college age to 30 years old- yet they still held on to many of the old norms that say the man should take the lead and be the primary earner. This is especially interesting as recent statistics show that 28% of American women now earn more than their husbands. As the roles continue to change and evolve it may be that women will become the ones who are telling the world that “behind every great woman, stands a supportive husband.”