No matter how successful they have been career-wise, most people would say their loves (and the resulting family) were the most important happenings in their lives. Love is fantastic. In the early stages, you feel so euphoric and excited when love synergistically combines with sex. It is probably life's greatest emotional "high" for us romantics. Love is so universal, it must be biological. We need to be close and affectionate; we need to share our experiences and feelings; we need the security of being cared for; we enjoy caring for others; we need to be reassured that we matter; we need to be touched, stroked, and kissed; we need sincere affection and passionate sex.
To get the acceptance and love we need, we should understand love relationships. They are complex, sometimes starting with infatuation and sometimes with friendship. After several months, the relationship may evolve into secure, comfortable, warm attachment. Later, love may keep or loose its passion, may gain or loose commitment, may retain its positive intimacy, fade away, or become a hotbed of smoldering resentment. Love is also paradoxical. Like most things that give us great joy, love can also cause us great pain. Thus, we are excited but scared to ask for a date; we are crushed when a boy/girlfriend leaves us; almost 50% of marriages end in painful divorce, other marriages are "empty;" we are disappointed when passionate love turns to boredom; we are flooded with anger and an awesome sense of loss when a spouse is unfaithful; we may feel sexually inadequate even with our spouse; our greatest frustrations and resentments are often with our lover; the death of a loved one is our worst moment. We often hurt the people we love. And, although the threat of pain shouldn't stop us from loving, it does sometimes.
Considering the current emphasis on sex, sexually transmitted diseases, postponing marriage, materialism, marital problems, the divorce rate, and being successful in a career, one might suppose that "love is dead." Not true! Although only 1 in 3 high school seniors believe people are happier and have fuller lives if they marry, 9 out of 10 say marriage and family are important to them. In fact, more of us marry today than ever before in history, well over 90% of us. And, indeed, even if we marry and suffer through a divorce, 80% of us will get married again. "Hope springs eternal" in most human hearts.
Remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience.
We value marriage but marriages in the U.S. are changing--thirty or forty years ago it was mom, dad, and three or four kids. Now it is often mom, step-dad, one child, and one or two kids (full-time or part-time) from a former marriage. More than half of all children live with a step or a single parent. Not only are the actors different, but the roles have changed in the last 30 years too. We have fewer children, so mom and dad's relationship with each other is more important and more intimate. When there were eight or ten children, mom was very busy with house work and child care, and dad had to work long hours to earn the money. Marriage was for survival. If there are only one or two children, mom will probably (70% of the time and increasing) go to work outside the home. This means that mom and dad share the financial responsibilities and the housekeeping/child care roles. Marriages today are started for love. From there, marriages develop in many different directions, including about half heading towards anger and divorce.
Spouses are now asked to be more than "good providers" and "good homemakers," they are expected to be faithful lovers, fun companions, best friends, co-parents, and wise, understanding mutual helpers. Marriage is for intimacy, not just for economic security and not just for "a good mother to my kids." Love isn't dead; it is very alive. Love has become more complex, more challenging, and, perhaps, more valued, e.g. in the 1950's we strove to do a good job (doctor, lawyer, housewife, mother), now we seek to enjoy our jobs, friends, loves, family, and leisure time (Veroff, Douvan, & Kukla, 1981). Furthermore, today, because social and religious prohibitions against divorce are less, because we have fewer children later in life, because economic conditions are better, and because women are personally and economically more independent, we are much freer to change partners if we aren't getting what we want out of the relationship. And, we are changing partners frequently, but not without pain.
It is these kinds of complexities and decisions that this chapter focuses on: How should I find and select a partner? Is it reasonable to expect my potential partner to make major changes if I want him/her to improve? Do I really love this person? When should I make a commitment to another person? When should we have sex? How long should I wait to get married? Should I have more experience with the opposite sex before getting married? Should we get married or live together first? How good should sex be? If our sex should be better, how do we make it so? When should we have children and how many? Is my marriage working okay? What characterizes marriages that last? When should I seek marital counseling? When should I leave the marriage? What are the consequences of getting a divorce? These are life's toughest questions because there are no simple answers. Each individual's problem calls for a unique solution. Thus, simple answers are not given here, only some relevant information and possible solutions to consider.
Meeting, Dating, and Selecting a Lover
Learning to love
Hunt (1975) noted that humans take a long time to learn to love. It starts with the holding, stroking, kissing, and nursing of the infant, who learns what it feels like to be loved. Children 3 to 6 learn to love their parents but it is frustrating because you find out "you can't marry mommy" or "daddy." From 6 to 12, we learn more about love: we learn to make friends. But when the juices flow in adolescence, we suddenly feel intense urges for contact with the opposite sex. Our first love experiences, Hunt observed, are often in our imagination...a rock star, a movie star, a teacher. Then we feel attracted to someone real and try to hang out with him/her in small groups. Later, we want to be alone with our boy/girlfriend. These first affairs may be brief because they are based on superficial factors. Yet, through this 12-14 year process, if we are lucky, we learned a lot: to select and attract a lover, to express love, to give of ourselves, to get along, to disclose, to see beyond the surface, to attend to others' needs, to know our needs, etc. Each new love, ideally (but not always), is deeper and more realistic. We usually have from 2 or 3 to 10 "loves" before we marry. All this learning--this "education in love"--is important; however, much more learning is apparently needed since almost half of our marriages still fail (the divorce rate of persons married as teenagers is still higher). Love is serious business; we need to know a lot.
Looking for an intimate partner; What turns us on?
Surely for most of us it is more accurate to say we were "mysteriously attracted to" or "stumbled into" rather than "carefully searched for" our love partner. Seeking a mate is not consciously planned; we are driven by our feelings. We don't take a check list of desirable traits in hand as we systematically search the world for our ideal mate. Perhaps we should do this, but we don't. How do we find love? An anthropologist, David Givens (1983), has written an entire book about how we attract and are attracted by potential lovers. Sternberg and Barnes (1988) say physical "chemistry" is predictable if we can see the underlying needs, such as needing to find someone who is strong and dominant... or someone attractive and seductive... or someone who seeks protection within a close family, etc. In other words, our radar is scanning for specific characteristics, but we are not likely to be aware of everything our emotions and instincts are looking for.
Once we have located an attractive target, Givens says love signals are "prewired" into the primitive parts of our brain. Guinea pigs with their cortex removed can still send and receive "love signals," mate, and care for the young. Facial expressions (a smile), postures (looking down), gestures (a touch and gazing into the eyes), and having sexual intercourse usually communicate love better than words. Thus, we woo a partner intuitively or impulsively (and then spend months wondering how it all happened). You don't need a course in seduction; it's innate, according to Givens; yet, he gives us a 235-page, charming description of the process. However, it would be foolish to assume instincts are fully in charge and discount the role of learned social skills, consciously planned strategies, and various coping techniques in establishing a love relationship. Yet, instincts are important (and to some extent knowable and controllable).
So, if we are attracted to another person and we want a relationship and it seems wise, then we can just "let ourselves go" and enjoy the fantastic thrill of "falling in love." However, there is one BIG PROBLEM: love often starts before we know the person well. Even when there are no initial "danger signals," we have no assurance that we will only be attracted to personalities with whom we are compatible. The person's body and manner may turn us on but parts of his/her mind, habits, attitudes, or values, which we may not know for weeks or months, could repulse us. Moreover, the lover may be (or seem) charming for a while and then turn nasty. This lack of predictability is scary. Lovers have no guarantees; you risk getting hurt or, at least, wasting your time. But dwelling on and exaggerating the possibilities of pain and problems in a relationship are deterrents to love. The opposite is more common: feeling love and denying potential problems. No one gets married expecting to divorce. We need to understand both the reasons for our attraction to others and our blindness to potential disasters. Selection of a life-long partner is the hardest and most important decision we will ever make. It requires careful, rational thought, as well as instincts and "chemistry." Let's see if we can understand love better.
Love is blynd.
-Chaucer, The Merchant's Tale
To fall in love you have to see or meet someone attractive to you. Someone has to be "available." Being single was a special problem among young adults 50 years ago; the single person was "the odd man out." Today there are four times as many singles, 1 in 5 Americans are single. It is no longer a stigma. But, in certain situations, it is still hard to find a partner. You may be shy (Wassmer, 1990). Your life style may be such that you don't meet many potential partners. You may need to change your social habits, e.g. go to church, classes, clubs, political or volunteer activities, bars, etc. to meet more or different people. Friends and family will offer introductions if asked. Most newspapers have personal ads. Because there are so many singles with specific interests, the modern specialized dating clubs and services have mushroomed. For instance, there are singles' clubs to serve various kinds of professionals, music lovers, book lovers, vegetarians, overweight persons, divorced Catholics, older women interested in younger men, etc. If you can't find the right club for you, start your own by advertising in the paper. There are even travel services that will match up singles. Don't think you are helpless, reach out. Today, one of the common ways to reach out is on the Internet. There are discussion groups, forums, chat groups and a variety of other ways to meet someone. Joe Schwartz, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Dating and Relating," has provided, at least temporarily, a long list of online places, means, and discussions of meeting people online. See Complete Idiot's List of Web Sites. One of the more thorough recent sites uses a 250-item, research-based questionnaire to pair up couples: eharmony.com.
There is another serious problem, namely, the surplus of women. Because the death rate of males is higher at all ages, after age 23 there are more women than men, a total of 7 million more marriageable women than men (Brothers, 1984). The U.S. Census shows 99 single males for every 100 15-24-year-old single females, 89 single males for 100 single women 25-34, and 67 males for 100 women 35-45. If a woman is divorced in her 20's, there is a 75% chance she will remarry; if divorced in her 30's, 50% chance; if in her 40's, 30% chance. Statisticians say a woman who has remained single for 40 years is unlikely to get married. As a self-help advisor, I'd never say that, but the competition gets keen for women.
For every love there is a heart somewhere to receive it.... But when my love meets no heart it can only break.
What kind of partner do you want?
In the 1990's, 90% of college students would not consider marriage if they were not "in love." In the 1960's, however, 33% of college men and 75% of college women would have considered marrying someone they didn't love. Why the radical change? Probably because college women have become much more secure and independent, more confident they can find love with someone. That's wonderful! I wonder if it will produce better marriages?
What specific characteristics do we tend to look for (consciously) in a mate? Both men and women agree that mutual attraction, dependable character, and emotionally stability are the most important traits. However, men and women disagree about the importance of certain other characteristics, e.g. men value good looks more than women and women value good financial future and ambitiousness more than men (Allgeier & Wiederman, 1991). Science doesn't yet know why the sexes--almost universally--have these particular preferences. Why should men want attractive women more than women want attractive men? Is it because men are more sexually obsessed than women? Is the valuing of attractive women and successful men simply an arbitrary, readily changeable cultural definition of what is "good?" Could there be evolutionary-sociobiological forces at work, reflecting the fact that men could spread more of their genes (produced by the millions every day) by mating with many healthy (pretty) women and women could propagate their very limited genes best by attracting a strong, devoted, capable mate? Regardless of the source, today, whether we like it or not, looking good is a major asset for women and having a promising future increases a man's appeal. See discussion of gender roles in chapter 9.
Looks have always been valued, but in recent decades, physical attractiveness of the partner has become even more important to both sexes. Men may admit their interest more openly, however. Men talk about being "leg men," "breast men," etc. and some women admit to being interested in "nice buns," "hairy legs," "broad shoulders," etc. No doubt body build influences who we seek out as well as how we feel about our own attractiveness. About 28% of single males consider themselves attractive; they are among the more socially active and assertive. Only about 13% of single females consider themselves to be pretty (Harper's, 1985). Interestingly, good looking women are happy with their social lives, but they tend to be less socially skilled and less assertive than other women (perhaps because very attractive people are sometimes resented and rejected by their own sex). Nevertheless, other people generally expect beautiful people to be poised, sociable, strong, interesting, happy and successful, thus, scaring off the insecure. In reality, many attractive people are shy and insecure themselves. Also, research shows that good looks in one's youth has little to do with middle-aged happiness or marital satisfaction (Brehm, 1985).
We are also likely to pursue a potential lover who is similar to us, i.e. likes attract. This includes family background, education, age, religion, personality (dominance, nurturance, mood), attitudes (opinions, beliefs), and physical attractiveness. Sharon Brehm suggests that we think Mr. or Ms. Right is just like us, only just a little better! Some writers (Brothers, 1984) believe that we should seek a mate who is, in some ways, our psychological opposite, e.g. if we are tense and shy, we should select a secure and outgoing partner; if we are a big spender, select a saver; if impulsive, select a careful, logical, controlled partner and so on. Certainly one partner can sometimes compensate for the other's weaknesses or extremes but it surely isn't always best to select our psychological opposite. Two highly controlling people wouldn't relate well. We need to be similar on some traits and different on others, but we don't yet know what mix is best. Eva Klohnen, at the University of Iowa, is researching the possibility that we are attracted to people with characteristics we like in ourselves and to people who do not have the characteristics we dislike in ourselves. Finding a wonderful, permanent partner is complex.
If we think we might not be able to get and keep our Mr. or Ms. Right, our desire increases. Thus, when parents prohibit us from dating someone or when our lover moves away or when we fear we won't get a date or when the person we are interested in plays "hard-to-get," our longing for the lover grows. Yet, there must be some indication that he/she likes us; otherwise, we are likely to conclude that he/she is "stuck up." We like people who like us but we are leery of a person who will "go out with anyone." We are flattered if we are "the chosen one." Yet, some women hesitate to ask men out for fear of being considered "sexually loose." Interestingly, research has shown that women, who are judged to be intelligent by men, are not considered "sexually aggressive" even though the women take the initiative in asking for a date (Meer, 1985). So, ladies don't "play dumb." Also, men often don't pick up on hints that women are available. So, explicitly invite him to do something with you. Naturally, he may "make a move" to see if you are "loose." You can say "no" whenever you want.
Approaching someone but guarding against infatuation and lust
How does all this research help us find a partner? First, we have to contact others before attraction can occur. Obviously, where we look has a bearing on who we meet. There are more potential alcoholics and philanderers in a bar than in a church, probably. There are more intelligent people in a classroom than at the race track, hopefully. Secondly, knowing how to approach someone and how to converse is an important skill that can be learned and practiced (see chapter 13). Thirdly, 55% of women and 63% of men believe in love at first sight (Harper's, 1985). As we will discuss shortly, infatuation certainly happens but instant love is not a dependable sign of enduring love. Many people will also tell you that the "body chemistry has to be right." But, in fact, this strong, instant physical-emotional attraction sucks us into both good and bad relationships. The body chemistry on the first or second date is no reliable indication of what the body chemistry will be like in the second or twenty-second year. The selection of a life-long partner must be based on more than initial physical-emotional attraction. Indeed, so long as breasts and pimples are more influential than brains and principles, we are in deep trouble. So, I will try to give you some information that will help you evaluate your own selection-of-a-partner process and help you disengage if there are signs of trouble.