Four Huge Myths About Intimate Relationships
Popular culture perpetuates a lot of poor information about intimate relationships. The systematic disinformation can, and does, lead people astray, and not just into hilariously awkward situations (see almost any romantic comedy), but into genuine misery. In fact, as social psychologist Matt Johnson made known on the very first page of his new book, Great Myths of Intimate Relationships, the largest predictor of life satisfaction is relationship satisfaction. "So, we had better pay attention to those relationships!"
In his book, Johnson tried his best to pay more than mere lip service to intimate relationships. Sorting through a boatload of scientific evidence, he dispelled twenty-five myths on topics ranging from online dating, to sex, to divorce. Here are four of those myths.
1. Men have a much stronger libido than women. Stronger? Probably. But the difference is much narrower that what common thinking dictates. In his book, Johnson points to pioneering studies by Meredith Chivers of Queen's University. In a series of experiments that have been repeatedly replicated, Chivers had both men and women watch various sexually stimulating videos and asked participants to report their levels of arousal. Participants were also equipped with devices to measure blood flow to their genitalia, a physiological sign of arousal. Men's self-reports of arousal closely matched their physiological signs of arousal, but women's did not.
"Women -- straight and lesbian -- seemed to be pan sexual," Johnson summarized. "The women had blood flow when watching the sexual videos regardless of who was with whom... Clearly, there's a large gap between the arousal that women report and the arousal they feel."
This divide may be societally constructed, Johnson suggests. If women had not had their sexuality systematically repressed for centuries, their libido might be more on par with men's.
2. Opposites attract. More than 8 in 10 individuals desire a partner with opposite traits that complement theirs. Fueling this situation is the widespread myth that "opposites attract." But scientific evidence does not bear this belief out.
"There's essentially no evidence that differences lead to greater attraction or improved relationship outcomes," Johnson reports. Similarity, however, does predict attraction and relationship success. Honestly, this makes sense. While scientific fact is often counterintuitive, in this case, what's intuitive seems to be correct. People aren't magnets, after all.
3. You should live together before marriage. Roughly seven out of ten high school seniors and young adults agree that it's usually a good idea for couples to live together before getting married. This majority opinion certainly seems like wisdom -- a couple should probably make sure they can successfully cohabitate before deciding to spend the rest of their lives together. Intriguingly, however, there's no evidence that premarital cohabitation improves marriage quality or reduces divorce rates. When Penn State social psychologist Catherine Cohan reviewed over 100 studies on the topic in 2013, she found "no benefits of cohabitation in terms of... personal well-being and relationship adjustment, satisfaction, and stability." If anything, there was actually a small negative effect!
4. Children bring couples closer together. Newborns are often dubbed "bundles of joy". In reality, they are sacks of discord. As Johnson reveals, the general consensus amongst social scientists is that children cause a drop in marital and relationship satisfaction. Moreover, marital satisfaction usually doesn't begin to recover until children "leave the nest". Raising kids is certainly worthwhile, but that doesn't change the fact that it's immensely difficult.
"Even with careful planning, bringing a new child into a family is a sudden and jarring experience that will permanently change the dynamics of a relationship," Johnson writes.
Primary Source: Matthew D. Johnson. Great Myths of Intimate Relationships: Dating, Sex, and Marriage. 2016. Wiley-Blackwell