Relationship Expert Stephanie Coontz Shares Go-To Guidelines
Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, shares her learned perspective in an intriguing oeuvre of books—Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage; The Way We Never Were; The Way We Really Are; and A Strange Stirring. She’s also co-chair and director of public education at the University of Miami’s research-based nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families. As a speaker, she shares good news on marriage, based on her extensive study and observations.
While marriage as an institution is less powerful than it used to be, people have higher expectations of marriage as a relationship. Precisely because most Americans no longer feel they have to marry, they are more specific about what they want from it. When a marital relationship works today, it is fairer, more intimate, more mutually beneficial and less prone to violence than ever before. Yet, individuals are less willing to stay in a relationship that doesn’t confer these benefits.
The old model of married love held that opposites attract. Men wanted mates that were pliable and nurturing; women wanted men that were ambitious, powerful and protective. The new model is based on similarities of interests and talents. While some women are still attracted to men that are richer, taller, more powerful and slightly scary, and some men still want an admiring, yielding woman, the trend favors valuing more individualized traits.
In a reversal from 40 years ago, men are much less interested in a partner’s cooking and housekeeping than in her intelligence, humor and accomplishments. Women value a mate that shares household chores more than one that is a high earner. (See more results of a Pew Research Center survey at Tinyurl.com/PewTrends.)
Be truly interested in your partner’s ideas and activities; take pride in their achievements; use endearments or offer tactile affection without being asked; have a sense of humor about differences; and never let irritation or anger slide into contempt.
We all have moments when we are irritated, angry or emotionally or intellectually unresponsive. A mate will tolerate these as long as he or she trusts you to be loving and attentive most of the time. It’s an emotional line of credit— each partner needs to keep replenishing the reserves of trust and good will, rather than drawing them down.
Psychologist and researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., suggests people need about five positive interactions for every negative one in an intimate relationship. It’s less the occasional over-the-top gesture and more the regular, small deposits that count—a few words of appreciation, a loving touch, an expression of sexual attraction. If we have trouble remembering to regularly express appreciation, we may do better by asking, “What would have been harder about this day if my partner wasn’t in my life?”
Successful marriages used to depend upon specialization. Men and women couldn’t substitute for one another in accomplishing tasks. A typical woman couldn’t support herself financially; a typical man didn’t know how to feed himself, do laundry or manage childrearing. Even if couples didn’t share many mutual interests, the partners often took pleasure in being indispensable.
Now women can support themselves and men cook and clean. Thus, shared interests and leisure activities, rather than specialized work roles, increasingly serve as the glue of marriage. Play takes people off the work-centric treadmill and introduces novelty into the relationship. Spending leisure time with others also produces higher levels of happiness than cocooning, according to the GallupHealthways Well-Being Index. So make it a double-date night.
The Internet makes it easier to meet partners. Once in a partnership, technology can help daily tasks get accomplished efficiently, leaving more leisure time. It also allows us to check in with each other while apart.
But e-devices are no substitute for face time. The best way to nurture a relationship is to unplug from the grid and plug into real life. I see many couples reinvigorated by each other’s company after a few hours together engaged in a fun outdoor recreational activity.
S. Alison Chabonais is the national editor of Natural Awakenings magazines.