Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Be true to yourself, and better romantic relationships will follow

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Be true to yourself, and better romantic relationships will follow, research suggests.

A new study examined how dating relationships were affected by the ability of people to see themselves clearly and objectively, act in ways consistent with their beliefs, and interact honestly and truthfully with others.

In other words, the ability to follow the words of William Shakespeare: “to thine own self be true,” said Amy Brunell, lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University’s Newark campus.

Findings showed that college students who reported being more true to themselves also reported more positive dating relationships.

“If you’re true to yourself, it is easier to act in ways that build intimacy in relationships, and that’s going to make your relationship more fulfilling,” Brunell said.

The study appears online in the journal Personality and Individual Differences and will be published in an upcoming print edition.

Participating in the study were 62 heterosexual couples, all of whom were college students. The participants completed a long list of questionnaires in three separate sessions that took place about two weeks apart.

The first set of questionnaires probed how true participants were to themselves, a characteristic that psychologists call “dispositional authenticity.” This was measured through the answers to questions like “For better or for worse, I am aware of who I truly am.

Overall, the study found that both men and women who reported being more true to themselves also behaved in more intimate and less destructive ways with their partner, and that led to them feeling their relationship was more positive. In addition, they also reported greater personal well-being.

In the second phase, participants answered questions examining various aspects of their relationship functioning, including their willingness to discuss their emotions with their partner, and whether they kept secrets.

The third phase involved measures of relationship satisfaction and personal well-being.

Overall, the study found that both men and women who reported being more true to themselves also behaved in more intimate and less destructive ways with their partner, and that led to them feeling their relationship was more positive. In addition, they also reported greater personal well-being.

But the study revealed an interesting gender difference in how authenticity in men and women affected their partners, Brunell said.

Men who were more true to themselves had partners who showed more healthy relationship behaviors. However, there was no significant relationship between women being true to themselves and men’s relationship behaviors.

That finding may be the result of relationship gender roles in our society, she said.

“Typically in dating and marital relationships, the women tend to be ‘in charge’ of intimacy in the relationship,” Brunell explained.

“So when men have this dispositional authenticity, and want to have an open, honest relationship, it makes women’s job easier – they can more easily regulate intimacy,” she said.

But since men have less of a role in developing relationship intimacy, they were not affected as much by whether their partners were true to themselves or not.

The study also confirmed findings from other studies that show that when men or women act in constructive, healthy ways in a relationship, it increases their partners’ satisfaction with the relationship.

Brunell said being true to yourself doesn’t mean that you should accept all of your flaws and not try to make positive changes in your life. But you should be aware of both your limitations and areas where you can improve. One payoff could be better romantic relationships.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise, but being true to yourself is linked to having healthier and happier relationships for both men and women,” she said.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Life Is Shorter for Men, but Sexually Active Life Expectancy Is Longer

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At age 55, men can expect another 15 years of sexual activity, but women that age should expect less than 11 years, according to a study by University of Chicago researchers published early online March 10 by the British Medical Journal. Men in good or excellent health at 55 can add 5 to 7 years to that number. Equally healthy women gain slightly less, 3 to 6 years.

One consolation for women is that many of them seem not to miss it. Men tend to marry younger women, die sooner and care more about sex, the study confirmed. Although 72 percent of men aged 75 to 85 have partners, fewer than 40 percent of women that age do. Only half of women 75-85 who remained sexually active rated their sex lives as "good," and only 11 percent of all women that age report regularly thinking about or being interested in sex. Among those age 57 to 85 not living with a partner, 57 percent of men were interested in sex, compared to only 11 percent of women.

"Interest in sex, participation in sex and even the quality of sexual activity were higher for men than women, and this gender gap widened with age," said lead author Stacy Tessler Lindau, MD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago. But the study also "affirms a positive association between later-life health, sexual partnership and sexual activity," she said.

Lindau and co-author Natalia Gavrilova focused on two large surveys, the National Survey of Midlife Development, involving about 3,000 adults aged 25 to 74 and completed in 1996, and the National Social Life Health and Aging Project, involving another 3,000 adults aged 57 to 85, completed in 2006. Participants provided information about their relationship status and rated the quality of their sex lives and how often they had sex. They also rated the level of their general health as poor, fair, good, very good or excellent.

The results showed that men are more likely to be sexually active, report a good sex life and be interested in sex than women. This difference was most stark among the 75 to 85-year-old group, where almost 40 percent of men, compared to 17 percent of women, were sexually active.

The study also introduced a new health measure, "sexually active life expectancy," or SALE, the average remaining years of sexually active life. For men, SALE was about ten years lower than total life expectance. For women it was 20 years lower.

Men at the age of 30, for example, have a sexually active life expectancy of nearly 35 years, but they can, on average, expect to remain alive for 45 years, including a sexless final decade. For 30-year-old women, SALE is almost 31 years but total life expectancy is more than 50. So men that age can anticipate remaining sexually active for 78 percent of their remaining lifespan, while women at 30 can expect to remain sexually active for only 61 percent of the remaining years.

The authors conclude that "sexually active life expectancy estimation is a new life expectancy tool than can be used for projecting public health and patient needs in the arena of sexual health," and that "projecting the population patterns of later life sexual activity is useful for anticipating need for public health resources, expertise and medical services."

In an accompanying editorial, Professor Patricia Goodson from Texas University says Lindau and Gavrilova's research is both refreshing and hopeful. She says: "the study bears good news in the form of hope ... the news that adults in the US can enjoy many years of sexual activity beyond age 55 is promising."

Goodson adds that many unanswered questions remain in the field of older people and sexuality, such as problems with measurement and silence regarding the sexual health of ageing homosexual, bisexual or intersexed people. "They stand as dim reminders of the limitations inherent in applying science to the study of complex human realities, and the cultural values shaping the topics we choose to study," she concludes.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The truth about online dating and the link between depression and relational uncertainty

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There's no doubt that meeting partners on the Internet is a growing trend. But can we trust the information that people provide about themselves via online dating services? And why is depression so dissatisfying in relationships? These two questions are explored in articles appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, published by SAGE. The authors also discuss their findings in a new podcast series: Relationship Matters.

Jeffrey Hall of the University of Kansas is lead author of the paper on internet dating, which shows that people looking for romance online actually behave very much as they do in face to face dating and relationships. "Our findings dispel the myth that people using online dating are that different than any one else who might find a relationship through friends, school or work," Hall explains.

His team investigated over 5000 individuals dating online in search of long-term partners, from all walks of life and over a wide age range (18 to over 60). The survey included questions on personality traits such as openness, extroversion, education and income. "We also asked a series of questions on an important trait that we call self monitoring," Hall says. "Self monitoring is about how we try to present ourselves in a favourable light to others, to make people like us." Someone who scores as 'low' on self monitoring is extremely authentic when describing themselves in all circumstances, and those who score 'high' are more prone to so-called white lies.

Self-monitoring scores turned out to be a major factor in the likelihood of people changing their presentation to others across all dating indicators (topics such as previous relationships, likes, dislikes, appearance, etc).

Whether a person is likely to lie about themselves online also depends on what kind of person they are: Someone who is very open to new experiences (e.g. foreign travel) is highly unlikely to misrepresent themselves about their experiences – because they are naturally interesting people. On the other hand extroverts are more likely to misrepresent themselves when describing past relationships. Extroverts tend to have many past relationships because they meet new people easily, but may play this down when looking for a new relationship.

The good news, according to Hall, is that the likelihood of people misrepresenting themselves overall is actually very low. The research also showed that not all men are from Mars and Women from Venus – the differences between individuals was far greater than any difference between the sexes. However women were somewhat more likely to fib about their weight, whereas men were more prone to tell white lies on other subjects, such as how many previous partners they had had, or how serious they were about finding a long-term relationship. "Men and women aren't as different from one another as we might believe," Hall says. Next up - Hall and his team are developing an inventory of flirting styles, which they aim to publish later this year.

Meanwhile twin sisters Leanne Knobloch of the University of Illinois, US and Lynne Knobloch-Fedders from The Family Institute at Northwestern University, US put their heads together to look at a longstanding question about what explains the association between depressive symptoms and relationship quality.

Over three decades of research have shown that people with depression are less satisfied in their romantic relationships. But questions remain about exactly why these go together. Now the sisters' research shows that relational uncertainty could be one explanation.

Relational uncertainty is how sure individuals are about their perceptions of involvement in a relationship. It has three sources. Self uncertainty is the questions people have about their own relationship involvement, such as, "how certain am I about my view of this relationship?" Partner uncertainty involves questions about a partner's relationship involvement, such as, "how certain am I about where my partner wants this to go?" Finally relationship uncertainty involves questions about the relationship status, such as "How certain am I about the future of this relationship?"

There were three main findings from the study of couples experiencing depressive symptoms or relationship problems: Those with more severe depressive symptoms reported more relationship distress; people experiencing more relational uncertainty were less satisfied with their relationship; and finally, women's depressive symptoms predicted all three sources of their relational uncertainty, which in turn predicted both men's and women's relationship quality. For men, only the self source of relational uncertainty acted as a mediator.

This finding could suggest treatment options. For example, working through relational uncertainty issues in psychotherapy may help alleviate depressive symptoms. Alternatively treating depression might help individuals achieve more relational certainty, leading to more satisfying relationships.

"People suffering from depressive symptoms may wrestle with more questions about their romantic relationship, which may be dissatisfying," says Knobloch. "If we find ways to help people address their uncertainty about their relationship, then their depressive symptoms might not be so debilitating for their romantic relationships."



Strategic misrepresentation in online dating: The effects of gender, self-monitoring, and personality traits by Jeffrey A. Hall, Namkee Park, Hayeon Song and Michael J. Cody; and The role of relational uncertainty in depressive symptoms and relationship quality: An actor–partner interdependence model by Leanne K. Knobloch and Lynne M. Knobloch-Fedders are published in the February 2010 issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Both articles will be free to download for a limited period from http://spr.sagepub.com/current.dtl

Friday, March 5, 2010

Study finds no consensus in definitions of 'had sex"

When people say they "had sex," what transpired is anyone's guess. A new study from the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University found that no uniform consensus existed when a representative sample of 18- to 96-year-olds was asked what the term meant to them.

Is oral sex considered sex? It wasn't to around 30 percent of the study participants. How about anal sex? For around 20 percent of the participants, no. A surprising number of older men did not consider penile-vaginal intercourse to be sex. More than idle gossip, the answers to questions about sex can inform -- or misinform -- research, medical advice and health education efforts.

"Researchers, doctors, parents, sex educators should all be very careful and not assume that their own definition of sex is shared by the person they're talking to, be it a patient, a student, a child or study participant," said Brandon Hill, research associate at the Kinsey Institute.

The study, conducted in conjunction with the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention in IU's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, delves deeper into a question first examined in 1999 -- in the midst of a presidential sex scandal where the definition of sex was an issue. Researchers from The Kinsey Institute asked college students what "had sex" meant to them, taking the approach, which was unique then, of polling the students on specific behaviors.

No consensus was found then, either. The new study, published in the international health journal "Sexual Health" in February, examined whether more information helped clarify matters -- study participants were asked about specific sexual behaviors and such qualifiers as whether orgasm was reached -- and researchers also wanted to involve a more representative audience, not just college students.

"Throwing the net wider, with a more representative sample, only made it more confusing and complicated," Hill said. "People were even less consistent across the board."

The study involved responses from 486 Indiana residents who took part in a telephone survey conducted by the Center for Survey Research at IU. Participants, mostly heterosexual, were asked, "Would you say you 'had sex' with someone if the most intimate behavior you engaged in was ...," followed by 14 behaviorally specific items.

Here are some of the results:

• Responses did not differ significantly overall for men and women. The study involved 204 men and 282 women.
• 95 percent of respondents would consider penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) having had sex, but this rate drops to 89 percent if there is no ejaculation.
• 81 percent considered penile-anal intercourse having had sex, with the rate dropping to 77 percent for men in the youngest age group (18-29), 50 percent for men in the oldest age group (65 and up) and 67 percent for women in the oldest age group.
• 71 percent and 73 percent considered oral contact with a partner's genitals (OG), either performing or receiving, as having had sex.
• Men in the youngest and oldest age groups were less likely to answer "yes" compared with the middle two age groups for when they performed OG.
• Significantly fewer men in the oldest age group answered "yes" for PVI (77 percent).

Hill said it is common for a doctor, when seeing a patient with symptoms of sexually transmitted infections, to ask how many sexual partners the patient has or has had. The number will differ according to the patients' definitions of sex.

William L. Yarber, RCAP's senior director and co-author of the study, said its findings reaffirm the need to be specific about behaviors when talking about sex

"There's a vagueness of what sex is in our culture and media," Yarber said. "If people don't consider certain behaviors sex, they might not think sexual health messages about risk pertain to them. The AIDS epidemic has forced us to be much more specific about behaviors, as far as identifying specific behaviors that put people at risk instead of just sex in general. But there's still room for improvement."