Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Navigating conflict when opposites attract

When it comes to conflict, some people follow the phrase you should "never go to bed angry” while others would rather get their beauty sleep.

Couples with mismatched conflict styles don’t necessarily suffer a hit in relationship quality according to a new study. Professors Dean Busby and Thomas Holman of Brigham Young University's School of Family Life gathered and analyzed data from nearly 2,000 couples and report their findings in the Nov. 25 issue of the academic journal Family Process.

“The concern with mismatched couples is that they will have problems that are just never quite resolvable,” Holman said. “But it’s really about getting to a point where a problem becomes less important to them than the relationship itself.”

The study participants completed a comprehensive relationship inventory called RELATE. The survey covers more than 300 areas known to be predictive of marital quality. Upon completion of the relationship inventory, the couple gets an 11 page report with charts and graphs illustrating the strengths and weaknesses of their relationship.

Just as many couples had mismatched conflict styles as had matching approaches (not counting couples considered to have an openly “hostile” dynamic). Depending on the type of mismatch, the data show that certain pairings present bigger red flags for relationship quality than others.

“There are several couples that work through it,” Busby said. “But we know that how couples manage conflict is one of those crucial factors that can lead to divorce.”

So what are the conflict styles and which one fits your personality? And how can you work through a mismatched pairing?

The “Avoidant”

Avoidant people minimize conflict as much as possible. They still interact with their spouse but avoid contentious issues. They think there is little to gain from getting openly angry, and that problems have a way of working themselves out if you just relax.

The “Validating”

Validating people make certain that both sides are heard and that their partner’s views are appreciated. They believe in remaining calm and displaying self-control. They spend equal amounts of time validating others and searching for a compromise.

The “Volatile”

Volatile people are usually more passionate, louder and more energetic; they don’t shy from a lively debate. They believe that differences are resolved by getting everything out in the open. Their intensity is often balanced with kind and loving expressions.

The “Hostile”

The only non-functional style, hostile people can be described as destructive. In conflict they try to tear the other person down and at times stonewall all contact with their spouse.

“It’s hard to recover from a hostile conflict without some help I believe,” Busby said. “Hostility gets to a place where you scar people.”

Worst (Functional) Conflict Pairing

The worst functional mismatched conflict style is the avoidant-volatile pair. The good news is that it was the least common pairing in the study, representing a little more than 1 in 10 couples.

Many couples in this situation fall into the trap of attributing their partner’s motives incorrectly. Sincere attempts to resolve a conflict and restore harmony can be construed as nagging.

Something that can help in this situation is to wait until the emotional flood subsides before trying to resolve the issue.

“One couple I taught this to were marathon runners and they would watch their wrist watches and saw that as soon as they started arguing their pulse rates jumped way up,” Holman said. “Once they had their pulse rates back down they would start the conversation again. They said it helped them to monitor their actual physiological reaction in a conflict.”

Best Conflict Pair

Several combinations promote relationship health, and the key is that at least one of the partners is the validating type. The researchers note that it’s a skill that can be learned.

“Validating types make sure that their partner feels understood and that both perspectives are attended to,” Busby said. “They are more likely to create a positive connection around that conflict.”

The researcher who pioneered these conflict styles, John Gottman, found that in a healthy conflict style there are five positive exchanges for every one negative exchange. In dysfunctional styles the negative exchanges outnumber the positive.

“The idea that we should never argue, is clearly not what we are talking about in this article,” Busby said. “It’s that you have to find a way to work together so that you can resolve problems with a style that fits for both of you.”

College students more eager for marriage than their parents

Reaching adulthood certainly takes longer than it did a generation ago, but new research shows one way that parents are contributing to the delay. A national study found that college students think 25 years old is the “right age” to get married, while a majority of parents feel 25 is still a little too soon. So it's no coincidence that when Justin Bieber said he'd like to wed by 25, Oprah Winfrey urged him to wait longer. “The assumption has been that the younger generation wants to delay marriage and parents are hassling them about when they would get married,” said Brian Willoughby, a professor at Brigham Young University and lead author of the study. “We actually found the opposite, that the parental generation is showing the ‘slow down’ mindset more than the young adults.” Willoughby and his co-authors in BYU’s School of Family Life gathered info from 536 college students and their parents from five college campuses around the country (BYU was not in the sample). As they report in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships,the scholars found the hesitation is consistent across gender. “Initially we thought that this might be dads wanting their daughters to delay marriage,” Willoughby said. “Moms and dads trended together – gender wasn’t a factor.” One of the driving forces behind parents’ restraint is the feeling that their children should get an education first. While they generally feel marriage is important, parents think the “right age” is one year older than what their children say. Excluding teen marriages, research doesn’t support the notion that there is an optimal time to tie the knot. “I think parents have a lot of fear for their kids that makes them want to delay the transitions to adulthood,” Willoughby said. According to Census data, the median age for first marriages is 27. Willoughby says that what people say is the “right age” generally comes a few years before the actual marriage age. “What happens is that someone thinks that 25 is when they want to get married,” Willoughby said. “So at age 25, they start changing their patterns around dating, and it takes two or so years to make the transition.” Though BYU students weren’t in Willoughby’s sample, the university’s own records show about 25 percent of its students are married. Willoughby said that Mormon young adults typically marry about two years younger than their peers nationally and have risen in sync with national trends.

How Infidelity Helps Nieces and Nephews

Men May Share More Genes With Sisters' Kids Than Cheating Wife's Kids A University of Utah study produced new mathematical support for a theory that explains why men in some cultures often feed and care for their sisters' children: where extramarital sex is common and accepted, a man's genes are more likely to be passed on by their sister's kids than by their wife's kids. The theory previously was believed valid only if a man was likely to be the biological father of less than one in four of his wife's children -- a number that anthropologists found improbably low. But in the new study, University of Utah anthropology Professor Alan Rogers shows mathematically that if certain assumptions in the theory are made less stringent and more realistic, that ratio changes from one in four to one in two, so the theory works more easily. In other words, a man's genes are more likely to be passed by his sisters' children if fewer than half of his wife's kids are biologically his -- rather than the old requirement that he had to sire fewer than a quarter of his wife's kids, according to the study published online Nov. 28 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. "Imagine a mutation that encourages its bearers, if they are men, to be helpful and invest resources in the children of their sisters," Rogers says. "If that man lives in a society where most of his wife's children were fathered by other men, then this gene may not be in many of his wife's children. A man really doesn't know if any of his wife's kids were fathered by him, but he knows he and his sister have the same mom. So this gene may, in fact, be in more of his sisters' children." "Thus, over time, the frequency of this gene increases because men are increasing the survival and fitness of their sisters' children -- the ones more likely to carry the gene," he adds. The new study "shows that it is much easier than we thought for your niece to be a closer relative than your wife's daughter," Rogers says. The research was funded by the University of Utah. Why Men Help their Sisters' Kids: Theory and Debate "Men invest in children in many ways; they care for them, feed them and leave them resources when the men die," Roger says. "But in some human societies, these are the children of sisters rather than those of wives. For decades, anthropologists have wondered why." Extramarital mating is common in some cultures, including in central Africa and South America, he says, but not in the U.S. or other Western societies where infidelity, as prevalent as seems, much is less common by comparison. "In some societies it is expected; it isn't seen as cheating," Rogers says. "And it isn't really just about promiscuity. Even where extramarital sex isn't common, women get divorced and remarried and have households with offspring from several men." Rogers says: "In many societies where extramarital mating is the norm, men may not share genes with the children of wives. There is less doubt about relatedness to sisters' children. This suggests an interesting hypothesis: perhaps natural selection has shaped this practice, by encouraging males to direct investment toward genetic relatives." "There was great enthusiasm for this idea during the 1970s, until a problem came to light," he continues. "Simple calculations suggested that the explanation collapses unless men father fewer than about one in four of their wife's children. Many have doubted that the number -- the paternity threshold number -- could really be this low." Rogers' new study shows it is much easier than that for the idea to be true -- for natural selection to favor men who help their sisters' kids. He shows the theory holds true if men father fewer than half their wife's kids rather than fewer than one-quarter of those kids -- something much more likely to happen in reality. The study shows this mathematically by relaxing assumptions previously made as part of the uncle-caretaker theory. Rogers says it isn't enough to take into account the probability of paternity -- the odds that a child's biological father also is his mother's husband. The new study shows that if the assumptions made in old studies are relaxed, another parameter also must be measured: "the probability a brother and sister had the same biological father. The higher that probability, the more closely related a man is to his sister and his sister's kids." Making Old Assumptions More Realistic Rogers examined four assumptions made in previous studies and changed them to be more realistic. In this more realistic theory, men are more likely to share genes with their sister's children than under the old theory. The first two assumptions of the existing theory were that "women are equally receptive to extramarital affairs and that each has an infinite number of paramours," says Rogers. "These assumptions both lower estimates of relatedness between men and the children of their sisters. Relaxing either assumption increases our estimate of the fitness payoff to men who invest in children of sisters." [Rogers notes the theory applies to a man's sisters' children, but not to his brothers' children "because your brother has no more confidence than you do about the paternity of his wife's children. Sisters are a better bet, because they know who their kids are."] "Previous calculations assume every woman in the population is equally promiscuous," Rogers says. "If you relax that assumption and instead assume some women are more promiscuous than others, it means men are more likely to share genes with their sisters' children." "The earlier theory also assumed women each woman had an infinite number of boyfriends," instead of a range from one to infinity, he adds. "It made the math simple -- and it gave you a wrong answer." The new study showed mathematically that a man's relatedness to his sister's kids increases if his wife has fewer rather than more extramarital partners and if she allocates sex -- and thus having children -- unevenly among them. A third problem with previous studies is that they assumed resources given to any child were equally valuable. Rogers says that didn't account for the fact that giving your wife's kids twice as many resources isn't necessarily twice as good -- once the kids have what they need -- but may be only half again as good for them. So the man may be better off also giving resources to his sisters' kids. "The old model didn't account for that, and because of that, it biased things in favor of the wife's children. When the nieces and nephews share fewer genes, they end up getting zero resources rather than some reduced share, as they should." The fourth problem with most previous calculations was that they didn't account for a simple reality: "The best thing for a man to do depends on how his wife is going to respond," Rogers says. "If wives punish their husbands one way or another for delivering goods to their nieces and nephews, it's not just the husband deciding what is best for the husband. Women have an active role in all of these decisions and that role was ignored in the previous model." Another study published recently took that into account, making it easier to understand how natural selection might favor men who invest in their sisters' offspring. Rogers believes that natural selection and genetics ultimately contributes to people helping their relatives in most cultures, even if the primary motivation may be tax breaks for those who provide cash gifts to relatives rather than passing on one's genes. "People are nice to relatives all over the world, and I think selection has something to do with that," he says.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

No Reversal in Decline of Marriage

The recent decline in the number of Americans getting married shows no signs of reversing. In 2011, 4.2 million adults were newly married, about the same number as in 2010 and sharply lower than the 4.5 million newlyweds estimated in 2008. These estimates come from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which began asking respondents in 2008 whether they had been married, divorced or widowed in the previous 12 months. The decline in nuptials from 2008 to 2011 is in keeping with a general trend away from marriage in the U.S. Barely half of adults (51%) were married in 2011, according to ACS data, compared with 72% in 1960. Marriage increasingly is being replaced by cohabitation, single-person households and other adult living arrangements. The decrease in the number of newly married adults was apparent among nearly all education levels and ages. The only exception was among adults age 65 and older, where the number of newlyweds were roughly similar in 2011 (89,000) and 2008 (91,000). The decline in newlyweds from 2008 to 2011 could reflect population changes such as declines in the number of adults eligible to get married, but even when these factors are taken into account, the downward trend remains. Population change is factored in by creating a new-marriage rate in which the number of newlyweds is divided by the number of those eligible to marry (unmarried adults plus newly married adults). In 2011, there were an estimated 36.4 newlyweds per thousand unmarried or newly married adults ages 18 and older. This compares with an estimated new-marriage rate of 37.4 in 2010 and 41.4 in 2008. The new-marriage rate fell from 2008 to 2011 among all age and education groups, but was larger for less-educated Americans. Among adults who had not completed high school, an estimated 23.1 entered into marriage per thousand eligible in 2011, a 14% decline from the rate of 26.8 in 2008. Among adults who had completed at least a bachelor’s degree, an estimated 55.3 got married per thousand eligible in 2011, a 10% decline down from 61.5 in 2008.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Monogamy may not always be the best policy

Monogamy may not always be the best policy, according to a new review paper on the topic. Researchers explored the many long-believed benefits of monogamy, including sexual health and satisfaction, children's well-being, and relational adjustment and found no evidence to date to suggest the superiority of monogamy in those areas. They did, however, see a benefit for monogamy for avoiding stigma. Overall, they found that while monogamy may be an ideal choice for many individuals, consensual non-monogamy may be a viable alternative for those who choose it. "A Critical Examination of Popular Assumptions About the Benefits and Outcomes of Monogamous Relationships," Terri D. Conley et al., Personality and Social Psychology Review, scheduled to appear online in late-November 2012.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Oxytocin keeps flirting folks at arm's length

A team of researchers under the aegis of the University of Bonn tested the 'love hormone' on men Flirting brings women and men closer. But the "social distance" ensures that they will keep a certain spatial distance from each other. Researchers under the leadership of the University of Bonn studied whether this distance can be diminished by the so-called love hormone, oxytocin. The exact opposite turned out to be true – men who were in a committed relationship even maintained a greater distance from an attractive woman when under the influence of oxytocin than their control group. The study has just been published in the renowned "Journal of Neuroscience." When people approach each other, unconscious rules are at work. They will walk towards each other and will then talk while remaining at a very distinct distance, called "social distance" by scholars. "When they are approached beyond a certain distance, participants in a con-versation feel uncomfortable," said RenĂ© Hurle¬mann, head of the research group that conducted the study at the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Bonn. A very sensitive case of social distance is the one between a woman and a man when flirting. "The magic of the initial encounter often decides what it will turn into," says Dr. Hurlemann. Major releases of oxytocin during sex and at childbirth Together with colleagues from the Universities of Bochum and Chengdu, his team studied the effect oxytocin, a neuro¬peptide, has on the social distance between women and men. "This neurotransmitter is often called the 'love hormone,' reports Professor Wolfgang Maier, Director of the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Bonn, who also performs research for the German research center of neurodegenerative diseases (DZNE). It has long been known that the release of oxytocin in the brain is particularly strong during sex, or in parents, after the birth of their child. "This hormone contributes to strong social attachment," adds Prof. Maier. Researchers applied the hormone as a nasal spray The researchers gave a total of 57 adult male subjects either oxytocin or a placebo in the form of a nasal spray. The experiment was conducted using an attractive female researcher as the experimenter. The subjects approached her and remained standing in front of her at a distance of about 60 centimeters. "We wanted to find out whether the social distance can be influenced by means of the hormone," report researchers Dirk Scheele and Dr. Nadine Striepens. They hypothesized that oxytocin would result in a diminished social distance in the subjects because this substance is reputed to promote social relationships. To their surprise, the exact opposite happened – the male test subjects who had received oxytocin as a nasal spray and were in a relationship with a woman kept a greater distance from the attractive female researcher than subjects who were single or came from the control group who did not receive the hormone. Oxytocin acts as a kind of "fidelity hormone" "Here, oxytocin acted as a kind of 'fidelity hormone,' Dr. Hurlemann sums up the results. Men with female partners increased the distance. Single men and control subjects who had not received oxytocin, however, were more exposed to the sexual attractiveness of the experimenter. An additional experiment yielded quite similar results. The researchers showed the subjects photos of attractive women. The test subjects had an option to zoom in on the images – i.e., to approach them more closely. When administered oxytocin, men in a relationship did this more slowly than single men. The hormone increases the chances of survival "This provided us with important insights into what makes men tick," Dr. Hurlemann sums it up. Oxytocin had a key role in Nature's mechanism for ensuring that both parents fully focus on their vulnerable offspring. "The fidelity hormone kept men from immediately turning to another woman, after impregnating the partner, which increased the chances of survival for human offspring in pre-civilization times." ### Publication: Oxytocin Modulates Social Distance between Males and Females, The Journal of Neuroscience, DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2755-12.2012

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Snap Judgments During Speed Dating

For speed daters, first impressions are everything. But it's more than just whether someone is hot or not. Whether or not we like to admit it, we all may make snap judgments about a new face. Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in speed dating, during which people decide on someone's romantic potential in just a few seconds. How they make those decisions, however, is not well understood. But now, researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have found that people make such speed-dating decisions based on a combination of two different factors that are related to activity in two distinct parts of the brain. Unsurprisingly, the first factor in determining whether someone gets a lot of date requests is physical attractiveness. The second factor, which may be less obvious, involves people's own individual preferences -- how compatible a potential partner may be, for instance. The study, which is published in the November 7 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, is one of the first to look at what happens in the brain when people make rapid-judgment decisions that carry real social consequences, the researchers say. "Psychologists have known for some time that people can often make very rapid judgments about others based on limited information, such as appearance," says John O'Doherty, professor of psychology and one of the paper's coauthors. "However, very little has been known about how this might work in real social interactions with real consequences -- such as when making decisions about whether to date someone or not. And almost nothing is known about how this type of rapid judgment is made by the brain." In the study, 39 heterosexual male and female volunteers were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and then shown pictures of potential dates of the opposite sex. They were given four seconds to rate, on a scale from 1 to 4, how much they would want to date that person. After cycling through as many as 90 faces, the participants then rated the faces again -- outside the fMRI machine -- on attractiveness and likeability on a scale from 1 to 9. Later, the volunteers participated in a real speed-dating event, in which they spent five minutes talking to some of the potential dates they had rated in the fMRI machine. The participants listed those they wanted to see again; if there were any matches, each person in the pair was given the other's contact information. Perhaps to no one's surprise, the researchers found that the people who were rated as most attractive by consensus were the ones who got the most date requests. Seeing someone who was deemed attractive (and who also ended up with more date requests) was associated with activity in a region of the rater's brain called the paracingulate cortex, a part of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), which is an important area for cognitive control and decision making. The paracingulate cortex, in particular, has been shown to be active when the brain is comparing options. This phenomenon was fairly consistent across all participants, says Jeff Cooper, a former postdoctoral scholar in O'Doherty's lab and first author of the paper. In other words, nearly everyone considers physical attraction when judging a potential romantic partner, and that judgment is correlated with activity in the paracingulate cortex. "But that's not the only thing that's happening," Cooper adds. When some participants saw a person they wanted to date -- but who was not rated as very desirable by everyone else -- they showed more activation in the rostromedial prefrontal cortex (RMPFC), which is also a part of the DMPFC, but sits farther in front than the paracingulate cortex. The RMPFC has been previously associated with consideration of other people's thoughts, comparisons of oneself to others, and, in particular, perceptions of similarities with others. This suggests that in addition to physical attractiveness, the researchers say, people consider individual compatibility. While good looks remains the most important factor in determining whether a person gets a date request, a person's likeability -- as perceived by other individuals -- is also important. For example, likeability serves as a tiebreaker if two people have equal attractiveness ratings. If someone thought a potential date was more likeable than other people did, then that someone was more likely to ask for a date. "Our work shows for the first time that activity in two parts of the DMPFC may be very important for driving the snapshot judgments that we make all the time about other people," O'Doherty says. As for the results of the speed-dating event? A few couples were still together six weeks afterward, Cooper says, but the researchers have not followed up. The study was focused on the neural mechanisms behind snap judgments -- how those judgments relate to long-term romantic success, he says, is another question.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Are 'hookups' replacing romantic relationships on college campuses?

"Hooking up" has become such a trend on college campuses that some believe these casual, no-strings-attached sexual encounters may be replacing traditional romantic relationships. However, a new study by researchers with The Miriam Hospital's Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine suggests college students are not actually hooking up as frequently as one might think. According to their study, published online by the Journal of Adolescent Health, romantic relationships are still the most common context for sexual behavior, at least among women in their first year of college. Researchers report romantic sex with a boyfriend or relationship partner was found to be twice as common as hookup sex in this particular group of students. "Hooking up is one way that young adults explore intimate relationships, but it's not the most common way, and it is often exploratory," said Robyn L. Fielder, M.S., a research intern at The Miriam Hospital's Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine. "So while hooking up gets more attention in the media, college students continue to develop romantic relationships, which are actually the most common context for sexual behavior." "Hooking up" is a loosely defined term characterized by sexual intimacy, ranging from kissing to sexual intercourse, between partners who are not dating or in a romantic relationship and do not expect commitment. However, Fielder says little is known about the frequency of sexual hookups, how this prevalence changes over time and whether hookups are replacing romantic relationships among college students in general. Researchers surveyed 483 first-year female college students about their sexual behavior with hookup and romantic relationship partners during their freshmen year, as well as the summer after. They focused specifically on sexual behaviors, specifically oral or vaginal sex, that are most likely to have health consequences, such as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or pregnancy. Before starting college, one-third of incoming freshmen women reported having at least one hookup, while nearly 60 percent said they had sex at least once in the context of a romantic relationship. Forty percent reported sexual hookups during the first year of college, and less than one in five participants had a sexual hookup each month. However, more than half – 56 percent – engaged in oral and/or vaginal sex with a boyfriend or romantic partner during the year. The average number of sexual hookups per month ranged from one to three, suggesting that – for most women – hookups are experimental and relatively infrequent as opposed to a regular pattern of behavior. Specifically, the highest rate of sexual hookups took place at the beginning of the academic year (October) and the lowest rate was during the summer (June). Sexual hookups were also more common among Caucasian students than they were among Asian or African-American students. "These findings support what we know about the first year of college: That it is a time when we see increases in sexual behavior and substance use, as young people explore who they want to be and how they want to interact with others – especially romantic partners," said Fielder. "It's important that we gain a better understanding of students' sexual behavior, since it can potentially affect both their physical and mental health as well as their academic success." Fielder said the study's findings could guide university health promotion efforts, including the need for STD and pregnancy prevention, since many studies have shown that condom use among college students is inconsistent and, in fact, decreases over the first year of college.