Using Nonviolence Principles to Understand Couples
Gandhi’s life has influenced political leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, as well public figures like Albert Einstein and John Lennon. His teachings are powerful and have changed millions of lives, but do they apply in intimate relationships? Along with colleagues, I did a study examining interviews with men and women about their relationships. We wanted to see if partners’ attempts to reduce conflict were consistent with nonviolence principles, so we spent many hours reading stories from my research projects on conflict and abuse. People gave detailed accounts of their fights, adjustments, and reconciliation attempts. We discovered that their successes often reflected principles consistent with Gandhi’s ideals of fairness, commitment, and responsibility.
Obviously, I am being presumptuous by imagining what Gandhi would say in a therapist’s chair, but it is safe to assume he would emphasize core aspects of his life and teachings. Here are five of his philosophical principles, along with quotes from our research couples that illustrate what might be discussed in therapy with the great-souled one.
One. Partners must be the change they want to see in the relationship.
One of Gandhi’s best known tenets is that each person must take responsibility for change. It is always easy to see another’s flaws, but those are only half of the problem. When partners point fingers, they usually exacerbate the difficulties they are complaining about, but when they change their own misbehavior, things move forward.
In my research one woman finally decided to take responsibility for her role in a nasty fight: “It takes two people to keep an argument going, and I’ve realized that. What I’ve done was wrong. I shouldn’t have done the stuff I did.” Another man felt sorrow after a blow up and took the hard step of acknowledging his anger habit: “One bad night makes you look at yourself and say, you know what, I’m not that controlled person I thought I was.” Gandhi taught that complaints are empty, but self-action will bring change, and it often invites others to change as well.
Two. Others are equal and legitimate.
Gandhi experienced the degrading effects of caste systems, where some oppress and objectify others. Gandhi taught that all are equal, and deserving of respect. In intimate relationships problems arise when one acts smug and assumes their opinion is the best. Healthy relationships include partners who value each other’s opinions, and are fair. When one silences or shuts down the other, the relationship will likely fail.
One man in my study had undergone treatment for abusive behavior. There he absorbed powerful lessons about respect for women, and how arrogance causes damage. He recalled: “It’s not about gender, it’s about humanity. And we have to learn to deal with each other on an equal plane, and be on the same level . . . I don’t even understand all the things there are to understand about entitlement. I’ll spend the rest of my life learning that.”
Three. Partners share a commitment to protest wrongs.
Gandhi was a man of peace, but protested vigorously against injustice. He said, “Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.” In strong relationships problems are addressed, not swept under the rug. Partners speak up when treated badly, and request respect, which roots out problems and fosters a climate where both can speak and be heard.
Some participants assertively addressed relational concerns. One said: “Most of the time I speak my mind. If I don’t want it to happen again then I’m gonna tell you that it bothered me.” Another stopped a fight as it was escalating: “I said, ‘Ok, this is getting out of control. We need to stop and we need to talk about this later when we can . . . talk about it without getting upset and yelling at each other. . . it’s not doing any good.’” Sometimes peace is attained by a strong but respectful voice.
Four. Influence should come from love, not fear.
Gandhi believed the way to change a problem was through love, not threats. Some partners use anger, shaming, or badgering to get their way, but these always cause damage and resentment. In contrast, couples who kindly request things of each other do better. For example, one couple I worked with in therapy disagreed about how to deal with their toddler’s tantrums. Jodi did not like the way John (names have been changed) shouted and spanked. She threatened him: “If you can’t control yourself, I am leaving.” John was annoyed and defensive: “You are too soft on him and he is becoming spoiled.” Later, Jodi tried kindness: “I don’t want us to fight, but it hurts me to see you lose your temper and scare him. I want us to work together in a way we both feel good about. You are a good father and this is hard.” John was moved by this and they made a new plan.
Many couples from the research also found that love was the better way to request change. One woman learned to start with the positive: “I tell him how I feel and show him the commitment that we’ve had for two years.” Another man had to stop forcing his opinions onto his wife: “I have to consciously try to not . . . be in control of her. . . Now I try to let her make her own decision.” Love creates a climate where change will last.
Five. An eye for an eye will only make both partners blind.
Gandhi taught that violence creates more problems than it solves. Even if retaliation “works” by shutting someone down, it causes damage to people and relationships. This is particularly true in abusive couples, where screaming and hitting is used to control and beat down the spirit of another. Payback and petty vengeance will doom a relationship, but patience and kindness will create love. For example, research has continually found that in strong marriages spouses use positive emotions to regroup when things are going wrong. They do this by taking a time out, expressing commitment to each other, apologizing, and moving on. This cools down an interaction that was heading towards the boiling point.
It is hard to choose peace, especially when emotions start to flow, but it can be very powerful. In my study, one woman described her efforts to keep her defenses down: “I try to listen and often I try to put myself in his shoes to see how that would sound . . . frequently I’ll hit a point where I’m like ‘Yeah, ok. What you said is absolutely right.’” Another calmly expressed love and changed direction when things became aggressive, “I still love you, let’s take a deep breath and go watch TV.”
Gandhi refused to give into anger and retaliation, even when provoked by those who hated him. His life demonstrated that those who choose fairness, justice, and love can bring about powerful changes, and couples who follow his lead will strengthen their intimate relationships.
First posted on Psychology Today.
Whiting, J. B., Harris, S. F., Oka, M, & Cravens, J. D. (2016). Be the change you want to see: Discovering principles of nonviolent social movements in intimate relationships. The Family Journal, 24, 367-377
How your physical warmth has a literal connection to your relationship
“I know I am not the typical guy,” Marco told me in therapy. “I love snuggles and touches with Julianne, and I don’t need to go further.” Juli said she was open to affection, but wasn’t big into “touching just for the heck of it.” Marco had a painful history of divorce and betrayal, and he liked the reassurance from their connection. “He always wants me to sit with him on the couch and drink cocoa,” Juli laughed, “and watch Disney movies.”
They joked about their particular pattern, but it may have served a deeper purpose. Marco’s desire to share Juli’s heat was a natural way for him to feel secure. Over the last decade researchers have found an intriguing connection between physical temperature and relationship bonding. Science is finding that the link between physical and psychological heat is not just metaphorical. A warm body often leads to warm feelings.
In one study, volunteers were asked to either hold a hand warmer or frozen gel pack for a few minutes, then play games with strangers. Those with hot hands felt better about their companions and cooperated more often. In another project, participants in a balmy room (set at 79 degrees Fahrenheit) evaluated mug shots with more leniency than participants looking at the same pictures when the room was a chilly 68 degrees. If you are trying to impress a date, it may be better to hit the beach than go ice skating.
Participants in another experiment were on their way to the fourth floor of a university psychology building. In the elevator they found themselves next to a woman struggling to write on a clipboard while holding books and a mug. The woman -- an accomplice -- asked the person to hold the drink. Depending on the day, participants held a steaming or an icy beverage. As they arrived on the fourth floor they gave back the beverage, and were then asked to rate people in stories they read. Sure enough, those who had carried the hot mug consistently rated the characters as more generous and caring. Other research has found that lonely people take more hot baths, and movie lovers watch more romance during cold seasons. When we feel alone, we seek warmth, and when we feel cold, we seek connection.
Marco and Juli learned that when things got frosty between them, they needed cuddles or walks in the sunshine. The next time you feel distant from a loved one, try long hugs, a sauna, or some herbal tea. You might warm up the relationship along with yourself.
Williams, L. E., & Bargh, J. A. (2008). Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth. Science, 322, 606-607.
Zaraska, M. (March/April 2017). The warmth of friendship, the chill of betrayal. Scientific American Mind. 66-71.
In May of 2016, actress Amber Heard accused her husband Johnny Depp of hitting her with a phone and assaulting her. She posted pictures of injuries to her face and filed for divorce. This ignited an ongoing debate between Heard and Depp, which has continued with personal accusations and bitterness. When the story appeared, outsiders chose sides and complete strangers weighed in online with certainty about what happened and who was at fault. Some comments blamed him: “I believe her. He's the idiot that didn't do a prenup. Get that money girl.” Even more attacked her: “She's lying! The police didn't even find any evidence that Johnny Depp hit her. I wouldn't blame him if he really did kick her butt, because she deserves it!” And, “I can see her flapping that mouth of her's [sic] cursing at him, telling him ‘hit me, hit me, I'll bury you in the public eye’. . . How trashy of you, Amber, especially after his mum just died.”
It is impossible, of course, to know what exactly happened in this messy debacle, but as a researcher of domestic violence I was interested in the finger pointing and accusations. When a case of violence comes to light, a curious thing happens. There is outrage, but it is often directed at all parties, including the victim. In the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard case, it is not clear who is at fault or what happened, but in Heard’s accusations, she claims to be the victim. Nevertheless, in a study I did with colleagues, we examined the public’s reactions to this claim and found that four times as many people attacked her rather than him. Our purpose was not to determine the accuracy of Heard’s allegations or decide if she was a victim or a perpetrator. We simply wanted to analyze the social media comments that followed her claims.
In the months after the story broke, we gathered and analyzed hundreds of posts from Facebook and comments on news sites. People were often judgmental, sarcastic, and angry with both Depp and Heard, as well as their fellow commenters. Over 37% of the posts specifically blamed or attacked Heard, with people questioning her story, credibility, and character. Only 9% of the comments blamed Depp. People cited evidence and made their cases for and against each, while others made comments about domestic violence or got into arguments. Although the details of this situation are clearly debatable, strong reactions often happen in situations where someone has been injured. Even in other cases where it is more obvious someone has been victimized, many criticize the one being hurt. Why? Here are four reasons we blame victims.
1. We like Certainty
It is upsetting to hear about people hurting each other, and explaining it helps us feel better. Creating a simple reason is easy, but most cases of domestic violence are messy. Outsiders hear a few details, and assume they know how best to solve the problem. Sometimes this includes expecting the victim to fix it. For instance, it is common to tell victims to leave abusers, but this can be excruciatingly difficult, and if it doesn’t happen, a friend or professional who “knows best” can become frustrated. Being certain feels good, but it may be wrong and hurtful.
2. We Like Fairness
Little kids complain that things aren’t fair, and adults want the world to be fair as well. Unfortunately, this desire for people to “get what they deserve” can get misinterpreted when someone is suffering. Outsiders sometimes make the mistake called the “just world fallacy,” believing that victims must have caused their own woes. Researchers have found that observers create reasons for other’s misfortunes even if there is no evidence for them. In one study, people watched a woman solving problems and receiving electric shocks when she made a mistake. Afterwards, they criticized her appearance and personality and said she deserved the shocks. This unfortunate tendency also occurs when rape victims get blamed for dressing provocatively or for drinking.
3. We Like Safety
I worked with a client who was molested by an 8th grade teacher, and when she reported it she was ignored at first, and then publicly shamed by angry students and parents who rallied to the instructor’s cause. It was easier to attack a powerless girl than it was to accept that a beloved teacher was also a predator. In our study, many of the harsh attacks on Amber Heard were from women. This may have been to protect their own sense of safety. In other words, it was too scary to believe that if it could happen to her, then it could happen to anyone, so she must have done something to cause it. What we can’t control, we can’t prevent, and we all want safety.
Being certain feels good, but it may be wrong and hurtful
4. We Don’t Want to Hate Someone We Like
Similarly, people are reluctant to think badly of someone they already like. This is a type of denial, where it is easier to blame the victim than accept that nice people can also do awful things. For example, in the Johnny Depp accusations, someone posted: “Not once was he characterized as a bad person. Now all of a sudden she’s making him look like an abuser?” Comments like these suggest that since Depp is a beloved movie star he is not capable of hurting his wife. However, most violence is not perpetrated by psychopaths, but otherwise normal people, who have a mix of good and bad traits. We assume that we know someone from their friendly public face, and it is hard to adjust these impressions and accept that likable people can do hurtful things.
Of course, bad things do happen to those who don’t cause it. Even if a “reason” exists for victimization, no one deserves to be hurt. Most violent relationships are complicated, and it is rarely helpful to rush to judgment, which usually makes things worse. It is better to hold abusers responsible for their choices than blame someone for being a victim. This will help us move towards the safe world we all want.
This blog was originally posted on Psychology Today.
Whiting, J. B., Dansby, R. A.., Cravens, J. D., & Banford-Witting, A. (2017). Blaming victims of intimate partner violence: A content analysis of online social media comments. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Imagine you see a beautiful bouquet of roses. They are striking, taking your breath away. You draw closer, and with each fine detail of color, fragrance, and texture you become more enchanted. Not caring about the price, they become yours. Your happiness is real, but after bringing them home, you get distracted by a pile of work, dirty dishes, and Instagram alerts calling your name. Instead of trimming, watering and placing the bouquet in a vase, you leave them on the counter. By the time you remember them they are wilted, limp, and unattractive. How did your powerful infatuation sag into complacency?
Romantic love is more intoxicating than the rich beauty of roses. In a fifth-of-a-second glance at a potential mate, the brain feels a thrill. A neurological cocktail of adrenaline, dopamine and oxytocin floods the head and lights up the eyes. It is powerful and exciting, and makes us act with abandon, as it did for one giddy fifth grader whose love note (names changed) went viral:
Dear Lexi. Your eyes remind me of the evening sky. My heart felt like broken glass until I saw you, and then I felt like I had every Pokémon ever. I love how you play Zelda even when people think it's weird. If you liked me it would be my first ever victory. Love Jake.
During Valentine’s season, we celebrate the passion of love by spending approximately 19.7 billion dollars (2016 numbers) on chocolate, pedicures and little message-stamped hearts that look and taste like sidewalk chalk. The holiday is named for St. Valentine who, as legend reports, was a priest in third century Rome. At that time, the emperor made a decree that young men should remain single to focus on their military pursuits. Valentine defied the emperor by marrying young lovers in secret. Eventually, he was found out and put to death. We revere his legacy now by grabbing and gifting plastic-wrapped flowers. But flowers and passion can wilt.
Fortunately, there is more to love than the fires of passion. Love in its complete form has two parts: passion and friendship. Love often begins with excitement, but it is maintained by being planted in a stable bond. In the brain, these two states light up in different but overlapping areas. Early excitement activates in the brain as desire, ecstasy, and goal-directed pursuit. But the brain’s response to a cherished long-term spouse looks like contentment, caring, and nurturing.
Many relationships go cold because one or both of these sides of love are neglected. This happened with married clients I will call Victor and Vicky. They were in a rut. Victor had been downsized and was working a low-paying temp job, and they were behind on their mortgage. Vicky was working part-time at a call center, but her shift was early, while Victor’s lasted until 9:00 each night. On top of that, their son’s grade school was calling them regularly because of his disruptive behavior. "He has that ADHD,” explained Vicky, “but he has a whole lot of the H.”
Victor and Vicky were frustrated with their son, and each other. They had lost the silly humor and close relationship they once enjoyed, and now mostly passed grumbling in the night. When I asked what types of fun they used to have, they described going to social gaming groups, and playing as a couple. “We loved board games,” Victor said, “but now we are just bored.”
Love often begins with excitement, but it is maintained by being planted in a stable bond.
These two accepted the challenge to schedule time to talk, have fun, and cuddle. They worked on using supportive words rather than grunts or nods. Research has found that couples who remain close over years are those who support each other’s interests, growth, and feelings. Spouses who respond to each other’s words positively are also more physically attracted to each other. Just being nice is connected to being passionate. Another study found that for both husbands and wives, the biggest factor in how satisfied they felt about the sex, romance, and passion in their relationship was the quality of the their friendship. Victor and Vicky didn’t need Caribbean cruises or diamonds to revive their relationship, they just needed to act like good friends and respond to each other with kindness and attention.
Passion and friendship are related, and both can be strengthened. Victor and Vicky recommitted to a once-a-week date, pulled out their Monopoly board, and got their work schedules in sync. This increased the quality and quantity of their time together, and they once again felt close.
How is your relationship doing? Is it rooted in a rich friendship? Are you feeling passion? It may need some tender loving care. A relationship that is nourished with love will stay fresh and alive for a lifetime.
Acevedo, B.P., Aron A., Fisher, H. E, & Brown, L. (2012). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7, 145-159.
Ortigue, S., Bianchi-Demicheli, F., Patel., N., Frum, C., & Lewis, J. W. (2010). Neuroimaging of love: fMRI meta-analysis evidence toward new perspectives in sexual medicine. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7(11), 3541-3552.
Gottman, J. M. (1999). The Marriage Clinic. Sage.
This was first posted in the Institute for Family Studies Blog: http://family-studies.org/true-love-is-passion-rooted-in-friendship/
And he took her in his arms and kissed her under the sunlit sky,
and he cared not that they stood high upon the walls in the sight of many.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is known worldwide for his fantastic characters and creations. His hobbits, dwarves, elves and warriors have changed the face of literature and culture. As a boy, he had unusual interests. He loved reading mythology, playing chess, drawing fierce dragons, and by age 9, young Ronald (as he was usually called) had invented several languages. Well-known is Tolkien’s prodigious geek cred, but less known is that he was a hopeless romantic.
He grew up in England in the early 1900s in difficult circumstances, having lost both his father and mother by his mid-teens. Taken under the guardianship of Father Francis, a Catholic priest, young Ronald became lonely and contemplative. At 16, he and his brother moved into a small apartment, where downstairs was a girl that would change Ronald’s life. Edith Bratt was a pretty nineteen-year-old, with light grey eyes and a flair for music. Ronald was lovestruck. Edith’s interest was piqued, and she began to befriend the Tolkien brothers. Ronald would lower a basket from his window, and Edith would load it with snacks. The food depletions must have puzzled Edith’s guardian, Mrs. Faulkner, as Edith was slender and less than five feet tall.
Over time, Edith was won over by the younger Ronald, and they began spending their spare time together. They made each other laugh. One amusing pastime was to meet at a rooftop tea room in Birmingham and throw lumps of sugar into the hats of those walking below. When one bowl was empty, they moved to the next table. Their companionship was so consuming, it caused alarm in Father Francis and Mrs. Faulkner (assigned the code name, “The Old Lady” by the pair). The guardians thought the relationship improper and were upset that Ronald was not attending to his studies. To skirt this disapproval, Edith and Ronald invented a whistle call, which would summon the other to the window, where they could talk into the night.
One weekend, the two conspired for a meeting in the countryside. They rode and returned separately, but were spotted by a caretaker, who mentioned it to the cook back at the church. Around this same time, Ronald failed his Oxford entrance exams, and Father Francis put his foot down and insisted there be no more courting of Edith. The pair could not be kept apart, however, and they again planned a rendezvous. They plotted well, met secretly, and boarded a train for a getaway. The retreat was to another town where they shopped at a jewelry store, buying gifts for each other’s eighteenth and twenty-first birthdays. Unfortunately, their luck was again cursed, as an observer recognized them and word got back to Father Francis. This time, the priest was firm and unambiguous – Ronald was to have no contact with Edith until his twenty-first birthday.
Tolkien was depressed, but dutiful, and obeyed his guardian’s wishes. Over the next three years, he passed his college exams, and began life at Oxford, playing rugby and studying Gothic, Anglo-Saxon, and Welsh. He did not, however, forget about his Edith.
On the eve of his twenty-first birthday, he sat in bed watching his clock. The moment it struck midnight, he began a letter to Edith, pouring out his love, and proposing marriage. After a few anxious days he received a letter back, with the devastating news that she was engaged to a more suitable prospect, George Field. She was getting old (almost twenty-four!) and felt the urgency of time. She also had assumed their long separation had cooled Ronald’s fancies and that he had moved on.
Ronald jumped on the first train to Cheltenham, where Edith met him at the station. They walked out into the chilly countryside along the railway viaduct. He made an impassioned case that melted Edith’s heart. She agreed to ditch George, send back his ring, and throw her lot in with the college boy with the strange interests in Beowulf and linguistics.
Their marriage was filled with joy, laughter, and four children. One day, the lovers had an experience that lodged so deep in Ronald’s soul that it became a key story in his books. He and Edith were walking in the woods and came upon a clearing filled with flowering white hemlock. She began to dance in the sunshine and it took Ronald’s breath away. Recounting this story to his son many years later, Tolkien wrote: “In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance.” This event inspired the romance between Beren and Luthien, a mortal man and an elf-maiden. In his book, The Sillmarillion, he wrote of the pair: "But wandering in the summer in the woods of Neldoreth, Beren came upon Luthien, daughter of Thingol and Melian, at a time of evening under moonrise, as she danced upon the unfading grass in the glades beside Esgalduin. Then all memory of his pain departed from him, and he fell into an enchantment; for Luthien was the most beautiful of all the children of Iluvatar."
The passion between J.R.R. Tolkien and his beloved Edith is moving, because we all have passion within. Their fierce connection demonstrates the depth of love humans can attain. However, although relationships catch fire with passion, they continue burning through effort and sacrifice. Tolkien understood this, as he reflected about how his marriage to Edith took commitment to stay strong. He said, “Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes in the sense that almost certainly … both partners might [have] found more suitable mates. But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to.” Despite Tolkien’s passionate nature, he understood that relationships take work: “No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial.”
Tolkien knew that true love isn’t attained by a flash of ecstatic desire. It takes regular care and attention to the little things. For example, Ronald and Edith loved fussing over each other and giving each other small presents. In their later years, they talked endlessly about their children and grandchildren. Their relationship was built upon passion and friendship, which nourished their love from their early courtship until the end of their lives.
Edith died in 1971 at age 82 in Bournemouth, Hampshire, England and Tolkien had the name “Luthien” engraved on her headstone. When he died twenty-one months later, he was buried with her, with the name “Beren” added to his name.
Adapted from Jason Whiting, Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways We Deceive in Relationships. Cedar Fort Publishing.
Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: The Authorized Biography (Houghton Mifflin, 1977).
Colin Duriez, JRR Tolkien: The Making of a Legend (Oxford, UK: Lion Books, 2012).
Carpenter, Humphrey and Tolkien, Christopher (eds.) (1981). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin).
Alison Flood, “JRR Tolkien Advised by WH Auden to Drop Romance,” The Guardian, 11 February 2014.
Sam Guzman, “Tolkien Speaks: The Secret to a Happy Marriage,” July 13, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.catholicgentleman.net/2015/07/tolkien-speaks-the-secret-to-a-happy-marriage/
Judi Heit, “Edith Bratt Tolkein” 2010. Retrieved from http://classicmuses.blogspot.com/2010/06/edith-mary-bratt.html
“‘I have done that’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains inexorable.
Eventually – memory yields.”
Your Memory is Deceptive
Shelby and Stan (names have been changed) were arguing in front of me over an incident at her parent’s house. “We went there for a family barbecue after we first started dating,” Shelby reported. “Stan was just getting to know my family, and he ended up losing his temper and embarrassing me in front of everyone. It was a catastrophe!”
“Her little brother is a twerp, and he came up and pulled my shorts down around my ankles,” said Stan. “He thought this was hysterical, but I was mad.”
“So you hurt him,” Shelby said. “You Hulked out and tackled him and he ended up with bruises and is now freaked out by you. My parents were wondering what kind of guy I brought over.”
“Your parents should have been wondering about what kind of teenager they were raising.” Stan snapped. “Your brother was a spoiled punk, and I didn’t tackle him. I just chased him and put him in a headlock. He needed to learn his lesson, and he wasn’t hurt, he just had a couple of scuffs.”
“He was bleeding and crying! You almost killed him!”
“I barely touched him, and he only had scrapes and was laughing!”
“Everyone was shocked at what you did!”
“No one cared! They thought he deserved it!”
Have you done this in your relationship? Recounted the same event but had different versions of it? Have you become frustrated at your partner’s inaccuracies in memory? How could they be so wrong about basic facts? Are they lying or just confused? They are probably just doing the same thing you’re doing, which is remembering something incompletely. Memory is not a video that replays the same way each time. It is like an improvisational play, where themes and events are reworked slightly with each performance.
Professor Ulrick Neisser did an impromptu experiment after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. The day after the disaster, he asked his class of 106 students to write down where they were when they heard about it. Three years later he asked these students the same thing. Over 90% of the accounts changed, and about half of them were inaccurate in at least two thirds of the details. The revised memories had supplanted the earlier, more accurate ones, but the new ones still felt true. One student was shown her first description, written three years earlier, and said, “I know that’s my handwriting, but I couldn’t possibly have written that.”[i]
Memories are shaped by feelings that existed at the time, but also by the way the memory is retrieved. For example, how someone asks a question will influence details of an event. Elizabeth Loftus showed participants a short movie of an auto accident, and afterward, asked them questions, but discovered that the words she used influenced what observers remembered. For instance, she asked people how fast the car was going when it hit the other car. But when she changed the word “hit,” to “smashed,” the estimates of speed were higher. More people remembered seeing broken glass when she asked the “smashed” version as well. [ii]
If Memory Serves . . .
If a partner recalls a story while angry, the details will be more negative. Brains fill in gaps to support the angry version, and memory serves its owner. Details that don’t fit are dropped, and others are added to make the memory coherent and pleasing.[iii] It only takes a few days after an event for the details to change.[iv] Stan and Shelby may have had similar initial memories of when Stan mooned the barbecue, but their current marriage problems were darkening these recollections. Now Stan remembers Shelby being biased and critical, and she remembers him as extreme and violent.
This negative filter was a bad sign. Couples who are not doing well say things like, “We got married too young, I didn’t see what a slob he was then.” Or, “She tricked me into thinking she would actually be excited about sex.” In one study, researchers interviewed fifty-six couples, none of whom were planning divorce. However, the team accurately predicted the seven couples that would divorce based on the negative way they talked about their history.[v] After relationships fail, exes are inclined toward “retroactive pessimism,” where they recall the problems in a way that sounds like they were inevitable: “It was doomed from the start.”[vi]
The reverse is true as well. When couples feel loving, they recall things more generously. Satisfied partners describe their history in positive terms and will laugh about previous bumps and misunderstandings. When President Kennedy was assassinated, there was an outpouring of grief in the United States. In a poll following, two-thirds of respondents recalled voting for him in the previous election, when only half really had. People’s memories changed to be consistent with the positive emotions they felt about their martyred president.[vii]
Not only do memories feel true, but they aren’t easily corrected. When someone is attached to a story, challenging it with contrary information can entrench it further. This tendency is called “belief perseverance,” which is when a person refuses to change even in the face of contradictory data.[viii] Stubborn partners are often wrong, but they are rarely in doubt.
Belief perseverance is self-protective. When couples attack each other’s recall, even with evidence, it feels like an attack of the person. Stan and Shelby were implying the other was incompetent, not just inaccurate. Even if each brought witnesses from the barbecue to testify for their version, it would not convince the other. When a spouse tries to browbeat the other into agreement it doesn’t work, and causes resentment. Imagine an argument where one comes away grateful for having been forcibly corrected: “Gee, thanks Shelby for helping me see how wrong I was! Now I can go forward in truth and light!”
Stan and Shelby finally realized no amount of arguing would convince each other whose story was most correct at that fateful poolside day. As they improved at having positive conversations they were better able to laugh and see that their stories had become warped. They heard each other out and agreed to drop the issue. They also agreed to avoid pool parties at her parent’s house until her brother left home.
Excerpt from Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways we Deceive in Relationships. Cedar Fort Publishing.
[i] Ulric Neisser, and Nicole Harsch, "Phantom Flashbulbs: False Recollections of Hearing the News About Challenger." (1992). In Affect and accuracy in Recall: Studies of 'Flashbulb' Memories, eds. E. Winograd, Ulric Neisser (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 9-31). ISBN 978-0521401883
[ii] Elizabeth F. Loftus and John C. Palmer, “Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction: An Example of the Interaction Between Language and Memory,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 585-589 (1974).
[iii] H. L. Roediger, E. T. Bergman, and M. L. Meade, “Repeated Reproduction from Memory,” in Bartlett, Culture and Cognition, ed. A. Saito (London, UK: Psychology Press, 2000), 115-34.
[iv] Burger, Jerry M., and Rose M. Huntzinger. "Temporal Effects On Attributions for One's Own Behavior: The Role of Task Outcome." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 21, no. 3 (1985): 247-261.
[v] John M. Gottman, The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011).
[vi] Lawrence J. Sanna, and Edward C. Chang, "The Past Is Not What It Used to Be: Optimists’ Use of Retroactive Pessimism To Diminish The Sting of Failure," Journal of Research in Personality 37, no. 5 (2003): 388-404.
[vii]Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simmons, The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us (New York: Harmony Books, 2011).
[viii] Craig A. Anderson, “Belief Perseverance,” In Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, eds. R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2007, pp. 109-110).
Being mistreated by the person you love, especially when physical abuse is involved, is one of the most frightening and traumatic experiences a woman can face, and it is hard to know what to do when it happens. A woman who is a victim of violence faces a particularly complicated dilemma. Should she stay or go? Although this may seem to be an easy choice, as discussed in my last post, there are many issues that can make it difficult for a victim of domestic violence to leave. For instance, victimized women often love and feel committed to their partner, or they want to help him. They frequently have financial stressors, and may fear that if they try to leave, the abuser will hurt them or their children.
Still, most female victims of controlling male violence eventually do leave.[i] It often takes several attempts, but many women find help and a way out of their abusive situation.
In my research on this topic, I worked with colleagues to examine hundreds of Twitter posts by victims of violence. These women used the hashtag #WhyIleft to share reasons they left abusive relationships. We analyzed and coded these women’s voices, and found four key factors they described as helpful in their journey to break free.[ii]
Factor One – Facing Reality and Choosing Growth
Being hurt by someone you love is bewildering and painful, and a common reaction to it is uncertainty (i.e., “Did he really just hit me?” or “Did I do something to cause him to act this way?” or “Maybe he really is sorry and won’t hurt me again”). But when abused women in our study comprehended the reality of the abuse, it was often a catalyst for leaving.
As one woman described it, “I learned ‘abuse’ was the word for what I was going through. Once I knew, I knew better.” Another stopped wishing things would change, and said, “I finally realized he will not change and never will.” One eventually saw through the abuser’s lies: “I believed all the apologies and pledges of love but #whyIleft I realized that those words were lifeless falling from cold dead lips.”
One confusing element of abuse occurs when abusers pressure victims to accept blame for what happened.[iii] When these women realized the abuse was not their fault, it helped them regain self-worth. One woman tweeted, “I finally realized it wasn’t my fault and that I didn’t have to put up with it. My mental state deserved better, I deserved better.”
Seeing themselves accurately as a woman of worth also led to changes. “Because I woke up. Because I saw myself in the pain of my family’s eyes. I deserved to love myself again,” another woman wrote. Others had similar insights: “I had to love myself and realize that it wasn’t up to me to change him,” and “I learned to love me and left him.”
Factor Two – Accepting Support
Many victims become isolated from family and friends through the manipulations of the perpetrator. When these women were able to reconnect with other people in their life who loved them, they often found help and the strength to leave. Still, accepting support can be difficult. As one woman tweeted, “I finally told my family. I admitted to myself that I needed help and strength/support.” Another said it was “because of my dad,” and another “found friends that made me strong.” Some found healthier intimate relationships: “I met someone who showed me that love wasn’t supposed to hurt, that love wasn’t supposed to be scary or hard to talk about.”
Others cited spiritual and religious supports: “Because someone repeatedly told me I deserved better. Thank you scripture,” and, “Felt nudge from God when [the abuser] had a gun to my head… ‘Do not be afraid.’ Left next day.” Another “realized God had a safer plan for me and led me to my [current] husband, a man of integrity.”
Others benefited from professional help, tweeting: “My therapist told me that’s not love,” and another encouraged fellow victims to seek outside assistance: “Courage is not easy, but you can,” she wrote. “It is possible. Seek professional help.”
Factor Three – Protecting Children
Many of these women are mothers, and protecting their children was a high priority, which for some meant leaving. “I left because I had two daughters,” one woman wrote. “I didn’t want to be the excuse they used to put up with abuse later.” Another woman tweeted, “If I stayed any longer, my boys would not have only seen ‘how men are supposed to be’ but ‘how women are supposed to respond’.” And another explained: “He abused me in front of our children, I finally had enough. I didn’t want my children repeating the cycle.” One mother cited a specific incident that was a turning point: “When my 5 yo little girl asked why Daddy treats me like that with tears in her eyes, I knew I had to leave.”
A related reason women left was because of possible child abuse. One tweeted: “He turned that despising stare upon my children [and I] knew they were next.” Another wrote: “I knew he would hit our son and I risked losing custody for failure to protect.”
Factor Four – Fear and Exhaustion
Many women came to a breaking point when the fear and the pain simply became overwhelming. “I was tired of being afraid of the person I slept next to every night,” one wrote, while another needed a prompt from a friend: “Someone reminded me that living in fear isn’t supposed to be normal.” Another woman was worn down completely: “I was filled with so much anxiety. I had stomach issues, panic attacks, and TMJ. On the verge of insanity.”
Some tweets reflected a fear of being killed: “I knew I would never be happy with him. I feared that he might kill me one day,” and, “I knew he would kill me.” Others felt that things were getting to a dangerous level: “I didn’t want the next time that he hurt me to be the very last…ever,” one tweeted, and another wrote, “I actually felt the possibility of death breathing down my neck.”
In some relationships where intimate partner violence has occurred, couples are able to stop the violence and find better ways of interacting. Importantly, this requires the perpetrator to take responsibility for his behavior and learn how to become nonviolent.[iv] However, abuse is always damaging to the spirit and body of a partner, and in many cases, the violence persists and often escalates. For many women, the safest choice is to just leave. As the brave women in our study shared, by finding courage and seeing support from loved ones, victims of intimate partners violence can break free of abuse and build a life of dignity and safety.
[i] Barnett, O. W., Miller-Perrin, C. L., & Perrin, R. D. (2011). Family violence across the lifespan: an introduction (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
[ii] Cravens, J. D., Whiting, J. B., & Aamar, R. (2015). Why I stayed/left: An analysis of voices of intimate partner violence on social media. Contemporary Family Therapy. DOI 10.1007/s10591-015-9360-8.
[iii] Whiting, J. B., Oka, M. & Fife, S. T. (2012). Appraisal distortions and intimate partner violence: Gender, power, and interaction. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2011.00285.x
[iv] Merchant, L. V., & Whiting, J. B. (in submission) Factors in couples’ desistance from domestic violence.
Billionaire inventor Elon Musk is known for his intense drive to change the world. He has developed technology to get humans off fossil fuels and up to the stars and is the CEO of electric car company Tesla, as well as rocket launcher SpaceX. By all accounts he is brilliant, driven, and uncompromising. His successes have earned him respect and money, but he has struggled in his romantic pursuits.
His first marriage to author Justine Wilson was rocky, with fights about money, work, and the raising of five young sons. Justine reported that Elon acted as an “alpha male,” and criticized what he perceived as her flaws. She pushed back and aired marital grievances on her blog. “I am your wife,” she told him, “not your employee.” His response was that if she were his employee, he “would have fired her.” Their marriage ended in 2008 after eight years.
Soon after, Elon met British model and actress Talulah Riley at a London party. They had a whirlwind romance and became engaged within weeks. Their marriage was a battle of wills. Talulah described it: “I remember him saying, ‘Being with me was choosing the hard path’. . . . It’s quite hard, quite the crazy ride.’” The couple divorced in 2012, and Musk tweeted to her, saying: “It was an amazing four years. I will love you forever. You will make someone very happy one day.” He soon decided that he was the one she would make happy, and they remarried in 2013. Despite their obvious desire to be together, the problems continued and the couple divorced a second time earlier this year.
Signs of Deterioration
Even the brightest and most passionate marriages can get derailed. Some relationships are planted in rocky soil from the start, but others develop weeds or die from neglect. Certain problems are particularly important to root out before they do permanent damage. Here are six research-based warning signs that indicate a relationship is heading in the wrong direction.
1. Distance or Lack of Emotion
It is natural for the initial headiness of love to wear off. However, it is possible to revive emotional sparks that have gone dormant. One study showed that couples who went on interesting dates, such as rock climbing or taking Italian lessons for about eight weeks, experienced greater feelings of closeness and affection than those who stuck to traditional dinner dates. Other studies have shown that meditations focused on appreciation of a partner strengthen affection. If you have lost that loving feeling, do things together, act kind, and the love will follow.
2. Sarcasm and Disrespect
It is fun to laugh, and humor bonds couples together and keeps things fresh. However, if jokes turn sarcastic or cutting, they will damage the relationship. All forms of contempt and cruelty harm both partners, and often lead to divorce. If he acts disgusted with her choice in clothes, or she mocks his parenting, it is time for a gut check. Both partners need to show self-control and be respectful in words and tone.
3. Lack of Trust
Couples who are getting to know each other often stretch the truth, especially when trying to impress. They might be falsely enthusiastic (“That is so cool!”) or claim to love the same things (“That movie was my favorite also!”). One study found that strangers lied several times in the first 10 minutes of talking. Chris Rock accurately observed: “When you meet somebody for the first time you are not meeting them. You’re meeting their representative.”
As relationships progress, however, people need to be authentic to develop true intimacy. When partners are deceptive, even for “good” reasons like keeping the peace or flattering, it will create distance. Although some fudging may occur in relationships (“I am fine with your mother coming over for two weeks”), all lies damage trust, and a willingness to deceive is a red flag. When trust has been lost, it takes time and energy to regain.
4. Unwillingness to Compromise
If you are a vegetarian, but your significant other always insists you go to the Texas Roadkill restaurant because they love the steak, it indicates an unwillingness to compromise. Healthy couples take turns accommodating and negotiating. Different opinions do not cause divorces, but the way these differences are handled might. If partners aren’t willing to be open and accept the other’s ideas, they are in a competition. This winner-versus-loser pattern shows up in abusive relationships, where one partner feels entitled to force their preferences on the other. In contrast, healthy relationships feature a balanced give and take.
Different opinions do not cause divorces, but the way these differences are handled might.
5. Lack of Intimacy
An intimate relationship is one where people share themselves emotionally, intellectually, and physically. Some individuals close themselves off when feeling negative or unsafe. This can contribute to a vicious cycle, as putting up barriers leads to further distance and resentment. The cycle can be reversed through sharing meaningful words, emotions, and touches, which generates a sense of closeness and safety.
As an illustration of this idea, one study had random participants pair up and ask each other questions about specific thoughts and feelings. After forty-five minutes of deep conversation, the couples looked into each other’s eyes for four minutes. These pairs who began as complete strangers became connected, and one couple eventually got married. Intimate partners can deepen their connections through opening up. If you are feeling like roommates, share feelings, touch, forgive, and your bond will tighten.
6. Control and Manipulation
It is normal to negotiate with and make requests of one another, but partners should not try to force the other to feel or do certain things. Trying to control one’s partner ends in abuse. In one of my studies we interviewed individuals who controlled their partners through blame, guilt trips, pressure, and threats. These actions always fanned the flames of conflict, as one woman recalled: “[He would] goad me . . . about something from my past that was real bad and . . . then he would say, ‘Hit me, hit me,’ . . . and he would get right in my face, as close as he could and then I would slap him.” Whether or not there is violence, partners who feel unsafe, degraded, or damaged should seek help and change directions.
What to do?
It is unfortunate that Elon Musk’s marriages crashed back to earth after blast-off. When that happens, it breaks hearts and destroys dreams. But the good news is relationships are always changing, and can change for the better. If you see warning signs in your relationship, make a plan with your partner and seek help through books, classes, or couples’ therapy. Unhealthy relationships can revive, and even habits of abuse and control can be broken if both partners are motivated and find assistance. By working together, couples can stop the downward slide and walk back up the path of relationship success.
Also published on the Blog for the Institute for Family Studies: http://family-studies.org/when-to-seek-marriage-help-relationship-red-flags/
The majority of these details come from Ashlee Vance, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. 2015. Ecco.
Arthur Aron, Christina C. Norman, Elaine N. Aron, Colin McKenna, and Richard E. Heyman, “Couples’ Shared Participation in Novel and Arousing Activities and Experienced Relationship Quality,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78, no. 2 (2000): 273-284.
Barbara Fredrickson, Love. 2.0, (New York: Plume, 2013).
Laura E. Kurtz, and Sara B. Algoe, Putting Laughter in Context: Shared Laughter as Behavioral Indicator of Relationship Well-Being, Personal Relationships, 22, no. 4 (2015): 573–590.
John Gottman, The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999).
Robert S. Feldman, James A. Forrest, and Benjamin R. Happ, “Self-Presentation and Verbal Deception: Do self-Presenters Lie More?” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 24, no. 2 (2002): 163-170.
Tim Cole, “Lying to the One You Love: The Use of Deception in Romantic Relationships,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 18, no. 1 (2001): 107-129.
John M. Gottman, The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2011).
Douglas B. Smith, Jason B. Whiting, Jeff Crane, Kaitlyn Felderhoff, Annie Stapp, “Couple Communication Patterns and Intimate Partner Violence,” Research poster presented at the AAMFT National Conference, Austin, TX, 2015, September.
Jennifer S. Mascaro, James K. Rilling, Lobsang Tenzin Negi, and Charles Raison. “Compassion Meditation Enhances Empathic Accuracy And Related Neural Activity.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (2012): nss095.
Jason B. Whiting, Megan Oka, and Stephen T. Fife. “Appraisal Distortions and Intimate Partner Violence: Gender, Power, and Interaction.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 38, no. s1 (2012): 133-149.
Individuals in a coercive and unsafe relationship should first seek help through appropriate hotlines or counseling. Couples therapy is only effective in relationships free of coercive control and severe violence; otherwise it can cause further instability and abuse. For more on this issues, see Stith S. M., McCollum E. E., & Rosen K. H. (2011). Couples therapy for domestic violence: Finding safe solutions. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Also see Lisa Merchant and Jason Whiting, “Factors in couples’ desistance from domestic violence” (manuscript in submission).
Logan was a doctoral student studying ancient Italian poetry. His life was filled with shelves of old books and a teaching job where he was supposed to inspire lethargic freshmen. His doctoral adviser was difficult and inconsistent, and Logan was a people-pleaser who worried that his adviser and students were always upset with him. He came to see me at the request of his wife, Yuko, who was starting to panic at his change in personality. “He used to be cheerful, fun-loving, and interested in his work,” she said. “Now he is a zombie. He goes through the motions and doesn’t talk to me, or anyone. He comes home and goes to bed and then shuffles off in the morning. Even when he is in front of the computer or with a book he isn’t engaged with it. He hasn’t paid any attention to me in ages.”
When we first met, Logan was hunched in his chair like he was trying to disappear. His voice was small and weak, and he listed so many things that were overwhelming him, I couldn’t keep track of them. Life was squeezing him, and he was making whimpering noises.
The Look of Depression
Logan was seriously depressed. Changes in sleeping and eating? Check. Loss of interest in activities he used to like? Check. Feelings of guilt? Nonstop. And so on. He spoke in self-defeating terms: “I am dumb, why did I think I could do this? I am a disappointment to Yuko.” And he described intense emotional pain and suicidal thoughts: "I will never finish and my family will be better off without me." Clearly his pain was killing both him and his marriage.
A man with a toothache cannot be in love, and it is the same with emotional hurt. A throbbing ache in the soul leaves little for anything else.
Depression and Relationships
Depression takes the relationship down with the victim. Many studies show how this happens. For starters, depressed people often exude waves of negativity, which is hard for a partner to deal with. They also make more bad choices when depressed, like driving drunk or saying mean things. Non-depressed partners often worry or feel guilty for what is happening. One study found when a person looks at their depressed partner’s face, it causes a depressed reaction in their own brain. It is stressful to see another in pain, and this feeds a vicious cycle. When Yuko would become upset, it would trigger Logan’s distorted perceptions. He saw her emotion as hostile, even when it wasn’t. He assumed she became upset because she hated him, when the reality was that she was worrying.
The cycle continues as the depressed partner is consumed by their pain and can’t feel affection or attend to the other person. When someone is distressed, they lose touch with their intuition and can’t understand others’ expressions or body language. The pain takes all the focus. There is a proverb that says a man with a toothache cannot be in love, and it is the same with emotional hurt. A throbbing ache in the soul leaves little for anything else.
Logan demonstrated many altered, depressed perceptions. He “knew” his students thought he was a horrible teacher, when the reality was that most were tired and not into poetry. His melancholy mood amplified his self-criticism, and his words became irrational and harsh.
Fortunately, therapy, better self-care and open communication with Yuko helped Logan rebound. After his depression lifted, he saw things more clearly, was less inclined to extreme negativity, and his hope returned that he could succeed in his studies and his relationship. If you or someone you love is struggling, reach out for help. A relationship can be a healing force, and partners can work to find resources and feel better together.
Adapted from the upcoming book, Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways we Deceive in Relationships.
Cedar Fort Publishing, 2016
Steven R. H. Beach, and Evelyn E. Sandeen, Depression in Marriage: A Model for Etiology and Treatment: Treatment Manuals for Practitioners (New York: Guilford Press, 1990).
Megan Oka, Jason B. Whiting, and Alan Reifman, "Observational Research of Negative Communication and Self-Reported Relationship Satisfaction," The American Journal of Family Therapy 43, no. 4 (2015): 378-391.
Rachel Pruchno, Maureen Wilson-Genderson, and Francine P. Cartwright, "Depressive Symptoms and Marital Satisfaction in the Context of Chronic Disease: A Longitudinal Dyadic Analysis." Journal of Family Psychology 23, no. 4 (2009): 573-584.
Bianca P. Acevedo, Arthur Aron, Helen E. Fisher, and Lucy L. Brown, "Neural Correlates of Marital Satisfaction and Well-Being: Reward, Empathy, and Affect." Clinical Neuropsychiatry 9, no. 1 (2012): 20-31.
Joseph P. Forgas, and Rebekah East, “On Being Happy and Gullible: Mood Effects on Skepticism and the Detection of Deception,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44 (2008): 1362-67.
Dr. Jason Whiting is a researcher and clinician who studies deception, honesty and conflict in intimate partners.