Are Really Something
By Bob Minor
A 10-year, government sponsored study from the University of Washington, Seattle, concludes that how people talk to each other at the first six months into a committed relationship predicts the success of the relationship with 87% accuracy.
It's not whether they communicate in the right words, whether they always agree on issues, whether they have the same interests, whether they like the same movies, music, or leisure time activities, whether they know how to "fight fair," whether they have great sex, or whether they come from similar backgrounds. It's not what they actually say to each other. It's how they say it. So, maybe on Valentine's Day, the results of this study call for a little reflection.
I'll bet that these other factors are still important and contribute to a relationship going more smoothly, but it's interesting that what predicted the long-term success of relationships was what the researchers called the "sweet nothings" that were part of a couple's every-day interactions. The study's co-author Sybil Carrere gave some examples: "if they expressed fondness and admiration for their partner, if they talked about themselves as a unit, if they finished each other's sentences, referenced each other when they told a story, and whether what came to mind was pleasant."
Of course, there's something deeper here that small expressions of affection like these reflect. It's something that requires a bit of emotional maturity on the part of the individuals who make up the couple. And it is the individuals who make up the couple - not the couple - who need a level of psychological health.
Sweet nothings represent a general approach to one's partner that involves an individual's inner security and willingness to show her or his feelings. It includes the ability to be vulnerable as well as playful. It's able to let go of game-playing, self-protective masks and drama, and the many forms of posturing that end up in stagnant relationship patterns which stifle the growth of both partners. The approach evidences a measure of personal psychological health that assumes the best of one's partner and doesn't expect them to treat them badly. It may even, at times, be accused of seeing the partners through rose-colored glasses.
According to the study, the key predictors of a relationship not lasting for the long term were one partner's unwillingness to be influenced by the other (usually the man by the woman) and a partner starting quarrels "harshly" and with hostility. Again, these evidence the inability to become vulnerable, imperfect, and open with a partner.
Now, the study was done with married heterosexual partners. So, it doesn't take into consideration all the additional conditions l/g/b/t people face.
All the institutions of our society at least pay lip service to the idea of long-term straight marriage. Few support long-term non-heterosexual relationships. And many l/g/b/t institutions don't support them either. In spite of this, the somewhat surprising thing is how poorly most heterosexual marriages turn out - some ending in divorce and others just settling for a truce or a semi-comfortable co-existence.
But it's not surprising, given our culture's conditioning on how to be straight. Straight has rigid roles for "real" men and "real" women and how they are supposed to relate to each other - that is, in ways that are meant more to keep our economy going strong than to connect human beings in their full humanity.
So, l/g/b/t people have had to create their own support systems if they wanted a long-term relationship. They have had to fight along with heterosexual allies to demand that institutions recognize that non-heterosexual relationships are not just sexual but also romantic and loving in the fullest sense of both terms.
And we still have more to confront than heterosexual couples. We also have to dismantle the internalized homophobia that from our earliest years conditioned us to evaluate same-sex partnerships as less valuable, healthy, possible, and hopeful. We have to face the fact that internalized homophobia as the fear of closeness with the same sex has conditioned us to be more like competitors with our partners than whole-hearted vulnerable, relaxed, and playful lovers. If we deny that this has affected us, we'll wonder what's happening in our relationships.
Now, in addition, we have to face the fact that our culture doesn't want us to express "sweet nothings" to each other. It wants even the idea to remain out of sight so that there is no possibility that people might see that we are loving, romantic, and capable of committed partnerships. Seeing our "sweet nothings" will contradict everything the heterosexist, homo-pitying, right-wing claims we are.
And even some of us think it's inappropriate to display in the littlest ways the affection we have for each other. We seem worried that "they" will only think of us as sexual.
Who would have ever thought that "sweet nothings" could be so powerfully subversive too?
So, if we are ready to make our relationships work, we can't deny ourselves and those we love the little expressions that make not only our relationships but our lives work. At the very least, we're going to have to make ourselves vulnerable to our partners. Unless, of course, we don't want our lives to work after all.
Robert N. Minor is author of Scared Straight: Why It's So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It's So Hard to Be Human and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas. He may be reached at Minor@libertypress.net.