1. Burdens of spousal caregiving alleviated by appreciation

    September 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University at Buffalo press release:

    The fact that spouses often become caregivers for their ailing partners is quite common in American life — and few roles are more stressful.

    Yet helping behaviors, which are at the core of caregiving, typically relieve stress, according to Michael Poulin, an associate professor in the University at Buffalo Department of Psychology.

    When discussing spousal care, the draining demands of caregiving and the uplifting effects of helping stand in apparent contrast to one another.

    But recent research shows that the time caregivers spend actively helping a loved one can improve the caregiver’s sense of well-being — and now, Poulin, an expert in empathy, human generosity and stress, is part of a research team that has published a study exploring why that’s the case.

    Their research points to the specific conditions necessary to alleviate the burdens of spousal caregiving.

    Spending time attempting to provide help can be beneficial for a caregiver’s mental and physical well-being, but only during those times when the caregiver sees that their help has made a difference and that difference is noticed and recognized by their partner,” he says.

    “These conclusions are important because we know that spousal caregiving is an enormous burden, emotionally, physically and economically,” he says. “If we can find ways for community resources to help create those conditions we might be able to make a difference in the lives of millions of people.”

    The findings of the study, led by Joan Monin, Yale School of Public Health, Stephanie Brown, Stony Brook University, Kenneth Langa, University of Michigan, and Poulin, appear in the American Psychological Association’s journal Health Psychology.

    Poulin says more than 30 years of research shows that being a caregiver is among the most stressful, emotionally burdensome and physically demanding roles a person can take on. Spouses who are caregivers show decreased immune function, increased signs of physiological stress and are at greater risk for physical and mental illness.

    Yet other studies, including much of Poulin’s own research, suggest that the act of providing help to somebody is typically stress-relieving and is associated with better emotional and physical well-being.

    “The problem is that when you’re a caregiver, not all of your time is spent helping,” says Poulin. “Sometimes all you can do is witness the person’s state while being passively on duty.”

    But previous research confirmed that the act of helping in this context was associated with improving the caretakers’ well-being, a finding that was true even when general caregiving was broken downs into tasks, like feeding or bathing.

    “This is what we wanted to get at,” says Poulin. “We knew that something about being helpful is good in these circumstances. But why? Is it just being active? Is doing something better than doing nothing? Or is it that doing something to improve another person’s well-being is what matters?”

    The research team conducted two studies with spouses caring for partners with chronic pain.

    In the first study, 73 participants reported caregiving activity and their accompanying emotions in three-hour intervals. This allowed the researchers to look at the amount of help given and how much that help pleased the spouse and subsequently affected the caregiver.

    The second study involved 43 caregivers who completed a diary at the end of the day that detailed the help they provided and the appreciation they received.

    The findings suggest that spouses caring for a partner feel happier and report fewer physical symptoms when they believe their help is appreciated.

    “Importantly, this study adds to a growing body of evidence showing that it is important to target emotional communication between spouses in daily support interactions to improve psychological well-being in the context of chronic conditions and disability,” the authors write in their paper.

    It’s an important point to consider, not just today, but for the future, notes Poulin.

    “As the baby boomers continue to age, this phenomenon of spousal caregiving will continue to increase,” he says.


  2. Lack of sleep fuels harmful inflammatory response to marital stress

    July 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center press release:

    A lack of sleep doesn’t just leave you cranky and spoiling for a fight. Researchers at The Ohio State University Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research say it also puts you at risk for stress-related inflammation.

    This type of inflammation is associated with higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis and other diseases.

    “We know sleep problems are also linked with inflammation and many of the same chronic illnesses. So we were interested to see how sleep related to inflammation among married couples, and whether one partner’s sleep affected the other’s inflammation,” said Stephanie Wilson, lead researcher on the study.

    Results of the study were published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

    The research team recruited 43 couples who completed two study visits. Each time, the couples provided blood samples and said how many hours they had slept the previous two nights. Then researchers had the couples try to resolve a topic that sparks conflict in their marriage. Blood samples were taken again following the discussion.

    “We found that people who slept less in the past few nights didn’t wake up with higher inflammation, but they had a greater inflammatory response to the conflict. So that tells us less sleep increased vulnerability to a stressor,” Wilson said.

    If both partners got less than seven hours of sleep the previous two nights, the couple was more likely to argue or become hostile. For every hour of sleep lost, the researchers noted that levels of two known inflammatory markers rose 6 percent. Couples who used unhealthy tactics in their disagreement had an even greater inflammatory response — about a 10 percent increase with each hour of less sleep.

    “Any increase isn’t good, but a protracted increase that isn’t being addressed is where it can become a problem,” Wilson said. “What’s concerning is both a lack of sleep and marital conflict are common in daily life. About half of our study couples had slept less than the recommended seven hours in recent nights.”

    That’s higher than the current national average. The CDC reports 35 percent of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep per night.

    “Part of the issue in a marriage is that sleep patterns often track together. If one person is restless, or has chronic problems, that can impact the other’s sleep. If these problems persist over time, you can get this nasty reverberation within the couple,” said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, senior author and director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.

    Researchers were encouraged to see that there was a protective effect if one of the partners was well-rested, or discussed conflict in a healthy way. They tended to neutralize the disagreement that might be stirred by the sleep-deprived partner.

    “We would tell people that it’s important to find good ways to process the relationship and resolve conflict — and get some sleep,” Kiecolt-Glaser said.


  3. How viewing cute animals can help rekindle marital spark

    July 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    One of the well-known challenges of marriage is keeping the passion alive after years of partnership, as passions tend to cool even in very happy relationships. In a new study, a team of psychological scientists led by James K. McNulty of Florida State University has developed an unconventional intervention for helping a marriage maintain its spark: pictures of puppies and bunnies.

    The study is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

    Previous research has shown that, in many instances, marriage satisfaction declines even when day-to-day behaviors stay the same. This led McNulty and colleagues to hypothesize that an intervention focused on changing someone’s thoughts about their spouse, as opposed to one that targets their behaviors, might improve relationship quality.

    Specifically, the research team wanted to find out whether it was possible to improve marital satisfaction by subtly retraining the immediate, automatic associations that come to mind when people think about their spouses.

    “One ultimate source of our feelings about our relationships can be reduced to how we associate our partners with positive affect, and those associations can come from our partners but also from unrelated things, like puppies and bunnies,” McNulty explained.

    Repeatedly linking a very positive stimulus to an unrelated one can create positive associations over time — perhaps the most famous example of this kind of conditioned response is Pavlov’s dogs, who salivated at the sound of a bell after being exposed to multiple pairings of meat and the bell sound.

    McNulty and colleagues designed their intervention using a similar kind of conditioning called evaluative conditioning: Images of a spouse were repeatedly paired with very positive words or images (like puppies and bunnies). In theory, the positive feelings elicited by the positive images and words would become automatically associated with images of the spouse after practice.

    Participants in the study included 144 married couples, all under the age of 40 and married for less than 5 years. On average, participants were around 28 years old and around 40% of the couples had children.

    At the start of the study, couples completed a series of measures of relationship satisfaction. A few days later, the spouses came to the lab to complete a measure of their immediate, automatic attitudes toward their partner.

    Each spouse was asked to individually view a brief stream of images once every 3 days for 6 weeks. Embedded in this stream were pictures of their partner. Those in the experimental group always saw the partner’s face paired with positive stimuli (e.g., an image of a puppy or the word “wonderful”) while those in the control condition saw their partner’s face matched to neutral stimuli (e.g., an image of a button).

    Couples also completed implicit measures of attitude towards their partner every 2 weeks for 8 weeks. To measure implicit attitude, each spouse was asked to indicate as quickly as possible the emotional tone of positive and negative words after quickly glimpsing a series of faces, which included their partner’s face.

    The data showed that the evaluative conditions worked: Participants who were exposed to positive images paired with their partner’s face showed more positive automatic reactions to their partner over the course of the intervention compared with those who saw neutral pairings.

    More importantly, the intervention was associated with overall marriage quality: As in other research, more positive automatic reactions to the partner predicted greater improvements in marital satisfaction over the course of the study.

    “I was actually a little surprised that it worked,” McNulty explained. “All the theory I reviewed on evaluative conditioning suggested it should, but existing theories of relationships, and just the idea that something so simple and unrelated to marriage could affect how people feel about their marriage, made me skeptical.”

    It’s important to note that McNulty and colleagues are not arguing that behavior in a relationship is irrelevant to marital satisfaction. They note that interactions between spouses are actually the most important factor for setting automatic associations.

    However, the new findings suggest that a brief intervention focused on automatic attitudes could be useful as one aspect of marriage counseling or as a resource for couples in difficult long-distance situations, such as soldiers.

    “The research was actually prompted by a grant from the Department of Defense — I was asked to conceptualize and test a brief way to help married couples cope with the stress of separation and deployment,” McNulty said. “We would really like to develop a procedure that could help soldiers and other people in situations that are challenging for relationships.”


  4. ‘Narrative expressive writing’ might protect against harmful health effects of divorce-related stress

    May 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Wolters Kluwer Health press release:

    For people going through a divorce, a technique called narrative expressive writing — not just writing about their emotions, but creating a meaningful narrative of their experience — may reduce the harmful cardiovascular effects of stress related to marital separation, reports a study in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, the official journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. The journal is published by Wolters Kluwer.

    Narrative expressive writing led to improvements in heart rate and an index of the heart’s responses to stress, according to the research by psychology doctoral student Kyle J. Bourassa and colleagues of University of Arizona, Tucson. “The results suggest that the ability to create a structured narrative — not just re-experiencing emotions but making meaning out of them — allows people to process their feelings in a more adaptive way, which may in turn help improve their cardiovascular health,” said Kyle Bourassa.

    The study included 109 adults (70 women and 39 men) with a recent marital separation. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three writing exercises, performed on three occasions over several days.

    One group performed a traditional expressive writing task, with instructions to write freely about their “strongest and deepest emotions.” In a prior study by principal investigator Dr. David Sbarra, this approach seemed to increase separation-related emotional distress, particularly among participants with high psychological rumination — the tendency to persistently think about one’s mood.

    Another group performed a narrative expressive writing task, in which they created a “coherent and organized narrative” of their separation experience — culminating in describing an end of their “divorce story.” The third group was given an emotionally neutral writing task. Indicators of the body’s cardiovascular responses to stress were compared before and after the writing tasks (up to 9 months after the writing).

    Participants assigned to narrative expressive writing had a reduction in heart rate as well as an increase in heart rate variability (HRV), which measures beat-to-beat variations in heart rate. Higher HRV reflects better functioning of the body’s parasympathetic nervous system reactions to stimuli, including stress.

    These effects were moderate in size — heart rate in the narrative expressive writing group was about seven beats per minute lower than the other two groups — and were consistent across some stressful and non-stressful laboratory tasks (such as doing mental math). Blood pressure was unaffected. There was no evidence that expressive writing increased physical stress responses in people with a high degree of psychological rumination.

    Dr. Sbarra noted, “From this work, we can make two specific conclusions. First, relative to the two other conditions, narrative expressive writing caused the changes we observed in the cardiovascular biomarkers. This is a pretty striking result for just 60 minutes of writing over three days. Second, the effects of narrative writing on these health-relevant biomarkers is independent of adults’ self-reported emotional responses about their separation. Creating narrative may be good for the heart, so to speak, but this does not mean there a corresponding improvement in psychological wellbeing.”

    Divorce is a common stressor linked to increased risk for poor long-term physical and mental health. Yet few studies have evaluated interventions to lessen the health impact of divorce. Since both higher heart rate and lower HRV are linked to increased health risks, narrative expressive writing might be one way to reduce the long-term health impact of divorce.

    Dr. Sbarra also suggested caution in interpreting these findings. “To be clear, this study points to causal changes in health-relevant cardiovascular responding, not health outcomes per se. Further research will be needed to clarify the links between these biomarkers and the long-term health outcomes of people after divorce.”


  5. Commuter marriage study finds surprising emphasis on interdependence

    by Ashley

    From the Lehigh University press release:

    The concept of marriage may be in flux, but a new study of commuter marriages–in which a married couple lives apart in service to their dual professional careers–appears to confirm that married people still see interdependence as a key feature of their unions.

    The study, “Going the Distance: Individualism and Interdependence in the Commuter Marriage,” draws on data from in-depth interviews with 97 people who are married but live apart from their spouses due to their individual career pursuits.

    In it, the author, assistant professor of sociology at Lehigh University Danielle Lindemann, explores how the seemingly conflicting cultural norms of personal autonomy and a commitment to the institution of marriage play out “on the ground” from the viewpoint of the participants. Her analysis–which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family–finds that commuter couples indeed engage in discourses about two subjects that operate in tension: independence and interdependence.

    “Although the study participants positioned themselves as highly individualistic, interdependence was a key theme in their responses as well,” says Lindemann. “Perhaps more surprisingly, a substantial minority of respondents indicated that their non-cohabitation, in fact, enhanced their interdependence.”

    Lindemann acknowledges that married couples may live apart for a number of reasons. However, her study specifically focuses on college-educated, dual-earning couples as prior research has suggested that commuter marriage is more common within this group than in other segments of the population.

    Among her findings:

    • The majority of respondents identified as highly interdependent despite the individualized structures of commuter marriages
    • Many respondents–emphasizing, in particular, the co-management of tasks–underscored how integrated their partners were in their everyday activities despite their geographic separation
    • Nearly half engaged with the theme of “apart togetherness”–thinking of themselves as connected despite the physical separation
    • More than 75% described the usefulness of communication technologies for task sharing
    • A substantial minority interpreted their cohabitation as paradoxically facilitating their interdependence–15.5% of respondents from 9 couples engaged in this narrative
    • 66% of respondents said that had felt judged negatively for their lifestyle–mostly by family members
    • Female respondents spent more time discussing both individualism and interdependence
    • The narrative about non-cohabitation facilitating interconnectedness was more common (though not exclusive) among respondents who lived geographically further apart and saw each other less frequently

    Lindemann always sought to interview both spouses in a relationship, but it was not a necessary criterion for inclusion in the study. Fifty-six of the respondents were married to other people in the sample.

    An “extreme manifestation” of major transitions

    Lindemann presents commuter marriage as particularly fertile ground to examine the cultural tension between marital interdependence and the shift to toward the “individualization” of the American marriage.

    This shift, she writes–citing the work of Andrew J. Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University–has been largely driven by “…the decline of the male breadwinner/female homemaker model, decreasing task specialization between the genders, the increasing democratization of marital decision-making, and the increasing ability of each partner to provide financially for himself or herself.”

    “Commuter marriages may be viewed as an extreme manifestation of major transitions in the nature of work and family that have been taking place in the U.S. since the 1970s,” says Lindemann. “The study results not only shed light on this under-studied population but also broaden our understanding of the evolving cultural meaning of marriage.”

    “Just Because You Don’t See Each Other, It Doesn’t Mean You’re Not Together”

    In addition to engaging in parallel narratives around individualism and interdependence, nearly one half (48.5%) of participants in the study engaged with the theme of “apart togetherness“–seeing themselves as connected, despite the distance.

    According to Lindemann, this frequently came up in response to the question, “What do you like the most about being married?”

    From the study (all names are pseudonyms): “For instance, Katie, a banking professional in her mid-30’s, replied that she enjoyed having her husband ‘there,’ adding ‘We’ve learned that just because you don’t see each other, it doesn’t mean you’re not together.'”

    Lindemann writes that eighty respondents received this question and, perhaps paradoxically for non-cohabitating couples, “enjoying each other’s company” (41.3%) and “companionship” (30.0%) were the most common themes.

    One respondent, a 60-year-old director of a company named Matthew, described both the emotional and practical aspects of the “apart togetherness” he has experienced with spouse Trudy, from whom he has been living apart due to their individual career pursuits for twelve years.

    “Emphasizing both the emotional and task-sharing aspects of marriage, Matthew gave his relationship an interdependent frame, despite the fact that he and his wife had not lived in the same household, except on weekends, for over a decade,” writes Lindemann.

    Reliance on communication technologies

    When asked a series of questions about their communication, more than three fourths of study respondents discussed the usefulness of communication technologies for managing and sharing tasks.

    In contrast to previous studies of non-cohabitating couples (largely based on research from the 1970’s and 1980’s), this study’s respondents described being in near constant contact via cell phones, texting, email, instant messaging, and video chat.

    From the study: “…respondents saw these technologies as facilitating inter-reliance. That is, [they] had the capacity to be reachable at virtually any time, so that they could rely on each other–not only emotionally, but financially and logistically as well.”

    “One of the more surprising findings is that 15.5% of respondents–a substantial minority–interpreted their non-cohabitation as paradoxically facilitating their interdependence,” says Lindemann. “Some went so far as to suggest that their communication with their spouses in fact improved when they were geographically separated.”


  6. Married people have lower levels of stress hormone

    February 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Carnegie Mellon University media release:

    couple on dateStudies have suggested that married people are healthier than those who are single, divorced, or widowed. A new Carnegie Mellon University study provides the first biological evidence to explain how marriage impacts health.

    Published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, the researchers found that married individuals had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who never married or were previously married. These findings support the belief that unmarried people face more psychological stress than married individuals. Prolonged stress is associated with increased levels of cortisol which can interfere with the body’s ability to regulate inflammation, which in turn promotes the development and progression of many diseases.

    “It’s is exciting to discover a physiological pathway that may explain how relationships influence health and disease,” said Brian Chin, a Ph.D. student in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Department of Psychology.

    Over three non-consecutive days, the researchers collected saliva samples from 572 healthy adults aged 21-55. Multiple samples were taken during each 24-hour period and tested for cortisol.

    The results showed that the married participants had lower cortisol levels than the never married or previously married people across the three day period. The researchers also compared each person’s daily cortisol rhythm — typically, cortisol levels peak when a person wakes up and decline during the day. Those who were married showed a faster decline, a pattern that has been associated with less heart disease, and longer survival among cancer patients.

    These data provide important insight into the way in which our intimate social relationships can get under the skin to influence our health,” said laboratory director and co-author Sheldon Cohen, the Robert E. Doherty University Professor of Psychology.


  7. ‘Tis better to give, to your spouse

    February 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Rochester media release:

    presentsWe’ve all heard that it’s better to give than to receive. Now there’s empirical evidence to show that being compassionate to a spouse is rewarding in and of itself.

    Psychologists have found that the emotional benefits of compassionate acts are significant for the giver, whether or not the recipient is even aware of the act. For example, if a husband notices that the windshield on his wife’s car is covered with snow, he may scrape it off before driving to work. That gesture would boost his emotional well-being, regardless of whether his wife notices.

    Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, led a research team that studied 175 North American newlywed husbands and wives who were married an average of 7.17 months. The results have been published in the journal Emotion.

    Our study was designed to test a hypothesis put forth by Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama,” said Reis, “that compassionate concern for others’ welfare enhances one’s own affective state.”

    The team of psychologists, which included Ronald Rogge of Rochester and Michael Maniaci of Florida Atlantic University, asked participants to keep a two-week daily diary to record those instances in which either spouse put aside personal wishes in order to meet the partner’s needs. But the researchers also needed to assess the emotional well-being of the individuals. To that end, the participants kept track of their daily emotional states for each day based on 14 positive and negative terms — such as enthusiastic, happy, calm, sad, angry, and hurt.

    Over the course of the 14 days, husbands and wives reported giving and receiving an average of .65 and .59 compassionate acts each day — with husbands perceiving more such acts than did their partners. The acts included such things as changing personal plans for the partner’s sake, doing something that showed the partner was valued, and expressing tenderness for the spouse.

    Before the study, the researchers predicted that the greatest impact on the donor would come when the act was recognized by the recipient, because recognition would make the donor feel valued. They also thought the recipient would feel the most benefit when the act was mutually recognized, as opposed to those times when one partner perceived a compassionate act that wasn’t actually intended. While those predictions were confirmed, the researchers discovered something else.

    “Clearly, a recipient needs to notice a compassionate act in order to emotionally benefit from it,” said Reis. “But recognition is much less a factor for the donor.”

    The psychologists discovered that donors benefit from compassionate acts, regardless of whether the recipient explicitly notices the acts. And in those cases, the benefits for the donors was about 45 percent greater than for the recipients, as determined by the self-assessment scales in the daily diaries, with the effect being equally strong for men and women.

    For Reis, the results suggest that “acting compassionately may be its own reward.

    Reis is now working with Rochester alum Peter Caprariello, an assistant professor of marketing at Stony Brook University, to study the emotional benefits of spending money on others. Their work suggests that spending on others can make a person feel better, but only when the goal is to benefit that person. Spending to impress them with generosity or vision doesn’t do the trick.


  8. Older adults gain weight when spouse is stressed out

    October 20, 2016 by Ashley

    From the University of Michigan media release:

    marriageStress isn’t good for your waist line. For older married couples, the added pounds may be caused by a spouse’s long-term stress levels.

    A new University of Michigan study looked at how the negative quality of marriage can be detrimental for weight gain — possibly leading to obesity — when couples 50 and older are stressed. The results varied by gender.

    The study specifically focused on chronic stress, which is an ongoing circumstance occurring for more than a year and threatens to overwhelm an individual’s resources, such as financial problems, difficulties at work or long-term caregiving.

    Participants came from the nationally longitudinal Health and Retirement Study at the U-M Institute for Social Research. The sample included 2,042 married individuals who completed questions about their waist circumference, negative marriage quality, stress levels and other factors in 2006 and 2010. Couples were married for an average of 34 years.

    Greater negative quality ties as reported by husbands exacerbated the effects of partner stress on both husbands’ and wives’ waist circumference.

    Interestingly, lower negative quality ties reported by wives exacerbated the effect of wife stress on husbands’ waist circumference, said Kira Birditt, a research associate professor at ISR’s Survey Research Center.

    For the increased risk of obesity, 59 percent of the husbands and 64 percent of the wives were at higher risk of disease in the study’s first assessment, whereas 66 percent of husbands and 70 percent of wives were at increased risk at the study’s conclusion.

    About 9 percent of the participants showed a 10 percent increase in waist circumference, which represented an average increase of four inches of more over four years, the study indicated.

    “Marriage has powerful influences on health,” said Birditt, the study’s lead author. “The stress experienced by partners, and not the individual’s stress, was associated with increased waist circumference. This effect of stress was even stronger in particular spousal relationships.”

    Husbands, she said, usually experience lower negative marital quality and thus greater negative feelings may be less expected and more harmful. Because women tend to report greater negative marital quality, low levels of negative marital quality among wives may be an indicator of a lack of investment in the marriage.

    Researchers said the study does not address what to do to lessen stress. However, other findings indicate that it’s important for couples to cope with stress together, and that goals created by a couple can be more effective than goals created individually.

    Birditt said the findings are applicable to younger couples. Previous research has shown that stress has strong effects on marital quality among this group, too.

    “We can only assume that this may translate into health effects, although they are probably not as strong on younger, often healthier, samples,” she said.

    The study’s other authors were Nicky Newton, assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, and U-M researchers Jim Cranford and Noah Webster.

    The findings appear in the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences.

     


  9. The Juliet Effect: Real reason why your mom and your sister don’t like your ‘hunky’ boyfriend

    June 3, 2016 by Ashley

    From the The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) media release:

    young loveWhy do we choose the partners we do, and why do we get flak about it from our parents? Professor Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair and Associate Professor Robert Biegler from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Department of Psychology say it comes down to simple genetics.

    We see a conflict between mother and daughter because of opposing interests,” says Biegler.

    The researchers knew this was the case from their research several years ago. They even know why, and named the conflict the “Juliet effect” after the conflict between Juliet and her mother Lady Capulet in Shakespeare’s drama.

    Juliet’s mother hates Romeo

    Juliet’s mother would rather have Juliet marry Paris, who is from a good family. Juliet has set her sights on the heartthrob Romeo from the archenemy’s family.

    But what’s new is that you find the same opposing interests between sisters.

    Your sister would choose the steady fellow for you.

    It’s the old story. The daughter of the house brings home the handsome ‘hunk’ and proclaims that he is the love of her life.

    But her mother prefers the respectable fellow with promising prospects, or maybe the rich guy from a good family.

    As it turns out, your sister would probably agree with your mother, and would rather you have a steady, boring partner, too. This despite the fact that mother and sister would both rather have a hunk themselves.

    Everything is ultimately about genetics and mathematics.

    “For their own partners, women focus on an attractive appearance that suggests good health and an ability to pass on their genes. At the same time, they prioritize qualities in their sister’s partner that can provide direct benefits for the whole family,” say the researchers. “This is consistent with our previous studies where we compared mothers’ and daughters’ choices,” they add.

    Studied sisters

    The context for this new insight is a survey that the researchers undertook among female students and their sisters.

    Participants were asked to rank 133 different characteristics that described the perfect partner for themselves or their sister. A similar survey was conducted among mothers and daughters a few years ago.

    For the most part, women choose the same ideal partner characteristics for themselves as for their sister. The qualities of faithfulness, loyalty, honesty, trustworthiness and reliability score highest when women are asked who would make an ideal partner,” says Biegler.

    But some clear differences also emerged. “The women perceived characteristics like being understanding, empathetic, responsible, helpful, sensible and kind as more important for their sister’s partner than for their own,” says Biegler.

    Women found being sincere, humorous, charming, sexually satisfying and fun as more important for their own partner than their sister’s.

    Relative’s partner must contribute directly

    The reason is really simple. You are more closely related to your own kids than to your sister’s kids or your grandchild. The transfer of your own genes is ultimately most important.

    You share so much genetic material with your relatives that you can’t be blasé about whom they have babies with. They also carry on some of your genes and are part of what is known as your “inclusive fitness.” But they can’t get in the way of your own direct gene transfer.

    The ideal partner for your sister or your daughter can’t drain resources from you and decrease the chance that your own genes can be passed on. Preferably he should directly increase your own chances. This can be achieved in part if your sister or daughter makes big gains by choosing a particular partner, and is able to spread your shared genes much more effectively,” says Biegler.

    But an advantage for your sister will rarely outweigh your decreased chances. Normally you want to have the greatest genetic advantage when a relative chooses a partner that can provide direct benefits for you, in terms of wealth or status, for example.

    You don’t want to spend money or other resources on raising your sister’s or daughter’s kids, unless it can bring you a considerable advantage in spreading your shared genetic material. And then you’d often rather spend the resources on increasing the survival and status of your own children, or have more kids yourself who can procreate.

    “Women prefer for their daughter or sister to choose someone who can contribute to the upbringing of their own children and grandchildren, or who at least doesn’t pose a burden,” Kennair says.

    This also means that the man should be trustworthy, take care of his children, preferably be strong financially and have a social status that does not diminish your or your descendants’ chances of spreading their genes. Your own partner may contribute indirectly

    So why would you rather have a good-looker yourself?

    “The underlying truth remains: passing on your own genes is the priority. The primary consideration is to find a partner who can give you attractive children who survive. They need to be attractive enough to pass on their genes to the next generation to the greatest extent possible,” said Kennair.

    That’s why the muscular heartthrob is a more interesting choice than the boring geek for one’s own partner.

    “A healthy hunk is presumably in good health, attractive to others as a partner and can transfer those genes to your children,” says Kennair.

    Then your children might also be more attractive than if you choose the geeky nerd. It’s nice to have a stable guy, but in the end you’ll be drawn to the handsome man instead.

    Trying to exert influence

    But it’s no sure thing that you’ll end up choosing the heartthrob. Your mother or sister might try to influence you to choose a different partner than the one you like best. Yes, this happens even in our society where we like to think that we choose our own partner.

    Whether you opt to listen to them is another matter entirely. That can depend on your own living situation, or if your family refuses to provide financial assistance or other help if you go for the heartthrob against their wishes.

    Not a moral issue

    Kennair and Biegler are moving into an area that often evokes strong feelings. But, they say, none of this is a matter of morality, only of passing on genes.

    “People who haven’t behaved according to this pattern have been deselected through generations. A larger proportion of them simply didn’t get to pass on their genes to a new generation. So their contribution to the gene pool dwindled,” says Kennair.

    But for those who still want to look at it all through a moral lens, it just gets worse.

    Latent in us

    The best possible outcome, of course, is if the heartthrob you’ve set eyes on is also a kind and steady-as-they-come kind of guy with good prospects.

    But there’s no guarantee you’ll just be able to pick one that has absolutely everything, you know. This perfect guy may prefer your sister. Or your mother. It may be part of the reason they won’t allow you this heartthrob.

    It could be that your sister would like you to choose another partner so that the heartthrob will be available to her instead. She may not even be thinking about it, and it’s far from certain that she’s actually trying to steal your guy.

    The same underlying mechanism may even still exist in your mother, even though she is past her baby-making days. It lies dormant in both of them, just as it does in you.

    This mechanism is a result of competition and has yielded the best results over generations, regardless of morality.

    No one is saying that any of this is necessarily conscious. It is a result of genetic transfer through all the generations before you. Your mother and your sister are also out after the best possible partner.

    Equal, but similar

    Perhaps most interesting is that this also applies in a relatively egalitarian society like Norway, where women are largely financially independent and choose their own partners.

    Today, Norwegian women can usually even provide independently for themselves and their children. But they seem to be attracted to partners with exactly the same qualities as the partners of women in countries where the family chooses their partner. In very few cultures do women have much choice.

    “It’s the exception for women to choose their own partners. In most cultures, it isn’t this way,” says Kennair.

    In most cultures, the mother will usually get her way. But the researchers’ hypothesis is that the stronger the parents’ control is over their children in a culture, the stronger the conflict between the sisters is also.

    “If you can’t win over mom, you still have a chance to win against your sister. The less chance you have to win one conflict, the harder you have to fight to win the other,” suggests Biegler.

    That’s why it is more important for you that a grandchild passes on their genes than that a cousin does.

    This has nothing to do with morality. It is more or less pure mathematics. We assume monogamous relationships.

    But even for independent Norwegian women, it can be an advantage if the partner doesn’t take off and leave you with almost all the responsibility for the kids. This can also reduce your chances of effectively passing on your genes.

    Maybe you would have liked to have more kids if you had been able to afford it. Or maybe your sons become paupers who don’t get support from others’ mothers.

    “In the end, though, Norwegian women are more attracted to the good-lookers than the boring, kind and steady types — the same attributes that have been playing out for generations before us for the greatest genetic success,” say the two researchers.


  10. Relationship satisfaction depends on the mating pool, study finds

    May 17, 2016 by Ashley

    From the University of Texas at Austin media release:

    teens couple loveRelationship satisfaction and the energy devoted to keeping a partner are dependent on how the partner compares with other potential mates, a finding that relates to evolution’s stronghold on modern relationship psychology, according to a study at The University of Texas at Austin.

    When it comes to mating, people choose partners whose collective qualities most closely reflect what they would prefer in an ideal mate. They prioritize from an array of traits such as intelligence, health, kindness, attractiveness, dependability and financial prospects.

    UT Austin psychology researcher Daniel Conroy-Beam and his collaborators developed a method to test how mate preferences influence behavior and emotions in relationships in the study “What predicts romantic relationship satisfaction and mate retention intensity: mate preference fulfillment or mate value discrepancies?” in-press in Evolution & Human Behavior.

    “Few decisions impact fitness more than mate selection, so natural selection has endowed us with a set of powerfully motivating mate preferences,” Conroy-Beam said. “We demonstrate that mate preferences continue to shape our feelings and behaviors within relationships in at least two key ways: by interacting with nuanced emotional systems such as how happy we are with our partner and by influencing how much or little effort we devote to keeping them.”

    For the study, researchers simulated a mating pool from 119 men and 140 women who had been in relationships for an average of 7½ years. Each participant rated the importance of 27 traits in an ideal mate and the extent to which they felt each trait described both their actual partner and themselves. Researchers then used their new method to calculate each of the participants’ and their partners’ mate value, or desirability within the mating pool as determined by the group’s average ideal preferences.

    Participants also reported their relationship satisfaction and happiness. The study discovered that satisfaction was not reliably dependent on how a partner compared with a person’s idea of the perfect mate, but rather whether others in the mating pool better matched a person’s ideal preferences.

    Those with partners more desirable than themselves were satisfied whether or not their partners matched their ideal preferences. But, participants with partners less desirable than themselves were happy with their relationship only if their partner fulfilled their ideal preferences better than most other potential mates in the group, Conroy-Beam said.

    “Satisfaction and happiness are not as clear cut as we think they are,” Conroy-Beam said. “We do not need ideal partners for relationship bliss. Instead, satisfaction appears to come, in part, from getting the best partner available to us.”

    In a follow-up study, the researchers again tested relationship satisfaction but also surveyed participants’ mate retention efforts — energy devoted to maintaining their relationships. They found that people with partners difficult to replace, either because their partner was more desirable than themselves or their partner more closely matched their ideal preferences than others in the group, reported being happier and devoted more effort to mate retention. This included making themselves extra attractive for their partners and “mate guarding,” or shielding their partners from mating rivals to help keep their partners, Conroy-Beam said.

    “Relationship dissatisfaction and mate guarding intensity, in turn, are key processes linked to outcomes such as infidelity and breaking up, both of which can be costly in evolutionary currencies,” said co-author and psychology professor David Buss. “Mate preferences matter beyond initial mate selection, profoundly influencing both relationship dynamics and effort devoted to keeping partners. Mates gained often have to be retained to reap the adaptive rewards inherent in pair-bonding — an evolutionary hallmark of our species.”