What Research tells us about Romantic Relationships

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In this episode (part 1 of the interview), we get into the research around relationships and especially interethnic relationships, attachment theory, and interdependence theory. Dr. Gaines also talks about some of his research and his personal experiences. Listen to part 2 here.

We recorded this episode on May 23, 2022.

The more alternatives we see to relationship, which could be actually just being on our own or being with somebody else, the more we see those other options, the less committed we tend to be.

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Listen to part 2 of this interview.

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There’s more to commitment than just how satisfied are people. – Stanley O. Gaines

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Timeline of the Chat

[02:25] Doing research in other countries
[05:49] More on methodology
[13:45] Interdependence theory
[19:37] Attachment theory

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My words, my actions have consequences for the other person and for the health of the relationship just like that other person’s words and deeds affect me.

Even when it’s not obviously in somebody’s best interest right now, to what extent will they try to still work things out?

Transcript of the Episode

Doing Research in Other Countries

[02:25] Stanley O. Gaines Jr.: Honestly, what’s struck me in terms of my main research has been a lot of the similarities actually in terms of not only what makes relationships tick, but what sorts of expectations people have out of those relationships. Now, it’s like you say, they may be influenced by various factors. It could be the socio-cultural context. It could be gender. It could be a lot of aspects of what people bring of themselves to the relationship.

I’d done research on cultural values and what we call accommodation, trying to work things out, even when our partners have been really nasty to us. I’m an old guy now. I lived in the U S, worked there until the age of 39. And the first time outside of the U S was in Jamaica and using the same questions that I used in the US, I started to find people asking, well, you know, what do you mean by pull yourself up by your bootstraps, like when I am supposed to measure individualism; that might be a common saying in the U S which represents like less than 5% of the world’s population, but once you get outside the U S I found, certainly in Jamaica and also in the UK, that even some of the terminology, it’s still English, right? That’s the one language that I tended to work out pretty well.

So, what I found was once I controlled for those differences, the influence of say the me value of individualism, so how much am I orientated toward my own welfare to bring down how accommodating people are willing to work things out versus the higher people were in we values, and this is across all three countries, U S Jamaica, UK. The more we oriented people are, the more they tried working things out when their partners were angry or critical, maybe in seemingly unfair ways. So to me, that’s been the interesting part because at one point I thought I was onto something because I was seeing some differences in those links. But I found actually, not everybody appreciates the same items to the same extent. So I really think pull yourself up by the bootstraps mentality makes a lot of sense; in the U S, that goes down reasonably well. It doesn’t go down well outside of the U S I found, but it’s sort of trial and error.

 It’s only after a while that I started to learn, oh, if I want to ask that question in this country, maybe this context, maybe here is a way that people will realize, oh yeah, this is what he’s getting at. So that’s been the interesting part, seeing the dynamics of the relationship, what makes the relationship tick and keep going, there’s a lot of similarity across different parts of the world. But how we tap into those concepts, like cultural values, these organized sets of beliefs that get communicated to us. But may be like you were saying, we, as individuals may differ; we don’t always buy into the same values to the same extent, even in the same country.

So, that to me has been in a way surprising given how a lot of the literature talks about like individualism versus collectivism, like it’s either or, entire countries are this way or the other.

What I found is number one, it’s like, you’re saying a lot of differences among individuals. And number two, the similarities are striking once you take into account the methodology aspect.

[05:49] Stanley O. Gaines Jr.: It struck me, well I can’t make these assumptions about difference because I haven’t taken into account differences in how easy it is for people in country A versus B versus C to appreciate what it is I’m trying to ask because of the way that I’ve asked it. And it was sort of a trial and error process living and learning. We tried to learn a bit.

[06:13] Damianne President: Even as you say that, that still makes me wonder about, for example, the US versus India or the U S versus is China. Maybe they UK, the U S and Jamaica have a lot in common compared to some countries that may have more histories of arranged marriage, for example; I’m curious about that. It doesn’t sound like it’s your area of research, but I’m just thinking out loud.

[06:36] Stanley O. Gaines Jr.: I must say arranged marriage is one of those vastly understudied topics in the relationship field. And it probably has everything to do with the fact that most research is coming out of the U S or other so-called Western countries and getting together the resources to do justice to marriage in all its forms around the world has proven to be a bit of a challenge.

 There’s some colleagues I knew who were trying to put together a project. And I think in principle, it’s still forming. But it’s been kind of years in the making, which I think is not a bad thing. It’s just well, different colleagues, different parts of the world have different sets of resources that we can draw upon or, you know, not draw upon.

So even doing so-called cross-cultural or maybe what I would call cross national research has its own difficulties. In my case, I’ve happened to have lived in and worked in at least a few different contexts. So at least I got a perspective now I didn’t have back in 2001 when I left the U S for good to come to the UK. But one of the things I would add is it may well be that we have differences from country to country in how high or low people’s score different values, which may be a different issue from how does that value affect the way that people behave in relationships. So maybe the average score was a different, but the link between the dice behavior is still the same in this part for the world.

But what you say is absolutely right. I have never done relationship research where one of the countries had arranged marriage on a wide scale, or even much of a scale.

What I’ve been trying to do is quantitative; I am kind of a number crunches. So you give me stats and I can go to town on that data. I’m not so good when it comes to qualitative. I’m just not trained in such methods. I really appreciate the skill set of people who do qualitative research. I’ve dabbled in it, but I wasn’t trained in it. And ideally we’d have that mix of quantitative and quantitative research in various contexts around the world. And it seems to be easier, from my experience, to get hold of the more small scale qualitative research once you get outside of the Western country; not so easy to find quantitative research with a sample size of a hundred, stuff like that. So there’s a confound about the type of data’s available and how much you can generalize from it.

Some people would say, well, a hundred, that’s not much, but that’s different than a five, right? So in a five you may be able to collect a lot of data from, you know, five people let’s say five couples, but then there are trade-offs both ways. Large samples, you get a little information from a lot of people; small samples, you get a lot of information from a few people. Ideally we’d have some blending of the two, I think.

[09:36] Damianne President: And it’s very interesting now, too, with all of the, I guess I don’t know how much credance to give this, but all of the reality TV things that happen around relationships as well. So let’s see like is love blind or how much do people need to talk and explore values? Do people have to live together before they get married, all of those interesting questions that society seems to be grappling with to some extent as well.

[10:02] Stanley O. Gaines Jr.: Absolutely. Absolutely. At a time when it seems that we expect more of our relationships than say previous generations did in various parts of the world; that’s pretty well-documented in so-called Western countries, but increasingly in countries that wouldn’t call themselves Western as well. So as the stakes go up, for example, marriage, well it’s about you know, creating that home, maybe starting a family or maybe not and stuff like that. But we place demands and our partners place demands on relationship that maybe, you know, 50 years ago weren’t getting placed on relationships to the same extent, like mutual respect, mutual, genuine love.

So we have those expectations. Plus in many parts of the world, it’s a lot easier to get out of marriages than it was decades ago. So yes, lots of societal change around the world. We’re demanding more of relationships, expecting more. The way that I think about it is if we, kind of generally, could think a little more in terms of what am I bringing to the relationship? What am I doing to make it work, as opposed to just approaching it as sort of a tick box what is my partner doing for me? What does my partner bring to the table? I think that could be like a useful starting point, trying to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes.

What we’re offering, if the other person were offering that to us, would we think that was enough? Like lack of commitment. I’m just making up one. So you’re right. Lots of demands that in previous eras just weren’t an issue, maybe should have been an issue but weren’t for a whole host of reasons.

For example, the women’s rights movement in various countries around the world from the 1960s onwards, you know, a lot of social change, all sorts of social change that’s made us that much more, I think, aware of what it is that we’re looking for and of what other people might be looking for in us beyond physical appearance, beyond material wealth and stuff like that, our status. So you’re right. Those to me are the big challenges, those truly interpersonal challenges. And I think that that may be where, for example, so-called reality shows could be selling us a bit short. There’s this image that there’s that right person out there; you just gotta look hard enough and present yourself well enough. Well, your life doesn’t really work like that. And it may be that there’s not one particular person. There may be lots of quite suitable partners, but if we can work on us, at least as much as we hope to, you know, work on drawing out the best of other people, wouldn’t it be great to have a reality show like that, bearing one’s soul over an extended amount of time and maybe without a prize at the end. It is interesting what’s marketed as kind of relationship establishing and maintaining behavior, what’s seen as appropriate, all of that. I don’t mean to sound bias toward reality shows. I should probably watch them more before I judge.

[13:26] Damianne President: Well or not. The other thing that came up is the whole idea of the I versus the we because you talked about that a little bit earlier, and I think if the focus is on what I can find or what somebody can offer me, then it’s much more on the I than what we can create collectively.

Interdependence Theory

[13:45] Stanley O. Gaines Jr.: One of the cool things, like the work I mentioned on accommodation was it comes out of a whole tradition called interdependence theory. It’s about how two people affect each other’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We started off as a very much exchange based theory of like if I give so much to that, I rightfully expect to get this much in return. And if it doesn’t work out like that, then I may be out the door. I’m not going to commit. But a mentor of mine, Carol Russell, they argued, well, maybe there are situations where we put aside our self-interests and devote more time and attention to the relationships that it lasts over the longterm. So it may not feel right at the moment, but it may be if we just give it time and we do our best to try to work things out. If the other person doesn’t come around, then that’s one thing, if they don’t respond. But if they come around as well and we try to work things out, then maybe rather than always putting our own needs first, sometimes we can think about the relationship. What potential do we see in it, both of us as a couple, as a unit, as a dyad.

[14:54] Damianne President: I know that you go both into attachment theory and interdependence theory. I’ve had an episode before on attachment theory that listeners can listen to but interdependence theory is a bit newer to me. Can you speak a little bit more about that in relation to close relationships?

[15:13] Stanley O. Gaines Jr.: Yeah, absolutely. So within social psychology, we’re all into understanding how other people affect our thoughts, our feelings, and our behaviors. And interdependence theory comes out of that whole tradition. So what I mentioned about people affecting each other’s thoughts, thanks to behavior. It’s like it’s not just me being affected by somebody else; I affect the other person as well. My words, my actions have consequences for the other person and for the health of the relationship just like that other person’s words and deeds affect me. So interdependence theory is all about that reality and what people do given that reality. Some people try to kind of gather power for themselves, make other people dependent on them so that other people won’t leave the relationship, even though it might be in their best interest to get out, like in abusive relationships.

So interdependence theory is all about to what extent are people affecting each other in ways that promote a relationship or maybe undermine a relationship. Like if people are being very selfish, very I orientated, it wouldn’t be surprising if they say they do things, that even if they don’t intend it, can kind of wear down the relationship, the resolve of the other person. That in a nutshell is what interdependence theory is about.

Sure enough, there is the satisfaction aspect, like how happy am I based on…; this is where it gets a bit calculated and one could question it. But anyway, for what it’s worth, this is what the theory argues, that the more people experience goodies rewards, the more likely they are to commit. The more often they receive like penalties, costs, the less likely they are to commit. But there’s more to commitment than just how satisfied are people.

Not everybody would agree with that way of thinking of satisfaction, benefits versus costs. Interdependence theorists are totally on board, but outside of interdependence theory, not everybody is. But at least interdependence theorists admit there’s more to it than that to a person committing and then staying in a relationship. Part of it is also there is that looking around, that calculating do I think I can do better? Is this the best that I can do given the circumstances. And the more alternatives we see to relationship, which could be actually just being on our own or being with somebody else, the more we see those other options, the less committed we tend to be.

And then, finally, there’s kind of how much we put into the relationship, what’s called investments, time, money, emotions, anything that’s hard to pull back once we’ve made that offer, basically. For example, for married couples, what about the house we’ve bought together, what about the children we’ve raised together, all sorts of things.

So there’s this model called the investment model that’s a main part of interdependence theory. Some people research that mainly; that’s not been my main focus.

I’m interested in stuff like number one, even when it’s not obviously in somebody’s best interest right now, to what extent will they try to still work things out? That might be a good thing. It might be not a good thing. I’m not judging it, but even that willingness to work things out or the qualities that people bring to the relationship that might affect that willingness. Hence, that’s where attachment theory comes in for me.

I’m trained, not as a personality psychologist who is really all about the study of the individual. For me, it started anyways as a means to an end. I want to understand people’s personalities because I want to understand how they affect the dynamics of the relationship. And the way that I see it over and over again is many of the qualities that people bring to the relationships actually do get played out pretty consistently in those relationships.

We sometimes think, oh, well, I’m a totally different person in this situation over there. Really, are most of us that different. In fact, don’t we expect our partners to be somewhat consistent, at least in the way they behave toward us?

So to make a long story short, that’s interdependence theory. I’ve done a lot of work in that area, but where I see some gaps in that literature has to do with those individual differences. Not everybody goes into the relationship going me first. And I want to know why is that, you know, what are those qualities. 

Attachment Theory

[19:37] Stanley O. Gaines Jr.: Attachment theory has its critics. But I must say, over and over again, I find the more securely attached people are, the more willing they are to trust partners in general, the more often they’ll try to work things out with their current relationship partner.

The more distrustful people are for whatever reason, the less they’ll try to work things out, the more they’ll do things, say things that undermine the relationship.

To me, that’s just really interesting stuff. And that’s where I was able to look at different contexts like heterosexual, romantic relationships that were mostly within the same ethnic group, interethnic heterosexual relationships, mostly interethnic, same-sex relationships. That basic dynamic is the same across those different types. So once I saw that over and over again, I thought, I think we’re onto something here.

So one of the things that I’m kind of proud of is being on that kind of early curve of trying to bring those approaches together. I’ve never seen myself as in one camp or the other, even though I’ve been trained to do interdependence theory, but I’ve always dabbled. I give my mentor credit, Carol West; she let me dabble and like I say, values attachment styles. I think of those kinds of attitudes, may be more easily changeable than values. But values are amenable to change as well.

I think of those kinds of attitudes, may be more easily changeable than values. But values are amenable to change as well.


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