Romantic relationships are a fundamental part of life, and healthy, loving relationships can lead to some of the greatest joys available in the human experience.
Recent scholarship utilizing a conceptual framework called Self-Determination Theory has identified several core components of successful romantic relationships. Here we will examine the theory and some of its contributions to our understanding of romantic relationships.
What Is Self-Determination Theory?
Self-determination theory is a fundamental theory of human behavior that serves to organize the different tendencies and needs of human beings in order to explain the motivation for their behavior and the personalities they develop. It is a theoretical framework which is useful for exploring and explaining certain human experiences.
The fundamental concept of Self-Determination Theory, as is apparent by the name, is the idea that human beings, when they are operating as a true self, are performing actions that are self-motivated and self-determined. This is to say that an individual’s behavior is not so much determined by their surroundings, their context, or the external influences acting upon them, but rather by their own conscious ability to choose what is best and to act upon their desires.
This theory is in contrast to other theoretical frameworks, such as several frameworks that fall under the heading “Behaviorism,” which maintain that human behavior contains almost no element of true agency, and that individual actions are determined – in part or in full – by influences that are outside of the individual’s control.
Self-Determination Theory posits that three processes are responsible for a human being’s ability to act: first, there is present a mindful, reflective awareness of what the individual needs and what tendencies they desire to act upon. Second, an acknowledgment that the environment of the individual is sufficient to support the actions that it intends to take. And third, that the actions of an individual are enfolded, by various degrees, into that individual’s personality: That the individual “owns” their actions, so to speak.
Recent research utilizing a framework of Self-Determination Theory reviewed what the theory has to say on the topic of romantic relationships.
What Self-Determination Theory Says about Romantic Relationships
In a 2015 study entitled “Self-Determination Theory and Romantic Relationship Processes,” published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review, the authors took a close look at past research involving Self-Determination Theory and romantic relationships, and attempted to synthesize the findings and present patterns found in the literature.
For the purposes of the study, the authors took an interest in how a true self acts in a romantic relationship, and what consequences there are to those actions. By true self, the authors referred to the self as defined by Self-Determination Theory, namely a self that has been fully internalized, fully adopted, and fully endorsed by an individual as part of their identity.
Thus, a true self in relationships is one who fully endorses one’s own involvement in a relationship, and does not blame that involvement on any other external factors such as manipulation, coercion, guilt, or lack of knowledge. The researchers were interested in examining the patterns of romantic relationships when the individuals involved are truly, wholly committed at the level of their identity.
The first useful takeaway that becomes immediately apparent from this conceptual framework is the simple idea that not all actions are performed by a true self. A very powerful feeling of awakening can arise inside a relationship when one or both parties realize that they are not truly acting according to their own needs or according to the interests of their true self, but rather simply preserving and going through the motions of what they believe they must do, or what role has been thrust upon them.
A second major takeaway of considering romantic relationships using the framework of Self-Determination Theory is the idea that the more one invests one’s identity in one’s activities, the more satisfying and fulfilling they become. This includes relationships. When the true self is acting in a relationship, there is a resounding sense of affirmation: The individual is in the relationship because they want to be, and because it is important to them. This authenticity spills over into a host of other relational benefits, including partners feeling affirmed and becoming more honest and aware of the other’s needs.
One final takeaway we will mention here among the many cited in the article is the Self-Determination Theory perspective on goals. There is a big difference in romantic relationships on the function of goals, depending on whether the individual adopts more of a victim mentality or if they act as a true self. Research has demonstrated that people who are able to pursue their own intrinsic goals autonomously inside a relationship have greater overall well-being. When both partners in a relationship are aware of what they want and can verbalize those desires so as to actively pursue them together, growth takes place and mutual satisfaction often follows.
Why This Theory Matters
In the end, Self-Determination Theory is just that – a theory. A “theory,” in the scientific sense of the word, defines a coherent and cohesive set of concepts and ideas that together form a framework of hypotheses. These hypotheses have dual value: to provide a working explanation of the phenomena of the world around us, as well as to generate specific questions that can be tested.
With this conception of Self-Determination Theory, it is apparent why there is value in considering romantic relationships from this perspective. If, using this theory, an individual is able to consider what their romantic relationships would look like if they were acting as a true self, according to the theory, they have the opportunity to learn a lot about who they are, what they want, what their relationships are like, and any number of other questions.
This is not to say that Self-Determination Theory is “true,” necessarily. Competing theories that more highly emphasize the role of the environment and of the situation in motivating human action also contain an element of truth.
Nonetheless, by interacting with these various different theories and understanding what they say about human action, an individual has the opportunity to develop their self-understanding. And with more self-understanding, particularly in the realm of intimacy and romantic awareness, comes a greater ability to experience the great joys that life has to offer.
For more information, feel free to read the above-mentioned research article, to check out any number of books on Self-Determination Theory, or to consult with a psychologist or trained mental health professional with experience in this theory.
Knee, C. R., Hadden, B. W., Porter, B., & Rodriguez, L. M. (2013). Self-Determination Theory and Romantic Relationship Processes. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17(4), 307-324.
If breaking a sweat can make you feel better, working out with your partner can definitely improve your relationship. For instance, morning jogs can be a great outlet for negative emotions thereby decreasing stress. Also, the in-between-conversations can strengthen communication lines. The endorphin hormones that get produced during exercise make couples feel synchronous, blissful, and passionate.
For those of you who exercise regularly, you perfectly understand the bliss after a good run or a basketball game. May it be yoga, brisk walks, swimming, or pumping iron, physical activities that suit your personality have been proven to improve subjective well-being. In addition, people who regularly work out tend to feel better about themselves. This positive self-esteem is quite advantageous in relationships. It would be challenging to trust and commit yourself to someone if you still have substantial security issues. Managing a relationship will certainly be easier when both of the partners are in healthy emotional states. When couples work out, they both revel in and share the fun! Hence, each partner reaps the benefits of each other’s joy.
Sweating Out Together Enhances Intimacy
According to a recent study published in The Journal of Human Factors and Ergonomics, you tend to feel closer to someone who acts like you (Verberne, Ham, & Midden, 2015). The researchers concluded that their participants placed higher value and trust to an agent who exhibited more similarities with them. This research is similar with other papers which proved that nonverbal mimicry can fortify emotional bonds (Stel & Vonk, 2010). In application to relationships, couples who play sports, hit the gym, or jog together usually execute within each other’s pace. Therefore, they tend to mimic each other’s behavior may it be consciously or not.
Since engaging in enjoyable physical activities can lift your moods, it can also improve a marriage’s physical intimacy. In fact, a recent study which was published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine concluded that exercise can significantly boost erectile and sexual function (Simon, Howard, Zapata, Frank, Freedland, & Vidal, 2015). The researchers looked into the metabolic equivalents (METS) of 295 men and those who had higher physical activity levels proved to experience better performance in the bedroom. In particular, those who had weekly 2-hour-strenuous, 3.5-hour-moderate, or 6-hour-light exercises for a week had higher sexual function scores.
Fit for Each Other
Health issues can get in the way of a myriad of delightful activities. For example, going on a family holiday would be quite taxing if you need to be concerned with a number of precautions and medical expenses. One effective way of combating diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, health ailments, obesity, and even depression is regular exercise. Furthermore, working out’s benefit in boosting energy helps in accomplishing household chores, childcare duties, and other responsibilities. Ergo, being healthy and having enough energy can help in doing more for each other.
All in all, frequently engaging in physical activities is great for you, for your partner, and for your relationship. With this active avenue, you can buttress your bond as well as bask in the pleasant experience.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Stel, M., & Vonk, R. (2010). Mimicry in social interaction: benefits for mimickers, mimickees, and their interaction. British Journal of Psychology, 101(2), 311-323.
Simon, R., Howard, L., Zapata, D., Frank, J., Freedland, S. & Vidal, A. (2015). The association of exercise with both erectile and sexual function in black and white men. The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 12(5), 1202-1210.
Trust is in the heart of all human connections and interactions, which is why it’s imperative to focus on building it. Both the simplest everyday encounters and the most meaningful relationships are based on the presumption of trust.
Building trust is an individual process that every person tackles in a specific way, author Peg Streep told Psychology Today. According to her, however, relationships during early childhood years have a serious impact on building trust as an adult.
What does it take to build trust and form meaningful relationships with others? Several important factors will need to be examined.
The Nature of Trusting Trust is a virtue that can either make or break a relationship. We all know that trust takes time to build. This is a process based on patience, honesty, faith and integrity.
When you put your trust in to someone else, you expect something from them. In a relationship, however, your partner could have said or done something that will compromise the trust. In such instances, either you or your partner will end up hurt and unsafe in the relationship.
Building and nurturing trust are both essential for successful, meaningful relationships. In these modern times, social networking, texting, and other forms of virtual communication can greatly affect trust. Allowing yourself to build temptation through such activities is just as easy, as shopping in a grocery store, when you have your list. In the case of virtual temptation, all you have to do is just click that mouse button.
When it comes to trust, there are three important aspects you need to consider. Here’s the breakdown.
Aspect 1: Build Trust
At the onset of a relationship, you don’t normally put your trust lightly in your partner and neither do they. As you get to know each other better, thus trust also builds. There are additional factors that could enable you to identify whether your partner is trustworthy. Stories about your partner’s past will be sufficient to form an opinion. To be able to nurture the trust between you, certain factors should be considered:
· Communicate openly – face-to-face communication is most secure and it allows you to be more open and vulnerable with each other.
· Learn to apologize – apologizing by means of not just saying “I’m sorry,” but also meaning it. We all have our flaws, however, being able to recognize that we have done someone wrong and knowing the impact or the actions will give the apology authenticity.
· Keep your promises – follow through even with the littlest promise you make to show consistency in your actions.
· Forgive – after any apology, there should be forgiveness. Learn how to forgive your partner in order for both of you to let go of the hurt.
Aspect 2: Breaking Trust
Among the three most important aspects of trust, this is the one that can occur effortlessly.
Breaking someone’s trust only takes a matter of few seconds, words and/or actions. Not being able to keep your promise is also a way of losing your partner’s trust.
When you enter a relationship, your word is your bond. It is a form of emotional contract between two people. When you lose your trust in someone else, it breaks that bond. Issues such as physical and financial cheating, as well the inability to keep your promise in any way can break someone else’s trust. Past relationships, experiences and not being able to communicate are issues that need to be dealt with.
There’s an additional factor that contributes to breaking trust – some people have trust issues. These trust issues are an effect of going through bad relationships in the past. Trust issues are a completely different phenomenon that will need to be addressed separately.
Aspect 3: Resolving Trust Issues
Perhaps among all three, resolving the relationship problem that stems from breaking trust could be the biggest and hardest step. Unlike building trust, resolving trust will take a lot of hard work and it will often be very difficult to patch things up and reach the same level of relationship confidence as before.
You’ll be at a crossroad. The attempts to build trust once again will either make the relationship stronger or bring its end. Some couples opt for marriage counselling and therapy in hopes of saving the relationship, while others prefer to leave the relationship and move on. Assessment of individual factors will help you determine which approach is the right one.
Challenges that Stand in the Way of Building Trust In theory, building trust may sound like a simple task. In reality, however, there could be major roadblocks that stand in the way of effective communication and the ability of two people to increase the level of trust they have in each other.
Some of the biggest challenges that stand in the way of establishing relationship trust include the following:
· Withholding some of the truth – many people have dark spots in their past and episodes that they’re embarrassed of. Giving a partner misleading information or a version of the truth, however, creates the right conditions for having the trust broken later on in the relationship.
· No discussion and individual decision-making – when in a relationship, you’re a part of a team. Making decisions on your own will make a partner lose trust in you.
· Having certain expectations without communicating those – your partner or souse cannot read your mind. Clear communication of your expectations is equally important after five days and after 15 years of being in a relationship.
· Conflict without resolution – arguing with each other is a normal aspect of every relationship. If resolution doesn’t follow, however, both of you will feel dissatisfied and anxious about further communication.
Can You Repair a Relationship after the Trust is Broken? As already mentioned, repairing a relationship after the trust is broken challenges many people and they decide to leave. It’s possible to build trust once again but the process will require conscious effort on behalf of both partners.
The first step towards building trust once again is recognizing the hurt and its scope. Dismissing the feelings or trying to minimize their importance will never lead to the repair of trust. The hurt will linger on the inside and eventually, it will lead to an eruption of emotions.
In order to deal with the problem, you’ll also need to have your partner recognizing their contribution to the loss of trust. If either one of you refuses to acknowledge responsibility, you’ll have a miniature chance of repairing the broken trust.
You will also need to learn how to trust yourself, to express your feelings better and recognize your individual needs in the relationship. This kind of awareness is the key to finding happiness and balance as a part of a couple.
Building trust isn’t easy and keeping it in your relationship at all times is going to be an even more challenging task. Remember one thing – human beings make mistakes, including human beings that care deeply about you. If you and your partner are willing to put work in the process, trust can be rebuilt and it could potentially become stronger than in the beginning.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Last year, about a week before Valentine’s Day, the Marriage Foundation released the finding that marriage is getting stronger - a message that seems to go against the general message of other statistical agencies around the world.
The study, which was completed by Harry Benson, used date from the UK to find that marriage is getting stronger despite the UK Office of National Statistics indicating that the rate of divorce in the UK is continuously going up. How could these divergent findings be possible?
It seems that the conclusion all depends on how you look at the data. The UK office for National Statistics looked at the rate of divorce based on the year of the divorce while Benson compared the rate of divorce based on the year of the marriage. So it depends what you're interested in. If you're a divorce lawyer and you want to know if business is going up, then you might be happy to know that, if the trend continues, there will be more divorces in the UK next year. However, if you are getting married and you want to know your chances of success, you should be happy to know that marriages starting recently seem to be fairing better than those starting years ago.
The study found that between 1970 to 2010, couples who tied the knot during 1991 experienced the highest rate of divorce. That is, during their first five years of marriage, an average of 2.12% of them divorced. On the other hand, those who married in 2007 have an average annual divorce rate of only 1.39% per year in their first five years. When these two divorce rates are compared, it seems that those who married more recently are 35% less likely to divorce within their first five years of being together. It seems that the rate of early divorce have been falling in the UK for eight years running.
So what’s the possible impact of this study? First, it has to be said that this may not be happening in Canada. Unfortunately, Statistics Canada did not break down the divorce statistics in a way that allowed me to see if this was the case here. We don't seem to know if Canadian marriages are also getting stronger. However, this study does provide hope. Our world is more connected than ever before, so it is very possible that this is trend that could develop in other similar countries. Perhaps newer generations are finding ways to revitalize marriage. Maybe the tide is changing.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
It’s hard to keep control… especially with your significant other. With traffic, narcissistic bosses, and gossiping co-workers it can feel like some days everything is trying to push you over the edge. Still, in spite of it all, you have to keep your cool, at least until you get home. Then, one comment or sideways look from the person you love most can cause you to lose your temper, leaving you feeling out of control and hopeless at the end of the day. Does this describe you, or perhaps your partner?
Maybe you’ve noticed how people can be boiling mad and then answer the phone in a calm or even cheerful voice. People often say they can’t control their anger, and then you see an odd behaviour like this. It seems that the situation matters. In some we can control ourselves perfectly, while in others it all spills over.
I often have people in my office tell me that they don’t have anger problems in most of their life, but then they get home and suddenly they can’t control their temper. So I guess the question is, do we get angrier with our romantic partners?
The research actually says the opposite of this. Authors of a study that just came out in 2014 say that people, generally speaking, are not as angry with their partner as they are with others in the community. This is likely surprising for the many people out there experiencing regular domestic disputes!
So why then do people seem to be angrier with their romantic partners? Well, the researchers also found that people suppress their anger less with romantic partners. It seems that even though you might be more angry with your neighbour, he or she isn’t as likely to hear about it. Spouses, on the other hand, will hear all about much smaller mistakes. It seems we just feel more comfortable letting our anger out when it is directed towards a familiar and likely safer target.
This doesn’t just apply to men either. Women seem to have just as much, or even more, anger than men. The research suggests that younger women have greater intensity and expression of anger than men. This, again, is not consistent with general stereotypes that men are angrier than women. These women weren’t just angrier, they were more likely to act out their anger, especially in countries with greater gender empowerment, like the United States or Canada. It should be said, that women do seem to suppress their anger more with age.
Hostility has been shown to be a predictor of overall relationship difficulty and eventual break-up. This is especially true of women’s anger. When women were found to have personalities prone to anger, their relationships had lower marital adjustment scores. Men’s anger is problematic for relationships, but not to the same degree. Of course, although women may be more angry than men, and may even act out that anger more than men, generally speaking, men cause more physical harm when they become aggressive.
Men and women don’t get angrier with their partners than they do with others, but they do express it more. Although it might not be nice to face your partner’s anger, perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that they are likely angrier with their boss or neighbour, you’re just the one who has to hear about it.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Kocur, J. L., & Deffenbacher, J. L. (2014). Anger and Anger’s Expression Generally in Romantic Relationships. Contemporary Family Therapy, 36, 120-134.
Divorce is not a single event, it is a process that people go through. The first stage in this process is making the decision to pursue a divorce. This is often when people enter couples counselling, when they are “on the brink” of divorce. It would, of course, have been better to enter counselling before things got to this point, however, even at this stage there is often hope for relationships. Couples counseling does not always end in successfully reestablishing the relationship. Sometimes, instead, the therapy process can clarify the challenges that a couple faces, which can help in determining whether to divorce.
There are a number of factors that go into making the decision to divorce. Today, marriage is not often seen as a cultural, economic, or religious institution. Instead, it is now seen as a place where there should be emotional ties of love, affection, and companionship. Unfortunately, these feelings can be difficult to foster and maintain through the rigors of decades of stress and change. Not surprisingly, feelings of “lack of love” are one of the major reasons for people seeking divorce. However, other common reasons are extramarital affairs and communication difficulties.
The process of coming to a place where there are no longer feelings of affection or connection in a relationship often begins shortly after the wedding ceremony. Forty percent of couples experience feelings of doubt and disappointment in the first six months of marriage. Sixty percent experience this in their first year. Usually it isn’t any one big thing that causes these disappointments, instead, it is a “pile up” of smaller issues. Then, after this pileup has grown, there is often a “crystallizing event” that is representative, or captures, all of the previous disappointments. These disappointments can include things like controlling behavior, irresponsibility, and lack of emotional support.
Gottman, a prolific writer on relationships, has done extensive research on the factors in relationships that predict divorce. He has found that it is not the amount of arguing that predicts divorce, but the type of communication in arguments that is important. For example, is there contempt in the relationship? Is there stonewalling (blocking the other person out ) in the relationship? These factors can be much more important in determining whether a couple will be able to survive.
However, it is not only how of a couple communicates that affects whether they will divorce. Divorce is also related to the number and severity of stressors that couples have to manage. That is, a couple may have fairly good communication strategies to deal with problems, but if they have a lot of problems to deal with it can still be a strain on the relationship. The common problems that couples face have to do with finances, sex, and children.
As people approach the decision to divorce, they often decide through an analysis of the rewards and costs of staying versus leaving. Even though this process may not be completed in a methodical way, it is still often observable. In this process people will think about the rewards that they have in the relationship. These might include income, status, affection, children, and companionship. These are the things that hold the marriage together. Then, the person would likely consider the barriers to leaving the relationship. These might include religious values, pressure from friends or family, children’s interests, and impact on the spouse. The last step is an analysis of the alternatives to being in the relationship. The rewards of leaving the relationship may be clearer if another relationship is already in place, or it may just be an abstract idea of what is possible if the person was no longer in the marriage. If the alternatives to being in the marriage are more attractive than the rewards of being in the marriage and the barriers to leaving the marriage, this can often lead to a decision to end the relationship.
This decision making process can also be influenced by the community that surrounds the decision-maker. It has been shown that divorce is “catchy”. If a person is surrounded by other couples who are seeking divorce, they are more likely to get a divorce themselves. On the other hand, if a person is engaged in helping their friends stay in their relationships, this action seems to be a protective factor against divorce.
The decision to seek a divorce is only the first step in the process. Once the decision is made, the couple needs to begin learning about the process of seeking and finalizing a divorce. This can often be a painful process, especially as it enters the legal system, which is, by its very nature, adversarial. Counseling can be helpful in this stage in order to help partners separate amicably. Often it is important to negotiate ways of communicating if children are involved.
The final stage in the divorce process is coping with the after-effects. People can often feel extremely isolated as they have now lost their spouse and often many of their friends. No longer having a confidant to process emotional difficulties with can be a shock for people. I often find that people need support as they rebuild their social lives and manage the difficulties associated with ending such a significant relationship.
As people move toward divorce, it can be a very challenging and confusing time. Unfortunately, support can be difficult to find because the strain in the relationship can cause fractures in relationships between the couple and their relatives. Also, supporters may quickly take sides and their advice can be extremely one sided. Whether the relationship ends or continues on, it is usually important for couples to find people who understand and provide a place to process the decision to divorce and the emotions that accompany this time of stress.
By Syras Derksen
Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2000). The timing of divorce: Predicting when a couple will divorce over a 14-year period. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 737-745.
Mcdermott, R., Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2013). Breaking up is hard to do, unless everyone else is doing it too: Social network effects on divorce in a longitudinal sample. Social Forces, 92, 491-519.
Relationships need vulnerability – we need to be able to be real in front of our partners. The feeling of connection is all about taking the risk of being vulnerable and allowing someone to see us without our guard up. When we are able to take this risk and feel safe and nurtured, it gives us that feeling of intimacy and love.
Two big reasons for losing intimacy is boredom and issues with trust. When people are presented with the same stimuli repeatedly they become irritated, maddened and eventually may enter a dissociative stupor (finding by Dr. Stuart Grassian). In other words, people need new experiences to remain interested, happy, and growing. This is so important that not receiving new stimuli can be a form of psychological torture – as in solitary confinement. Relationships are wonderful because they are generally a great source of new stimuli in life. They keep us challenged and help us to grow. However, even the best relationships can begin to stop growing and lose that feeling of fascination.
There are two ways to regain the growth and fascination when boredom becomes an issue. The first is to become more interesting. Have you stopped exploring new things, challenging yourself, and as a result, have you stopped growing? The happiest people are generally not the people who have a pleasant life, but are those who challenge themselves and enjoy the journey.
Once you’ve examined yourself, it is also important to look at your relationship. The biggest source of boredom in relationship is a lack of vulnerability. Have you stopped sharing yourselves with each other. Over time, small slights and signs of lack of interest can accumulate and deep sharing can feel unwelcome or unsafe in your relationship. It is important to try to get past the surface of your day to day life and engage your partner in deeper sharing. This is where people are constantly changing and it is when these deeper parts of yourself are open that connection can be re-built.
Relationships become unstable when trust becomes an issue. The walls start to go up and we become anxious and fearful. Lack of trust means that it is a bigger risk becoming vulnerable. Without the vulnerability, we lose intimacy and connection.
Researchers have been finding that when we are unable to trust we become uncertain about whether our partner is right for us. This uncertainty breeds sensitivity. The small things that never used to matter all of a sudden become painful signs of a broken relationship.
In addition to becoming more sensitive, lack of trust breeds increased scrutiny of daily activities. Partners who don’t trust start to become detectives for evidence. The search begins for positive and negative signs. We look for signs that the person loves us and we look for signs of cheating and lying. We start developing expectations and theories for what behaviour means. If the person does this, then they love me. Then, if the person doesn’t pass the test, we have our proof that they never loved us. This kind of daily scrutiny and testing leads to big ups and downs in the relationship. Things are OK when the partner passes the test, but things take a nosedive when they fail.
Most people can’t live up to this kind of scrutiny and it can extremely difficult to pass these kinds of tests. Although these tests may seem obvious to the untrusting partner, they can become extremely specific and unreasonable for a normal person to pass.
Trust is a result of the present behaviour of our partners as well as our past experiences. We may be an untrusting person because of past betrayals, parental neglect, traumas etc. This can colour how we view our partner, making it difficult for them to live up to the high standards necessary to reassure their untrusting partner that they are safe. However, trust is also a product of current behaviours. Is our partner dependable? Do they lie? These experiences will obviously affect trust, as well they should.
Sometimes is it is very reasonable to not trust your partner. Trust can be broken and it then becomes a decision as to whether each party wants to work to develop that trust again. Building trust takes time and is a process of becoming vulnerable (i.e., taking risks) and then having your partner respond appropriately in a reliable manner. Communication is a critical part of this process. It is important to make expectations known and clear. It is also important to try to stop looking at the daily activities of life and to try to take a longer view if you want to give your relationship a reasonable chance to succeed.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Campbell, L., Simpson, J. A., Boldry, J. G., & Rubin, H. (2010). Trust, variability in relationship evaluation, and relationship processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 14-31.
Healing from adultery is difficult and couples usually go through a number of specific challenges. In fact, it is best to approach the recovery from adultery in a “one step at a time” approach. It is encouraging to know that although affairs are more common than most would think, the majority do not divorce.
The first step is getting the commitment from both parties that they want to work on the relationship. Although there is a small percentage of affairs that are “exit affairs,” which were done as a way out of the relationship, most affairs are not intended to end the relationship. Instead, the partner who engaged in the affair is still committed, at least to some extent, to work on the relationship. Part of this commitment is ending the affair.
The second step is ensuring the safety of both partners. It is important to make sure there is no physical or emotional abuse that is currently ongoing. It is also important to make sure there are no sexually transmitted diseases that may be present. Checking the emotional well-being of each party is also important, to ensure they are sufficiently healthy to manage this process. If not, it may be important to seek individual counselling first.
Knowing the Details
It is not uncommon for the partner who did not have the affair to want to know all the details of the affair. This need to know is natural and needs to be validated. In some cases, however, this need to know can become an obsession that prevents the couple from moving forward.
One way to help the couple manage this is to have a session or two devoted to answering these questions. Before this session the questioner would prepare a complete list of questions that they want answered and the other party would commit to full disclosure. It is also agreed that after these questions are answered, the issue would be closed, with no more questions being asked. This can be a difficult process that requires preparation and extra support after the disclosure for both parties.
Moving past anger can be a difficult issue for the betrayed partner. There is a tremendous amount of loss after an affair, the loss of trust, the loss of their image of the relationship and more. Letting go of the anger and approaching the idea of forgiveness can be extremely challenging.
Understanding the anger and processing what forgiveness would mean can be helpful in these situations. It has also been helpful for many couples to go through a carefully planned ritual for letting go of the anger. For example, one betrayed partner decided to smash the CDs that had been a gift from her husband’s mistress. The pieces of the CDs were left on the garage floor and, as part of the ritual, he cleaned up one piece every day. He presented the piece to her and she decided whether to let him throw it out. This was particularly meaningful because he was a very clean person and would usually be prodding her to be more tidy. She found that once all of the pieces were gone, her anger was significantly less.
Each member of a couple usually shows their commitment to the relationship in small ways that occur regularly. It can be helpful for couples to think about what they do for each other on a daily or weekly basis that shows their affection and commitment to each other. Sometimes it is also helpful to have a larger display of commitment. Some couples choose to renew their vows, although others feel this is a hollow promise since it didn’t seem to work the first time.
Each couple can usually find ways to renew the commitment that is unique to them. For example, in one couple the man had taken his mistress up to the family cabin. This was the part of the betrayal that had been most difficult. As an act of commitment, he spent a number of weekends re-painting and repairing the cabin. In the end, both members of the couple worked at this together and it became a symbol of a new beginning for their relationship.
Trust is built primarily through small trust experiences. Usually this requires being vulnerable in some way and then finding that your partner was worthy of trust. For a couple that has gone through a betrayal it is important to identify small ways that they can be vulnerable to each other. This level of vulnerability may need to start out small, and then grow as trust is earned.
One way couples can practice vulnerability is by having a joint financial account and slowly increasing the amount they contribute. Another example is allowing each other to travel alone. One way to help partners gain trust is by having “trusting practices.” These are ways that the partner can consistently follow-through with expectations. For example, a woman may agree to call home at certain times while travelling alone. This is not to check-up on the person, but is instead a way to show they are following through. These small actions can slowly build trust over time.
Rebuilding the Relationship
Once these other pieces have been put in place, at least to some degree, it is possible to begin working on the relationship. This may involve working on communication, intimacy, money, etc. This work is important for the couple to feel good about their relationship and to help prevent future relationship break-down.
It can be challenging to rebuild after a serious betrayal, but it is possible to once again have a meaningful and fulfilling relationship. Of course, everyone’s journey after an affair is different, but this outlines some of the major hurdles couples face in their recovery. These kinds of events change relationships and it is hard to grieve the loss of what once was, but it is important to remember that relationships can be strengthened and matured by hardships. In many ways your relationship may end up being better than it ever was before.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Psychologist, Winnipeg MB
Winek, J. L., & Craven, P. A. (2003). Healing rituals for couples recovering from adultery. Contemporary Family Therapy, 25, 249-266,
Using pornography changes people's attitudes, relationship commitment, sexuality, ability to think, and likelihood of acting aggressively towards women. The research, much of which is very recent, is making it clear that pornography has multiple negative effects on users.
This article will only discuss the effects of pornography on men. Women do use pornography to a lesser extent and the effects of this use are less clear.
Pornography has been show to negatively effect men's attitudes towards women. Pornography users have been shown to have less egalitarian views, but it is unclear whether pornography use is causing this difference or if it is just that less egalitarian men are more likely to use pornography.
However, a piece of research was conducted which had some randomly chosen men view pornography first and then measured where they landed on the "hostile sexism" scale. The men who watched pornography were higher on this scale than the men who didn't. This research suggests that pornography is causing men to become more sexist in their attitude.
Of course, there are many out there who would not be surprised by this research. Many view pornography as degrading and objectifying towards women. Generally speaking, people's beliefs will generally become consistent with their behaviour. So even if a non-sexist man begins using pornography he will generally begin to believe that it is right to objectify and degrade women.
Pornography use reduces relationship commitment. Men who use pornography are more likely to have an affair. It isn't just that cheating men are likely to use pornography, the pornography seems to cause the cheating.
In one experiment some randomly chosen men were shown pornography and, afterwards, these men were more likely to see other women as romantic alternatives. In another experiment a group of randomly chosen regular porn users stopped using pornography for three weeks. At the end of the three weeks these men were more committed to their relationship.
A number of other interesting experiments have been done looking at how porn users are different in relationships. For example, in one experiment porn users were found to be more likely to flirt when chatting online. In another experiment couples were asked to complete a task together and their interactions were videotaped. The couples' interactions were then rated by observers on how committed they seemed. The couples in which the man was using porn were rated lower on commitment than the non-porn couples.
Research has shown that male porn use predicts lower sex quality for both men and women. Men often report not being as attracted to their spouse when they use pornography and this may be part of the reason for the lowered quality. Sexuality, like any other behaviour, can be modified to an extent by reward and punishment. If a man is regularly having rewarding sexual experiences to pornography, he will begin to need that kind of stimulation to achieve orgasm.
Exposure to pornography has also been shown to predict adolescent uncertainty about sexual beliefs and sexual orientation. It is impossible to say if the pornography is causing this uncertainty or if it just that uncertain youth seek out pornography, but the connection is concerning. If you do find that your child is viewing pornography, it would be good to have a discussion about sexuality and pornography to help him or her manage potential feelings of uncertainty.
There is now research showing that pornography users have more difficulty with attention and working memory. These differences do not only occur during pornography use, but continue throughout the day. This seems to be supported by porn users indicating that they were able to think better after ending their porn use.
Pornography seems to cause men to be more physically punitive towards women. In a very interesting experiment some randomly chosen men were shown pornography and some were not. Both groups were brought back a week later and paired with a female who was part of the researchers team. At the beginning of their meeting the woman mildly rejected the man by saying that she wasn't attracted to him. They then played a guessing game and the man had the option of physically punishing the woman if she got the answer wrong. The men who had been exposed to pornography were more likely to punish the woman.
It has been suggested that pornography makes men more likely to act out violently against women. This type of research would be unethical, so it has never been proven.
Couples Therapy for Porn Addiction
For some couples pornography is an issue and for others it is not. When couples come for therapy because of a pornography issue therapists differ in how they approach the issue. Some will encourage the woman to accept the pornography and begin trying to help her with the issues the pornography is causing. Other therapists will accept the couple's assessment of the problem and begin treating the pornography usage. Often in these situations the porn usage has become an addiction. If it weren't an addiction, the man would likely have given up the porn usage when he realized it was an issue for his partner.
When pornography is an issue it can feel like an affair. If the female partner is not comfortable with pornography, porn usage will usually either stop or become secretive. When the usage continues in secret, the lying, the feeling of there being these "other women", the loss of intimacy, and the fact that the man is seeking comfort from another source makes the dynamics in the relationship very similar to those created by cheating. Sometimes the relationship between the pornography and the man can be stronger than the relationship between the couple. Couples therapy can help in these instances by helping the couple to unite as they work on the pornography addiction as a team.
There are many negative effects of pornography, but one of the most concerning aspects of pornography use is that users seem oblivious to how it is changing them. In fact pornography users often report feeling positively about their porn usage. Unfortunately, this leaves users as often the last to realize how pornography has damaged their relationships and their psyche. Pornography usage is growing every decade and wireless technology is making it more accessible to young people. As pornography grows it becomes even more important for society to understand the dangers that are associated with pornography so everyone can make decisions and take actions that are informed.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Ford, J. J., Durtschi, J. A., & Franklin, D. L. (2012). Structural therapy with couple battling pornography addiction. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 40, 336-348.
Gwinn, A. M., Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., & Maner, J. K. (2013). Pornography, relationship alternatives, and intimate extradyadic behaviour. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4, 697-704.
Hald, G. M., Malamuth, N. N., & Lange, T. (2013). Pornography and sexist attitudes among heterosexuals. Journal of Communication, 63, 638-660.
Laier, C., Schulte, F. P., & Brand, M. (2012). Pornographic picture processing interferes with working memory performance. Journal of Sex Research, 50, 642-652.
Lambert, M. N., Negash, S., Stillman, T. F., Olmstead, S. B., & Fincham, F. D. (2012). A love that doesn't last: Pornography consumption and weakened commitment to one`s romantic partner. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31, 410-438.
Peter, J. & Valkenburg, P. M. (2010). Adolescents' use of sexually explicit internet material and sexual uncertainty: The role of involvement and gender. Communication Monographs, 77, 357-375.
Poulsen, F. O., Busby, D. M., & Galovan, A. M. (2013). Pornography use: Who uses it and how it is associated with couple outcomes. Journal of Sex Research, 50, 72-83.
Thomas, L. A., & Gorzalka, B. B. (2013). Effects of sexual coercion proclivity and cognitive priming on sexual aggression in the laboratory. Journal of Sex Research, 50, 190-203.
Wright, P. J. (2013). U.S. males and pornography, 1973-2010: Consumption, predictors, correlates. Journal of Sex Research, 50, 60-71.
Financial cheating is common and damaging to relationships. Apparently one third of individuals who are in relationships with joint accounts report lying in some way to their partner about money. This can lead to arguments, separations, and sometimes divorce. Financial problems caused by intimate partners has become so common that researchers have coined the term "sexually transmitted debt".
Financial cheating can be large or small and it can involve spending and saving. Sometimes it can be lying about the size of a purchase or it could mean having a small stash of cash. However, these issues can grow quickly becoming huge debts or large savings accounts. When issues like this come to light it is often the breach of trust that is the most damaging.
One of the major reasons for financial cheating is the fact that couples don't talk about money. They often argue about money, but rarely discuss it. Some researchers have commented on how it seems that couples find it more difficult to talk about money than sex. In fact, only 25% of couples actually track their spending and have a financial plan. Couples often fall into their money management habits without thoughtful discussion or consideration.
Not watching spending gives each person more opportunity to cheat. We are only human and when people are given the opportunity cheating can be a temptation that is hard to resist. Keeping an eye on the bottom line is always the best way to help each other stay honest and accountable.
Lying and cheating is usually inconsistent with the positive image people have of themselves. So if someone is going to lie, they usually come up with a reasonable explanation. Perhaps the person spends a bit more as a way of compensating for not receiving enough attention. Perhaps they feel they feel they should have an extra savings account because the other person is untrustworthy.
Research has found that people find it easier to justify lying and cheating in ambiguous situations. For example, it would be easier for a teacher to give his or her favourite student a higher grade on an English essay because it is so subjective as opposed to a math quiz where there is a clear right answer. Relationships are notably ambiguous in nature. They are often filled with misunderstandings and usually both members of a couple feel they are giving more than they are getting back. Financial cheating can be a way to get back what they feel they deserve.
Couples can also cheat financially to punish one another. I met one couple who got into frequent heated arguments. In one instance the husband left in the middle of an argument and bought a SUV. This kind of action may be meant to assert power and dominance in the relationship.
Sometimes financial cheating is because of a specific personal issue. A gambling addiction is a good example of this. Being a gambling addict usually goes along with lying about money.
Each person in a relationship brings in their own feelings about money and how it should be spent. Some people are spenders and others are savers. Some like to risk and others like steady growth. Some really feel the power money brings and others accept it as a form of love. Unfortunately, these issues are often not well understood because people rarely talk about money in meaningful ways.
Overcoming Financial Cheating
The two primary ways to prevent financial cheating are to discuss finances as a couple and to monitor spending. The actual system you develop to manage your family finances is less important than ensuring you have a system with which both parties are satisfied.
If you are concerned that your partner is cheating financially, the main thing to look for is inconsistency. Does their behaviour match what they are saying? For example, have you noticed any of the following - avoiding talking about finances for no apparent reason, insisting on managing money alone for no reason, and spending that does not match income with no financial consequence. Other things to look for are sudden changes in behaviour, lying about money to others, parents who have issues with money, and signs they are covering their tracks - like an empty browser history.
Finding out that your partner has cheated financially can be devastating. In some ways it can be harder to cope with than sexual cheating because you may now have a significant debt that is a constant reminder of the lie. Moving forward from this type of betrayal can take a great deal to time and effort, but there is hope. Couples can be very resilient and can achieve a new intimacy and trust with some hard work and the help of a trained therapist.
By Dr. Syras Derksen