Whether you’ve been dating someone for a short time or been married for years, there’s one question that can remain perennially interesting — did I choose the right partner?
My guest today has some answers to that question that aren’t based on crowd-sourced anecdotes or biased personal hunches, but reams of scientific research. His name is Ty Tashiro and he’s a professor of psychology, a relationship expert, and the author of The Science of Happily Ever After: What Really Matters in the Quest for Enduring Love. We begin our discussion with the difference between loving someone and being in love with them, and how the latter comes down to a combination of like and lust. Ty shares the three elements that go into liking, and how this liking piece is really the foundation of long-lasting relational happiness, even though it tends to get underemphasized. Ty then reveals the surprisingly low ROI of factors like looks and income in relationship happiness, before unpacking the factors that do have an outsized impact in contributing to enduring love. We discuss which personality traits are predictive of relationship stability and satisfaction, which have the opposite effect, and why you need to ask your friends for their assessment of your significant other’s personality, rather than only assessing it yourself. We also get into the importance of your partner’s attachment style, which they learned in childhood, and two red flags to look for in your relationship.
These insights will prove super useful for those in the dating scene, but will also be of interest to those already in long-term relationships, in either affirming the wisdom of your choice of partner, or helping you identify issues that may be sabotaging your relationship and can still be addressed.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- The difference between loving someone and being in love with someone
- 3 factors that contribute to whether you like someone or not
- When and why does lust ebb more than like?
- How much do looks really matter?
- The value of deciding the traits and characteristics that are most important to you
- Which personality traits to avoid in a partner
- What is “attachment style” and how does it play out in our relationships?
- What are some red flags to be on the look out for?
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- My first interview with Ty on the science of social awkwardness
- 14 Red Flags to Look Out for in a Relationship
- The Best Relationship Episodes of the AoM Podcast
- 6 Tips for Successful and Gentlemanly Online Dating
- How to Test Your Relationship Without Moving In Together
- How to Communicate Your Needs in a Relationship
- Treating Your Relationship Like a Bank Account
Connect With Ty
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Whether you’ve been dating someone for a short time or been married for years, there’s one question that can remain perennially interesting, “Did I choose the right partner?” My guest today has some answers to that question that aren’t based on crowd-sourced antidotes or biased, personal hunches, but reams of scientific research. His name is Ty Tashiro, he’s a professor of psychology, a relationship expert, and the author of “The Science of Happily Ever After: What Really Matters in the Quest for Enduring Love.” We begin our discussion with the difference between loving someone and being in love with them, and how the latter comes down to a combination of like and lust.
Ty shares the three elements that go into liking and how this liking piece is really the foundation of long-lasting relational happiness, even though it tends to get under emphasized. Ty then reveals the surprisingly low ROI of factors like looks and income in relationship happiness, before unpacking the factors that do have an outsized impact in contributing to enduring love. We discuss which personality traits are predictive of relationship stability and satisfaction, which have the opposite effect and why you need to ask your friends for their assessment of your significant other’s personality rather than only assessing yourself. We also get into the importance of your partner’s attachment style, which they learn in childhood, and two red flags to look for in your relationship. These insights will prove super useful for those in the dating scene, but it will also be of interest to those already in long-term relationships, in either affirming the wisdom of your choice of partner or helping you identify issues that may be sabotaging your relationship and can still be addressed. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/love.
Ty joins me now via clearcast.io. Alright, Ty Tashiro, welcome back to the show.
Ty Tashiro: Hey, thanks for having me back.
Brett McKay: So we had you on back in 2017 to talk about your book Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome, that’s episode number 347 for those who wanna check that out. But before you wrote Awkward, you wrote a book about another awkward thing, that can… Or it could be awkward in life, it’s the Science of Happily Ever After: What Really Matters in the Search for True Love. So you’re a psychologist, and it seems like your area of focus has been relationship, social relationships, how did that focus happen?
Ty Tashiro: Well, I guess, Brett, like a lot of things in my life, it happened on accident. [chuckle] I’ve never been one of those guys who’s great at planning out the next five years or the next 10 years of his life. And I went to graduate school for psychology, and I thought I was gonna study trauma and I got to the University of Minnesota and discovered that some of the best relationship researchers in the world are housed in the Department of Psychology there. I didn’t even know that you could apply the scientific method to study something like romantic relationships or social awkwardness, and so, I was instantly taken with this idea that maybe you could bring some order to these processes that seem so chaotic and so unknowable, and because of that, certainly maddening at times.
And it was really remarkable to learn that psychologists had figured out a lot of things about love, when we fall in love, why we fall out of love. And so, I spent a lot of my graduate years studying that and researching that. And then when I was a professor at the University of Maryland, I taught a really fun undergraduate course there on the psychology of romantic relationships. And it just kinda covered from the time you first fall in love as a teenager until you maybe get married or have a life partner. And then through the end of life, your later years, what does the course of our romantic relationship life look like? And it was… As you can imagine, it was a really fun course to teach, and the students were really engaged, and so I got so many great questions from them. And that was actually the spark that got me interested in maybe writing a book about the topic some day.
Brett McKay: Alright, so this is all about romantic love, and you start out the book trying to define what romantic love is, ’cause there’s all sorts of different types of love. The Greeks are really good about distinguishing different types of love, there’s like Agape, there’s Eros, which is sorta like passionate love. And you make the distinction, there’s a difference between… And I think people have heard this in movies, right? Between loving somebody and being in love with someone. You’ve probably heard some romantic comedy movie where the lady is like… The girl is like, “Well, I love him, but I’m not in love with him.”
Ty Tashiro: That’s exactly right.
Brett McKay: So what is the difference… Has the scientific literature sussed out that difference?
Ty Tashiro: Yeah, well, it’s… There’s had to be some investigation because as you mentioned, other languages have multiple words for the different kinds of love, and English is a little bit limited, in that we just have this one word, but it can mean so many different things. When it comes to romantic relationships, it turns out the word love by itself can be applied to a lot of things, so you could love your dog or you could love chocolate or all kinds of different things, but being in love, that’s a whole ‘nother thing. And it’s this either or kind of phenomenon. You don’t really hear people say, “Well, I’m kind of in love with her.” Or “I’m kind of in love with him.” It’s this either or process. And one of the early research investigations of this asked hundreds of people, what are the essential components for being in love with somebody? And they got hundreds of responses and then some poor graduate student had to sit there and sort these responses into different categories. And then they ran a bunch of other subsequent tests, and what they essentially found was that it came down to two simple ingredients.
It was, “Do you like the person and do you have lust for the person?” And if these two simple things are in place that actually explains when people fall in love, so it actually doesn’t take that much [chuckle] to fall in love with somebody, but to get those two things to happen at the same time is the trick. I think we’ve all experienced instances where maybe we like someone a lot and we had a lot of affection for them, but we just didn’t find them attractive in a physical kind of way, and there’s other instances where we find someone really physically attractive or sexually attractive, but we don’t like them that much. Which is a whole ‘nother kind of problem, so… Yeah, you need both of those things in place. But when you get those, then it kind of trips this process to where you fall into love.
Brett McKay: Okay, so I think everyone’s experienced lust, if you’re just physically attracted to that person, but they even break down liking, what constitutes liking, and I guess there’s like what? Three factors that contribute to whether you like someone or not?
Ty Tashiro: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. So there’s these really kind of heart-warming studies that have been conducted since the 1950s, and it really started with friendship, and so they’re like, “What makes a good friend?” And that kind of answers the question of like, “Who is somebody that you like and continue to like?” And kinda stubbornly, the results kept coming back with the same three factors, which is, “Is the person fair? Is the person kind?” So they’re willing to give a little bit more than what’s fair and, “Is the person loyal?” So when you don’t have a lot to offer the other person or things are inequitable, will that person stick around with you and for kids, early on, if you think about kids who are like two years old, a lot of things are about fairness, “I’ll give you one thing, you give me one thing and we’re good. My sister got one thing, I should also get the same thing.” As they move along, their kindness and their generosity really starts to blossom, and then it’s not really until late elementary, early middle school, that loyalty becomes a really important factor, but once it does, then now there’s the recipe for liking.
Brett McKay: Okay, being in love with someone, there has to be… You have to lust after them, and then you also have to like them. What happens… So there’s the lust and the like, you fall in love, the other person falls in love with you, you get into a relationship, what happens to lusting and liking long-term?
Ty Tashiro: That’s where it gets complicated, ’cause we all know the feeling of being in love, and especially early on, when it’s that passionate love stage and you have the thumping heart and the butterflies in the stomach, kind of obsessively checking your phone, to see if the person texted you back, that’s actually a really great euphoric state to be in. One of the things researchers have done is they’ve tracked people over time, so they catch them when they first fall in love and are in passionate love, and then they’ll follow them for years or in the case of marital studies, even decades to see what happens to their relationship satisfaction, but also what happens to their liking of the person and their lust for the person. Now, the good news is this, is that liking on average stays pretty constant across multiple years or even multiple decades, which is good, ’cause that’s really the foundational piece. As you might guess, lust takes a bit of a dip after a couple of years. So once you get to about year three of marriage, for example, you see declines in lust and you get another decline around year seven in lust, so that’s something that’s harder to maintain, it’s a little more ephemeral, and that’s been one of the things researchers have been really scrambling to figure out is how do you keep that sexual interest and that lust component alive and burning? And it turns out to be trickier than we thought it would be.
Sometimes people ask me like, “Hey, why can’t I stay in passionate love for forever? Why can’t the pounding heart and the butterflies endure for decades?” And I have a really simple answer, which is you would die. That’s not a sustainable physiological state to be in. A pounding heart, that’s another term for high blood pressure, and those butterflies in your stomach leave the trails of hormones that eventually would burn a hole in your stomach. So while it feels great and people should definitely enjoy the feeling of being in passionate love. I think rationally, we all know it’s gonna fade at some point, and it’s not to say that means a relationship can’t be great and grow in other ways, or that passionate love won’t come back often times during the course of a long-term relationship, but when we have that as the sole criteria or one of the few criteria for why we choose somebody, you know that’s not really a great place to put emphasis ’cause that’s gonna morph and change as the relationship goes on.
Brett McKay: But the takeaway there is, if you want the relationship to last, you have to make sure you’ve got that liking… A lot of people, they might get into a relationship and it’s primarily lust.
Ty Tashiro: Oh, yeah.
Brett McKay: And then that goes off the diving board, year three, year seven, and if you don’t like the person, well, that’s when breakups and divorces start happening.
Ty Tashiro: Yeah, yeah, the liking’s the foundation, and you’re totally right. What can happen to the best of us is that lust is so powerful and so primal, and you can actually watch in brain imaging studies how it just kinda takes over the brain. So people are not thinking very clearly, they’re overcome by lust and yeah, sometimes they’ll sacrifice things like fairness or kindness or loyalty, and carefully assessing that in a person, and now they get years into a relationship or years into a marriage and now you’re really in trouble. Because those things that tend to be more constant and sustaining weren’t there in the first place, and then if the lust starts to fade, yeah, now you got a lot of problems.
Brett McKay: And so the case you’re making in this book is helping people focus on the factors in liking that will help a relationship last for a long time, and what you’re saying is… You’re not saying the lust part isn’t important, that’s an important part of romantic love, but for long-term relationship stability and satisfaction, you have to make sure in that early part of the relationship you’re focusing more on that liking part because just naturally you’re gonna be lusting, that’s just like the… That’s gonna be happening already, you don’t have to worry about that, but you have to be a little more thoughtful and intentional about the liking part.
Ty Tashiro: Yes, it’s kind of an over-correction. So the lust is super easy, ’cause you don’t have to put any effort into it. If you find someone really physically attractive or sexually attractive, that’s just reflexive, that will happen for you, and the heart starts beating and butterflies start flying and you’re good to go. But the liking, yeah, that takes more attention because we might overlook that in the first place, and then it takes more work to sustain that over time, so that’s why you wanna give it more attention. And you’re right, I’m not saying that looks don’t matter, or attraction doesn’t matter, it certainly does. Romantic relationship, one of the things that makes them unique in cultures like the United States is for the most part, unless you’re polyamorous, there’s only one person you can be in romantic love with if you’re in a committed relationship. And so that means there’s one person who’s the object of your lust or your sexual desire. So you wanna have that in place, but I think what happens a lot of times is that people just over-emphasize and over-prioritize the looks at the expense of things like liking and other things that would be more important for a long-term relationship.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I can see this over-impose on looks being even more heightened with online dating, because there you’re deciding on who to swipe on based only on the person’s profile picture or maybe a little bit about what they do for a living in their profile, and that’s it. So you could be swiping away a ton of people who you could really like and have a great relationship, long-term relationship, if you got to know them in real life, but you’re not gonna have those relationship because you’re… They don’t meet those superficial things initially.
Ty Tashiro: Yeah. So you’re totally right about that Brett, the app kinda sets you up by interface to be your worst possible self in some ways, where you’re making these decisions based on the looks or based on the occupation. And one of the studies I cited in this updated version of the book was a cool study with Hinge, and they asked this question, I was waiting for somebody to research, which was, how long do people spend looking at a profile before they swipe on it? And of course, they found what you think they would find, which is people only spend a couple of seconds looking at a profile before they swipe right or swipe left. And they kind of then said, “Well, based on the interface, what would you be able to glean from the person’s profile?” And it’s exactly what you said. You could get physical attractiveness and you could get their occupation, which is a proxy for socioeconomic status. And while it’s understandable that you want to be attracted to somebody and you want somebody who has a certain amount of education or a certain kind of career, those aren’t high return on investment kinds of variables, we could talk about that a little bit later, but those aren’t the two things you should be emphasizing the most.
Brett McKay: Well, and that’s the big thrust of the book, the argument you make is that we think we know what we want, generally, men prioritize physical attractiveness, women also prioritize it, but it’s not as much as men. And then women generally prioritize economic status or even just the capacity to have a good living. So we think we want that, we say we want that when psychologists like you ask normal people, “What do you look for in a mate?” But then you make the case that those things like wealth and looks, they might be good part of the initial attraction, but they’re not, like you said, a good long-term investment for the long-term satisfaction of the relationship. Can you talk a little bit about that research you’ve done?
Ty Tashiro: Sure. Yeah, well, it kinda starts with a thought experiment, and so one of the things I would do with my students at the University of Maryland is I would say, “Write down what you want in your ideal romantic partner.” And so some of your listeners, if they want to, they could do this right now. It’s actually kind of a fun activity. I give them about three or four minutes to do it, and in those three or four minutes they generate about 20 characteristics that they want in their ideal partner, and then we’d have some fun reading people’s list if they volunteer them. Now, what happens though is for every characteristic or trait that you want in a partner, you’re gonna lose people who don’t meet that criteria, so imagine for example, we have a bachelorette and she has 100 eligible bachelors, and let’s say one of her criteria is she wants someone tall, and to her, that means someone’s six foot or taller. Well, what would happen with those 100 bachelors is that 80 would walk out of the room because in the United States, only about 20% of men are six foot or taller, so you’ve really dramatically reduced your pool.
And now let’s say she wants someone who matches her political affiliation. Well, about 16 more guys of the remaining 20 will walk out of the room, so… I’m sorry, about 14 will walk out of the room, ’cause only about 30% to 40% of people will match your political affiliation. And then as you can imagine, whatever other wish you make is gonna leave you with only one option or a fraction of a person, [chuckle] which often happens. And so then you gotta go back and say, “Well, was it really important to me that the person was tall?” For example. So if people are spending their wishes for traits on looks and on money or socio-economic status, then they’re losing a tremendous number of people who are in their pool. And so, then you wanna ask, well, what’s your return on investment for getting someone who’s like a hot partner, for example? And they do have some nice studies that show your return on investment for a physically attractive partner is about zero. [chuckle] So, you’re no better off getting someone super hot versus someone who’s cute versus someone who’s average looking.
And even for women, for heterosexual women, choosing a guy who’s hot is actually negatively associated with their relationship stability, so they’re less likely to have a stable relationship. And that’s because that guy is not just hot to them, [chuckle] that guy is hot to a lot of people, which increases the risk for cheating and instability. The same thing with money. Money is a little bit more complicated, in that you want someone who’s a bit above the poverty line, and then there’s a diminishing return on how wealthy the person is after that. So once you get past, let’s say $40,000, there’s really a diminishing return, and when you get to $75,000, now there’s a… It kinda goes flat at that point. So there’s really no difference between someone who has, let’s say, $750,000 a year in income versus $75,000 a year in income. You might have some nicer things, but you’re not gonna have a more satisfying relationship necessarily.
Brett McKay: Alright. So those things, looks and money, socio-economic status, doesn’t provide a lot of long-term return on investment in your relationship. So what factors do? Like, when you research, when someone is looking at their budget of traits they’re looking for in a potential partner, what are the things they should… I’m not gonna say should, ’cause everyone’s got their different interests and tastes, but what are some things that you recommend prioritizing based on your research?
Ty Tashiro: Yeah. Well, that was part of the thing that got me, I guess, before I started writing the book, is there were these studies that show, well, there are variables that do have a huge return on investment. And I thought, “Well, that seems like kinda common sense, some of these factors.” And so, then I was like, “Well, so why aren’t people emphasizing these things more?” We looked at three different categories of things. One was personality, a second category was attachment or relationship with caregivers, and the third was things going on in a current relationship that would be red flags. I think personality is probably one of the easier ones to do. And personality is just kind of what are the traits that describe how somebody usually is or how they are, and one framework you can use is the big five. So extraversion, openness to experience, which is kind of open-mindedness, agreeableness, which is how kind, how nice you are, conscientiousness, how much do you have your act together, and neuroticism, which is a lack of emotional stability and moodiness. And so there’s been a lot of studies, large studies with thousands of people, and they’ll look at how do these five characteristics predict long-term relationship satisfaction and stability.
And what they find is that extraversion, introversion doesn’t really matter that much, and even matching somebody on extraversion, introversion doesn’t really seem to matter. Same thing happens with conscientiousness. Conscientiousness isn’t really a huge deal. But neuroticism, for example, is strongly predictive of how satisfied you’ll be in a relationship or in a marriage, not just at the current moment, but also 10 or 20 years later. It’s really strongly predictive of less satisfaction and less relationship stability. One study I really like looking at neuroticism and relationship stability, found that if partners were mismatched, so one partner is not neurotic, another partner is neurotic, they asked who is the person who breaks up the relationship. And what they found was, it’s the neurotic person was more likely to end the relationship. And I was thinking to myself, “Well, [chuckle] why did you do that?” Because for the neurotic person, this is exactly what they need, somebody who’s emotionally stable, who’s consistent, who’s gonna be patient. But it’s kind of like they can’t stand the success, and so they were more likely to terminate the relationship. The other two are agreeableness, so how kind somebody is, how nice they are, actually gets a bad rap in our culture. If someone says your partner was a nice guy or a nice girl, it’s almost a little bit insulting that that was the [chuckle] first way they described your partner.
But of course, kind people are generous, they’re more empathic, they’re more giving, they’re less likely to keep track of things. So they’ll just kind of freely give to you emotionally of time and in deeds without necessarily keeping track of how much you’re giving back. They just trust that things will work out over time. So that’s good for satisfaction and stability. Agreeableness is also associated with more sexual satisfaction, and that’s in part probably because the person’s more attuned to your sexual needs. And so you get an unexpected benefit in that way from that trait. One that I like because it’s a little counter-intuitive is novelty-seeking. And novelty seekers are the people who are exciting. They always are doing something new and different, and people high in novelty-seeking are really fun to date. So they’ll be spontaneous, you’ll do all kinds of exciting things together. They get really absorbed in things. So they’ll get really into you and they’ll really, really like you, and it’s a real exciting kind of relationship to be in. But people high in novelty-seeking are also more likely to get bored quickly. They’re more likely to engage in risks that are detrimental to the relationship, like substance abuse or cheating. And so here’s an example of a personality characteristic that is really attractive at the start, but if you’re thinking in a long-term mindset, you kind of easily see how that can come back and get you.
Brett McKay: Got you. Alright. So conscientiousness and extraversion, introversion, not a big… Doesn’t play a big role in relationship satisfaction. Neuroticism, that can have a detrimental impact. That’s the one factor you would be like, “Try to avoid highly neurotic people.” How do you… How do you suss that personality out without handing them a personality test on the second date? [chuckle] How do you figure out, “Is this person neurotic?” And is this gonna be a problem? How do you figure that out?
Ty Tashiro: I had a woman one time come across this folder I have, it has all my personality assessments in it from graduate school, [chuckle] so that was a unique opportunity to see whether someone was neurotic or not, but you’re right, usually that won’t be available to folks, and so… Usually, we’re pretty good at picking up on personality pretty quickly, actually, but one situation where we’re not good at it, is when we’re in lust with somebody. That kinda clouds our judgment, and someone gets a halo effect, as we would say in social psychology, and we can’t see the negatives in them very clearly. So one of the things I recommend folks do is at some point, if you’re dating somebody, there will be what my friend Sarah calls the initial public offering of that partner to the friend group, where they get to meet that new partner for the first time, and at some point, your partner will go to the restroom or excuse themselves for a second to get a drink or something, and then you wanna ask your friends like, “Hey, be honest with me, what do you think of this person?” And your friends aren’t clouded by lust, and so if you get, for example, three different friends to give you feedback about this person’s personality, and then you were to average those together in your head, that actually gives you a pretty accurate impression of what this person’s personality is like.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. And what do you do? So one thing about personality is that it’s pretty stable across the lifespan of a person, it’s hard to change your personality. What do you do if you’re the neurotic [chuckle] and that’s getting in the way of you having a healthy long-term relationship? Any insights from your research?
Ty Tashiro: Yeah, that’s been one of the things that has been a delightful surprise for me since this book came out, was when I speak about it, or there’s people there who have read it, I’m surprised at how often people will bravely raise their hand in front of other folks… This is back pre-pandemic days, I guess, and say, “Hey, so I’m kind of neurotic, [chuckle] I’m the neurotic one and what can I do about that?” Well, it’s a continuous variable. In other words, it’s a matter of degree, or there’s gray areas, so if you’re at the 99th percentile of neuroticism or the top one percentile, you’re probably in some trouble anyways, [chuckle] in a lot of different ways, but usually some of us might be like at the 70th percentile or the 80th percentile. So you’re a little bit neurotic, but you kinda have to assess where you are on the continuum. I think that would be the first thing. The second thing is… I’ll tell folks who ask that question, I would feel really optimistic about you because you have the self-awareness and the security in yourself to have insight into the fact that you’re a bit neurotic, and two, you have the security to say, “Hey, I wanna do something about that and not rationalize it away.”
So I think that’s kind of the second step, is to have the insight and then to say, “Okay, this is the thing, what do I wanna do about it?” And then people can take a lot of different routes. I’m sure you’ve interviewed people on your podcast who talk about mental health or talk about emotional stability, or thriving, or happiness, or mindfulness, these are the kinds of concepts that help people develop new responses to situations or new attitudes that can actually diminish their neuroticism over time. So something like neuroticism is stable over time, because most people won’t have the insight or have the will to try to change it, but if people have the insight and the will and the persistence, you actually have a good chance of moving the dial on personality traits that aren’t ideal.
Brett McKay: Gotcha, alright, so takeaway from personality traits, avoid un-self-aware neurotic people, find people who are agreeable and kind, make you feel better about yourself being around them, and then possibly avoid people high on the novelty or openness to new experiences ’cause that could lead to relationship problems down the line, long-term.
Ty Tashiro: Yeah, right, exactly. And just to tie that all up, if people do that and they get someone who has that constellation of personality traits, they go from a 43% chance of having a satisfying, stable relationship to over 70% chance of having a satisfying stable relationship, so just turning the dial on those three variables dramatically impacts the likelihood of your future relationship.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. Alright, so the other factor that you look at in the book that contributes to long-term satisfaction is attachment style. For those who aren’t familiar, what is attachment style and how does that play out in our relationships?
Ty Tashiro: So attachments is just kind of the relationship and the feeling you have towards your caregivers, and so we oftentimes look at that within the context of babies or young kids and their parents. And there’s three different types. So you have kids who are securely attached and that means they have a good relationship with their parent, they can trust that their parent will care for them and look out for their best interest and because they trust their parent and feel secure with their parent, they’re actually then liberated to explore the world and venture out because they know that their parent will be there for them. And about two-thirds of people are secure, which is great.
Now there’s two insecure types, there’s anxious types and avoidant types. So anxious kids don’t have a secure attachment with their parents, so they don’t trust that their parent will be there for them in a way that’s reliable and consistent. And the reaction to that is, if you watch little kids with a parent and the kid’s anxiously attached, they’ll alternate between physically grabbing on to the parent, latching on to the parent and then pushing away from the parent or even hitting the parent. And there’s this push, pull, clingy, reject kind of mindset that the kid develops. The other type is avoidant, avoidantly attached kids also don’t trust that the parent can be relied on, maybe the parent’s been absent or unavailable, and so what the little kid kinda resolves in their mind is, “Well, fine, I don’t need you, I’m gonna do my own thing.” And so they avoid intimacy or emotions or even physical proximity with the parent. If you watch a kid who’s avoidantly attached, they’ll actually sit a ways away from their parent and not make eye contact with them for long stretches of time.
Now, what we know about attachment is that attachment tends to stay stable from childhood to adulthood, remarkably stable. And as your listeners might be able to imagine already if they’ve dated someone who’s anxious or avoidant as an adult, that obviously doesn’t play out very well in a romantic relationship. You get the stage five clinger with the anxiously attached type of partner, and that oscillates with pushing away or getting angry with you. The avoidant partner is somebody who is distant, and you can never really form an emotional connection with that person and you’re always wanting more from them, and that doesn’t make for a great relationship either.
So you wanna choose someone who’s securely attached. If you get the securely attached adult as a romantic partner, that’s someone who is trusting in their relationships, they’re very even about the turbulence, natural turbulence you experience in a relationship, and they can easily form the kind of bond and the kind of intimacy that you need in something like a romantic relationship. And the good news, I think for people, is that two-thirds of people are securely attached, so that’s… The odds are in your favor for getting someone with that attachment style.
Brett McKay: What do you do if you have anxious or detached attachment style?
Ty Tashiro: Yeah. So there’s a… It takes a while, but it’s not, it’s not hopeless, I guess is what I tell folks. There’s a great book actually that I really like called Attached, and it’s a good overview of this research literature and some things people can do. There’s a type of therapy called emotion-focused therapy that is based on attachment frameworks. And it’s really effective for depression, anxiety, also couples therapy, and it helps people reformulate like, “Hey, so this is the relationship you had with your caregivers or with your parents growing up, but that’s not how everybody is gonna relate to you. And so let’s modify your framework or your viewpoint of how relationships work.” And in the context of dating or couples, there’s some… For unsuspecting partner sometimes [chuckle] who is getting a anxious framework or you’re getting an avoidant framework from their insecure partner when maybe they don’t deserve to have their behaviors or their interactions treated that way. So that can be a really powerful way for folks to shift their viewpoints. And it takes some practice, but over time, the studies show that people can shift into a secure attachment style. But once again, it doesn’t just happen naturally, it requires insight and requires quite a bit of persistence, and then on your partner’s part, requires quite a bit of patience and loving.
Brett McKay: Alright. Find someone with secure attachment. If you don’t have secure attachment, you can change, it’s gonna take some work. The third thing you talked about is red flags in current relationships or past relationships. What does that look like?
Ty Tashiro: Well, yeah, it’s kind of fortunate to be in a relationship, ’cause now you get real-time data about how the person might be, so instead of extrapolating from personality traits or extrapolating from attachment style, you get to see how is the person in a relationship. There’s a few different ways you can look at it. I broke it down into, what’s an action or behavior pattern, that would be a red flag. What’s a thought pattern, that would be a red flag. And then there was a third category we can talk about as well, but let’s do the first two here. So one of the hallmarks of dysfunctional couples and couples that will be unhappy and unstable is what we call demand withdraw pattern. And that means that one partner is demanding in a very intense kind of way, something from the other partner, the other partner withdraws or stone walls the requests from the partner, and you can kind of imagine how this plays out. So you have someone raising their voice or being really intense about demanding more things from the relationship, the other partner’s blowing them off, and it only gets worse and worse, so the voice raises even higher, maybe the person who’s withdrawing even storms out the door and just removes themself from the situation.
So if you have someone who’s a demander, or if you have someone who’s a withdrawer, that’s a red flag for the interaction that you have. When it comes to thought patterns, the hallmark of a partner who’s gonna provide for an unhappy and unstable relationship is somebody who blames you for everything. So it’s what we call attributions, so if something goes wrong, I could blame myself for it, I could blame you for it, I could blame our interaction, maybe there was just a misunderstanding or maybe we just have some differences, or we could say something external, we didn’t have enough time or someone else got in the way of us trying to accomplish something, but in unhappy relationships, the large majority of attributions are blaming the other partner, and it obviously makes people more angry when you blame somebody else, “you’re lazy, you’re uncaring, you’re not good enough,” and when people vocalize that, it obviously goes really poorly on average because someone’s making a generalization or stereotype based on just one instance of something. For red flags, those are two things I would watch out for, watch out for demand-withdraw patterns, and then if someone has a reflexive tendency to blame you for everything, I’d probably get out of there. Get out of there pretty quickly.
Brett McKay: What was that third one that you mentioned?
Ty Tashiro: The third one is actually a heartening positive kind of situation still, this isn’t so much a red flag as a good thing to look for. There’s this new line of research that just started about… I don’t know, 15 years ago, 12, 15 years ago, and it’s called capitalization. And what happens when people capitalize is your partner, when they come home from the day, when you see each other at the end of the day, researchers have found that the majority of the time, over 80% of the time, they’ll share something positive that happened during the course of their day, just as you’re sitting there talking at the dinner table or whatever else. Now, that’s actually a great opportunity. And you have a chance to capitalize on that by empathizing with them, so saying, “Hey, that’s awesome that you finished the project today and got such great feedback from your manager.”
Not only do you verbally say that, but your emotion level genuinely matches their enthusiasm and when partners capitalize on the good news that their other partners brought home that has a downstream effect, so it really strengthens the relationship for that moment and for that day, but even three days or a week later, you still see the positive effects of what was really empathizing about a positive experience, and if partners fail to capitalize on that, so let’s say the partner shares some good news, the other partner keeps flipping through the channels and doesn’t even make eye contact, doesn’t really say much, that’s a real missed opportunity and actually really hurts the relationship. There can be a tendency sometimes, I think among psychologists like me to focus on things that need to be fixed or red flags, but I just wanted to also emphasize that there’s a lot of great things that can happen in relationships, and so people should keep their eye open for these positive habits that partners have, that they could really see being a beneficial thing in the long run.
Brett McKay: Alright, so we talked about three things to look for in a partner for a long-term relationship satisfaction, so personality, attachment style, and then these red flags that we just talked about. So let’s tie this together. Let’s say there’s someone who’s listening to this podcast, they’re in the dating world and they’re trying to figure out who would be a potential marriage partner, how would you recommend bringing in this stuff while also bringing in that lust part… While taking into account that lust part. How do you balance that stuff?
Ty Tashiro: Well, I think one of the just kind of pragmatic things that folks can do is do that exercise that I would do with my students. And so just sit there and write down what are the things that are important to me in a romantic partner. And you don’t wanna have social desirability with yourself and only put the things you think you should put down, I would tell people go ahead and put the shallow things as well, put all the stuff you want in there. If they need to be a Philadelphia Eagles fan, well, go ahead and put that on your list, knock yourself out. Get that big long list and then at the very least, just spend some time now prioritizing it. If you write down 20 things from 1 to 20, what would be the things that would be most important to least important to you in a relationship? That’s a great start, that’s a step most people will never do, but you could certainly see how that would be helpful. I would then take the top 10 out of that list and I would post it somewhere, maybe not where future dates can see it, but where you can see it and you’ll consistently see it, just to remind yourself about what’s important.
I think the other thing folks can do then is if they’re on apps or whatever environment they’re in for meeting people to really think about, “How do I wanna handle the information that’s presented to me?” Especially with apps, as we talked about, with just the picture and the job being the first things people might look at and the only things people would look at. One small thing you could do is say, “I’m gonna read every single person’s profile if I don’t find them really unattractive.” Let’s say. And that would be one small step that would actually broaden the pool of people that you consider, and would actually broaden your thinking about how you’re thinking about people you might wanna… You might wanna meet.
And then the third thing people could do is if they want to get really specific about it, then they could assess things like personality or assess things like attachment style, using some of the tools… I have some tools on my website, for example, that are free, folks could use and… Yeah, and then go through and think about, “Alright, this is the kind of person I want.” In that process, you can also look back on what were the personality characteristics or attachment styles of the last three people I dated? And average that out. Oftentimes what people find is I’ve been dating the same person with the same problematic characteristics over the past a year, two years, and that’s a nice point of insight to say, “Okay, so then how does that fit or not fit with these priorities I’ve laid out in my list of the top 10 things that are actually important for me?”
Brett McKay: Awesome, so I guess the takeaway, think about what you want, but then you have to start thinking about prioritizing instead of just… You can’t have everything basically, so you gotta figure out what you really want in life.
Ty Tashiro: Right. And I think sometimes people say, “Well, am I settling if I take this approach?” And I don’t think that’s what you’re doing at all. It’s in fact saying, “I’m just actually making sure I’m getting the things that are most important to me.” And none of us get every single thing that we want in a partner, and that’s all right. That’s just life, right? But if you get the things that are actually the most valuable to you, then that’s great, and then you’ll get other things then that are pleasant surprises that you didn’t even know you needed. And I love when I talk to couples that have been married for five or six decades, and they’re just interested in the topic area of research on romantic relationships, and we’ll get to talking. And that’s one of the great things that always comes up in these conversations, is they’ll say, “Hey, there were characteristics my wife or my husband had that I never even knew I needed, but they manifested over the years in our relationship, or we grew into those things.” And so I think that’s an upside that people can look forward to as well.
Brett McKay: Well Ty, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Ty Tashiro: Well, the book’s available where books are sold, and they can also go to my website, which is tytashiro.com, and there’s a few tools like personality tools and partner selection tools there they can tool around with if they want, but I appreciate you having me on Brett. It’s been a fun conversation again.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Ty Tashiro, he’s the author of the book The Science of Happily Ever After, it’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, tytashiro.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/love, where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
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