in: People, Podcast, Relationships

• Last updated: June 21, 2022

Podcast #808: The Surprising Science Behind Building Stronger Relationships

We’ve all heard by now just how important strong relationships are to our health and well-being. But a lot of the common advice and conventional wisdom out there about how to build stronger relationships doesn’t end up taking us closer to that goal.

My guest today has spent years sorting through what really builds better friendships, reignites love, and helps people get closer to others, and he shares these research-backed insights in his new book: Plays Well with Others: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Relationships Is (Mostly) Wrong. Eric shares what he’s learned today on the show, beginning with why we’re good at figuring out someone’s personality from the moment we meet them, but bad at reading their thoughts and feelings, and how to get better at the latter by making other people more readable, as well as how to make a better first impression yourself. We then turn to what makes friendship a unique relationship that makes us uniquely happy, and the two “costly signals” that most develop friendship. We also get into why friends we feel ambivalent about are actually worse for us than outright enemies. We spend the last part of our conversation on how the modern age is both the worst and the best time for marriage, and how the key to ensuring that yours is one of the happiest in history is maintaining positive sentiment override.

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Read the Transcript 

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. We’ve all heard by now just how important strong relationships are to our health and wellbeing, but a lot of the common advice and conventional wisdom out there about how to build strong relationships, doesn’t end up taking us closer to that goal. My guest today, Eric Barker has spent years sorting through what really builds better friendships, reignites love, and helps people get closer to others. And he shares these research backed insights in his new book, Plays Well With Others: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Relationships Is Mostly Wrong.

Eric shares what he’s learned today on the show beginning with why we’re good at figuring out someone’s personality from the moment we meet them, but bad at reading their thoughts and feelings and how to get better at the latter by making other people more readable as well as how to make a better first impression yourself. We then turn to what makes friendship a unique relationship that makes us uniquely happy. And the two costly signals that most develop friendship. We also get into why friends we feel ambivalent about are actually worse for us than outright enemies. We spend the last part of our conversation on how the modern age is both the worst and the best time for marriage and how the key to ensuring that yours is one of the happiest in history is maintaining positive sentiment override. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at

All right, Eric Barker. Welcome back to the show.

Eric Barker: It’s great to be here man.

Brett McKay: So we had you on back in 2017 to talk about your book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is Mostly Wrong. You got a new book, this is Plays Well With Others: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Relationships Is Mostly Wrong. So you’re… What you’ve been doing for a long time over a decade is writing articles on your blog, looking at these sort of these common ideas that we have about success, relationships work, and then digging into the research to show that, well, these common ideas that we have might not be true and here’s some counterintuitive insights about it. So what you’ve done in this book, you’ve taken some like relationship tropes that we’ve heard over the years. I mean, it’s just sort of baked into the… To our collective wisdom and try to investigate well, are these things really true? I mean the first one you’ll look at is You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover. And this is based… Basically the idea is that you can’t judge your first impressions of people. You have to give them a really thorough look at and chance to really get to know them. So let’s take a look at the research on whether or not that’s true. You highlight the FBI spent decades and millions and millions of dollars trying to figure out whether they can judge a book by its cover, whether they can profile people correctly, has this investment paid off?

Eric Barker: No, serial killer profiling is basically pseudoscience. If you give chemistry graduate students a chance to write profiles, they’ll write ones that seem just as valid as ones by professional profilers. The UK looked at all of its profiling and said, how often was this useful? And the answer was 2.7% of the time. And the reason an American is citing British statistics is because the FBI doesn’t really set data. So basically again and again, it’s been shown that just profiling doesn’t really work. And we… It’s basically no different than astrology. And this is a problem that is kind of large is just our ability to read others, whether it be profiling or just talk, having a conversation with your spouse is very tricky.

And we… The problem is that we think we’re really good at it. Our confidence levels are way higher than our accuracy numbers. Nicholas Hartley does research at university of Chicago and he found that 20… We can only accurately read the thoughts and feelings of strangers 20% of the time, with friends, we hit 30% and with spouses, we hit 35%. So whatever you think is on your spouse’s mind, two thirds of the time you’re wrong. And the truth is, we seem to have a pretty low ceiling for getting better at this, there are things like motivation that can help us get better. But what I found by looking at the research was what actually helps us really read the thoughts and feelings of others better is not trying to improve our reading ability, but to focus on making the other person more readable.

Brett McKay:Okay. I wanna talk about how we can do that, but I wanna reiterate this idea that we’re not very good at reading people’s feelings or thoughts. I mean, this is like the source of a lot of just contention in any relationship like, you think someone’s thinking this thing and you get upset about the thing you think they’re thinking about. And it’s probably… They’re probably not even thinking that.

Eric Barker: No, and this is huge. It causes a lot of conflicts, especially I get into later in the book I get into the issue of marriage. And it can become really difficult when we get overconfident about our ability to read our partner, especially in a long term relationship as it goes on because we start making assumptions. And once we start making assumptions, we’re not having a conversation with our partner anymore, we’re having a conversation with ourselves and it’s really not that hard for that internal conversation to turn negative, where we start making assumptions about our partner’s motives, what they did, why they did. And this is one of the things that accelerates kind of the entropy in a marriage or in a long term relationship, is not communicating as much, not asking people what’s on their mind, but making assumptions.

Brett McKay: Okay. So we’re not good at thought reading, the body language thing, what does the research say about, you can read someone’s body language to see if they’re sad, upset, interested in you, what’s going on there.

Eric Barker: Unconsciously, we certainly get some information from that, but when we consciously try to read body language, it’s really not that helpful or effective is what the research shows. A lot of people love body language… Hey, I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, but truth is it’s really not because the… In the end, we don’t know if the person’s shivering because they’re nervous or they’re shivering because they’re cold. So this is even worse with strangers because we don’t have a baseline with strangers. We don’t know that, Oh, they’re tapping their fingers, we don’t know if that’s because they’re bored or if that’s a nervous habit that they always do. So it’s trying to consciously read body language. There’s a reason why there’s never been a Rosetta Stone for translating body language because consistently the research shows that it’s just not effective. If we want to find something, that’s gonna give us a better read on someone, we’re actually much better off focusing on the voice because when we can hear someone, but we can’t see them, empathic accuracy only drops off about 4%, when we can see someone, but we can’t hear them, empathic accuracy drops off 54%. So we actually get a lot more valuable information about what a person’s thinking and feeling from their voice than we do from looking at their body.

Brett McKay: That’s interesting. Something you point out though, so we’re not very good at mind reading, we’re not very good at reading body language, the FBI’s not… They’re terrible at profiling. Yet the same time, our first impressions of people are surprisingly more accurate than we think they’d be. What’s going on there?

Eric Barker: Yeah, it’s really interesting. First impressions are kind of a double-edged sword because like you said, we are surprisingly good. Generally about the 70% accuracy level in terms of sizing somebody up. We can generally look at somebody… Some of the fundamental personality traits for instance, like how a person dresses, how well-groomed they are is usually very indicative of conscientiousness, and on the conscious or subconscious level, we kinda get that, and there’s a lot of research in psychology on what’s called Thin-slicing, which is that if I see someone, I can’t hear it, but I watch a video of, say a teacher in a classroom, just by watching that for a couple of minutes, people can usually predict just how competent that person is at their job.

But that’s the thing, is sizing people up in this sort of overall way, those fundamental personality traits way, like I said, 70%, we’re pretty good at that, but that’s different than trying to figure out what’s on a person’s mind in the moment, what their intentions are, what they’re really feeling behind their eyes. So there is that kind of distinction there, but what’s really critical with first impressions is like I said, it’s a double-edged sword in the sense that, Yeah, we are way above chance in terms of reading someone accurately, in terms of getting a first impression on them overall. However, the other side of the sword is, those first impressions tend to stick, and if we’re wrong, it’s really hard for us to dislodge those inaccurate perceptions of that person, and that’s where it’s really tricky.

Brett McKay: Okay, so there’s two things we could talk about here. One hand, okay, first impressions are 70% accuracy rate. To me, I think, Well, I should be doing… I should think more about my first impression because it’s probably gonna be accurate and it’s gonna be stuck in that person’s head for a long time, so I should probably do some things to manage that. Did you come across any research on whether it’s possible to manage your first impression?

Eric Barker: Absolutely. The thing here is that on one hand, we wanna make a good first impression. On the other hand, you don’t wanna give an Oscar-worthy method acting performance all the time, and from an ethics standpoint, you don’t wanna be insincere. So the best attitude to take is to not try and be someone you’re not, but to find the version of you that might fit best here. ‘Cause we all know that our personalities vary. In fact, research shows our personalities can vary widely, depending on context. We’re all someone different with our spouse versus our boss versus our kids versus strangers, and to actually sit there for a second and just think about, “Of the various me’s, which is the me that would be best for me to present here? The warm supportive person that I am with my kids? The professional, hard-headed, organized person at work?” So you can present a positive impression without being insincere and in a very natural organic way by being the different me that is relevant here.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. Alright, let’s talk about our first impressions of others, so generally, we can kind of see, in case someone’s conscientious, whether they’re laid back, whether they might be neurotic or open, I mean, you kinda get that, but that doesn’t give you the full picture of that person. So you mentioned earlier that if we really wanna get behind the person, what they’re actually thinking and feeling, kind of see who they really are, we need to get better instead of that body language reading, getting that person to open up more to us so we can find out more about them, what does the research say about that? What are some effective ways to do that?

Eric Barker: The first critical thing to think about is you’re not gonna be Sherlock Holmes. We are not gonna be able to passively just read people at a distance. The issue is, like I said, our skills kind of have a very low ceiling. Now we can sharpen them a bit, by getting more motivated. Research shows that on first dates, people are more accurate, people read us, and the reason there is, there are stakes. There’s something to be won, there’s something to be lost. All of a sudden, it’s game day. So our brains are generally cost efficient, which I consider a euphemism for lazy. So our brains aren’t gonna kick into gear if we don’t feel like there are stakes here. So get motivated, think about what you have to gain or lose. But beyond that, absolutely, you can’t just passively read people, you need to engage with them, and what we need to think about there is not how we can sharpen our skills, but how we can make the other person more readable, and that means thinking more, first about context, if there’s somebody you’re trying to get to know or somebody you’re trying to get a beat on, meeting over coffee, there’s just not a lot of stimuli in that environment versus if I was to play basketball with that person.

I would see, do they cooperate? Do they cheat? How do they make decisions on the fly? I’d get a lot more information because of what is affecting them in the environment. The other thing to think about is other people, if you were only dealing with someone in the presence of their boss, would you really think you are seeing the whole them? No. And the other thing that’s really critical is we need to stop playing it quite as safe with conversation topics. You wanna be a little bit more provocative, a little bit more controversial, because emotional reactions, research shows, are typically more honest. People don’t usually fake anger. To get something a little bit more controversial, to see somebody when they’re reactive, we’re gonna get a better read on what is important to this person and what they’re thinking about, how they feel, what they value, so poking, prodding a little bit is gonna get us more honest reactions than talking about the weather.

Brett McKay: There are some like lie-detecting things we can do. You’re not actually detecting the lie, you’re just trying to… You have to throw people off. I like how you said you need to become a friendly journalist. Alright.

You’re gonna kind of interrogate this person, you’re gonna be Barbara Walters.

But a little more friendly. So one of the tips you give is, ask unanticipated questions. ‘Cause people who lie or kind of the social chameleons, they know the social scripts and they’re just gonna… If you just ask them the typical question, they’re gonna know the answer to give, but if you ask them something like a screwball a question they weren’t expecting, they’re gonna get… And it’s gonna throw them off.

Eric Barker: I mean, exactly, that’s the critical thing here is, all the information we generally get on TV and stuff is that stress is gonna indicate lies, and that’s never been shown to be true, and body language has never shown to be valuable in terms of that. What does work is cognitive load, basically, we wanna make them think hard. In fact, telling police officers to think of the question when someone’s talking to them, instead of asking themselves the question, “Is this person lying,” to switch to the question, “Does this person have to think hard.” That question alone notably increased police officer’s ability to detect lies. And like you said, unanticipated questions. A study of airport screeners showed that they could only accurately detect lies in general, like they only caught like 6% of lying passengers, when they use unanticipated question that jumped to like 66%. Because the critical thing here is a liar can’t be prepared for every eventuality, everything you could ask.

So when you ask stuff that’s unanticipated, all of a sudden they’re gonna have to think. It’s like… It’s like when your computer slows down when it’s chewing on a hard problem. And that again, there’s no big neon sign above their head that’s gonna say lie, but you’re going to see a slow down, you’re gonna see a wonkiness. The example I used in the book is, if you were a bartender and you saw an underage person come in, if you ask them, “How old are you,” they’re gonna say 21. But if you ask them, “What year were you born,” they’re probably gonna have to do math. They probably didn’t think about that. Now, “What year were you born,” is an exceedingly easy question for an honest person to answer, but the liar is gonna have to do math and that’s gonna be very visible. So unanticipated questions can be really powerful in terms of just making lies easier to detect.

Brett McKay: Okay. So the answer to, “Can you judge a book by its cover,” is it “Maybe?”

Eric Barker: [laughter] The answer to, “Can you judge a book by its cover,” in general is that we all judge people immediately, unconsciously. We make evaluations of people when we first meet them in milliseconds. And we are always going to start making assumptions even with people we know, about a friend’s spouse, about what they’re thinking. And the key here isn’t, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” because we’re going to, we always do. The issue is, we wanna revise those judgements. We want… That we want… We get the initial judgment, and we don’t wanna stop there and slam the gavel down, and make a decision about this person. We wanna keep hypothesis testing, we wanna keep listening, and we wanna keep revising those judgments so that they can be better and more accurate.

Brett McKay: Okay. So the next relationship trope you look at is, “A friend in need, is a friend indeed.” And so you use this section to explore friendship, and you start off this section kind of asking the question like, “Why do we even have friends in the first place,” ’cause you point out [chuckle] that they don’t make much sense from an evolutionary perspective, right? Friends usually aren’t your family members, so there’s no advantage to us to invest in them, right? ‘Cause it’s not… They’re not gonna help us propagate the species or propagate our family. So what does your research show, why have friends in the first place?

Eric Barker: No, it’s like you’re absolutely right from an evolutionary point of view. I mean, friends… Now people can help you collect resources to help your biological kin, but that would just be transactional relationships, that wouldn’t be the deep, warm, loving friendships that we all want. And so this… And this was actually… Darwin called this his white whale. Darwin felt like if he couldn’t solve this problem, then maybe his theory of natural selection wasn’t true. He was worried about it. And the crazy thing was, when you read Darwin’s biography, the thing he was most happy and proud about that he thought was more important in his life than anything other, was his relationship to… To his… To his friend Henslow.

So underneath it all, it really is important to us and it matters. And what it comes down to, believe it or not, because the truth is, for me as a writer, this chapter was hard because there’s not a lot of research on friendship. Friendship doesn’t get the respect, despite the fact that friends, researchers, make us happier than any other relationship, but the word friend is used more than any other relational term in the English language, including mother and father. Friendship gets the short end of the stick often. And to really define it, I was initially struggling. I was reading this stuff and I’m trying to find a good answer, and I ended up going back to Aristotle. And Aristotle 2000 years ago said that, “A friend is another self,” which is really warm and nice, but it just… It just… It might be nice for a Hallmark card, but it doesn’t sound true.

Then I looked, and believe it or not, research for the past few decades has shown that Aristotle was right. A friend is another self, nearly at the biological level. Basically, as we grow closer to someone emotionally, the Venn diagram of who they are and who we are in our brains, overlaps. If you put women in an MRI scanner and mention their best friend’s name, the areas of the brain for self-processing light up. If I ask you, “Hey, is this trait true of you or true of your best friend,” it will take you longer to answer than if I ask you, “Is this trait true of you or just an acquaintance?” At the closer we get to someone, close is actually a really good word, we actually blur and blend our definition of self between us and our closest friends. So it’s kind of funny. I refer to it almost as like this lawyerly getting around Darwin’s trap is… Is, “Why would I do things for people who aren’t me and who aren’t my kin?” Well, our brain plays a clever trick that basically, “Well, I can justify that if I believe that you are me.” And that is kind of at the biological level how empathy works.

Brett McKay: And yeah, as you said, friendships is a weird relationship. It gets talked about a lot. It’s one of the most rewarding things in our life, but it’s… You said it’s sort of nebulous, right? And I think one of the things that makes friendship so valuable is how the bonds of it are just so… They’re easy to fray, right? I mean, ’cause like a friend isn’t… Usually, you’re not related to them so there’s no like blood responsibility, right? Blood… ’cause they’re not… They’re not your brothers, you don’t feel any obligation. You’re not married to them, so there’s no marital obligation. It’s very… It’s just voluntary on both sides, and like both sides equally have to be invested in the relationship for it to even exist.

Eric Barker: And that is like. No, you’re absolutely right. What that means is that’s what makes friendship in many ways, so kind of the red-headed stepchild of relationships in the sense that it doesn’t get the attention, it doesn’t have a contract or an institution or the metaphorical lobbying group pushing for its interest the way an employer a spouse or kids do, but on the flip side, the upside of that is that is exactly the reason why friends make us happier than any other relationship is because it’s totally voluntary. It’s always a choice. Never an obligation. If you don’t like your friends, they cease to be your friends, if you cease to like your employer, that’s fine, you can keep working there, you can even cease to like your spouse for a while, you don’t have to like your kids, but you have to like your friends otherwise you don’t spend time with them anymore, so friendship is always kind of stress tested and pushed, if they didn’t make us happy, we wouldn’t be friends with them anymore, so friendship may get neglected, but its fragility proves it purity, it’s like that’s why it makes us so happy because if it does it, it wouldn’t be there.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. So what does the research say about what we can do to cultivate more friendships in our lives?

Eric Barker: I mean, here it’s like… Like I said, at first I was dealing with the dearth of research, so immediately I turn to what most people would would be Dale Carnegie, and what I found is that his book, How To Win Friends And Influence People. Most of what he said has held up, like most of what he says is actually accurate, the only thing he got wrong was that he said, put yourself in the shoes of another person, and the truth is, we are… As we talked about earlier, in terms of reading people, we’re pretty terrible at that, we usually make wrong assumptions, and it actually makes us worse at connecting with others, but a lot of the things that Carnegie talked about, like finding similarity, paying sincere compliments. These are really powerful things. The issue with Carnegie though, is that Carnegie was writing this book as a tool for business people and entrepreneurs to make business contacts, so it’s generally pretty shallow stuff, it’s generally… It’s great for the beginning parts of relationship, but this doesn’t build the kind of deep fulfilling friendships that Aristotle was talking about when he said another self, to do that, we need to move beyond these, we need to send what economics calls costly signals, basically, we need to show people a level of investment.

And the two costly signals when it comes to friendship, are time and vulnerability, time is always scarce. In fact, research shows it is the thing that friends argue about the most, by giving someone some of your time consistently, that’s a scarce resource. You are saying, you mean something to me, it’s a powerful signal, and vulnerability is something I was terrible at. I’m trying to get better at now opening up, talking about your fears and weaknesses, this is information that could be used against you by putting that information out there with someone you are… You’re not saying shallowly saying, I trust you, you are demonstrating… Here is something that could be used against me. I feel safe enough with you to tell you this, and that’s critical, it’s really what shows that you care, and what usually produces trust most often, is showing trust in others, and vulnerability isn’t just important for relationships, it’s also important for our health Robert Garfield at University of Pennsylvania found that not opening up about your feelings, your fears, it prolongs minor illnesses, it makes heart attacks more likely, and it makes a first heart attack more likely to be lethal.

Brett McKay: The Dale Carnegie stuff can help you kick it off with somebody. I think those are very useful tools there.

Eric Barker: Yeah.

Brett McKay: But then you’re saying if you wanna take it to the next level, you have to invest time and vulnerability into the relationship. And the time factor is really important. We’ve had Jeffrey Hall on the podcast, he’s a professor at I think the University of Kansas, where he researched how much time it takes to make a friend.

Eric Barker: Yean, and he’s made his research in a book, yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and it’s a lot longer than you think.

It’s a lot longer than you think. And with the vulnerability thing, you highly… There’s a list of questions, I think the New York Times published this a couple of years ago, and it went viral, where there’s like 44 questions you can ask someone and it’ll make you fall in love with each other, but you’re saying you can use these same sort of questions to form a quick friendship, well, not a quick, but it’ll help facilitate that vulnerability part of a friendship.

Eric Barker: Absolutely, it’s just this issue of really getting to know someone and going past the surface details, and a critical part of it is just moving past facts and getting closer to feelings, because facts are nice, but just by reading somebody’s resume, you don’t really get to know them, you get to know them much better by knowing what they value, what scares them, what they really want in life, what’s meaningful to them, this stuff is on another level and Arthur Aron has this list of questions, that’s really powerful for building any relationship, and in fact, when he first did this research and was first putting together the questions, two of his research assistants fell in love [laughter] so this is very powerful stuff. And in the marriage section of the book, I talked about John Gottman’s research, which parallels Arthur Aron’s research that really asking questions to your partner about deeper, more serious things, like knowing how they like their coffee, hey fine, yeah, that’s great, but asking your partner big questions, What does love mean to you? What does marriage mean to you? What is a happy life to you? These are tough questions, but when you get those answers, this is like getting the answers to the test.

It’s like you really start to realize, Oh, well, the reason why they get so upset with me is because they see errands as an expression of love doing household chores as an expression of love, and when I don’t do them, to them that means you don’t love me. Oh, I didn’t see it that way. And you wouldn’t find out that information if you don’t ask them, so once you ask those tough… What does love mean? You can start to find answers and routines that honor both of your visions of life, and you can find kind of a North Star that works for both of you, but we really need to ask more questions of the people that we care about on that deeper level, because this is what really builds fulfilling relationships.

Brett McKay: Okay, so a strong friendship that’s for the Aristotelian idea of friendship where both of you are just… You’re edifying each other, you can just make each other better, you just enjoy each other’s company. That’s the idea, it has a lot of benefits to our emotional health and even our physical health, but you say there’s a type of friend that actually is terrible for us, and it’s a frenemy, and you actually highlight research that frenemies are worse than enemies. So how does the research define a frenemy, and then why are they so terrible for us?

Eric Barker: This is work by Julianne Holt-Lunstad at BYU. And yeah, it’s kind of surprising, when we think like enemies are the worst, but the thing is that enemies are predictable, basically, that we know where we stand with them. With frenemies, the technical term is ambivalent relationships, is that we don’t know if they’re gonna be nice today, if they’re gonna be a pain today. We don’t know, and that kind of… Being uncertain kind of drives us crazy, it actually increases blood pressure, stress potential for depression or heart attack because it’s this… We’re always on edge. And the crazy thing is… Well, two crazy things is number one, 50% of your relationships are ambivalent relationships, and we don’t see frenemies any less than we see true friends, so it can be a really stressful, difficult thing to have to deal with someone where we never know what’s gonna happen next, and this really drives us crazy.

Brett McKay: Any research on how to handle it, what do you… Just avoid those people? What do you do?

Eric Barker: Well, that’s the funny thing, is that it sounds like kind of like the pet easy answer is, “Get away from ’em”, but the truth is that there’s actually really, really valuable insight there, because what she found when she looked at it was that with many, certainly not all, but with many ambivalent relationships, we can leave these people alone, and often people just don’t do it, we feel a level of guilt, we feel bad about it, about drawing stronger boundaries. So the truth is, spending less time with these frenemies is a good idea and it’s more possible than you think, we just usually don’t try. We usually feel some level of obligation even if these people drive us crazy, but beyond that, I get into research on dealing with toxic personalities like narcissists, and usually there are things we can do to try and connect more emotionally better on an emphatic level with these people, some people, their empathy muscle isn’t that strong, but if we emphasize like Carnegie, we emphasize similarity, like friendship, we emphasize vulnerability, or if we emphasize community, the area we’re living on, this can help people open up a little bit, these can help people be more empathetic.

That can help us build a stronger connection, and finally, if that doesn’t work, then what we should do, if we can’t, like for instance, for somebody maybe at the office where we can’t avoid them and the empathy… The tricks aren’t working. Then the thing we need to think about is making it a clearly transactional relationship, not that we need to say that to them, but we need to treat that more like a business relationship, “What are you getting? What I am getting, what do I want?” And to try and avoid the more emotional aspects that are stressing us out.

Brett McKay: Alright, so again, time and vulnerability that can make even the worst of enemies friends.

Eric Barker: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s talk about the next trope, and it’s Love conquers all and use this as a springboard to explore romance. And you start off pointing out that the research suggests that our present age, the modern age, is the best and the worst time in human history for romance. So what’s going on there? How can I be both… Both the best and the worst at the same time?

Eric Barker: You know, marriage basically started out like you had a lot of rules, it’s hard to get out of, you didn’t even generally get to pick the person you are married to, it was a fundamental pillar of society, and it was really important and really valuable, and so it was really stable, but it wasn’t necessarily happy for everybody, and it really put the… It puts society before the individual, and it was during the Enlightenment era when there started to be free markets and people were making more money, that they were able to have more autonomy, and they were able to marry for love. And this made marriage much more fulfilling, however, it also made marriage far less stable, people started to get divorced, and we saw that accelerate through the 19th century until the 20th century, where there were just dramatic dramatic shifts.

So what happened increasingly was marriage became far less stable. In the 80s the divorce rate reached 50% in the United States, it’s currently now at 40%, it would be higher, except fewer people are getting married than ever. And what’s going on here? This all sounds really negative, I actually have a warning at the beginning of this chapter, because a lot of this… It initially starts out negative, but there is the upside, the upside is that due to the new freedoms, due the ability to build a do-it-yourself marriage rather than having to follow the rules that used to exist, if you do marriage right, if you put in the work. Eli Finkel at Northwestern has shown that basically the happiest marriages of today are happier than any marriages that have ever existed on planet Earth. And the thing here that’s really interesting is that kind of hurts are very passive fairy tale visions of love, but the truth is the research shows fairy tale visions of love that actually harms relationships because people expect things to be easy, the benefit of today is that we have more freedom. Eli Finkel calls it the winner-take-all marriage, the self-expressive marriage, if you put in the hard work, if you really work it out with your partner, and do what’s necessary, you can have a super happy marriage, happier than any that has ever existed.

But the problem is we can’t just rest on our laurels, ’cause in the past, society enforced all these norms and that doesn’t exist anymore, but if you do the work, hey, you can be happier than anyone has ever been.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about what we can do to mitigate a bad marriage. Alright, just avoid the bad. And you say one of the reasons that marriages go south is that negative sentiment override starts taking place in the relationship. What is negative sentiment override, and how do you avoid it?

Eric Barker: Basically, this is some work by John Gottman, is that early love is totally passive. It just hits us and this… And it’s one of the most wonderful feeling in the world. But we don’t have to do anything, you know we just fall in love. We can’t stop thinking about the person. They can do no wrong. We idolize them. The problem is that that almost inevitably declines, entropy kind of kicks in, and that, so you could call the idealization of early love positive sentiment override, the problem is over time, that dies down if we don’t put in the effort to keep those positive emotions alive, if we don’t talk to our partner to understand where they’re coming from, as we talked about earlier, you can start to make negative assumptions about your partner, and what can happen is that positive sentiment override can actually flip to negative sentiment override basically, this is, instead of the idealization of my partners, if my partner does something good, they’re wonderful. If they do something bad, well, they must be having a bad day.

It can flip to, oh, well the monster did something nice for once. What do you know where you start to devilize, you start to assume that your partner has negative intentions and it, it basically, it just, it gets worse. It gets worse. And then eventually it becomes the default. This is just the death now for marriages. What we need to think about here first and foremost is again, that level of communication. People think that complaining is gonna lead to fighting so we should, I’m just not gonna raise the issue and that’s not true. Gottman has found the complaining is actually a positive because you raise the issues, you get them out there. The negative is when complaining becomes criticism. When you make it personal, it’s one thing to say, Hey, you didn’t take out the trash. It’s another thing to say. You didn’t take out the trash because you’re a lazy idiot. The first works. The second doesn’t. Communication needs to happen. Sometimes you’re gonna fight and Gottman found that 69% of ongoing marital issues never get resolved.

Now, some people might be intimidated by that, but truth is that was true of unhappy marriages and happy marriages. Some things are never gonna get resolved. We have to focus on the regulation of conflict, not always the resolution of conflict. And what’s really critical is talking, understanding, and then boosting the positive emotions. And what that means is doing fun and exciting stuff. Just like you did when you first started dating.

Brett McKay: Well, you call this. This is how you can increase positive sentiment override, or just keep it going. So you’re saying…

Eric Barker: Yeah.

Brett McKay: At the beginning of the relationship, when you got the love chemicals in your head, like everything is great about this person. It starts to wear off. If you want to keep those positive sentiment override going, you have to be intentional about it.

Eric Barker: Absolutely. They split couples into two cohorts. One went on exciting dates and the other one on pleasant dates and exciting won hands down. As one researcher said, adrenaline makes the heart grow fonder. And this is because of the, the psychological principle of emotional contagion. What that means is that whatever context we’re in, the emotions that we feel in the context, we will come to associate with whoever we’re with. So if it’s just another night of Netflix and pizza, you can start to associate boring feelings, you know, with your partner. But if you go out, you go to concerts, you go horseback riding, you go on roller coasters. If you do the fun things that you did when you were first start dating, you can keep those, keep that ball in the air. You can keep those positive emotions and make those associations with your partner. Because the thing is a lot of people think, oh, we did those fun things early on in the relationship because we were in love. But the truth is that the flip is also true. You fell in love because you did exciting and fun things together.

Brett McKay: No, and you gotta be intentional about this. We’ve had a therapist on the podcast. I think her name’s Martha, I can’t remember her full name, but anyway, she has this idea of marriage meetings where it’s a 30 minute weekly meeting to do with your spouse and you break it down by appreciating them. You talk about chores, but then a really important thing is you have to plan for good times. So it’s like, this is like, this is like good times with you as a couple good times as a family. And then good times individually. And that like my wife and I have been doing that for a long time. And it does like if you don’t, I think a lot of people think, oh, if a good, you know, exciting time just kind of happens spontaneously. It doesn’t, like if you want it to happen, you have to plan for it and make it happen.

Eric Barker: This is all totally true. Shelly Gable at UCSB did a research and found that how a couple celebrates is actually more important than how they fight. That really matters. It’s not obvious and always symmetric. In fact, you know, we all know couples who might fight like crazy or bicker all the time, and we wonder how they can stay together and stay happy. And what Gottman found is that the raw amount of negative in a relationship doesn’t mean anything. What means something? What makes a difference is the ratio of positive to negative. And he put that ideal is five to one, as long as there’s five positive things for every one negative thing, the raw amount of negative doesn’t matter because there’s always going to be, you know, negative in a relationship. In fact, Gottman found if it ever hits 13 positives to one negative, that’s actually a bad thing too, because what that is almost always indicative of is that somebody is not talking about, like, what’s going… Somebody’s not talking about their feeling. Somebody’s not opening up about the negatives that they’re experiencing. Somebody’s holding back and that’s bad.

So you need to think about those positives, because like I said, if you do enough positive, good things, a lot of the negatives just don’t matter as much. And as Gottman found, you’re not gonna get rid of 69% of the ongoing negative things. So very often boosting the positive is actually the better way to go.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So I like how you break this down into increasing positive sentiment override, first is rekindle. And that’s like just, do exciting things that you did when you were first, dating, right? Cause those exciting things will help you fall in love or keep falling in love. Then you have remind yourself of intimacy through love maps. And that’s just reminding yourself why you… This person’s great. Why you fell in love with him in the first place. And then you have renew your intimacy with the Michelangelo effect. What’s that?

Eric Barker: This is… A lot of people, you know, try to change their partner and A, this is usually not effective. And B it’s also bad for the relationship, but there is some research and they, that’s what they called it, The Michelangelo effect where you can actually A, you can effectively change your partner and B you can strengthen the relationship. And the distinction here is that usually when people try and change their partner, whether they realize it or not, an aspect of it is selfish. You’re trying to change a partner into who you want them to be. And the secret to the Michelangelo effect is to talk to your partner again, talking important and asking them about their ideal self, who do they want to be? What do they want out of life? And then helping, encouraging and supporting them to be their ideal self, not your ideal version of them. And this is incredibly powerful when you are a cheerleader for your partner, moving towards the person that they want to be. It has very powerful effects. It both helps them become better and let’s face it. The majority of the things that your partner wants, you know, are probably things that are positive for you and are positive for the relationship. And this has been shown to work at any age. You know, anybody can benefit from this.

You never wanna criticize the failures or negatives of your partner in this process, you just wanna be there to support and celebrate when they do start to do the things that are moving them in that right direction. And like I said, this helps your partner become better, and it also becomes a booster for the relationship overall.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I like that, and it’s called the Michelangelo effect because the reason why it’s called Michelangelo effect is that Michelangelo said, one time something like “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” And this idea actually reminds me of Kant’s, categorical imperative, to treat people as ends rather than as means, so your spouse, they have their own end, if they’re not just there, they don’t exist, so that they’re who you want them to be, they’re not just a means towards your own happiness, they have their own end, and so you should help them towards their end, towards their telos, and in doing that by helping your partner become who they’re supposed to be, that ultimately ends up being good for you and the relationship in the end. Okay, so to increase positive sentiment override, you do these three Rs, you rekindle the relationship, remind yourself of intimacy through love maps, renew your intimacy with the Michelangelo effect, and then you have a final R and it’s re-write your story again and again. Every couple has a story about the relationship and you have to keep talking about it and telling that story to each other, so it stays at the forefront of your mind.

Eric Barker: Yeah basically, you wanna clarify it because almost sub-textual underneath it, you have a story of what your relationship is and your partner has one too, and you wanna make sure those are aligned because if they’re not… And this can be a really bad thing, but most people will say, “I don’t know… I don’t have a story. I don’t… ” No it’s there. You just haven’t thought about it, what is… How do you talk to yourself about your relationship, how it is, how it’s grown? Because the most fascinating thing is that John Gardner the researcher, his claim to fame is that he can listen to couples for five minutes and with 90 plus percent accuracy predict whether they’ll be divorced in five years, and the craziest thing… That alone is mind blowing but the craziest thing. How does he do it? He just asks them to tell the story of your relationship, and by that question and that question alone, he is often able to predict whether they divorce or not, and the key thing here, the key thing he looks for in terms of that story is celebrating the challenges, is basically, does the person look at their marriage and say, “Hey, yeah, we dealt with some difficult stuff, but oh my God, we overcame that, we worked together, it made us stronger. It was really great.”

As opposed to… “Yeah, we’re dealing with some stuff, I guess… ” Versus that couple that says “Yeah, we dealt with things. Sure, but hey, it’s really been great, we really worked it out.” That feeling of growth is really critical, growth, self-expansion. This is a huge concept, but thinking about your story, talk to your partner about your story, asking what the story is now versus what the ideal story is, and then again, you’ve got a road map, you’ve got a North Star, this is really powerful for proving a relationship.

Brett McKay: Alright, so does love conquer all? It sounds like it depends on what you think of love, how you define love.

Eric Barker: Love does not conquer all, but you’re loved can.

Brett McKay: [chuckle]

Eric Barker: That’s the issue here is that, like I said, the math isn’t always great if you look at it, but if you do the right things, if you avoid the negatives to increase the positives, an individual relationship can really be made to work. We just need to really put in the effort because with the incredible amounts of freedom that we have in the 21st century, that means the onus is on us to keep this institution stable.

Brett McKay: Well, Eric, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Eric Barker: The book, Plays Well with Others is available on Amazon, other book sellers. The URL of my blog, is a little tricky for some people, so if they go to,, they can check out my blog where I’m usually looking at the research to find a way to make our lives better and the best way to keep up with that is to sign up for our news letter.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Eric Barker, thanks for you time. It’s been a pleasure.

Eric Barker: It was fantastic. Thanks man.

Brett McKay: My guess here was Eric Barker, he’s the author of the book, Plays Well with Others, available on and book stores everywhere. Make sure to check in our show notes at a you can find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website,, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you could do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code, manliness, to check out for a free month trial. Once you are signed up, download the Stitcher app on android and IOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. It helps that a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member, who you would think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, it’s Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to this podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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