"See a play, go to a new location, go to a horse race." Why does advice for keeping a relationship alive always seem so worthless? Maybe science has the answer!
We've commented before on the awfulness of dating, flirting, and sex advice — especially when provided by, say, a women's magazine. But what of those who have already dated, flirted, and slept their way into a committed relationship? They too are awash in shitty tips, either blindingly obvious (be nice to each other) or totally weird (go spear-fishing). Jessica Pauline Ogilvie's piece in the LA Times about the science of romantic love offers some reasons why.
People are different.
The nugget of love-news around which Ogilvie wraps her gooey Valentine's candy of an article is a study conducted at UCSB. Everyone from Lori Gottlieb to Cosmo will tell you that exciting early love eventually turns into, in Ogilvie's words, "relationships that are more intimate, more committed — and much less thrilling." But the UCSB researchers found that in many couples, this is false — their brain activity is similar to that of people newly in love, minus "the anxiety or obsession." In fact, this may be true for around 30% of American married couples. All of which is a sciencey way of saying that conventional wisdom really doesn't speak for everybody, and the accepted relationship trajectory — a few months of sleepless nights followed by years of foot rubs and arguing over the kids — is really just a stereotype.
Since people are different, the only advice that works for all people is incredibly general.
Your average "love guru" or whatever may not be up on the latest brain scans from UCSB, but he/she probably understands at least on a gut level that every relationship has different problems and joys. Result: most relationship advice is like the world's funniest joke — reasonable to most people, life-changing to none. Ogilvie quotes social psychologist Arthur Aron, who says that to recapture feelings of being freshly in love, couples should "Take a class together that you know nothing about. See a play, go to a new location, go to a horse race." Take a class! Go to a new location! We've all heard these before, and that's because social psychologists/relationship experts/journalists do not know us, and they do not know what we like, and they do not know what our problems are. So they're forced to base all their advice on some notional and extremely mainstream couple who's in a bit of a rut but sure likes a good horse race. If your problem is that your partner never wants to clean the peanut butter off the fuck-swing, you are SOL.
Science will not save us.
Of the lucky 30% with the newly-in-love brain scans, Ogilvie writes, "Researchers believe that we have a lot to learn from these happy couples, if only we're willing to do so." Researchers may believe it, but I don't. Sure, brain scans are interesting, and I'm intrigued by the connection between people's neurological and emotional lives. But as much as I believe this connection deserves further study, I don't think it's actually going to help me all that much. Brain scans take place in an MRI machine — not at a horse race, or in any of the situations where most of us conduct our relationships. And as Ogilvie mentions, much of the oxytocin/vasopressin/blah-blah-blah research that has become mandatory filler for basically every mainstream article about love was done in marmosets and voles. This is not to say such research has no practical applications, but it's probably most useful in the aggregate. It may well be possible to codify certain characteristics of happy couples, vole or human, but whether one given couple can then acquire those characteristics — and whether those characteristics will actually help with that couple's specific problems — is anyone's guess. I'm not betting on it.
Relationship advice ignores gay people.
Most research in the field of love has been done with married, heterosexual couples. [UCSB researcher] Acevedo suggests, however, that couples that have been living together for a long time but are not married may have comparable experiences. "If they're living together and almost like marriages, I would predict that they're highly similar to the married individuals."
Ogilvie only glancingly hints at the existence of homosexual couples, and this is pretty much par for the course in the relationship advice article. Gay people typically don't exist in the mainstream-love-tip universe, probably because they are busy going to bathhouses and corrupting youth and couldn't possibly have a long-term relationship. Or maybe because their long-term relationships don't always look like the accepted ideal of a heterosexual relationship, an ideal that may be made up anyway. Which brings us back to point one, "People are different" — the only relationship advice that works for everyone.
Scientists Try To Measure Love [LA Times]