Tuesday, July 14, 2020
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Study: Close Relationships Aren’t Necessarily Better


It makes sense, doesn’t it? The closer you are to someone, the better your relationship is. Intuitively, this makes perfect sense. But new research out of Columbia University suggests that this is not necessarily the case.

David Frost, the lead author of the study, said “Our study found that people who yearn for a more intimate partnership and people who crave more distance are equally at risk for having a problematic relationship.” In other words, it’s not how close you are with your partner that matters; it’s whether or not you are as close as you would like to be that matters. For example, clinging to each other may be ideal for some, while sleeping in separate beds works best for others. “If you want to experience your relationship as healthy and rewarding,” Frost said, “it`s important that you find a way to attain your idealized level of closeness with your partner.”

A total of 732 Canadians and Americans completed three yearly online surveys regarding relationship closeness, satisfaction, commitment, symptoms of depression, and break-up thoughts. As ZeeNews reports:

More than half of respondents (57 percent) reported feeling too much distance between themselves and their partner; 37 percent were content with the level of closeness in their relationship; and a small minority (5 percent) reported feeling too close.

The degree of difference between a respondent`s actual and ideal-their “closeness discrepancy”-correlated with poorer relationship quality and more frequent symptoms of depression. The effect was the same whether the respondent reported feeling “too close for comfort” or “not close enough.”

Surprisingly, the negative effects of closeness discrepancies were evident regardless of how close people felt to their partners; what mattered was the discrepancy, not the closeness.

Over the two-year study period, some respondents` experiences of closeness became aligned with their ideals. In such cases, their relationship quality and mental health improved. The inverse was also true. Those who increasingly felt “too close” or “not close enough” over time were more likely to grow unhappy in their relationships and ultimately break up with their partners.

As you can see, it’s not closeness that matters so much as the discrepancy between the real and the ideal relationship. This is an interesting thing that explains why many couples stay together after so many years despite having such radically different ways of interacting with one another.

The first time I came across this phenomenon was when I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point” several years ago. In this non-fiction book (which I recommend to those interested in psychology – especially social psychology) he describes the Law of the Few. The book is about how social trends happen, and the Law of the Few suggests that most of the work in starting a trend is done by a few integral people. Gladwell creates three archetypes of people who are necessary for a trend to become “socially endemic.”

One of these archetypes is called “The Connector.” These are people who basically live as a well-connected middle-man. It’s the social butterfly who not only makes a great first impression, but it’s the one who knows everyone else. They set up introductions and create connections.

At one point in the book, Gladwell recalled his experience meeting a Connector, and he talked about trying to learn more about this individual. As it turns out, the Connector seemed not interested in becoming closer with people more than the cordial acquaintance status that characterized virtually every other relationship he had. He had friends, but he would apparently tend to keep people at a social distance. This was not supposed to be some calculated or manipulative thing, it’s just that this Connector – for better or for worse – seemed most comfortable with such kinds of relationships.

Perhaps this connection with closeness is synonymous with the relationship study above. That is to say, being close friends or close lovers is great… unless you want friends or lovers to whom you are not so close. Our pop culture usually shows us the happy, friendly, close couple… but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

In fact, a few weeks ago I discussed new research that found interesting results for a couple’s relationship with their in-laws. When husbands were close to their in-laws, it would tend to strengthen the relationship; but when wives were close to their in-laws, it would tend to weaken it. This was not a direct effect, but one that formed over time. (Read the article for more details.)

In the end, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re “Shmoopy” or “Sheldon,” as long as you’re happy with whatever form your relationship takes. Every relationship is different, and some people desire closeness more than others.

 “Maybe I’m just farsighted. The further away something is, the better I can see it; but once it gets close, I lose sight of it.” ―Ai Yazawa


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