By Jim Hynes
Seventeenth Century French mathematician, physicist and theologian Blaise Pascal, a deep thinker if ever there was one, famously said: “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.” And while Pascal may have been pondering faith more than affairs of the romantic kind, you get the point – love has been eluding our understanding for as long as people have been falling under its spell.
Nobody at McGill spends more time unravelling the mysteries of love and relationships than Professor John Lydon. A native of New York City who came to McGill’s Psychology department in 1990, Lydon is a world-renowned expert on attraction and commitment in intimate interpersonal relationships. One of his most recent studies looked at male-female attraction, and the impact of attachment anxiety in it, in the context of speed dating. And another of his previous studies examined the role of commitment in overcoming relationship adversities.
While Lydon has no illusions about having love all figured out, he knows more than a thing or two about what makes romantic relationships work, or not. On the occasion of Valentine’s Day, Lydon walked the Reporter through the minefield of romantic relationships, from initial attraction to the stability of long-term partnerships.
Love at first sight?
You don’t need to be a love scientist to know that physical appearances matter when it comes to sparking attraction, especially when people first meet.
“We know from our speed dating studies that physical appearance accounts for an awful lot,” Lydon says.” When we had our people rate the appearance of the participants, their ratings pretty much predicted which speed daters got the most dates. We found that it counts for something like three-quarters of the variability.”
And that was true of both men and women, says Lydon.
“Attraction matters in that initial impression. It’s not all that matters, but it matters to everyone.”
But factors like the kind of relationship people are looking for also play a role in what attracts them to each other. Lydon cited a study by an American colleague who gave participants 20 “mate dollars” to spend on the attributes they wanted in a romantic partner; looks, personality, warmth, intelligence, etc.
Go ahead and insert your joke here about men spending $19.99 in one area, but it turns out that women spent a lot of their mate bucks in the looks department too. Even more notable was the realization that people spent differently depending on whether they were seeking short-or long-term relationships.
“It turns out women, like men, will put a lot of money on physical appearance when it’s short-term, but when it’s long-term then women are going to look for things like warmth, and the same goes for men to a certain extent too,” Lydon says. “In the short term, men are putting a lot of money on physical attractiveness, but if they can also get warmth, they’d like that. Long-term, men seem to be divided between warmth and attractiveness. Whereas the women, short-term they’re putting the money on attractiveness, but long-term, warmth mattered more.”
While the speed dating study provided plenty of material for the study of attraction in general, its specific focus was on what Lydon and his associates call the “anxiously attached,” people whose critical relationships in childhood left them insecure about their adult relationships. During the study, they noted that a person’s anxiety was another important factor in their speed dating success, or lack of it.
Getting to know you…
“We looked at how people’s social anxiety or their insecurity about being accepted by others can be a handicap. Within three minutes (the time each speed dater spent with each of the other participants) people seem to implicitly pick up on those who come across as more worried about their relationships,” Lydon says.
So what happens after initial attraction, when the novelty of it all has been tempered and people have stopped trying to present themselves in the best light? Maybe the object of your affection likes reality TV shows, and watches them in sweat pants. Maybe you’re a card-carrying member of the NDP and your partner voted Conservative. Can you have a future together?
“If things are working out, and people are getting along and spending more and more time together, then these interesting issues, like how are they going to get along, come into play,” Lydon says. “And the more time you spend together, you start discovering differences or conflicts of interest. It becomes a question of how you are going to resolve those things. And some people do resolve those, and accommodate each other and coordinate with each other. Those are the relationships that will progress. And that’s what’s very revealing in the long run.”
That long run will see a relationship undergo numerous transformations. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the part about the baby carriage. But then what? What happens to romantic love as time goes by? Does it deepen or grow stronger as the clichés say? Why do some long-term relationships last, and grow stronger, while others fall apart?
“We know that people who are more committed have longer lasting relationships.” Lydon says. “We also have a better idea now of why that commitment matters, and that is that people who are more committed to their relationships are more likely to do the sort of things that keep a relationship going when negative things happen. They are less likely to even notice the negative behaviours of their partner. And when they do notice them they’re more likely to discount them –‘well, he probably had a bad day at work.’
“People who are committed are more likely to try and engage… they’re likely to talk in a constructive way about a negative thing, and to voice their concern but in a positive, secure way as opposed to just going on a negative rant. Also the people who are more committed are more willing to sacrifice for each other. And that builds the relationship over time.”