Jun 10

Long-Distance Relationships (LDR’s): How to Keep Them Going

Long-distance relationships, often now called LDR’s, have a bad rap, and for good reason. They’re challenging for many and often end in breakups.

Then again, though, so do many non-distant relationships. Interestingly, research reveals that each kind of coupling actually breaks up at about the same rate as the other.

One clinician who sees real pitfalls to LDR’s yet who can also support them under certain circumstances is Ben Michaelis, PhD. From The Huffington Post, his thoughts about what can go wrong and why:

Long-distance relationships often masquerade as real relationships. They can be passionate, intense and loving. But what they can’t be is battle-tested. Developed romantic relationships require commitment, contact with reality, but most of all they require action. Because the majority of the time spent together in long-distance relationships is precious, most problems are ignored. As a result, long-distance relationships usually exist in a suspended ‘honeymoon state,’ where everything is shiny and happy but devoid of the reality that is necessary to determine if the relationship will ultimately sink or swim. This is why many long-distance relationships fail.

Exceptions, he says, are couples who have temporary separations due to certain commitments, e.g., related to the military, as the partners “generally do not fall into the fantasy trap.”

Another expert on this subject is Dr. Gregory Guldner, author of Long Distance Relationships: The Complete Guide (2004). He says, “The most challenging aspect of a long distance relationship is maintaining the feeling of simply being part of one another’s lives.”

Guldner sees the following six “critical areas” for LDR’s:

  1. Stay Optimistic! “LDRs report just as much satisfaction, intimacy, trust, and commitment as traditional relationships…”
  2. Re-Learn How to be Intimate. “Our research found that what couples say and how they say it matters far more than how frequently they communicate.”
  3. Some things must be said. Don’t postpone necessary topics—schedule such conversations.
  4. Don’t Isolate Yourself! “Research has found that those in LDRs very frequently cut themselves off from others…Yet, we know that the degree of social support from friends and family predicts both the emotional difficulty someone will have while separated and the likelihood that the relationship will stay together.”
  5. Expect Disappointment. “Couples in LDRs sometimes measure the success of their relationship by the perceived quality of the most recent time spent together…Simply realizing that there will be some disappointing times together – and that this is normal – will help with those less than glorious weekends.”
  6. And Finally, Learn the Art of Long Distance Sex. “When apart, couples need to learn how to be sexual without being physically close.”

Guldner’s research found that most people in LDRs experience some mild depression, probably related to the separations. Also, a few stages tend to occur related to the regular periods of distance: protest, despair/depression, and detachment.

Protest can range from a mild, playful, ‘please stay’ to significant anger. Despair and depression are ubiquitous, though mild, and this probably helps to prevent people from staying in the ‘protest’ phase, which would be generally fruitless and very psychologically tiring. The ‘detachment’ phase occurs as people move into the ‘apart’ compartment…This is usually a healthy move but sometimes people become too detached and are unable to reconnect appropriately when they’re together.

Another source of info regarding the success of long-distance relationships is Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, Psychology Today, who created her own suggestions from studying the research. These are verbatim from her post:

  1. Understand your own attachment style. You can actually take a brief online quiz to assess your own attachment style. If you find that you’re in one of the two insecure attachment style categories, you may be at risk for problems when your significant other must travel or live away from you.
  2. Keep your partner up-to-date on what’s going on around you. The Lee and Pistole study showed the advantage of gossip as a way to bridge the miles between distant partners. By letting your partner know what’s happening in your environment, you create a more vivid image in your partner’s mind of the people and places around you now.
  3. Focus on the positive. The more satisfied couples err on the side of over-idealization when they think about their partners. It’s not healthy to be completely unrealistic, but putting those rose-colored glasses on the relationship can help you navigate through the disappointments you’ll invariably face due to the forced separation between you.
  4. Keep the self-criticism to a minimum. Partners who were high on self-disclosure actually had unhappier long-term relationships than those who kept their doubts about themselves in check. Along with the idea that a little idealization isn’t a bad thing in romance, allow your partner to have those same rosy glasses on when thinking about you.
  5. Make time to stay virtually close to your partner. Long-term relationships place a particular strain on people with insecure attachment styles. Even if you’re securely attached, but especially if you (or your partner) are not, make time for regular check-ins with each other. This doesn’t mean you have to stay in constant Facebook or online chats, but schedule a time each day (or whatever schedule works for you) when you and your partner can simulate, at an emotional level, a geographically close relationship.
Aug 23

Disappointment, Dashed Expectations: Dealing With It

Disappointment is ranked as the third most commonly experienced emotion, following love and regret. Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Psychology Today

Whitbourne cites “Disappointment Theory,” which states that “we experience disappointment when a situation that has an uncertain outcome ends up producing a result that is worse than we had expected. We’re most likely to be disappointed when we were seeking a positive outcome, when we felt that we deserve this positive outcome, when the failure to achieve that outcome is a surprise, and when the failure is outside of our personal control.”

Basically, then, it’s about expectations and how we interpret their lack of realization.

Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed. Alexander Pope

Having no expectations is the easiest way to avoid disappointment, a challenging path some do try to take. Buddhist teachings (Buddhanet), for instance, define “right view” and “wrong view”: “Wrong view occurs when we impose our expectations onto things; expectations about how we hope things will be, or about how we are afraid things might be. Right view occurs when we see things simply, as they are. It is an open and accommodating attitude. We abandon hope and fear and take joy in a simple straight-forward approach to life.”

Another option is to look at lowering one’s expectations. With more appropriate expectations, we have a better chance of meeting our goals. Hence, a lack of disappointment.

Although we can achieve this through conscious effort, sometimes we also do it instinctively. One example, reported by Nina EliasPrevention, has to do with awaiting important results such as grades or medical diagnoses. What tends to happen is that we engage in a psychological process known as “sobering up”: our expectations lower temporarily just as we’re about to find out, which is self-protective.

What if we can’t lower our expectations and thus wind up disappointed? A crucial first step involves facing it, which psychologist Mary C. Lamia believes is too often avoided. From a Psychology Today post:

In my psychotherapy practice I have found that people avoid disappointment far more than many other emotional experiences. Disappointment comes with finality–the recognition that you don’t have, didn’t get, or will never achieve whatever it is that you wanted. You might experience being angry with a parent, spouse, relative, employer, or friend, and that is far easier to feel than your disappointment in the relationship. Disappointment forces you to admit that you did not get what you wished to have, and it is actually easier for you to protest with anger than it is to encounter your sadness about the course of events. In an obstinate way, anger will allow you to continue idealizing what could have been while consciously denigrating it, and you will hang onto it only because it’s what you needed at the time. Disappointment accepts reality.

So, now that we’re accepting reality, what next?

Disappointment is merely an unmet expectation, it’s only when you imbue it with negative meanings that it becomes painful. Dr. Mark Goulston, Psychology Today

As stated in a post (use the link above) by Dr. Goulston, some cognitive tweaking enables you to turn “dysappointment,” a painful place to be, into disappointment handled with “poise and aplomb.”

So the next time something doesn’t happen that you expected, instead of thinking, ‘That shouldn’t have happened,’ think, ‘That’s just one of the things that happen that I don’t like or didn’t expect and furthermore if I handle it well, it’s a tremendous opportunity for poise.’

Below, an infographic on “The Psychology of Disappointment” gives a good deal of additional info:

The Psychology of Disappointment

Source: Best Psychology Degrees

Dec 17

Stuff Happens For a Reason: Or, Magical Thinking?

In this year’s The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, science journalist Matthew Hutson proposes that everyone uses at least one—and often more than one—type of magical thinking on a regular basis. Courtesy of psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne, these are Hutson’s “7 laws”:

1. Objects carry essences: “…(W)e attribute special properties to items that belong or once belonged to someone we love, is famous, or has a particular quality we admire.”

2. Symbols have power: “According to the principle known as the ‘law of similarity,’ we equate a symbol with the thing it stands for. In one experiment testing this idea, people refused to throw a dart at a picture of their own mother’s face but were able to take dead aim at a photo of Hitler.”

3. Actions have distant consequences: “In our constant search to control the outcomes of events in our seemingly unpredictable lives, we build up our own personal library of favorite superstitious rituals or thoughts.”

4. The mind knows no bounds: Because we tend to “count the hits but not the misses,” sometimes we feel psychic related to the way certain events fall into place.

5. The soul lives on: In “our desire to avoid thinking about our own mortality” we “invent and hold onto a belief in the afterlife.”

6. The world is alive: “…(W)e attribute human-like qualities to everything from our pets to our iPhones.”

7.  Everything happens for a reason: “The most insidious form of magical thinking is our tendency to believe that there is a purpose or destiny that guides what happens to us…Perhaps your home was spared (or not) during a hurricane, tornado, fire, or other disaster. Why were you spared–or not–and why did other people have the opposite happen to them? As Hutson points out, ‘Coincidences…are the manna of magical thinking’.”

Hutson tells a Wired interviewer that this last law of magical thinking is his favorite because it’s so often used. He elaborates:

Let’s say you miss your bus. It’s easy to take that as meant-to-be. Perhaps you think you have really bad luck and the universe is out to get you. But then you can also turn that around and maybe say, ‘I was meant to miss this thing for a positive reason. Maybe on the next bus or train, I’m supposed to strike up conversation with someone interesting and something good will come out of that.’ There are everyday scenarios where we tend to read meaning into things automatically, without thinking, just because we have this teleological bias that leaves us to see intentionality in the world.

You can apply that to bigger and broader things. Maybe you lose your job, or get dumped by your girlfriend or boyfriend, or someone close to you dies. If you see that as meant to happen, that can help you see the silver lining and cope with whatever has happened and grow in the aftermath. It can help you avoid the sense that you’re living in a chaotic universe that doesn’t care about what happens to you. Which is probably the truth, but is not a comforting thought. It’s sometimes better to see meaning in things.

What if everything does not in fact happen for a reason? What if bad stuff can come about simply by chance? What if we never really know why horrible tragedies happen?

As Paul Thagard, a philosopher with a specialization in cognitive science, asks in Psychology Today, “…(I)f the real isn’t rational, how can we cope with life’s disasters?” Here’s his (I think) satisfying answer—or about as satisfying as we can get:

Fortunately, even without religious or New Age illusions, people have many psychological resources for coping with the difficulties of life. These include cognitive strategies for generating explanations and problem solutions, and emotional strategies for managing the fear, anxiety, and anger that naturally accompany setbacks and threats. Psychological research has identified many ways to build resilience in individuals and groups, such as developing problem solving skills and strong social networks. Life can be highly meaningful even if some things that happen are just accidents. Stuff happens and you deal with it.