Modern love is complicated.
Over 50% of new marriages end in divorce 1.
Of those marriages that “stay together for the kids”, they are usually fraught with tension, suffering, and are often sexless 2.
You could blame feminism, but we’ve made a pact here at FierceGentleman not to do that (see the Manifesto).
You could blame economic disruption caused by technology, but that would be scapegoating. Women still earn 84 cents on the dollar that men make 3.
Ever since growing up in a household with a lot of shouting, I’ve been asking myself, “Why can’t we just get along?”
As I got older, I discovered sex, and the frequency with which couples cheat on each other. Although it’s extremely hard to gather accurate data on extramarital affairs, the best scientific estimates suggest that between 15% and 55% of people will ‘cheat’ on their spouse at some point during marriage 4.
Many have argued in recent years that the human animal is just not designed for monogamy, and this may be true (see the book Sex at Dawn).
But whether it’s biologically true or not, humans still want choice: the choice to raise children, the choice to create enduring marital bliss, the choice to have a safe, fulfilling family life.
If you want to exercise this power of choice and have the best chance at a lasting, monogamous, fulfilling and harmonious relationship, filled with great love and sex, continual personal growth, children and yes, grand-children, what must we do?
Today science steps forward and offers some convincing — and unexpected — evidence.
In this post, I’m going to share it with you.
A note before we dive in. Certain people say “women are a mystery” and “love can never be reduced to science” and similar things.
I agree with these people. Women are incredibly mysterious. Love is mysterious, THE great mystery of the human experience, and humans are unfathomably complex. We should revel in this mystery, as we awe ourselves at the star-strewn summer sky.
But let us not allow mystery to become misery. Let’s embrace the unknown while schooling ourselves on the known. Let’s not choose ignorance, in light of what science can tell us. There are things we know for sure, and actions we can take today, that will make our relationships more harmonious, more durable, more fulfilling, more pleasing, and more long-lasting.
Those who throw up their hands at “the mystery” are often unwittingly peddling misery. I’m peddling happiness. Which would you like to buy?
If you want happiness, read on.
To Fall In Love With Someone In One Night,
About 20 years ago, a psychologist named Arthur Aron did a study to investigate how quickly he could create intimacy between two strangers.
He had two strangers sit down and answer 36 increasingly-intimate questions about one another, and then cap it off with four minutes of silent eye gazing.
This procedure was resuscitated in early 2015 by a “Modern Love” article in the New York Times, a feel-good story in which the journalist writing it actually wound up in a relationship with the man she did the procedure with.
My hunch is that these 36 questions are good for married couples, as well as strangers — and even if you’re in a fairly intimate relationship already, the four minutes of eye-gazing can be game-changing.
(In the touching video below, a couple has gone 45 years and never stared into each other’s eyes for that long. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen to you.)
Here are the 36 questions. You can also get them in this handy app (hit that link on your mobile or tablet).
1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
17. What is your most treasured memory?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling … “
26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
Follow these questions with no less than four minutes of silent eye-gazing, as the couples in this video do:
In actual fact, asking and answering the 36 questions probably takes anywhere between two hours and all night, so make sure you have enough time. And definitely make sure you have enough time for the four minutes of eye gazing to turn into — well, something else.
THE RELATIONSHIP WHISPERER:
JOHN GOTTMAN AND HIS FOUR HORSEMEN
Dr. John Gottman (and his wife Julie) have been studying videotapes of couples in their labs for over 25 years.
Through careful attention and exacting behavior coding, they’ve identified an algorithmic set of behaviors that predict with 94% accuracy whether a relationship will last for the next 5 years, or end in divorce.
Gottman separates relationships he sees into what he calls the “Relationship Masters” and the “Disasters.”
What do the “Disasters” do differently? Mostly, they give in to what Gottman has identified as the “Four Horseman of the Relationship Apocalypse” (yes, he’s got quite a way with words):
- Contempt. Contempt basically involves disdain and disgust for your partner. Eye-rolling, sneering, sarcasm, mocking humor, and condescension are all examples of contempt. Once a partner has contempt for you, it’s very hard to bring the relationship back from the brink. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of relationship failure. The antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation in the relationship.
- Criticism. Globalizing a partner’s behavioral shortfalls to encompass their character: for example, saying “You’re so lazy” rather than observing an objective behavior such as, “You’re sitting around on the couch a lot these days.”
- Defensiveness. Also known as “playing the victim.” Refusing to take responsibility in the relationship and shifting all responsibility for problems to one’s partner. Interestingly, playing the victim and demonizing your partner is often part of the co-dependent relationship, in which one partner is “the screw-up” and the other partner is “the savior” and the two are locked in an eternal process of saving and being saved, with no actual improvement on offer.
- Stonewalling. Also known as “turning away” (versus “turning towards” or “turning against”), this partner — usually the male — simply ignores the whole argument or problem in hopes that it will go away. It doesn’t. It does go underground, festers, creates long-term resentment, and bubbles back up as more criticism, contempt, disdain and disgust thrown at his from his partner in the future. This is why it is paradoxically more healthy to get into a heated argument (“turning towards”) rather than ignoring or going silent when things get tough.
If you can identify any of these Four Horsemen in your relationship — especially Contempt — you need to take action right-now today in order to have any chance of healing things and saving the relationship.
Luckily, the rest of this post will show you the evidence-based things you can do that will actually begin to improve your relationship, starting with this simple exercise you can do right now before you even finish reading this post:
THE TWO-STEP FORMULAE FOR IMPROVING YOUR MARRIAGE AT LEAST 5% IN THE NEXT 10 MINUTES
- Write a list of at least 10 things you appreciate about your partner.
- E-mail it to them.
Simple, right? Go ahead and do that now.
THIS FORMULA PREDICTS RELATIONSHIP LONGEVITY
…AND NUCLEAR WAR
Take a good look at this formula:
Not into maths? Neither am I.
Here’s what all those terms means:
This is more Gottman, this time in collaboration with mathematician James Murray, and it describes the “negativity spiral” that happens so often in couples, leading to criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
The formula predicts the husband or wife’s reaction at a certain time t based on the factors in the equation.
Interestingly, this exact same formula can also be applied to relationships between two countries spiraling towards nuclear war, underscoring once again the fact that the macro and the micro are the same, and if we don’t learn how to create peace in our relationships, we’ll never create peace in our larger world.
The unmissable mathematician Hannah Fry explains it all:
Shocker: It’s not the most forebearing or “chill/patient” couples who have the longest, strongest and most durable relationships — it’s the couples with the lowest “negativity threshholds”.
In other words, it’s the couples who let each other know when there are violations of expectations, let them know quickly, and do so in a fun, light-hearted way, without slipping into criticism or contempt.
This reminds me of one of my best friends, and his wife — let’s call them Lucas and Diana.
To the outside observer, Lucas and Diana are constantly engaged in a low-level verbal bickering match without end. She talks over him, he shushes her up, she complains, he ignores her and continues on with his previous point.
But their entire interaction is characterized by a decided lack of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. They’re ultimately fine with each other. Even though they bicker, they do it good-naturedly — like a friendly tussle.
If you didn’t know them, you’d think they were headed for major marital problems. Knowing them as I do, I can’t think of a better match.
I predict they’ll continue wrestling with each other verbally long into their golden years, and I just hope to be around to continue to enjoy it.
Back to the equation for one final point:
The importance of the terms IHW and IWH underscore how critical it is that you, as a Fierce Gentleman, can reliably change your woman’s mood.
If you can’t change her mood better than she can change it herself, as David Deida would say, why should she be with you?
And a similar requirement is placed on women: if you as a Fierce Lady can’t change your man’s mood better than he can change it himself, why should be with you?
We stay with people because they help us to be our Best Selves. This world is too demanding, and time is too short, to be with a partner who drags us down towards mediocrity.
(This is different, mind you, from being with a challenging partner. Many men complain about a challenging woman, and this is sheer laziness. Understand that a good partner will test you and push your buttons, constantly and forever. The testing serves the purpose of continually proving your fitness to be with her, to lead her and the family, and your loyalty to the larger family unit you’ve co-created.)
Men say, “I’ve proven it a thousand times. Why can’t she just lay off? Why do I have to keep proving it?”
Because, men, people change over time. How is she going to know if you’re still worthy if she doesn’t keep testing? Otherwise, you could devolve into the man who couldn’t protect her and your children. Or the man who can’t provide for their needs. And she wouldn’t know until it was too late.
So a challenging woman is a good thing. It’s the sign of an awake, aware, and evolving partner. You wouldn’t want to be with someone who encouraged you to devolve and slip back into a lower self, would you?
(Ironically, this is exactly what the majority of average women & men do — because they want the comfort and security of knowing that, because of your burgeoning mediocrity, you’ll be unlikely to stray from her. It’s an unconscious and egoic way of ensuring relational fidelity.)
By the way, you can keep testing her fitness and loyalty, too. In fact, you should.
YOUR SEX LIFE MAY BREAK YOU UP…
UNLESS YOU START DOING IT DIFFERENTLY
I was very hesitant to include this final section.
For one thing, it flies in the face of 100% of mainstream media and conventional wisdom out there.
It’s blisteringly unorthodox. People have called me “crazy” to my face when I’ve explained it to them how it works.
But, because of the massive and mounting anecdotal evidence I’ve seen that it also happens to actually work, I feel obligated to present it. Do with the information what you will.
Just please keep an open mind until you’ve read the whole thing.
First, a question. Do you ever feel sad / depressed after sex?
This can range from a mild case of “the blues” to “I can’t believe I did that and want nothing to do with my partner.”
It turns out there’s a neurochemical reason for that.
In humans, orgasm kicks off a “hidden cycle” of neurochemical highs and lows that make our partners appear less attractive to us over time, while increasing feelings of irritability, dissatisfaction, and craving for novel sexual partners.
And this gets worse, the more orgasms we have with them.
The more orgasms we have, the greater our need for the neurochemical high becomes, just like a junkie shooting heroin (in fact, the brains of people having orgasms look very similar to heroin users shooting up).
This leads most people into an endless “passion cycle” that eventually habituates us to our partner.
This is what happens in your brain after sex:
This explains why so many men suddenly “can’t stand” their partners after their orgasm and can’t wait to get out of bed.
As many men have said to me, “Forget about cuddling or pillow talk, man, I don’t even want to be in the same bed as her.”
(Ladies, you may have experienced this too — but we suspect that prolactin interacts with bioavailable testosterone, which means its effects are naturally more pronounced in men.)
Just by measuring neurochemical levels, we can see that it can take up to two weeks for brain chemistry to balance itself:
The “orgasm high” is followed by a jaggy “orgasm hangover” of lowered excitement for our partners — coupled with lower sex drive, higher irritability, and not seeing our partner as “novel” or exciting anymore.
As a recent American Society of Addiction Medicine statement explained,
When one engages non-pathologically in potentially addictive behaviors such as gambling or eating [or sex], one may experience a “high”, felt as a “positive” emotional state associated with increased dopamine and opioid peptide activity in reward circuits. After such an experience, there is a neurochemical rebound, in which the reward function does not simply revert to baseline, but often drops below the original levels. This is usually not consciously perceptible by the individual and is not necessarily associated with functional impairments. (emphasis mine)
So, what’s to be done? Is there any way around this?
As it turns out, there is. Many ancient cultures knew about it. It’s been hidden in plain sight the whole time.
But because our culture is obsessed with “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” orgasms, it’s completely blind to the obvious solution: change the way we have sex.
Oxytocin, as the “cuddle” or “love” hormone, is responsible for bonding behaviors, such as between a mother and her kids. What increases oxytocin in the brain? Hugging, cuddling, gentle stroking, skin-to-skin contact, and… gentle intercourse without orgasm.
And this is where most people flip out. Have sex without orgasm? What’s the point?
The point is to balance your brain chemicals so you can stay “fallen in love” with your partner for as long as you want.
Instead of the “passion cycle” that turns even the hottest partner into a week-old potato after a few orgasms, you have access to the “bonding cycle” which renews your sense of connectedness, intimacy and appreciation for your partner with each slow, goalless session of nurturing lovemaking.
Men and women are both flabbergasted when I suggest this. (Usually, women are even more irate than men.) But once they try it, they’ve invariable told me what a revelatory experience it is.
There’s good evidence that unconventional sex can create a flush of robust health, sexual satisfaction, enduring love, and satisfied marital fidelity (usually the stuff of Disney fairtytales.)
But don’t take my word for it. Try it out for yourself and see.
You can read more of them in Marnia Robinson’s book, linked below, or the forum where many other couples are sharing their experience.
So let’s summarize. What does the latest cutting-edge science tell us about the possibility of real, lasting, loving relationships?:
- Stop playing the victim in your relationship.
- Stop being stoic in your relationship. Bring up what’s bothering you, but do it in a playful way, and make it about your partner’s behaviors, not their character.
- Turn towards your partner, rather than stonewalling. A hot argument is better than a cold war.
- Be big enough to admit your own responsibility and mistakes in the relationship. It’s not all your fault — OR all theirs.
- Learn to change your partner’s mood.
- Ask your partner the 36 questions up above, and then practice eye-gazing for 4 minutes, minimum.
- Start being more physically intimate in your relationship, with more cuddling, stroking and bonding behaviors, but stop having orgasms for 30 days. See what happens.
I know it’s a lot. But if you implement even one of the above research-backed suggestions, I predict your relationship will begin shifting towards a happier alternate future.
All it takes is one act of gratitude or appreciation. Why not text your sweetheart a heartfelt and non-needy message of appreciate and gratitude right now? It can’t hurt anything.
I wish you nothing but the best of all possible outcomes. May you create a relationship filled with the love, freedom, peace, harmony, and longevity that you most deeply desire.
Ready to put this into practice?
Join an exceptional group of Fierce Gentlemen ready to take their relationships to the next level.
- The Relationship Cure by John Gottman
- The Mathematics of Love by Hannah Fry or her TED Talk
- “To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This” by Mandy Lee Catron, New York Times, Modern Love, based on the work of Arthur Aron (here’s the original study)
- The 36 Intimate Questions App (for mobile or tablet)
- Sex At Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, And What It Means For Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha
- Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow: From Habit to Harmony in Sexual Relationships by Marnia Robinson, J.D. and online forums with others’ experiences as well as more science
We’ll send you the latest every Sunday. Click here to get Fierce Gentleman in your inbox.
Also published on Medium.