First (Date) Impressions:  Why Physical Cues are Critical

Most of us understand the concept of making a “good first impression.” Whether it’s a first date or a job interview, people tend to make first impressions very quickly. In Psychology Today, Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. notes that recent research indicates the importance of first impressions. In fact, they may persist long after we learn more about a person, for better or worse.

First Impressions are Important

Anyone who ever had a bad first date knows how hard, even impossible, it can be to get a second date. We often evaluate other people quickly, based on the physical traits of others. For instance, we might equate someone handsome and well-dressed with success. Even when we receive new information that runs counter to our  first assessment (he dropped out of school or  claimed bankruptcy, for instance), we will often still stick with our initial impression.

The Halo Effect

One way to describe this phenomenon is called the Halo Effect. The Halo Effect comes from a study done in 1920 by Edward Thorndike. In the study, researchers found that when military officers evaluated their soldiers highly based on physical appearance,  voice, or physical carriage, they considered them to be better soldiers, with demonstrated leadership qualities.  

Soldiers who were rated low on these traits experienced the opposite effect. They were considered to be less competent soldiers and without leadership potential. The research showed that people do make significant judgements based on physical appearances. Those judgements clearly inform how people perceived another person’s other qualities and ability to contribute.

Physical Characteristics of First Impressions

A more recent study by researchers at the University of St. Andrews, found that people often gauge certain physical characteristics too, when making a first impression. These characteristics include:

  • Being tired:  If you look like you haven’t been getting enough sleep or are sluggish, you may unintentionally communicate a lack of intelligence.
  • The Eyes:  Another factor that tends to communicate intelligence is keeping your eyes open, which communicates alertness.
  • The Mouth:  A smile can go a long way to making a good first impression. But be careful, a very wide smile can make a person seem naïve. A more subtle smile, with a slight upward curve, makes you seem more friendly.
  • Static Facial Cues:  These are features of your face that you can’t change, such as the bone structure of your face or the shape of your nose.
  • Dynamic Facial Cues:  These are cues that you can control, like smiling vs. frowning.

These characteristics reinforce the earlier findings of the Halo Effect when making first impressions about people.

What Can We Do to Combat the Halo Effect?

To fight the Halo Effect, try to be mindfully be aware of what you communicate non-verbally to other people. For instance:

  • Use a mirror to practice different facial expressions.
  • Do a practice interview with a partner who can provide feedback.
  • When at an interview or a first date, be mindful of these specifics (smile, eye contact, well-rested, eyes open).
  • Get plenty of sleep the night before an interview or big date.

We can’t change our static facial cues. However, we can be proactive and aware regarding our dynamic facial cues so that they better align with what we want to communicate.

This research reinforces what most of us already know from personal experience. People make snap decisions about others very quickly. Yet, these opinions can be difficult for someone to change.

By being more aware of what we communicate non-verbally, we can do our best to make sure we send the right impression at that job interview or increase our chances of having that desired second date.

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Why Mutual Respect is the Key to Relationship Success

Yes, it is common sense! No surprise that respect is an important part of any healthy relationship. Yet the concept of respect and the impact of respect (or lack thereof) on intimate relationships haven’t been the focus of very much research. Fortunately, there is some research that allows us to form a working definition of respect. There are also clear signs to notice when respect is lacking in a relationship and ideas for steps couples can take to begin respecting each other more.

A Research Study in Respect

In one set of studies, Jennifer R. Frei and Phillip R. Shaver of UC-Davis surveyed college students regarding respect and their relationships. What they found was a high correlation between respect and satisfaction in a relationship. There was also a close association between respect and moral integrity. Respect was considered a positive trait for a person to possess. They were able to determine the following keywords that corresponded with respect:

  • Honesty
  • Not being abusive
  • Loyalty
  • Trustworthiness
  • Sensitivity to others’ feelings
  • Following the Golden Rule
  • Listening
  • Accepting
  • Non-judgmental

The Respect for Partner Scale

The study used a tool called the Respect for Partner Scale (RPS). Students rated 45 items on a 7-point scale as to how each item applied to a current or previous romantic partner. The responses ranged from “disagree strongly” to “agree strongly.”  

A Definition of Respect

By analyzing the responses, Frei and Shaver were able to determine that respect can be considered this way:

“an attitudinal disposition toward a close relationship partner who is trustworthy, considerate, and accepting, and this conception holds across a variety of close relationships.”

Furthermore, the researcher indicated that the students felt respectfulness was connected to moral character and integrity. Frei and Shaver note that such research into morals and ethics would have been unheard of previously, but that further studying these concepts can help better understand what makes successful relationships. One aspect to note about the research was that they were unable to determine whether the participants had respect for their partner at the start of their relationships, or whether that respect developed over time.

Contempt Leads to a Lack of Respect

If a relationship is lacking in respect by both or either partner, it can be difficult, if not impossible for a relationship to last. One word, contempt, plays a pivotal role. If we have contempt for our partner (think of contempt occurring when someone rolls their eyes at their partner), or for our partner’s actions, it becomes next to impossible for us to respect them. Here are some warning signs to watch out for include:

  • Frequent criticisms that over time can lead to contempt in a relationship.
  • Having disdain for your partner, such as interrupting or partner or not listening to their perspective.
  • You and your partner frequently struggle to comprise over troublesome issues.
  • Your partner always has to have it their way.

Left unchecked, contempt can quickly spread like a cancer in a relationship, permanently damaging it beyond repair.

What Can Couples Do?

Couples struggling with very little mutual respect, but want to improve their relationship can:

  • Learn to improve communication skills.
  • Better understand each other.
  • Participate in couples counseling. This can make a big difference for couples, improving their listening skills and empathizing with their partner’s feelings and perspective.

A critical part of gaining respect is gaining the ability to see things from your partner’s point of view. If you remain fixated only on how you see any given issue and tune out your partner’s viewpoint, it can be difficult to respect them. Also, if respect did not exist between the two of you at the start of the relationship, it can be harder to increase it later on.

Respect does not have to be considered a vague concept. There are definite examples of what constitutes respect and how respect can manifest itself in a relationship. There are also clear warning signs when either one or both partners doesn’t respect each other. Couples counseling can help, and is most effective, when couples seek help early on before criticism or contempt have a chance to fester in a relationship. If each person is motivated to see things from the other’s perspective and learn new communication tools, then the relationship is not doomed to fail regardless of when a couple seeks help.

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Five Ways To Prevent Your Relationship From Unraveling

Couples tend to struggle the most over their sex lives, parenting, and financial issues. However, those that are emotionally healthy can frequently listen to each other and find a compromise. Unfortunately, not all couples are able to resolve their differences easily. Without help, these relationships can unravel, leaving nothing but resentments and hurt feelings behind.

Missing the Cues

According to Sue Johnson, developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), at the heart of these relationships is a feeling of emotional disconnectedness. Neither partner is emotionally connected to the other person and may be missing cues that could help a couple avoid getting head-to-head confrontations.

The Survival Code

Sue Johnson points out that when partners are not responsive or emotionally available to us, especially in our times of need, our anxiety increases and we find ourselves in a state of fear. We become worried that our partner may not emotionally be available to us. That can mean that our partner doesn’t care about us or our well-being. If our partner doesn’t care, then how can they be capable of looking out for our best interests? On a primitive level, this could mean our actual, physical survival. This fear is wired into our brains, in what Johnson calls our “survival code.”  

The Three Demon Dialogues

There are three ways that couples often deal with the emotional isolation related to our survival code, which Johnson calls the “Demon Dialogues.” These include:

Find the Bad Guy: This is a never-ending cycle of blaming the other person for something they said or did.  It can leave both partners feeling defensive and ready to strike back if the other lashes out at us. This cycle just perpetuates the resentments that each partner already feels for each other.

The Protest Polka: This is also known as the “demand-withdrawal dance” where one person makes a demand and the other withdrawals or tries to avoid the situation. For example, a wife insists on talking to her husband, while he tries to withdraw by watching TV, drinking, or leaving the house. Subsequently, the issue never actually gets resolved.

Freeze and Flee: In this situation, both sides feel helpless, and neither is willing to take a risk or reach out to the other. Couples ignore each other, but now there are new resentments on top of what was originally there. Johnson notes that the couple isn’t actually dancing at all. They are frozen in place and not willing to make a change.

Finding Solutions for Couples

If you are in one of these patterns, there is hope but you will likely need professional help. When working with a skilled couple’s counselor, you can start to identify these patterns of behavior and work to become more emotionally connected to each other by:

1. Understanding the Demon Dialogues and the role each person plays in the dynamic.

2. Learning communication skills to appropriately express feelings and learn to engage in active listening.

3. Developing strategies that allow each person to see the other’s point of view.

4. Getting to the root of the conflict and resolving differences.

5. Building trust with each other.

Using Emotionally Focused Therapy

One technique in particular available to couples is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT).  This is a strategy where the therapist and the clients work together to create changes so that individuals are better able to emotionally respond and interact with one another. The objective is for the couple to create a stronger emotional bond with one another.

By working together as a couple, they can build trust and forge an environment where they are emotionally present with each other, instead of having their differences emotionally isolate them. This can be done by identifying the maladaptive ways couples respond to each other and by learning new strategies to more easily become emotionally connected to one another. This helps couples learn new ways to respond to each other and strengthens their relationship. While it does require couples to be motivated and put in the work, the rewards are invaluable.

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Why Understanding Your Partner is Not Enough

Try to recall a fairly recent stressful situation or really difficult day.

Let’s say that you just got a speeding ticket last week. Then, while driving home after a not-so-great day at work, you get into a fender-bender. When you get home, you share all this news with your partner. Your partner nods his or her head, and maybe asks a couple of clarifying questions (such as “how fast were they going?”), but otherwise seems emotionally distant. If you’re not feeling that your partner’s response is particularly supportive, recent research shows us why.

Intellectual Understanding Yet Emotionally Distant

Published in Psychological Science, the essence of the research shows that simply understanding someone’s situation does not necessarily mean we are emotionally connected to the person or motivated to become actively supportive. Without this emotional connection and subsequent support, we, intentionally or not, send a message to our partner that we aren’t truly concerned about them or their situation. If it happens frequently enough, this perceived lack of caring can create tension and distance in a relationship.

What Leads to Supportive Behavior in Relationships?

Researchers, Winczewski and Bowen from the University of California-Santa Barbara, investigated whether understanding your partner alone is sufficient to lead to supportive behavior in relationships. They asked couples to name a previous issue in their relationship that had caused stress. The researchers videotaped the discussions between each partner and were able to measure the response of each person for levels of empathy.

The result was that when an individual had a high degree of concern for what was going on for their partner, they also had a high degree of “empathetic accuracy.” This means that a partner accurately determined that their partner was troubled. However, if that same person didn’t care about their partner’s problems, then accuracy was low.

The researchers asked whether empathic accuracy, which is understanding another person’s feelings and thoughts, could cause “responsive behavior” (taking action to support our partner) when paired with empathic caring.

In other words, the researchers wanted to know if understanding our partner’s thoughts and feelings (cognitive empathy) is enough to lead us to actively support them?  Or, does this responsive (supportive) behavior require us also to have compassionate motivation (empathic concern)? The researchers found that without this compassionate motivation, there is much less supportive behavior.

What Does This Mean For Couples?

Couples who wish to improve their relationship can pay attention to whether they are demonstrating empathetic concern for their partners. Just having intellectual understanding of your partner’s situation isn’t enough. Knowing that your partner understands how you feel about the speeding ticket and fender-bender can help you feel supported and comforted. Yet, an additional show of compassionate motivation makes you feel most supported.

On the other hand, if, over time, your partner continues to show a lack of caring regarding different issues, your partner will then get the message that you can’t trust him or her, or that he or she will be there for them emotionally. This, not surprisingly, can lead to the unraveling of a relationship.

Steps Couples Can Take

Here are some steps that couples can take to build their empathic accuracy (trust and mutual caring) in their relationships: Try having small conversations each day (choose a consistent time that works for your schedule).

1. Practice empathy-building skills. Make eye contact and reflect back your understanding of what your partner said or their main concern.

2. Participate in activities that require working together and problem-solving such as household chores, yard work, hiking, or planning a vacation.

3. When a struggle or conflict does come up, request what you need from your partner.

4. If you are still having problems after trying the above steps, consider seeing a couples counseling specialist. A skilled therapist can help advise you both on building your empathic accuracy.

What this study teaches us is that empathic accuracy is a skill that not everyone possesses, but it can be learned. The more opportunities that you and your partner have to communicate, the better each of you will be able to understand each other, relate where each is coming from, and o build mutual trust and caring in your relationship.

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Laugh Together, Grow Old Together?

While laughter has been generally known to be a very healthy outlet, the clear majority of the research has looked at individual outcomes. Very little research has looked at the role of laughter in a social or group setting, until now. Recently, researchers from the University of North Carolina have looked at laughter and how it can contribute to the health of romantic relationships. Their findings provide insight for couples that want to strengthen and even increase the longevity of their relationships.

Researching Laughter

Laura Kurtz, from UNC, led this study, published in Personal Relationships. It  included 77 heterosexual couples who had been in a relationship together for four years, on average. The research team recorded video discussions with each couple on how they first met. The researchers then coded the number of times a couple laughed together and measured how long they laughed. In addition, the couples filled out a questionnaire regarding the closeness and quality of their relationships.

Results of the Research

The results of the study found that couples who shared laughter had a higher level of satisfaction in their relationship. Thus, laughter can be one indicator (of many) of the health of a relationship. These results may sound intuitive, but Kurtz notes that there is very little academic research connecting laughter to relationships. As mentioned, since most prior research regarding laughter looked at individual outcomes, there’s a need to build the literature with research looking at the role and effects of laughter in relationships.

Laughter and Gender Patterns

Two gender patterns that emerged from the study showed that:

  1. Women laughed more than men.
  2. When men do laugh, the laughter is actually more contagious.  

It is possible that men laugh less because they are less emotionally expressive. Why is male laughter more contagious than female laughter?  It may be because male laughter occurs less often. So, when men do laugh, there may be a perception of “if he’s laughing, it must be funny.” It should be noted that regardless of gender, when one partner feigns laughter, not only is it awkward, but it could indicate that something may be wrong in the relationship.

Laughter and Cultural Differences

It should be noted that there are also differences regarding how laughter is viewed in Western versus Eastern cultures. People in Eastern cultures do not display laughter in the same animated way as people in the West do. In fact, even a smile in Eastern societies could be equivalent to laughter.  

Finding Ways to Laugh Together

The research by Kurtz and her team shows that laughing together is a supportive activity that helps partners feel closer to one another. How then, can couples find ways to find more humor in their lives?  Some ideas include:

  1. Accepting the absurdity of life.
  2. Smiling more!  Smiling helps with maintaining a positive mindset.
  3. Becoming mindful of stuck or negative thinking patterns.
  4. Keeping an “inside joke” between the two of you.  
  5. Watching a funny TV show or movie that you both like.
  6. Going to a comedy club together.
  7. Having fun together!  Participate in activities that you both enjoy and are likely to be remembered fondly.

Trying to inject more laughter in your relationship may be less about“taking action-oriented steps” and more about adjusting your overall mindset. If you are both still struggling with finding laughter and joy in your relationship, consider seeing a therapist who specializes in couples therapy.

It should be noted that just because a couple doesn’t laugh all the time doesn’t necessarily mean that the relationship is doomed to failure. However, the research does show that laughter can be an important factor for maintaining a healthy relationship, making the relationship stronger, and even increasing the longevity and stability of a relationship. Oh, and of course, most couples tend to really enjoy laughing together too!

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