“So many people have misconceptions about how relationships work,” says Matthew D. Johnson, a clinical psychologist and professor at Binghamton University. “We encounter so many myths and misinformation from self-help books or through advice from friends; it’s astounding.”
Johnson is setting the record straight with his book, “Great Myths of Intimate Relationships: Dating, Sex and Marriage” (Wiley, out Tuesday). “These myths tell people that if they do these things then everything will be happy, but that’s not true,” says Johnson.
Here are five of the most surprising relationship “myths” Johnson debunks in his book.
That list of traits you’re looking for in your ideal mate? You’re deluding yourself. A 2008 speed-dating study published by Northwestern University, for example, found that event participants will list all sorts of characteristics they want in a partner, but in the end “they’ll just go for the best-looking person in the room,” says Johnson.
Plus, attraction is a mysterious, complicated thing.
“Humans are terrible at predicting what will make them happy,” says Johnson, citing the difficulty most people have with talking about what they like and why. “The bottom line is that, even if you can’t come up with a good reason for liking or disliking someone, it is probably best to trust your gut.”
When it comes to finding love online, you have just as much luck on Tinder than more targeted matching services, such as eHarmony. Plus, a 2010 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that having similar personalities accounts for less than 1 percent of success in relationships. “People who are more similar do tend to have happier relationships, but part of what makes relationships exciting is getting to know the other person’s interests and loves and concerns,” he says, adding that picking up potential partners face-to-face is “just as good as online dating sites.”
Living with someone before committing to him or her seems like a good idea. Yet, a 2013 survey by Penn State psychologist Catherine Cohan, which tracked more than 100 studies on cohabitation spanning 25 years, found that couples who shacked up before getting engaged or married were more likely to dissolve their marriages, reporting lower levels of marital satisfaction and commitment.
“It’s the inertia hypothesis,” explains Johnson. “You didn’t set out to get married, it’s just that one thing led to another.”
In contrast, Johnson says couples who commit to one another before sharing rent are getting married because they want to. “That commitment that they have even before deciding to move in together makes the difference.”
“Couples come to me all the time and say, ‘Our problem is communication,’ and then the husband says, ‘She’s snippy with me, and we don’t have good conversations anymore.’ And then I’ll find out that the husband was cheating on her,” says Johnson. “So is it a communication problem, or something else?”
In a 2001 study, psychologist Richard Heyman found that sometimes overcommunication made things worse, particularly for smaller annoyances or pet peeves. “Say you married someone who is chronically late,” posits Johnson. “You can talk about it, or you can accept that ‘I married someone who is always late. Wouldn’t it be easier to change my thoughts than to change my partner?’ ” Basically, see if a deeper issue is throwing your relationship off-balance.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that 24 percent of couples who attended premarital counseling dissolved their relationships three years later, as opposed to 11 percent of couples who skipped classes.
Johnson says two things are happening. “The first is that couples who don’t have problems are told to work on their relationships, and they have trouble seeing what they need to change,” he says. “The other is that there aren’t really any special skills involved in tending to marriage — if you spend time thinking and talking in your relationship, that’s the most important thing.”