Entry 14

Cupid and Psyche

The conversation with the Oligoamorist last week has made me think. Somehow I still believe that these extraordinary people have a special “6th Relationship-Sense” that is not available to us “humble mortal lovers”.
And although I’ve already picked out a few things from the Oligoamorists, which help to provide the basics of good (multiple) relationship management, I wonder what oftenly still detains us – despite this knowledge – to truly establish a durable foundation concerning our relationships.
For that reason: Are there any measurable ratings at all – maybe outside the remote island of Oligoamory – that can reasonably describe the quality of a (loving) relationship?

So I dig for a week through the archives of the old world and discover – almost serendipitously¹ – the “The relationship closeness inventory (RCI) – Assessing the closeness of interpersonal relationships” – from the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” No. 57, pp. 792-807, by E. Berscheid, M. Snyder and A.M. Omoto from the year 1989.
And if somebody would ask me why I’m coming forth with precisely that investigation, which is celebrating its 30th birthday this year, I would venture to explain the following: The “RCI” of the above-mentioned scientists stems from the second half of the 1980s and formed the groundwork for many more researches into interpersonal attachment which are still continuing to this day. Incidentally, “inventory” in this case is to be taken quite literally, because a kind of “relationship-test” has been assembled from the parameters of the study, which can still be completed on the Internet today (click here). In the last three decades this “test” has been accessed many times by the curious – and not always with serious intentions – to determine the supposed “quality” of a relationship.
Nevertheless, Berscheid, Snyder and Omoto identified with their work several important factors. In particular, they developed a model in which “closeness” in a relationship could be described by three dimensions: a) frequency of interaction, b) diversity of activities and c) strength of impact (of the persons in the relationship on each other).
The mere consideration of the frequency of interaction proved that “closeness” in a relationship is determined not only by a purely “metaphysical component” in the sense of “feeling attached to someone,” but literally depends qualitatively and directly on time actually spent together [I emphasize this, since to this day, especially in the freedom-proclaiming circles of Polyamory – notably to vindicate long-distance- and weekend-relationships – that correlation is still regularly disputed. But even science tells us that it is deeply human, real – and elemental.].
Quite earthly as well as human were also the considerations regarding the “diversity of activities”, because the scientists postulated by no means particularly unusual interactions in that matter, but rather a wide range of everyday activities (such as shared laundry, visits to friends or a visit to concert), which conducive to experiencing “closeness” in a relationship.
The third “subscale” of their variables described the reciprocal influence of the relationship-participants on each other’s personal conduct, decisions and plans. This was a groundbreaking thought – which I personally consider to be exceedingly oligoamorous – as it was the first time that scientists formulated a scale concerning the important dimension of a transpersonal “mutual we”. Thereby providing as well an initial estimation of all the little gestures and concessions which participants of real relationships put forward on behalf of each other to live in true mutual attachment and togetherness.
In conclusion, by combining all three factors (a-frequency, b-diversity, c-reciprocity) in the work of Berscheid, Snyder and Omoto, statements about the resilience of relationships could be deduced. Because this also showed how important the conjoined experience of “closeness” is – especially concerning essential relationship-building-blocks such as commitment, reliability, participation and identification. And as a bLogger about Oligoamory I would like to add: And thus as well for the “sustainability-factor” of every relationship (see Entry 3).

In the years that followed, however, the conclusions of Berscheid’s, Snyder’s and Omoto’s “RC-Inventory” brought other researchers to the scene who had observed that the mere improvement of “frequency”, “diversity” and “reciprocity” didn’t always lead to more superior relationships – or to be precise: That several participants in relationships seemed to sabotage their “improvement” by themselves.
One of the most important studies on this topic was written by the researchers K. Bartholomew and L.M. Horowitz, titled “Attachment styles among young adults – A test of a four-category model ” in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” No. 61, pp. 226-244, 1991. Bartholomew and Horowitz applied an approach one step ahead of Berscheid, Snyder and Omoto by examining the question “why” people were initiating (loving) relationships.
Noticing that some people regularly had difficulties initiating and maintaining loving relationships because of their above-mentioned “self-sabotage” the scientists attempted to identify possible causes by means of surveys and interviews. And because disturbances in parent-child attachment were widely studied in animals and humans in the 1960s and 1970s (particularly by Harry Harlow, John Bowlby), the researchers suspected a link concerning learned “attachment strategies” in infancy and therefore inquired into both the self-image and the public image that the subjects had developed in the course of their growing-up.
The results were categorised along a two-axis-model, whereby “secure” vs. “fearful” and “preoccupied” vs. “ dismissive” generated contrastive polarities – thus deploying the “four-category model”.
In this way the psychologists indeed identified a correlation in the present attachment behaviour of their adult participants depending on different coping strategies regarding an unsatisfied need for closeness in the former parent-child relationship of some of their testees:
Who e.g “fell victim” to a rather “dismissive” parental style was inclined in her*his present (loving) relationships to maintain a positive self-esteem mainly by depreciating other partners.
Concerning people who had experienced a “fearful” style, the endured rejection frequently resulted in a buildup of inferiority feelings and sometimes in the avoidance of too much intimacy – thereby even complicating the commencement of any (loving) relationship at all.
The young adults from “preoccupied” parental homes, on the other hand, showed a tendency towards being excessively dependent on their loved ones – even right up to a degree of self-abandonment and over-identification with their partners.
Interestingly enough, however, it also became clear that concerning a “secure” bond there had to be a certain degree of affection as well as relatedness.
On the whole, the “two-axis model” allowed to prove that there were many hybrid forms and even conflicting tendencies in all of the examined phenomena.

These basic results were attenuated several times in the following years by supplementary examinations, since the findings would otherwise have suggested too high a degree of “pathological” relationship management, if only the measure of parental attention during the childhood and adolescence would be decisive for interpersonal abilities in loving relationships (M.W. Baldwin et al²). Further research made apparent that peer group and circle of friends in later puberty and early adulthood would have an almost equivalent effect – which was either able to strengthen any “previous damage” or indeed to remove it completely.
However, the fact that our “loving past” always affects our “loving present”, especially as far as our motivations are concerned – and why and how we “relate” to each other – turned out to be more and more obvious on the road into the 21st century.

For that reason – and last but not least – I’d like to spotlight the study by B. Thornton, R. Ryckman and J. Gold “Hypercompetitiveness and relationships: Further implications for romantic, family and peer relationship” in the journal “Psychology” No.2, pp. 269-274 from 2011. For although this survey is based on the previous two, it nevertheless showed that at present even “external factors” are further affecting our relationship-abilities.
For we are currently living in a world that strongly supports a “cult of the individual” and likes to label close-knit intimate relationships as “outmoded” or “sticky” and thus as a model for conventionality or even as an example of interdependency.
However, since closeness still remains a basic human need, we often find ourselves in relationships despite such opinions – and currently several forms of non-monogamy are being promoted as a universal solution to our drama of eulogised individualistic aspirations and our occasional desire for closeness.
But if we nevertheless insist in such (non-monogamous) relationships on our untouchable individuality and mainly on the fulfilment of hereupon ensuing needs – without taking into account the mutual relatedness and concessions mentioned by Berscheid, Snyder and Omoto – in that case we are very quickly entering the territory of “Hypercompetitiveness“.
In their research Thornton, Ryckman and Gold were able to show that in such “competitive relationships” there was a high degree of selfishness, cursoriness and expediency – but very little commitment. They were also able to show that the emotional support in such relationships was lower, the potential for conflict was increased, and there was often a greater motivation to unduly control the behavior of the other partners. Even for us laymen it can be seen in this way that such features already pave the way for both selfish and narcissistic tendencies.
And let’s be honest – traces of exaggerated comparative thinking are occasionally a part of our (loving) relationships these days anyway: Whether if we feel the urge to rectify our loved ones or to criticise them self-righteously, whether we choose our loved ones as “benchmarks” to check if they or we are somewhere “better” or “worse”, or if we are convinced that we have to do everything by ourselves because no one else seems reliable enough.

Cupid and Psyche by Antonio Canova (Paris, Louvre)

When I finally return from the archives of psychological laboratories and questionnaires, I’m actually more thoughtful than before. For modern science seems to prove what even the ancient Greeks and Romans knew quite well over 2000 years ago: That the forces of Cupid and Psyche in each and every one of us still have many adventures ahead of them before they can really enter a relationship with each other on an equal footing. And that seems to be accordingly true for us and our loved ones.
When I look at the scientists of modern times as the contemporary interpreters of our hidden inner world – a role that was assumed in the old days by storytellers and poets – they too want to reveal to us that there are no simple answers concerning human relationships.

For example, Berscheid, Snyder and Omoto show us why it is not enough for sustainable relationship management to sit with the crisp-bag together on the same couch every night and merely be united in frustration about e.g. European border policy.
Because in order to create real closeness, it is rather important that we mutually explore our personal borders, transcend them and empathise in our partners. Attachment and closeness require a sense of togetherness, in which we allow ourselves to be touched and influenced by the inner reality of our loved ones – and they in turn by our’s. And that points to the fact why real closeness and commitment are full-time projects which are neither quick to create nor enduring without constant attention.

Precisely with regard to this “full-time project”, a study like that of Bartholomew and Horowitz emphasises why it is so important to improve our awareness concerning ourselves and the others:
Because not all of us start our life’s journey with the same kind of burden. And therefore it is possible that some of us say “relationship” or even “love” – but actually we are trying to compensate our neediness concerning closeness by self-aggrandisement, because we lack self-esteem or by means of codependency.
And because only a few of us start with bulging love tanks and highly polished self-esteem into their own love-life, especially for the engagement in multiple relationships a recipe that already Greeks and Romans employed is highly recommended which is „Γνῶθι σεαυτόν”, or respectively „Nosce te ipsum” – “Know thyself!”.
For it is this self-knowledge, both of our own limitations – but also of our own potential – that makes us all more human and merciful in respect to each other. And this is especially important in times when things are not running smoothly, when we are in doubt and we or the others experience us as being little capable of managing a relationship.

At those times it is especially beneficial if we are able not to perceive ourselves as participants in a competitive rat-race regarding relationship matters by the dimensions “faster” or “the more the better”. Thornton, Rickman, and Gold have shown how we ensnare ourselves often involuntarily in a self-imposed trap if we want to keep up with such aspirations, and how we begin to treat our relationships and the people in it like our environment: as if there were always a replacement just around the corner.

If some of my dear readers still think that modern science and ancient myths certainly want to impart incompatible ideals to us I’d like to conclude this bLogbook-entry by quoting S. Cohen, L.G. Underwood and B.H. Gottlieb in “Social support measurement and intervention“ – A guide for health and social scientists“, Oxford University Press, 2000:
Thus, intimacy is a cardinal process, defined as feeling understood, validated and cared for by partners who are aware of facts and feelings central to one’s self-conception.
Contributing to this perception is trust (the expectation that partners can be counted on to respect and fulfil important needs) and acceptance (the belief that partners accept one for who one is).
Empathy is also relevant because it signals awareness of an appreciation for a partners core-self.
Attachment also contributes to perceived partner responsiveness, notwithstanding its link to interdependence and sentiment, because of the fundamental role of perceiving that one is worthy of and can expect to receive love and care from significant others

Sometimes even science can be so beautiful.
Cupid and psyche would have found each other ♥.

¹ Berscheid, Snyder, and Omoto’s “Relationship-Closeness-Inventory” is featured in the television series “The Big Bang Theory” when mentioned by the character Sheldon Cooper in episode 162 (Season 8, chapter 3: “The first pitch insuffificiency”).

² Baldwin M.W., Keelan J.P.R., Fehr B., Enns V. & Koh-Rangarajoo E. (1996). Social-cognitive conceptualization of attachment working models: Availability and accessibility effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, No.71, pp 94-109

Thanks to Francesca Bratto on Pixabay for the picture of Cupid and Psyche

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