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The making and breaking of relationships

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MARCH 17, 2019

Love is a cross-cultural phenomenon and if classic films are to be believed, it is considered a many splendored thing. It is almost an aggregate of so many positive emotional states. “I would have to say that, to me, trying to define love is like trying to define other ineffable concepts like truth or God,” states Dr. Melissa Bayne of UC Berkeley’s psychology department in an email interview.

Our contemporary society has witnessed an almost rampant commercialization and exploitation of love and relationships for profit. The results can be seen in the mad rush to buy more and more expensive gifts for a significant other. But perhaps there is a fundamental underlying need in us that drives us to engage in this buying behavior in the first place. Bayne draws attention to Gary Chapman’s best selling book “The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts” which suggests that receiving gifts is one of the ways people feel loved and considered. “This, partnered with a cultural addiction to consumption and our desire to meet and exceed the expectations of our love(s) may relate to why we invest so much in physical gift-giving,” clarifies Bayne.

Underlying this popular conception of love and gift-giving is the very real phenomenon of close relationships, which require both nurture and maintenance with a dose of awareness, insight, compassion, communication and more. A little bit of love may be the seed needed for an attachment. But maintaining that close relationship is a lot more difficult than the initial spark.

The task is even more knotty for teenagers and early-twenties college students, who are just emerging into adulthood. We have barely left our risky and impulsive teen years behind as well as the “me” mindset.

As it turns out, Bayne teaches Psych 169: Love and Close Relationships at UC Berkeley, a class where, “…what I learn could be applied to my life directly,” as a student put it on RateMyProfessor.com. “This class is very relevant for people in their twenties,” added another student on the site.

Young adults aged 18-28, according to Bayne, are still gaining skills in perspective and impulse control. The relevant topic in the course is social cognition which relates to how we interpret, store and use information pertaining to others and social situations. At its core, the knowledge of relationship science — how we relate and communicate with one another — can only help raise our own competencies in interpersonal relationships and world views.

A little bit of love may be the seed needed for an attachment.

Essentially, attachment is the attraction phase that brings people together. Next comes the relational science part where social cognition is the mental action of understanding the perspectives of the situation how our past relationships impact our current strategies and how we think of the experiences of others. Many relationships, however, come to an end, accompanied by the emotional aftermath of rejection. “It’s the people who are already expecting rejection who are the most affected by rejection,” says UC Berkeley psychology professor Ozlem Ayduk in an interview.

Ayduk’s research deals with the mental mindset or cognitive schemas that people bring into relationships, especially the way they already fear and expect rejection. If they have a history of rejection or similar experiences going as far back as childhood, they may come to expect rejection as an inevitable consequence of any relationship they enter into. “And that expectation sets into motion a number of processes that have negative downstream consequences,” explains Ayduk.

She elaborates rejection with an example of a “vicious cycle” of self-doubt — if an individual expects to be rejected, they become more attuned to potential signs of rejection even when they might not exist. Anything within the individual’s mindset — a lapse in the amount of personal attention given, for instance, may be misconstrued. The individual would then lash out, behaving in ways that lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy of rejection. Such behavior leaves the other partner to experience lower satisfaction in the relationship thus hastening the end of the relationship.

As explained by Ayduk, a wide range of psychological problems can result from this rejection and these can happen at different time points and with varied intensity among individuals. Anger may be the immediate response while depression could be a later reaction once you realize your worst fears have come true. Violence and throwing things is yet another potential outcome of rejection.

Communication is the physical application of our behavior. It stands as the prime alternative to violent or aggressive actions and leads to much better results. “When we can use our words and listening skills most nonviolently, we can drastically improve our relationships and capacity for intimacy,” says Bayne.

Bayne had some words of wisdom for students on love and close relationships during their college years. “Learn how to communicate nonviolently and practice taking on the perspective of others. Listen with a goal of deeply understanding the experience of others. Slow down, breathe.”

For students wanting to learn more about nonviolent communication, Bayne recommends the book “Nonviolent Communication” by Marshall B. Rosenberg. The approach was introduced by Rosenberg in the 1960s and posits that all humans have the capacity for compassion and empathy — the only times we resort to culturally learned behavior like violence is when we don’t have other effective coping strategies. Nonviolent communication therefore is the practice of developing  interpersonal communication so as to improve compassionate connections with others.

“When we can use our words and listening skills most nonviolently, we can drastically improve our relationships and capacity for intimacy.” — Dr. Melissa Bayne

Ayduk was asked about the importance of emotion regulation in maintaining and sustaining a close relationship. She stresses that this is all the more important since close relationships are the context in which we spend a majority of our lives. It is in our best interests as to how effectively we self-regulate.

Most relationships involve self-control or emotion regulation dilemmas. So my partner does something that upsets me and one of my impulses may be to respond in kind. I may get mad but I have to think about the future of the relationship… so that I respond in a constructive manner, “ says Ayduk.

Ayduk’s research also deals with the idea of self-distancing as a coping mechanism and how this idea could be incorporated in dealing with negative affect or rejection in a close relationship. The theme of the me-oriented partner emerges once more, and Ayduk clarifies that the instinct to think of the self first is a natural human response not necessarily limited to young age. “When bad things happen to us, our standard habitual way of thinking about it is like from our own point of view. (An) egocentric point of view, me me me.”

“Self-distancing is basically the process of separating yourself mentally from that egocentric self view, perspective in the here and now, “ continued Ayduk. And she explained different ways to do so. You could make yourself an observer and engage in a kind of third person self-talk, as though a friend is talking to you. A generic ‘you’ normalizes experiences and helps the individual  figure things out and find meaning.

Another way of self-distancing is to think about how an older and wiser version of you twenty years from now would think, act and advise you on how to cope with this experience. When you have an inner monologue the resultant actions are directed at constructive problem solving and it will regulate your immediate negative emotions.

Self-distancing is a powerful tool and is in fact used by many successful people in managing more than just romantic relationships. Ayudk illustrated the method with some examples during her department faculty lecture on the role of self-distancing in enabling adaptive behavior. In one example, she described LeBron James’ third-person comments during a press conference. At the time, his remarks had been viewed as narcissistic rather than the inner monologue that it was when he said, “I didn’t want to make an emotional decision. I wanted to do what is best for LeBron James and what would make LeBron James happy.”

Likewise, a famous quote from the youngest Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai relies on the method of self-distancing in highly stressful situations. “I said to myself: ‘Malala, you must be brave, you must not be afraid of anyone, you are only trying to get an education. You are not committing a crime,’” she said of her human rights activism as part of Glamour Magazine’s 2013 Women of the Year campaign.

 A generic ‘you’ normalizes experiences and helps the individual  figure things out and find meaning.

Ayduk’s research finds there are many benefits in the self-distancing technique. It enhances executive function, goal-oriented mindsets and persistence. It makes the practitioner less impulsive and lowers emotional reactivity.

Ayduk emphasizes that at the heart of many of these mindful practices is impulse control and restraint. She draws attention to the difference between “responding” and “reacting.” While the former is communicative and positive, the latter is impulse-driven and can potentially cause irrevocable harm to the relationship. Intent does not matter when one cannot control their initial “reaction.”

Though the process of maintaining stable reactions to rejection takes time, Ayduk encourages individuals, especially young adults, to not be too harsh on their own abilities. With experience comes the ability to be “less neurotic” and the ability to “better cope with rejection.”

For the later years, be it in life or in a relationship, Bayne also advises her students to listen and remain proactive in their everyday lives — it may be the best gift they can give their long-term partner in the relationship. With time, she is confident they will get into the habit of considerate communication.

Challenge your assumptions about the other’s intentions and the meaning of their actions and words. Approach interactions with curiosity and spaciousness. Slow down, breathe,” says Bayne.

Contact Hari Srinivasan at [email protected].

MARCH 17, 2019