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Stronger Than You Think
The 10 Blind Spots That Undermine Your Relationship...and How to See Past Them
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- ebook $14.99 $19.99 CAD
- Hardcover $28.00 $35.00 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around February 9, 2021. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Dr. Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. is a nationally recognized expert on the psychology of relationships. In his first book, he blends hot-off-the-press science, engaging writing, impactful examples, and fascinating stories to present an impressive range of refreshing and eye-opening set of insights. For instance, did you know that . . .
- To forecast your relationship's future, you are the worst person to ask.
- Men are the real romantics in heterosexual relationships, not women.
- The amount of sex you should have to keep your relationship going strong is lower than you think.
- It's okay to be selfish. Putting me before you, can help both of you.
- When it comes to closeness, you can have too much of a good thing.
- Struggles actually strengthen your relationship.
- In terms of partner support, what you’re not seeing is more important than what you notice.
- When your relationship doesn't help you become a better person, ending it does.
What If Everything You Know About Relationships Is Wrong?
You’ve heard the saying that love is blind. Well, the truth is that love may also be deaf and a little dumb as well. No one wants to admit to love-induced blindness. But the fact is, it’s likely you’re holding on to a series of myths or fictions that leave you with relationship blind spots you never realized you had. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Everyone has them. These misconceptions come in many forms: key questions you aren’t asking, signals you’re missing, signs you aren’t seeing, qualities you’re overvaluing, or indicators you’re misinterpreting. Too often these blind spots cause you to overlook your relationship’s hidden virtues, undervalue your partner, or create dynamics that threaten your relationship.
To varying degrees, nearly everyone has experience with romantic relationships. You, your friends, your family, and even your co-workers have this in common. This type of direct experience creates a familiarity that leads people to believe that relationships are intuitive, dependent on basic common sense. But it simply isn’t true. Face it: if relationships really were based on common sense, perfect partners would be easy to find and relationship bliss would be the norm. In reality, relationships are, and often feel, perpetually complicated and difficult to decipher. Experience just isn’t the same thing as expertise.
Here’s the thing. What I’m about to tell you is going to sting a bit. Despite your best intentions, and without realizing it, you’ve likely been your relationship’s own worst enemy. Talk about an awkward plot twist. My suggestion: own it. The first step is admitting there’s a problem.
Don’t believe me that you might unknowingly work against your relationship? Consider this. Who can best forecast your relationship’s future? Obviously, it’s you. Not so fast. Researchers set out to test the commonsense assumption about who’s the best judge of a relationship, first by asking the most natural source of information, the person in the relationship.1 Across two studies with more than one hundred undergraduate students, researchers asked the students about their confidence in those predictions. Here’s a revelation. Researchers fact-checked their prognostications by asking each student’s roommate and parents the exact same questions. Six months and one year later, the researchers followed up to see how everyone did with their predictions. As you might imagine, students were superconfident in their forecasts. After all, who knows more about your own relationship than you? Roommates and parents were less confident, and with good reason. They had less information when making their guesses.
Who was most accurate when predicting the relationship’s future? Spoiler alert: it wasn’t the students. Roommates were the best, followed by parents. That’s right, the students were the worst. Even though they had more inside information about their own relationship, students provided the least accurate forecasts. In fact, students thought the relationship would last two to three times longer than their parents and roommates did. Taken together, the results showed that people displayed the potentially tragic combination of being supremely confident in what was the least accurate prediction about their relationship. Believing that you know your relationship better than anyone else is a myth that can blind you to outsiders’ helpful insights.
How can this be? Well, you’re in love. Which means you’re biased. Especially in the early stages of relationships, it’s easy to focus on how great everything is and become overly optimistic. We’re going to have this perfect relationship forever! But that’s thinking with your heart. Your friends and family think with their heads. When we’re too emotional, it compromises our judgment and affects our decision-making. It’s difficult to see things clearly.2 Our feelings get in the way. But the people who surround us don’t have that problem. They’re not in love with our partners. Their emotions aren’t involved, so they see a relationship’s imperfections and appraise it more accurately. Love makes us just a little dumb.
The Limits of Self-Knowledge
One of the biggest obstacles we face when trying to see our relationship clearly is that we give ourselves a lot of credit for how much insight and self-awareness we have about our own lives. Problem is, that credit isn’t warranted. A review of the self-knowledge research concludes that we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do.3 None of this is surprising when we consider how little time we spend engaged in self-reflective thought. Despite what we see on social media, we aren’t as self-absorbed, egocentric, and self-centered as you may think. We may seek attention but actually don’t spend much time focusing on ourselves.4 A couple of decades ago researchers wanted to determine just how much people thought about themselves, so they took a peek into the day-to-day lives of more than one hundred working adults. To do that, they outfitted participants with a beeper. (Note: it was the eighties, so beepers were cool.) Over the course of a week, participants received messages at random times asking them what they were doing a second ago. Of the nearly 4,700 times the researchers hit participants up on their beepers, participants reported thinking about themselves only about 8 percent of the time. Why so little? People don’t find it enjoyable. In fact, when participants thought about themselves, they reported fewer positive emotions compared to when they thought about other things like food. When it comes down to it, people prefer a scoop of ice cream to a scoop of self-insight.
But that was years ago. Things are different now and, you’d hope, better. Sadly, they may be worse. A more recent survey of how American adults spend their leisure time found that over a twenty-four-hour (or 1,440-minute) period, people spent only seventeen minutes “relaxing and thinking.”5 That’s only 1.18 percent of a person’s day. Consider that for a moment. It seems impossibly low, but when was the last time, completely free from distractions, you sat and dedicated some time to really contemplating yourself or your relationship? With so much competing for your attention, finding time to just sit and think feels impossible. Yet there are opportunities for self-reflection during your commute, as you drink your morning coffee, in the shower, or as you drift off to sleep. But you’re probably too immersed in self-imposed distractions like checking your social media feeds, catching up on celebrity gossip, or wading through political news. We’re sacrificing me time for screen time.
We can blame the lack of self-reflection on being busy, but there’s more to the story. What if someone forced you to have the time? Researchers from the University of Virginia and Harvard gave participants this golden opportunity: the chance to sit and simply think.6 Researchers also gave them the option of administering electrical shocks to themselves. Weird choice, right? Especially since earlier the participants had all agreed the shocks were painful, so much so that each participant was willing to pay money to avoid them. Yet despite having the chance to peacefully contemplate whatever they wanted to—themselves, their relationship, or life—just over four out of ten participants (42.9 percent) took the electrified path less traveled. The rest decided to shock themselves instead. For them, a painful shock was preferable to being alone with their thoughts. Self-reflection can be intimidating. No wonder so many people seek out therapists, life coaches, and counselors who force reflection and aid in the journey.
We need a push because, when left to our own devices, a self-guided tour through our lives may be overwhelming. But without additional insights into the self, we can’t see the whole picture. We remain blind to our actual knowledge and abilities, often giving ourselves more credit than we deserve.8 Our overconfidence is especially prevalent when other people are around.9 Imagine you’re in a room with ninety-nine other people and I give you a series of prompts. Raise your hand if you’re above average in terms of your kissing ability compared to everyone else in the room. Sense of humor. Intelligence. Ability to judge others’ character. Would you raise your hand for all or most of these? Likely, yes.
Here’s the problem: so would everyone else. Yet, through the powers of math, we know that it is impossible for more than half to be above the room’s average or midpoint. You, and pretty much everyone else in the room, are much more confident than you have a right to be. Imagine asking one hundred couples on their wedding day, “Will your marriage end in divorce?” (Note: Do not do this. Ever.) First, you might get physically assaulted, because no one (i.e., 0 percent) believes they’ll get divorced, especially on their wedding day. But as we know, nearly half of them are 100 percent wrong. This bit of unrealistic optimism may seem innocent enough, but mistakes of excessive confidence are especially likely to happen in the exactly wrong cases.
For example, when we have less information about a topic, overconfidence is easy. In their award-winning paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It,” Cornell psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger tell the story of wannabe bank robber McArthur Wheeler.10 Mr. Wheeler might have gotten away with two Pittsburgh-area robberies if it weren’t for his unfounded faith in lemon juice. Yup, you read that correctly. Lemon juice. Wheeler believed lemon juice had mythical powers to foil surveillance cameras. Aspiring rich guy McArthur Wheeler robbed two banks without any attempt to conceal his identity other than rubbing his face with lemons. Police apprehended the criminal mastermind an hour after the surveillance camera footage aired (perfectly clearly) on the evening news. Wheeler’s ignorance blinded him, but not the cameras. It turns out that when life gives you lemons, you shouldn’t go and use those lemons as a cloaking device.
Wheeler’s belief seems ridiculous because you know enough about how cameras and lemons work to know better. Unfortunately he knew so little about both that he could be overconfident. Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon, the Dunning-Kruger effect, or the tendency for those who are less skilled or knowledgeable to be more certain about their conclusions. You’ve probably seen those public service announcements on TV where a star shoots across the screen, followed by the words “The More You Know.” Well, the Dunning-Kruger effect is like a meteor crashing to the ground followed by the words “The Less You Know.” When we have fewer facts and less information, it’s easier to see things as black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. This false sense of clarity emboldens us to feel absolutely sure of our conclusions. More data allow us to see the shades of gray, providing a more nuanced and accurate view of reality. The implication is clear. When information is incomplete, confidence comes more easily.
The Limits of Experience
For most of us, our relationship knowledge base isn’t as complete as we might think. Remember, experience isn’t equivalent to expertise. Because you know your own dating track record well, it’s easy to believe your experiences are the norm. Sure, you’ve had a range of dating and relationship experiences, but you’re only one person, and one person can experience only so much. It is your unique lived experience, but relying solely on that information to guide relationship decisions ignores all the wisdom you can glean from other couples. Besides, even if you have an abundance of experience, it may not qualify as the best type of information. Just because you’ve been in a lot of car accidents doesn’t make you a better driver; in fact, it probably suggests the opposite. The same is true of having a lot of relationships. True expertise can come only from moving beyond one’s own idiosyncratic background.
That’s the thing. Thanks to egocentrism, we all think we’re normal and assume our experiences are the standard. But we can’t all be normal. Do you remember the first time you realized that others see and experience the world differently from you? I do. It was over something simple, yet it couldn’t have been more shocking to me. I was in first grade and Amy, one of my classmates, mentioned the “ups truck” had been at her house. Having never heard of such a thing, and thinking she was talking about vomiting, I innocently asked, “What’s that?” With all the sass a first-grade girl could muster, she turned to me and said, “You know, the opposite of downs.” I managed a sheepish, “Huh?” At that moment, Amy decided I was the dumbest kid ever. She proceeded to all-too-patiently explain (you know, in that way where the explanation is so slow and deliberate that any idiot could understand it) that it was the brown truck that brought boxes to the house. At that moment it became clear to me. Amy had it wrong. She was the one who was ignorant about the world. Everyone I knew always spelled out the letters and called it the U-P-S truck. We were both relying on our own direct experiences to determine what was “right” and “normal,” without considering the limitations of our experiences. (For the record, I remain convinced UPS is the right name.)
Recently, you could see the same phenomenon take place when a picture of a dress created a debate over whether it was blue or gold, and when people argued over whether an audio clip sounded like “Yanny” or “Laurel.” In each case, it’s hard to fathom how others’ experience could be so different from our own. To know what gives any relationship (including our own) the best chances for success, we need to draw on large-scale sets of information from hundreds of people (as scientists do). Doing so helps us know how to put the odds in our relationship’s favor. For example, our best relationship so far may have been with a narcissistic and manipulative partner. But we are just one person. If research studies with sample sizes one hundred to two hundred times larger find that narcissists aren’t great partners (which these studies do), which information will help you have better relationships in the future? Science wins.
But we want things to be easy, so we rely on what’s simple instead of what’s scientific. As computer programmers are fond of saying: garbage in, garbage out. If flawed information goes in, what comes out is unworkable or impossible to properly interpret. The same is true in your relationship. To really assess your relationship’s value, you need to know what information matters. Everywhere you look there are clues, hints, subtle signs, and even blatant evidence that can reveal your relationship’s value. Yet we struggle.
First, our timing usually sucks. We start worrying about evaluating our relationships way too late. Think back to when your relationship started. You were busy having fun and falling in love. Everything was great; your confidence couldn’t have been higher. No one wants to risk ruining a good thing by looking for potential problems. The research suggests that maybe you should have. A classic study tracked relationships over time to see which ones succeeded and which ones failed, and if there were signs early on that foretold the relationship’s outcome.11 First, researchers looked at rewards, or all the good stuff that relationships provide (e.g., love, support, affection). Early on, relationships that eventually succeeded and relationships that failed had the same number of rewards. Which means having a rewarding relationship early on isn’t unique or terribly special. But the good stuff captures all our attention. It creates a blind spot. That’s a mistake.
Relationships also have costs, or negative experiences (e.g., loss of freedom and independence, conflict). Overall, for all the relationships in the study, reported costs were much lower on average than rewards. There is a lesson there: our relationship’s good stuff should greatly outweigh the bad stuff. Though costs were generally low, they were higher in relationships that eventually failed compared to those that were successful. In other words, to really know how your relationship will turn out, you need to focus on costs early on. Unfortunately, costs are the exact thing we’re most willing to overlook when a relationship is new. We have it completely backward.
Perhaps we’re willing to look the other way on early costs because we think they’ll resolve themselves or simply disappear. Things can only get better! Sorry, but those rose-colored hopes are misguided. When researchers tracked newlyweds over four years and asked them about common couple problems like dealing with in-laws, the problems that were there from the start didn’t just go away over time.12 Other research shows that couples who ended up unhappy were, from the beginning, less kind, generous, and caring toward each other and had more hesitations entering the marriage.13 Not only did those doubts and issues continue to plague them, but they eventually contributed to the relationship’s demise. Ignoring early problems doesn’t resolve them; relationship issues linger.
Obviously, some problems are worse than others. If you want to know which issues are most likely to doom a relationship, who better to ask than the recently divorced? When UCLA researchers did that, the key issues divorcés mentioned were communication, not being willing to work at the relationship, and trust.14 The surprising part was that divorcés recognized that their troubles didn’t come out of nowhere. They had been there all along. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but early on, they just didn’t notice, were in denial, or didn’t do anything about it. Clearly, if you don’t want to get caught off guard, removing this blind spot is essential.
Now, fast-forward a bit. As your relationship progresses, you settle into a routine, life happens, and you start noticing flaws. Lots of them. Some are minor, like how your partner installs the toilet paper “wrong” or insists on clapping every time your flight lands. But some feel more substantial, like your partner’s ditzy nature, how he treats servers at restaurants, how he drives, his spending habits, eating habits, messiness—the list goes on. These issues have likely been there all along, but you gave them a free pass. Not anymore. Now that the relationship’s novelty has worn off and the excitement has faded, you’re a much keener observer and much less tolerant. That can encourage overcorrecting and finding problems that aren’t really all that problematic.
Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself
You may have assumed that people are way too easy on themselves and their relationships. But that isn’t entirely true. Though positivity reigns initially, it doesn’t remain that way across the entire relationship. In reality, as your relationship matures, rather than ignore issues as you did early on, you go the other way. Now you succumb to “problemicity,” or the tendency to find problems where they don’t exist. You create sources of conflict that aren’t real. You imagine predicaments that you’ll never find yourself in. You dwell on issues that are ultimately inconsequential. In other words, you’re manufacturing problems that aren’t real, but are really harmful.
The result: you’re harder on your partner and relationship than you should be. Blame the negativity bias, which is the tendency to gravitate toward or focus on the bad or negative aspects of an experience.15 In other words, when your relationship is going well, the positives don’t register. We take them for granted. You know what captures your attention? Problems. The insensitive comments, forgotten chores, bickering, clutter, and inconveniences all stand out because they deviate from the easily overlooked peaceful and happy status quo. The tendency to notice the bad stuff is so pronounced that, according to 2018 research published in Science, if your relationship doesn’t have any major issues, you inflate small problems into bigger ones.16 In other words, rather than be thankful for the relative calm, we create issues where none previously existed. It’s almost as if we need the drama to sustain us. Classic problemicity.
Relationships are hard enough as it is. You certainly don’t need to do anything to make them more difficult. The goal should be to recognize and appreciate the good, keep small problems small, and ignore the inconsequential. Seems simple enough. But in day-to-day life it’s difficult to achieve. You need to stifle overreactions and realize that in reality things are better than you think.
At this point I couldn’t blame you if you were wondering, What if everything you thought you knew about your relationship was wrong? Well, it’s time to get your facts straight, focus on what truly matters, and give your relationship the credit it deserves. Socrates allegedly once said that “true knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.” When it comes to relationships, saying you know “nothing” overstates the case a bit. When I was a kid, my mom was fond of saying, “Being smart is knowing what you don’t know.” In life, and in relationships, that is very good advice. Mom: 1, Socrates: 0. Now it’s time to tamp down your overconfidence and realize your relationship IQ could use a little work. Embrace it. Acknowledging the limits of your expertise opens you up to broadening your understanding. Perhaps Benjamin Franklin explained it best: “Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” Time to learn.
First, please realize that the quest for relationship enlightenment is bumpy. At some point, a blind spot will pop up, and what you believe to be true will turn out to be a myth. It’s bound to happen. Although everyone loves being right, every so often, when you encounter new information suggesting you might have it wrong, you’ll get that pang of doubt in your gut. The key is what you do next.
The most typical reaction is a counterproductive one. It’s what I call the “yeah-but.” This is a commonly deployed defense mechanism meant to safeguard us from a point we don’t like. Our natural inclination is to guard the status quo. When science confronts that, we fight back. We halfheartedly acknowledge an element of truth, “Yeah…,” and then unleash our defense, “but…” When we use “yeah-buts,” they’re typically in stories about friends, someone we know, or something we once heard. They can stem from anecdotes from our own experience, alternative “facts” we believe to be true, or attacks on context (“yeah, but that’s only true when…”). Let’s be honest, we’ve all got stories to tell. The real problem is we deploy “yeah-buts” when our relationship could most benefit from science. Sticking to existing beliefs stifles opportunities for growth and encourages blind spots to take root.
Combine a tendency to put our heart before our head, a lack of reflection and self-awareness, abundant overconfidence, an egocentric overreliance on personal experience, poor timing, a propensity for finding problems where they don’t exist, and a tendency to disregard evidence that contradicts our existing beliefs, and what’s the result? Well, we end up with a collection of major blind spots that threaten our relationships by unnecessarily creating doubt. Time to let science shed some light on your relationship. Here’s a sneak peek at the ten blind spots we’ll uncover in Chapters 2 through 11:
1. Men and women aren’t different, but thinking they are will create problems.
2. Looking for a “soul mate” who provides relationship perfection is a bad approach because it’s unrealistic and creates instability.
3. Emphasizing your partner’s hotness undermines the relationship; you’d be better off focusing on personality.
4. It’s easy to focus on the wrong type of love and worry too much about sex, when in reality the amount of sex you should have is less than you think.
5. Fixer-upper partners are a bad idea, even if they say they want to change; acceptance is key.
6. Sacrificing for your relationship can backfire; being more selfish and putting me before you can help your relationship.
7. Distance in relationships is helpful; although wanting to be closer feels romantic, it’s a potential sign of trouble.
8. Good communication is important, but not having disagreements may be ruining your relationship, so you need to give a “CRAPO” (clarify, reflect feelings, attend, paraphrase, and ask open-ended questions).
9. Getting support from your partner is more important in good times than in bad.
10. Knowing when to call it quits is important, especially since ending the relationship won’t be as bad as you think it will be.
They say that nothing worth having comes easy. For our entire lives most of us have built our relationship acumen on a compromised foundation based on flawed ways of thinking about the world. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Nobody’s perfect. We all believe myths that undermine our relationships and have blind spots that make the truth hard to see. We’re now ready to dedicate time to thoughtful self-reflection. We’re done with “yeah-buts,” done with excuses. We’re ready to stop being so hard on ourselves and our relationships. Instead of succumbing to problemicity and finding problems where they don’t exist, we can start seeing things for what they really are. Let’s start giving our relationship the credit it deserves. Over the next ten chapters we’re going to delve deeper into the top ten myths that are holding back our relationships.
“Men and Women Are Just Different”
- "I really enjoyed reading Stronger Than you Think. It offers science-based advice on the key relationship issues that worry most of us. It should be on every bookshelf."—John Gottman, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
- “Scientists have been exposing humanity’s blind spots for centuries. In Stronger Than You Think, Gary Lewandowski leverages the tools of science to reveal our blind spots about love, offering an essential roadmap for cultivating an exquisite relationship.”—Eli J. Finkel, author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage
- “Stronger Than You Think identifies the common blind spots that mold and sabotage your love relationship, and then helps you fix them—all backed by science and good research! After reading this book, you’ll become more knowledgeable, prepared, confident, and perceptive about your own relationship.”—Terri Orbuch, PhD, author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great
- “Stronger Than You Think is a captivating, intelligent book that shows you how to strengthen your relationships and steer clear of common pitfalls. Dr. Lewandowski translates his vast knowledge of relationship research into clear, relevant advice that will leave you feeling enlightened and more confident about how to navigate the complexities of romantic love.”—Ty Tashiro, PhD, author of The Science of Happily Ever After
- “Whether you’re already in a relationship or looking for one, Stronger Than You Think is a must-read. Lewandowski masterfully distills the science of relationships in an informative and engaging fashion that will change everything you thought you knew about love and set you on the path to long-term happiness and success.”—Justin Lehmiller, PhD, research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of Tell Me What You Want
- On Sale
- Feb 9, 2021
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little Brown Spark