The NPR Diane Rehm Show: How We Choose Our Spouses

Image by Kumon

Recently, I listened to a panel discussion on the NPR Diane Rehm show entitled “How We Choose our Spouses”, ( Did anyone else listen to this?

The topic was inspired by a provocative New York Times article “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person” by Alain de Botton. As a couples therapist for over 25 years and someone who has had his own relationship challenges, I listened with interest and gratitude but was also left with many questions. Nevertheless, this discussion was emblematic of where the field of psychology is today on the subject of love and relationships. If you didn’t get a chance to listen to it, here are some highlights, with some of my thoughts.

Assembled for this lively panel discussion were the following relationship experts:

Alain de Botton, philosopher and author of many books on relationships and the great questions of ordinary life—love, friendship, and work. His most recent book is A Course on Love.

Ty Tashiro, psychologist, researcher, and author of the recent The Science of Happy Ever After: What Really Matters in the Quest for Enduring Love.

Helen Fisher, brain researcher, biological anthropologist, human behavior researcher, and author of Anatomy of Love and On Love and Relationships, and founder of

Rebecca Traister, currently a writer-at-large for New York Magazine and The Cut, a contributing editor at Elle magazine, and author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.

Highlights of the discussion:

Botton suggests that rather than being attracted to someone who is smart, successful, and attractive, we tend to be drawn to someone who is familiar–someone who recreates for us what love felt like in childhood. While he acknowledges the growth potential of a committed relationship, he stops short of saying that the purpose of such a relationship is to finish the work of childhood, an important perspective of Imago Relationship Therapy.

He also argues that we need to see love not as a feeling or emotion but as a skill that has to be systematically learned. This is contrary to the romantic notion that love is not something that is learned but rather felt. As others have said before, Botton argues that love is a verb, something we do and can cultivate. Indeed, for most of us, feelings of “being in love” come and go through the course of our relationship. Measures of satisfaction in a relationship plummet in its middle years, but if you stick it out levels of satisfaction increase dramatically after 25 years. (Seems like a long time to wait to me!) He adds that compatibility should be seen as the accomplishment of love, not its prerequisite. This wisdom makes a lot of sense to me. However, doesn’t it also fly in the face of common sense (as well as other research) that suggests that one characteristic of successful relationships is that there should be some overlap of shared interests and values in the beginning to increase the possibility of compatibility?

He also argues that dating apps give us the illusion that we can find the perfect person. If we simply swipe through enough people eventually we will find our perfect soul mate. I would add that then the focus becomes more about finding the right person than actually working on becoming a good partner. Shouldn’t we spend at least as much time on that?

At the end of the discussion, Diane Rehm asks Botton, “What are 3 questions you should ask a potential partner?” With some humor, he answered:

  1. Are you crazy? That is to say, are you someone who is going to flinch at the suggestion that you are less than perfect? Our potential partners must have some awareness of their own eccentricities and neuroticism and/or what might be difficult about them to be in a relationship with.
  2. How are you crazy? Can they own and explain their particular brand of craziness and take the attitude: “Of course I’m crazy, I’m human but have enough insight to acknowledge it in myself.”
  3. Can I tell you about my craziness and be accepted with humor and generosity for who I am? Growing empathy and generosity in ourselves toward our partner’s challenges makes a great deal of sense.

In studying what attributes make long-term relationships successful, Ty Tashiro finds what you might expect: kindness, commitment and loyalty, and emotional stability. So presumably these are characteristics that we should look for in a partner. That also makes a lot of logical sense.

However, he has also found that if a person with an anxious or avoidant attachment style gets in a relationship with a securely attached person it is usually the anxiously or avoidantly attached person who ends the relationship. According to Tashiro, even though it would seem like a good thing for a non-securely attached person to seek out a securely attached person, usually it doesn’t work out. So I’m left with the question, “If I happen to be a person with an anxious or avoidant style of attachment, what kind of person should I look for? Am I doomed to be in a relationship with someone who is also non-securely attached?” (For more information on attachment styles see the book: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep-Love,” by Levine and Heller.)

Helen Fisher presented a much more optimistic view of relationships, stressing that we know so much more now about relationships and that there are so many more resources for people who are looking for relationship help. While she acknowledges that childhood will have some effect on whom we choose as a partner, she gives it far less weight. We don’t have to be driven by unconscious patterns from childhood; we can make conscious decisions. There are also many more acceptable options for how to be in a relationship. One of the options she encourages is what she refers to as “slow love.” She reports that in general people are waiting longer to get married, which is a good thing, as people are now much more likely to have had several relationships before marriage. As a result, they are in a much better place to choose a long-term relationship partner with whom they can be happy.

Humorously, Fisher also points out that “blood drains from the decision-making areas of the brain during the falling in love stage of love.” According to Fisher, this is not a good time to make a decision. Slow love is the key: the longer you wait, the more likely your marriage will be stable.

Fisher’s research with 30,000 people on found that what people really want in a relationship is: 1) respect, 2) trust/someone to confide in, 3) someone who makes them laugh, 4) someone who gives them enough time, and 5) someone they find physically attractive. Yep, that sounds right to me!

I was interested to hear more from Rebecca Traister, as she had less air time. She did, however, point out that marriage patterns are rapidly changing, that we are moving away from marriage, and that today women have many more choices and are able to live outside of marriage. She also commented that the discussion was primarily talking about the middle and upper classes and didn’t necessarily reflect the picture of all SES levels. For many, marriage is not always a stabilizing force and can, in fact, be very destabilizing in some cases.

In conclusion, it is an exciting time to be in a relationship (as well as in the relationship business), as it is constantly evolving and in transition. The good news is that we have more resources, research, and information about relationships now than ever before, and we haven’t even touched on the all that we are learning about the brain and what that has to do with relationships. The downside is that there is so much information that it is difficult to keep up with it all and hard to discern what applies to any one individual. What I do feel passionate and confident about is that anything each of us can do to help ourselves and others in our life increase love and empathy in the world is well worth the effort.

Perhaps there is nothing more important!