TIME Sex/Relationships

5 Weird Ways Love Affects Your Personality

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If you feel like you’re “addicted” to being in love, you might be onto something

Beyoncé may be a musical genius, but can you really be “drunk in love”? According to science, yes, you can. In fact, feeling head-over-heels does more than just make you feel a little warm and fuzzy; it can actually transform the way you think and act.

Check out some of the freaky ways love can affect your mind and body, and prepare to feel (mostly) exonerated from your past in-the-name-of-love behavior.

1. It can make you feel high

There’s a scientific explanation for why you feel so blissfully overjoyed during a new relationship, and it has nothing to do with romantic dates. Scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City studied the MRI scans of college students and found that falling in love activates the same neural system in your brain that lights up when you take cocaine, giving you an intense feeling of euphoria. So if you feel like you’re “addicted” to your new beau, you may not be as crazy as you think.

HEALTH.COM: 20 Weird Facts About Sex and Love

2. It can make you dumber

Or at least really, really spacey. Research published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in 2013 found that people who are in love are less able to focus and perform tasks that require attention than people who aren’t enamored. In addition, the more in love the participants in the study were, the more difficult it was for them to concentrate on assignments. The study authors aren’t quite sure why exactly love makes your brain go fuzzy, but they do theorize that a balance between focus and fantasy is crucial for a successful relationship (and probably a productive day!)

3. It can make you meaner

Think back to every rom-com where two guys duke it out over a girl or a pair of best friends become scheming enemies because of a man. What causes such intense hostility in the name of love? According to a recent study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the answer lies in neurological hormones that are linked to aggression and empathy. Researchers at the University of Buffalo asked participants to describe a time when someone close to them was threatened and how they reacted, and they found that caring for someone predicted aggressive behavior. So when you’re with someone you love, these hormones can turn your brain’s warm, compassionate empathy into protective aggression, readying you to defend your mate against attackers, stressful events, and even sadness. Cute, huh?

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4. It can make you obsessive

If you’ve ever fallen in love, you know how the infatuation that occurs in the early stages of a relationship can feel all-encompassing and exhausting. Researchers at the University of Pisa in Italy set out to find the reason why and discovered that the biochemical effects of romantic love can be indistinguishable from having obsessive-compulsive disorder. The scientists found that people who fell in love in the previous six months had similar low levels of serotonin (a calm-producing hormone) as individuals with OCD, which might explain why you can’t stop thinking about your baby all day and night.

5. It can make you feel invincible

Ever wonder why all your aches seem to disappear when you’re cuddling with your partner? No, it’s not a coincidence. According to researchers at Stanford University, the areas of the brain that are affected by feelings of intense love are the same areas that painkillers target. Participants brought in photos of their significant other plus an equally attractive friend and the photos were flashed in front of them while researchers heated up a thermal simulator on their palms. Brain scans showed that the “love” photos reduced pain more than the friend photos, possibly by activating reward centers that block pain at a spinal level, like opioid painkillers do. Of course, a passionate romance isn’t a good alternative for chronic pain meds, but, hey, it could help.

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This article originally appeared on Health.com

TIME Reproductive Health

The Second Most Popular Form of Birth Control Will Surprise You

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Looks like the pill has some competition

About 62% of U.S. women from ages 15 to 44 use some form of contraception, and predictably, the pill is still the most popular. About 16% of women used it in 2011-2013, finds the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics.

But the second most popular contraceptive may come as a surprise to many: 15.5% of women—just a hair behind the pill—choose female sterilization. The CDC report shows that nearly one in three women ages 35 to 44 opted for female sterilization. By contrast, fewer than 1% of women between ages 15 to 24 chose it.

The rates of women choosing to undergo the simple, yet irreversible, surgical procedure might seem high, “until you start to peel back the layers and intricacies around forming a family,” says Dr. Vanessa Cullins, vice president of external medical affairs at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who was not involved with the research. “Consider the fact that the majority of women in this country have had the number of children they want to have by mid-twenties to thirty or so—and they still have the capacity to get pregnant until they are 50 years old.” For a lot of women, that can mean 20 fertile years during which a woman may not want to become pregnant.

Cullins says women who tend to ask about sterilization don’t want to be bothered by other methods, even those that only require intervention every few years. The overall rate is slightly less than previous years, the CDC says, and Cullins says she expects the rate to continue to decline as long-acting contraceptives, especially the intrauterine device (IUD), become more popular and more affordable in the U.S.

But for now, the pill, female sterilization and condoms are more popular than the IUD. Long-acting reversible contraceptives, like the IUD and implant, remained stable from prior years, at 7.2% of women. They were most popular among women aged 25 to 34 and less popular among younger, sexually active women between ages 15 to 24. Women between ages 35 and 44 were the least likely to use them.

Because the IUD is much more convenient than the pill, with a lower failure rate, it may prove to be a bigger birth control contender in the future, some health experts say. And there are signs that with increased affordability and access, young women will opt for it. One recent study showed that when teenage girls were counseled about birth control and given their pick for free, a full 72% of them chose the IUD.

TIME psychology

The 4 Most Common Relationship Problems — and How to Fix Them

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Relationship problems. Everybody has them. And sometimes you have them over and over and over.

Most of the people giving advice don’t know the research. So where are the real answers?

I decided to call an expert: Dr. John Gottman.

You might remember him as the researcher in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink who, after just a few minutes, could predict whether a couple would end up divorced.

John is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington and co-founder of the Gottman Institute. He’s published over 190 papers and authored more than 40 books, including:

He’s also a really cool guy. John’s gained powerful insights from studying couples that thrive (who he calls “Masters”) and couples that don’t (who he calls “Disasters.”)

So what are you going to learn here?

  1. The four things that doom relationships.
  2. The three things that prevent those four things.
  3. The most important part of any relationship conversation.
  4. The single best predictor of whether a relationship is working. (It’s so easy you can do it yourself in 2 minutes.)

Want to be a Master and not a Disaster? Let’s get to it.

1) The Four Horsemen Of The Relationship Apocalypse

John has studied thousands of couples over his 40-year career. Four things came up again and again that indicated a relationship was headed for trouble. The Disasters did them a lot and the Masters avoided them:

#1: Criticism

This is when someone points to their partner and says their personality or character is the problem. Here’s John:

Criticism is staging the problem in a relationship as a character flaw in a partner. The Masters did the opposite: they point a finger at themselves and they really have a very gentle way of starting up the discussion, minimizing the problem and talking about what they feel and what they need.

Ladies, are you listening? Because criticism is something women do a lot more than men. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to how the guys screw up soon enough.)

#2: Defensiveness

This is responding to relationship issues by counterattacking or whining. Here’s John:

The second horseman was defensiveness which is a natural reaction to being criticized. It takes two forms: counterattacking or acting like an innocent victim and whining. Again, the Masters were very different even when their partner was critical. They accepted the criticism, or even took responsibility for part of the problem. They said, “Talk to me, I want to hear how you feel about this.”

#3: Contempt

It’s the #1 predictor of breakups. Contempt is acting like you’re a better person than they are. Here’s John:

Contempt is talking down to their partner. Being insulting or acting superior. Not only did it predict relationship breakup, but it predicted the number of infectious illnesses that the recipient of contempt would have in the next four years when we measured health.

#4: Stonewalling

It’s shutting down or tuning out. It passively tells your partner, “I don’t care.” And 85% of the time it’s guys who do this.

(Want to know a shortcut to creating a deeper bond with a romantic partner? Click here.)

Okay, that’s what kills a relationship. Naturally, you want to know what stops those things from occurring, right?

3 Things That Make Horsemen Go Bye-Bye

From looking at the Masters, John saw what prevented the downward spiral of the 4 Horsemen:

#1: Know Thy Partner

John calls this building “love maps.” It’s really knowing your partner inside and out. It was one of the Masters’ most powerful secrets. Here’s John:

A love map is like a road map you make of your partner’s internal psychological world. The Masters were always asking questions about their partner and disclosing personal details about themselves.

Why is this so rare? It takes time. And the disasters didn’t spend that time. In fact, most couples don’t spend that much time.

John cited a study showing couples with kids talk to each other about 35 minutes per week. Yeah, 35 minutes.

And even most of that was just logistics — “When will you be there?” “Don’t forget to pick up milk.” — not deep personal stuff like the Masters.

#2: Responding positively to “bids”

No, this has nothing to do with eBay. We all frequently make little bids for our partner’s attention.

You say something and you want them to respond. To engage. It can be as simple as saying, “Nice day, isn’t it?”

It’s almost like a video game: when the person responds positively (“turning towards a bid”) your relationship gets a point.

When they don’t respond, or respond negatively, the relationship loses a point… or five. Here’s John:

The couples who divorced six years later had turned toward bids only 33% of the time. The couples stayed married had turned toward bids 86% of the time. Huge difference.

Couples with high scores build relationship equity. They’re able to repair problems. They’re able to laugh and smile even when arguing. And that makes a big difference. Here’s John:

If you turn toward bids at a high rate, you get a sense of humor during conflict. Humor is very powerful because it reduces physiological arousal during arguments and that’s been replicated in several studies.

#3: Show admiration

Ever listen to someone madly in love talk about their partner? They sound downright delusional. They act like the other person is a superhero. A saint.

And research shows that is perfect. Masters see their partner as better than they really are. Disasters see their partners as worse than they really are.

(For more on the science of sexy, click here.)

Admiration is about the story you tell yourself about your partner. And that leads us to how to predict whether your relationship is working…

The Best Predictor Of How Good A Relationship Is

You can do this yourself: have someone ask you about the history of your relationship. What kind of story do you tell?

When your partner describes your relationship to others, what kind of story do they tell?

Does the story minimize the negatives and celebrate the positives? Did it make the other person sound great?

Or did it dwell on what’s wrong? Did it talk about what that idiot did this week that’s utterly wrong?

This simple “story of us” predicts which relationships succeed and which fail. Here’s John:

Our best prediction of the future of a relationship came from a couple’s “story of us.” It’s an ever-changing final appraisal of the relationship and your partner’s character. Some people were really developing a “story of us” that was very negative in which they really described all the problems in the relationship. They really emphasize what was missing. Masters did just the opposite: they minimized the negative qualities that all of us have and they cherish their partner’s positive qualities. They nurture gratitude instead of resentment.

(For more on what research says makes love last, click here.)

Is there a part of a relationship conversation that’s critical? Actually, there is.

The Most Important Part Of A Relationship Conversation

It’s the beginning. 96% of the time John can predict the outcome of a conversation within the first three minutes. Here’s John:

Negativity feeds on itself and makes the conversation stay negative. We also did seven years of research on how Masters repair that negativity. One of the most powerful things is to say “Hey, this isn’t all your fault, I know that part of this is me. Let’s talk about what’s me and what’s you.” Accepting responsibility is huge for repair.

How you start those serious relationship discussions doesn’t just predict how the conversation goes — it also predicts divorce after 6 years of marriage.

Via Principia Amoris: The New Science of Love:

…it went on to predict with high accuracy their fate over a 6-year period of time. The predictions we made about couples’ futures held across seven separate studies, they held for heterosexual as well as same-sex couples, and they held throughout the life course.

So you’re talking and you’re starting off positive and calm. Great. Now you should stop talking. Why?

When I asked John what the best thing to do to improve a relationship he said, “Learn how to be a good listener.”

The Masters know how to listen. When their partners have a problem, they drop everything and listen non-defensively with empathy. Here’s John:

In really bad relationships people are communicating, “Baby when you’re in pain, when you’re unhappy, when you hurt, I’m not going to be there for you. You deal with it on your own, find somebody else to talk to because I don’t like your negativity. I’m busy, I’m really involved with the kids, I’m really involved with my job.” Whereas the Masters have the model of, “When you’re unhappy, even if it’s with me, the world stops and I listen.”

And sometimes the best thing to do at the beginning of a relationship argument is to end it immediately. Why?

69% of a couple’s problems are perpetual. They won’t be resolved.

Beating a dead horse, asking someone to fundamentally change who they are isn’t going to work — but it will make them angry. Here’s John:

In the studies that Bob Levenson and I did, we brought couples back into the lab every couple of years to find out what they are arguing about. And people resolved only about 31% of their disagreements. You can edit these videotapes together and it looked like the same conversation over and over for 22 years. Masters learn to accept what will not change and focus on the positive. They seem to say, “There’s a lot of good stuff here and I can ignore the annoying things.”

(For more on how to listen like an expert, click here.)

Okay, that’s a lot of great stuff. Let’s round it up and finish with the thing John said that impressed me the most.

Sum Up

So here’s what John had to say:

  1. The 4 things that kill relationships: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.
  2. The 3 things that prevent them: Know your partner, respond positively to “bids”, and admire your partner.
  3. The best predictor of relationship success is how you and your partner tell your “story of us.”
  4. The beginning of the conversation is crucial. Negativity compounds. Keep a cool head and resist emotional inertia.

One last thing that really blew me away: what makes for happy relationships sounds a lot like what makes for happiness in general.

Research shows, happy people seek out the positive and are grateful for it. Unhappy people find the negative in everything.

There’s a very similar dynamic in relationships: Masters scan their relationship for good things, disasters are always noting the bad.

And not only that — the Masters’ way of looking at the world is actually more accurate. Here’s John:

People who have this negative habit of mind miss 50% of the positivity that outside objective observers see. So the positive habit of mind is actually more accurate. If you have a negative habit of mind, you actually distort toward the negative and you don’t see the positive. People with the positive habit of mind, it’s not that they don’t see the negative — they do, they see it — but they really emphasize the positive in terms of the impact on them. That’s the difference.

Choose to see the positive. It can cause a cascade:

  • It’s fuel for your good “story of us.”
  • You’ll probably start relationship conversations on a good note.
  • You’ll admire your partner.
  • And on and on…

Some of the same things that make you happy can improve your relationships — and vice versa. What’s better than that?

John and I talked for over an hour, so there’s a lot more to this.

I’ll be sending out a PDF with more of his relationship tips in my weekly email (including the two words that can help make arguments dissolve.) So to get that, sign up for my weekly email here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 145,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

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TIME psychology

10 Things That Will Change the Way You Think About Love

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

  • Love does mean being a little deluded. Don’t believe it? You’re deluded. This has been shown time and time and time again.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 145,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

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TIME Sex/Relationships

10 Ways To Sleep Better With Your Partner

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Learning to share a bed with a snorer, sheet hogger, or kicker can save your sanity—and your relationship

A good night’s rest can be hard enough to get on your own. Add in the challenge of sleeping with a partner who snores, hogs the covers, or can only nod off to the sound of the nightly news—or has issues with your sleep patterns and needs—and it’s no wonder so many partners are sleep-deprived. In fact, about 25% of American couples retreat to separate sleeping quarters, according to the National Sleep Foundation. That can be an effective solution for some spouses, but it can also take a toll on your bond and intimacy, says Michael Breus, PhD, clinical psychologist and sleep specialist and author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan. If his and hers beds don’t appeal to you, you’ve still got options. Read on for easy, expert-backed ways to navigate your different sleep styles and score the snoozetime you both deserve.

Your partner’s snoring leaves you staring at the ceiling

About 37 million adults snore regularly, according to the National Sleep Foundation, resulting in poor snooze quality for their bedmates and themselves. Men are more likely to saw away, and snoring tends to worsen with age. “The sound comes from vibrations made as you breathe through narrowed airways while sleeping,” says Breus. Congestion is often a trigger; so is drinking alcohol close to bedtime. Even sleeping on your back can be to blame, which is why nonsnoring partners often roll (or push!) the snorer over to get some peace and quiet. If addressing these issues doesn’t help, have your partner check in with a sleep doctor. Snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea, a serious but treatable condition that causes breathing to stop several times per night. In the meantime, Breus suggests the snore-free partner drown out the buzz by surrounding their ears with a wall of pillows. “The sound will bounce back in the other direction, reducing the noise enough so you’re more likely to drift off,” he says.

You can’t agree on room temperature

The optimum temperature for sleep ranges from 68 to 72 degrees fahrenheit, says Breus. But that won’t persuade a partner who craves a toasty-warm bedroom to stop secretly hiking the thermostat, nor will it stop a chill-loving spouse from throwing open the window. Call a compromise: Pick a temperature between your two preferences. The person who likes it warmer has the option of putting on another blanket or thicker pajamas, while the cold-preferring partner can sleep outside the sheets or duvet, suggests Breus. Upgrading to a bigger bed might also help. “A larger bed means more room, so the person who wants it cooler isn’t as affected by the other’s body heat,” says Janet Kennedy, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and sleep specialist in New York City and author of The Essential Guide to Sleep for Your Baby and You.

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Your kids keep interrupting your zzz’s

When spouses don’t agree on how to handle a child who has had a bad dream or has a potty emergency, conflict can ensue—not to mention next-day exhaustion. “Sometimes only one parent ends up taking care of the child’s needs, and that can build resentment,” says Kennedy. “Or one partner is fine with the child coming into their bed for the rest of the night, while the other parent wants the bedroom off-limits.” Kennedy suggests reaching a solution outside of the bedroom, when you and your partner are rested and thinking rationally. “You need to be on the same page about how to handle this situation, so you set boundaries for your kids but also share the responsibility of a middle-of-the-night interruption,” she advises. Otherwise, not only will you both be sleep-deprived, the conflict can potentially shake up your bond.

You have different mattress preferences

Some people love a soft, sink-into-it bed; others require bedding as firm as a board before they can start counting sheep. Luckily, mattress manufacturers have caught on to this, and options that address both preferences exist. “The Sleep Number Bed is popular because you can make one side firmer and the other softer, so spouses don’t have to resort to separate beds,” says Breus. Memory foam mattresses are also couple-friendly because they mold to your weight and body size without affecting the partner lying alongside. You could also look into a split-king bed that features a king-size frame with two side-by-side separate mattresses. These beds can be pricey, but think of it as an investment in your health and relationship, not just another piece of furniture.

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You go to bed or wake up at different times

This one’s tricky: we all have an internal clock that generally determines what time we turn in for the night and wake up in the morning. Yet it’s almost impossible to change your personal pattern, says Breus. Make a deal: the later-to-bed partner promises to be extra quiet and not do anything in the bedroom that can cause the other to wake, then in the morning, the early riser promises to do the same for the partner sleeping in. “If you need to rise first, offer to not hit the snooze button too often, so it goes off a bunch of times and disturbs the other person,” says Kennedy. Similarly, night owls should use headphones to listen to music or watch TV while the other spouse is snoozing, advises Breus. Schedule time in bed to be intimate or to talk at a neutral time, like early in the evening or later in the morning, so one partner isn’t wired while the other is too tired.

You like it dark; your partner needs light

Preferring a dark bedroom makes sense; darkness is a cue to your brain to ramp up production of the hormone melatonin, which helps your body wind down, says Breus. Thing is, some people are conditioned to sleep with a light on. If you and your partner are in opposing camps, compromise by agreeing to keep a very small low-wattage lamp or nightlight plugged in, or use a clip-on booklight that can be directed away from the other partner, says Breus. And eye masks look silly, but don’t discount them—they can be surprisingly good at blocking out light. Breus also recommends a new type of lightbulb for your bedside lamp. Goodnight Bulbs use a special bulb that cuts down on blue light, the kind emitted from TV screens and smartphones that has been implicated in insomnia. Without that blue light, it’s easier for the darkness-wanting spouse to doze off.

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You’re a cuddler, but your partner craves space

Even the closest couples can have different pre-sleep intimacy preferences. “One partner might like snuggling before bed and falling asleep in the other’s arms, while the other feels crowded and can’t relax unless he or she turns away,” says Kennedy. While that might feel like rejection or a reflection that you two aren’t as connected as you thought, Kennedy cautions against viewing it that way. “It’s just a difference in sleep styles,” she says. Here’s a fair middle ground: “Agree to cuddle until the snuggler drifts off, at which point the other person can retreat to their side of the bed and sleep solo for the rest of the night,” she says. Or have a distinct 10 to 15 minute snuggle time, during which you two can touch and talk, and then officially move to opposite sides of the bed once the time has passed. You both have your intimacy needs meet and can easily drift off to dreamland.

He needs the TV to fall asleep; you like quiet

If one of you is conditioned to fall asleep to Jimmy Kimmel’s voice on late-night TV while the other needs silence, you might need to look into headphones, especially the wireless kind. A timer is also a good idea; agree to set it for 15 or 30 minutes, by which time the TV watcher will have sacked out anyway, says Breus. If the noise can’t be totally shut out, agree to keep the TV volume low, then bring a fan into the bedroom next to your side and keep it on all night. It’s a simple white-noise infusion that can drown out the voices on the tube. If you’re out of options, foam earplugs you can buy in a drugstore can be surprisingly effective.

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You’re battling a blanket hog

Ever wake up in the middle of a sleep session to find yourself shivering because the comforter you had cocooned yourself in hours ago is now encased around your partner like a burrito? Sounds like you’re sleeping with a blanket hog—though it’s not necessarily a deliberate move on your bedmate’s part. If the tug of war over covers happens regularly, it’s no surprise you’re fatigued, says Breus. The solution is to have his and hers covers: one top sheet, blanket and/or comforter for you, and another stack for him. It’s harder for one partner to steal the covers from the other if you each have your own layers.

One partner tosses, turns, and thrashes all night

Everyone changes position at least a few times as they cycle through a night of sleep. But women tend to be more sensitive to their partner’s movements, and that means they’re more likely to be woken up by the kicking, jostles, or twitchy motions of a restless sleeper, says Breus. Layering up in separate blankets can help minimize the disruption, since his or her legs and arms will be wrapped under a different comforter and sheet set. Or consider a foam mattress like a Tempur-Pedic—the lack of springs cuts down on excessive bounce and motion, says Kennedy. A larger bed also allows you to maintain an arm’s length of distance, so the other person can thrash all over the place and not make contact with you.

HEALTH.COM: 20 Weird Facts About Love and Sex

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME psychology

The #1 Way to Easily Improve All Your Relationships

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Just try.

Put a small amount of conscious effort into trying to be a better friend, spouse, whatever.

That’s it.

Sounds ridiculous but research shows:

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Race

I Am a ‘Conscious’ Black Woman Who Fell for a White Man

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Here I was: Ms. HBCU, Afro-turned-locs-sporting, ankh-wearing, and lover of all things Black — falling for a white man

xojane

This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

In the words of my hero Maya Angelou, “I can’t believe my good fortune, and I am just so grateful, to be a Black woman. A Black American woman. I would be so jealous if I were anything else.”

I learned that “Black” was intended to mean “inferior” at the age of five and by the time I was ready for college I had only begun to learn why I should rejoice in my Blackness. I grew up in this spirit. I survived being “the smart Black girl” at majority white schools in this spirit, and rejected an opportunity for full scholarship at a predominately white institution to attend the best university on the globe (naturally a historically black one) — because of this spirit.

Being a Black person at an HBCU is nothing short of divine. A community of academics who understand you, instructors who are exceptionally hard on you because they know what you’re up against in this world, and an ever-present aura that dispels every negative thing that you were taught about your color from the moment you knew what it was.

I chopped off my chemically processed hair, took every class I could led by the master of Africana Studies, Dr. Gregory Carr, and wore an ankh on my body every chance I got.

Needless to say, I only dated Black men.

Though I find Black men physically attractive, what I really, really find attractive is the unspoken understanding that exists between me and a Black man of my choosing. I love not explaining why I tie my hair up at night, or that my skin would burn in beach sun without sunblock. I love arguing about whether “Love Jones” or “Love and Basketball” was the greatest Black love story of the ’90s. I could never date outside of Black men, I thought. It would never work.

But I was W-R-O-N-G! I could and I did.

We’ll call him Mazzi for discretion’s sake. He stood about 6 feet and 5 inches. He was handsome, funny, and a bit cynical. We worked in the same space, after I had graduated from college, for about a year. I hardly noticed him at the onset but eventually we began talking and sharing inside jokes and such. And one day he asked me on a date.

There was naturally some apprehension: 1) because we worked together AND 2) because he was unquestionably a white man.

I expressed my desire to keep it quiet at work and Mazzi agreed, so we went.

I laughed a lot that evening. Like from pick-up to drop-off. As our dates went on for some months, I began to notice the disapproving eyes of people around us when we were out together.

“Do you see how people look at us?!” I asked one day.

“Yeah,” he said nonchalantly. “It happens all the time. People don’t have shit going on in their own lives so that fact that I’m here with this ‘self-aware’ Black woman is earth shattering to them.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. He smiled cautiously.

Time passed and we grew closer. I had just gotten into running and he was a thrower for his college’s track team so he would offer me advice on what I can do to get faster and stronger (he also gave awesome back rubs). He was a writer who never put his thoughts down and I encouraged him to do so. He had become my sounding board when I would get overwhelmed and met disappointments in my medical school application process, and I was his “therapist” who eventually got to the root of his cynicism. We were comfortable with one another. At some point in all this, I changed jobs to work in my field and we no longer had the “work thing” to consider.

Here I was: Ms. HBCU, Afro-turned locs sporting, ankh wearing, and lover of all things Black — falling for a white man.

He brought up the subject of a relationship and I retreated. I’d talk about my reluctance to get in relationships (which was true) and he didn’t push the issue. But of course eventually I entered a relationship with him because it only made sense.

My two closest friends were shocked but very supportive and liked him a lot. I liked him too. He was the ideal, except he wasn’t Black.

My family slowly began to pick up on the fact that this was more than a collection of dates and did not necessarily approve. This didn’t impact me so much though. I was good at being rebellious.

His family was really sweet to me and always invited and included me when going to dinners or family parties.

Though I never felt “inferior” throughout the course of our relationship, race was an issue.

I remember the first time it was brought to my attention. He was driving and talking to me on the phone with some friends in the car. His friends had been drinking one of them yelled into the phone.

“Tell Ashley I miss her! Wait! Do Black people miss people?”

Now you and I both know how idiotic of a statement that was, but my issue was not with his asshole of a friend, it was with his lack of response to the comment. He later told me he addressed it. I didn’t believe him.

When I would experience “exotic otherness” at work, I would talk to him about it and he would suggest that I was overreacting when I knew I wasn’t. He would never know the feeling I was describing and I really couldn’t expect him to understand.

Then once in an argument, he said that my beloved alma mater was “institutionally racist.” This was a HUGE mistake on his part. I don’t remember my exact response but I am certain it was angry.

These were tough issues we had to work through. And it was hard. In considering a future with him, I worried about these issues. And he got to a point where he would refuse to talk if he sensed that race would come up. I understood, it was tense between us.

But when it was good, which usually was the case, it was perfect. Then, during a period that I thought was a good one, he went through my phone while I was sleeping. He read messages between my friends and me about how I missed the comfort and familiarity of Black men… OUCH!

Race was an issue.

To know me is to know that a violation of my privacy is grounds for dismissal. I felt guilty, so I didn’t break up with him right way. But from that point forward, I stopped feeling like myself. I was no longer mentally present in the relationship and I strongly resented the phone incident. The race thing was too hard and I had stopped “trying” because I knew he didn’t trust me anyway. I ended it a few months later.

This was in August. And I would be fooling myself if I said I don’t sometimes think I made a mistake. In my relationship, I felt special, and I was loved — even though he wasn’t Black.

Someone made a comment to me recently: “I’m glad you came back to this side.” I replied, “I never changed,” because though Mazzi may not have been the guy for me, and though he was undoubtedly a white man, he never wanted anything from me, but me — locs and all.

Ashley Thomas is an aspiring writer from Baltimore, Maryland.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Sex/Relationships

Science Proves It: Men Really Do Find High Heels Sexier

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Women: wear these and you're more likely to get help from men J.B.C.—Getty Images/Flickr RF

They’re bad for the feet and bad for the back, but high heels do wonders for sex appeal

Cue a collective sigh from women everywhere: a new study in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior proves that men really do find women in high heels significantly sexier.

Study author Nicholas Gueguen in the department of social behavior at the University of Bretagne conducted three experiments using French women identically dressed in black suits with straight skirts and white shirts. Most were also all brunettes: because previous studies showed that men were more likely to approach blonde women over brunettes and ask them out on dates. The only differences between the women were their shoes.

In the series of experiments, Gueguen dangled the women as science bait in front of unsuspecting men.

First, the women—wearing either black flats with no heel, black shoes with a 2 inch heel or black pumps with a 3.5 inch heel—approached several people and asked them for assistance. The woman switched shoes after soliciting every 10 people.

MORE: ‘Stiletto Whisperer’ Teaches Women To Walk In High Heels

When a 19-year-old woman approached men between ages 25 and 50, asking for their help with a survey on gender equality, she garnered the most responses when she wore the highest heels—83% of the men she approached agreed to spend three to four minutes answering her questions, compared to nearly half as many, 47%, when she wore flat shoes. Not terribly surprising.

But would women react the same way to fellow sisters in high heels? To find out, four women asked both men and women to participate in a food survey about what they ate. Again, men were more likely to respond when the women wore higher heels—82% agreed to do the survey when the women wore 3.5 inch heels, compared to 42% who did when they wore flats. But ladies didn’t fall for it. Only about 33% of women on average said yes to the survey request, regardless of the heel height.

Why were men more receptive to the women in high heels? To test the obvious attraction hypothesis, Gueguen told the women to find “marks” and walk ahead of them, then drop a glove. A whopping 93% of men chased after the women when they wore high heels to return the glove, compared to 62% of those who did when she wore flat shoes. And while women were also more likely to track down the high-heeled women than those wearing flats, the rates were much lower—52% for the heel wearers and 43% for the flats wearers.

MORE: Skinny Jeans and High Heels: What Health Dangers Lurk in Your Closet?

For the grand finale, researchers wanted to see if high heels could actually make men more likely to pursue the wearers as mates. They strategically placed women wearing different heel heights in three bars, seating them at tables near the bar where their shoes were visible to those standing at the counter and perusing the field. On average, it took men only 7.49 minutes to approach women wearing the high heels. For those wearing flat shoes, it took nearly twice as long—13.54 minutes.

All of this confirms that men tend to use physical attributes as a way to gauge women’s attractiveness and to find potential mates. It’s not exactly a revelation; Gueguen found in a previous study that female hitchhikers with bigger breasts get picked up more often by male drivers. But now, science gives some credibility to the seemingly illogical (and unhealthy) choice to endure pinched toes and vertiginous heights. “As a man I can see that I prefer to see my wife when she wears high heels and many men in France have the same evaluation,” Gueguen writes in an email response.

MORE: Can High Heels Trigger Migraines?

What exactly is so sexy about high heels? Gueguen blames (or credits) the media for its strong imagery association between stilettos and sexiness. And yes, higher heels can change the way a woman walks, making her hips sway a bit more as she negotiates walking at a more precarious height, but in the study, even women who were seated and wearing heels were approached by more men. And Gueguen’s follow-up studies, in which he showed men photos of women wearing heels or flats, confirmed that there was more to the attraction than a woman’s gait. “The results showed that high heels were associated with greater sexiness, overall physical attractiveness, breast attractiveness, beauty, attractiveness to other men, and willingness for a date,” he writes. Now, whether you want to be approached or left blissfully alone, there’s a shoe height for that.

TIME psychology

How to Have a Great Relationship — 5 New Secrets From Research

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

What is love? (Sit down. This might take a minute.)

I’ve posted a lot about the science around love, including how to tell if your spouse is cheating and why high heels are sexy.

But what about the stuff we need to know to be happy? Platitudes don’t cut it and though the poets are often right they’re frequently vague.

Is there an expert who can give us some real answers about love: how to find it, nurture it and maybe even repair it?

You better believe there is. Arthur Aron is one of the world’s top researchers on romantic love.

He is a professor at Stony Brook University and author of a number of key books on the subject of relationships including:

I gave Arthur a call and learned what makes us attractive, how to have a great first date, and the things that kill and improve relationships.

Let’s get started.

So What The Heck Is Love Anyway?

Love isn’t an emotion, really. When you look at fMRI studies of the brain it shows up more as a desire. A craving.

And that explains why it feels so good. As far as the ol’ gray matter’s concerned love’s right up there with cocaine and cash.

All three activate the same area of the brain — the dopamine reward system.

Here’s Arthur:

When you’re in love with someone romantically, the areas of the brain that are activated when you think about them are what we call the dopamine reward system. The same system that responds to cocaine and expecting to win a lot of money. Love seems to be more of a desire than an emotion.

So, yeah, even neuroscience agrees that love is intense. But can anything that powerful last? Doesn’t it eventually have to fizzle?

Not necessarily. Research shows some couples are very much in love 40-50 years later.

Here’s Arthur:

Another thing we’ve learned both from that research and from surveys is passionate romantic love can exist in people that have been together 40 years, 50 years. We don’t know the percentage. But people who claim to be very intensely in love that have been married and are in their 70s show the same patterns of neural response to a large extent as people who have just fallen in love.

Want your marriage to last more than 30 years? Just “being married” often isn’t enough: you also need to be good friends.

Via 100 Simple Secrets of Great Relationships:

In studies of people happily married more than three decades, the quality of friendship between the partners was the single most frequently cited factor in the relationships’ success. – Bachand and Caron 2001

(For more on how to keep love alive and live happily ever after, click here.)

So what do we need to know to have a good relationship that stands the test of time? Let’s start with attractiveness.

This Is What Makes You Attractive

Looking good matters. Duh. But it’s far from the only thing.

Arthur also found that we’re more attracted to people who are attracted to us. So showing interest gets people interested in you.

And believing the two of you are similar is powerful (whether you’re actually similar, well, is another story…)

Here’s Arthur:

You are much more likely to be attracted to someone who you think will be attracted to you, or who has shown they’re attracted to you. And believing the person is similar turns out to matter a lot. Their actually being similar doesn’t matter so much but believing they’re similar does.

Believe it or not, other research shows even having similar fighting styles is a good thing.

It was related to double digit drops in conflict and a double digit increase in satisfaction.

Via 100 Simple Secrets of Great Relationships:

While people may employ many different conflict resolution strategies in a relationship, when both partners use the same strategy they experience 12 percent less conflict and are 31 percent more likely to report their relationship is satisfying. – Pape 2001

And while we’re on the subject of attraction, how about “playing hard to get?” Does it work?

Nope. Pretending you’re not interested in the other person is a terrible strategy.

However, making it look like you’re picky and have high standards but that you are interested in this person, that works very well.

Here’s Arthur:

Playing “hard to get” does not help. It’s good for a person you meet to think you’re being hard for others to get but not hard for them to get. That’s sort of the ideal partner: one that’s hard for everyone else to get but is interested in you.

(For more on how to flirt — scientifically — click here.)

How many internet dates do you need to go on to end up in a relationship? Online dating data says 3.8. But what should you do on that date?

How To Have A Great First Date

So how did Arthur become so well known as the big researcher on romantic love? He did the classic “bridge study.”

It showed that if we feel something, we associate it with who is around us — even if they’re not the cause.

So if our environment makes us feel excited, we can mistake it for feeling in love. Check out a video of the study here:

So what’s that mean practically? Roller coasters, concerts, anything exciting with energy in the air makes for a great date.

Here’s Arthur:

When in the initial stages of dating, you might want to do something physiologically arousing with the person. The classic is to go on a roller coaster ride or do something like that as long as it’s not too scary.

In fact, research shows you might even be attracted to someone trying to kill you. Researchers simulated a torture scenario and found exactly that.

Via The Heart of Social Psychology: A Backstage View of a Passionate Science:

Those in the high-fear condition did show, for example, significantly more desire to kiss my confederate (one of the key questions) and wrote more romantic and sexual content into their stories. Looking at the details of these results, I found that the situation had generated, quite specifically, romantic attraction.

Other than excitement, what else is good to do? Open up. Not too much, too fast, but start sharing. Superficial conversation is boring.

Here’s Arthur:

Another thing is to try to keep the conversation from being too superficial — but you don’t want to move too quickly. You can scare a person away if you right away tell them the deepest things in your life.

Research shows that talking about STD’s and abortion is better than bland topics. Other studies show that discussing travel is good but movies are bad.

But what you say isn’t everything. It’s also how you react to what they say. Be responsive and engaged.

Here’s Arthur:

There’s some wonderful work by Harry Reis and his colleagues on self-disclosure showing it’s not how much is disclosed but how you respond to the other person’s self-disclosure. You want to be very responsive to hear what they’re saying, to show that you understand it, to show that you value what they’re saying and appreciate it.

In fact, the best self-disclosure can produce a bond almost as strong as a lifetime friendship in less than an hour. Seriously.

Arthur ran this test with two graduate students, trying to produce a romantic connection. What happened? They ended up getting married.

Here’s Arthur:

The very first pair we ran, which were a couple of research assistants in our lab who weren’t involved in this study, they actually did fall in love and got married.

(For the list of self-disclosure questions Arthur used in that study, click here.)

So the date goes well and you’re together. What makes relationships go bad? And how can you dodge that?

The Real Reason Why Relationships Fail

Think you two are badly matched? You’re probably wrong. Arthur says this is a common mistake.

Who you are and what you’re like has a much bigger effect than the match between you two.

If you’re insecure, anxious or depressed you’ll have trouble connecting withanyone.

Here’s Arthur:

Most people think that how well a relationship will work has to do with the match between you whereas that only matters a little bit. Much more important is who you are, and then secondly, who the partner is. If you are insecure, anxious, or depressed, you’ll have a hard time with anyone. Who you are and who the other person is matters much more than the match.

Think you two are going through difficult times but you’ll come out stronger? Probably wrong again.

Difficult times don’t usually strengthen a relationship — more often they destroy it.

Here’s Arthur:

Long-term relationships of any kind have a very hard time when there are great stressors on people. If you live in a war zone, or you have a child die, or someone loses their job, it’s really hard for a marriage to survive. When things aren’t going well and we behave badly or our partner behaves badly it’s common to jump to the conclusion that it’s always been this way and that things will always be this way. When something stressful is happening we need to remember it’s not always like this.

Other research has shown that trying to change the other person is a killer as well. Often, you need to accept your partner for who they are.

69% of a couple’s problems are perpetual. These problems don’t go away yet many couples keep arguing about them year after year.

Via The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:

Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind – but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values. By fighting over these differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and harming their marriage.

(To learn the four things that most often kill relationships, click here.)

Okay, so maybe things aren’t going so hot. Everybody thinks they know how to make it better. What does the research say really works?

4 Things That Really Improve Relationships

Like Arthur said above: it’s not usually the match, it’s usually one of the people in the relationship.

So if you have personal issues like depression, anger or insecurity, get help.Fixing you is the best step toward a better relationship.

Here’s Arthur:

First, look at your own life. Are you anxious, depressed, or insecure? Did you have a really difficult childhood? If so, do something. That would be number one.

Relationships stop being fun because we stop trying to make them fun.

Early on you did cool things together but now it’s just Netflix and pizza on the couch. Every. Single. Night.

What to do? Just like the recommendation for a good first date: It’s about excitement.

Here’s Arthur:

After a while, things are sort of settled and there isn’t much excitement, so what can you do? Do things that are exciting that you associate with your partner. Reinvigorate that excitement and the main way to make them associated with the partner is to do them with your partner.

What’s the third most important thing for keeping love alive? “Capitalization” is vital. (No, I don’t mean using bigger letters.)

Celebrate your partner’s successes. Be their biggest fan.

How a couple celebrates the good times is more important than how they deal with the bad times.

Not acting impressed by your partner’s achievements? Congratulations, you’re killing your relationship.

Here’s Arthur:

Celebrating your partner’s successes turns out to be pretty important. When things go badly and you provide support, it doesn’t make the relationship good, but it keeps it from getting bad. Whereas if things are going okay and your partner has something good happen and you celebrate it sincerely, you’re doing something that can make a relationship even better.

The fourth thing Arthur mentioned was gratitude. And not only does it help relationships, it’s one of the keys to a happy life.

What’s the research say? Can’t be more clear than this:

…the more a person is inclined to gratitude, the less likely he or she is to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, or neurotic.

(To learn the science behind how to be a good kisser, click here.)

So that’s a lot of solid relationship advice. How do we pull all this together and put it to use?

Sum Up

Here’s what Arthur said can help you have a great relationship:

  1. According to your own brain, love is right up there with cocaine and cash. And it can last if you treat it right.
  2. Want to be attractive? Make yourself look good, emphasize similarities, and let the person know you’re picky — but that you do like them.
  3. A great first date is something that creates excitement and energy. Share things about yourself and respond positively when your partner does.
  4. Relationships often fail because of individual issues, not because of a bad match. Resolve difficulties as soon as you can; they don’t strengthen relationships, they cripple them.
  5. Improve your relationship by dealing with your personal issues, doing exciting things together, celebrating your partner’s successes and showing gratitude.

It’s easy to get lazy when things are going well. But a little effort can go a long way — and not just toward a better relationship.

The research shows love has many positive effects like increasing success, longevity, health and happiness.

Here’s Arthur:

The evidence shows that relationship quality plays a huge role in longevity. The findings are that the importance of being in a good relationship versus being alone is a bigger effect than smoking or obesity on how long we live. And the quality of your relationships is also the biggest factor associated with general life happiness.

If you don’t have someone special in your life, here’s how to find them.

And if you do have someone, make an effort today. Celebrate any good news they have and plan something exciting to do this week.

And then show them a little gratitude. Does anything feel better than hearing how much we mean to someone else?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Sex/Relationships

Watch How These People Learned About Sex

Dr. Ruth and others share their stories

In spring 2014, parents in the normally progressive Bay Area city of Fremont started a campaign to get a book removed from the 9th grade curriculum, arguing it was inappropriate for their 13 and 14-year olds. They hired a local lawyer and put together a petition with more than 2500 signatures.

Read TIME’s Special Report on Why Schools Can’t Teach Sex Ed

Their target was Your Health Today, a sex-ed book published by McGraw Hill. It offers the traditional advice and awkward diagrams plus some considerably more modern elements: how to ask partners if they’ve been tested for STDs, a debate on legalizing prostitution. And then there was this: “[One] kind of sex game is bondage and discipline, in which restriction of movement (e.g. using handcuffs or ropes) or sensory deprivation (using blindfolds or masks) is employed for sexual enjoyment. Most sex games are safe and harmless, but partners need to openly discuss and agree beforehand on what they are comfortable doing.”

“I was just astounded,” says Fremont mom Teri Topham. “My daughter is 13. She needs to know how boys feel. I frankly don’t want her debating with other 13-year-olds how well the adult film industry is practicing safe sex.” Another parent, Asfia Ahmed, who has eight and ninth grade boys, adds: “It assumes the audience is already drinking alcohol, already doing drugs, already have multiple sexual partners…Even if they are experimenting at this age, it says atypical sexual behaviors are normal. ”

But school board members contend that 9th grade students have already been exposed to the contents of the book—and much, much more. They argue that even relatively modern sex ed has even not begun to reckon with what kids are now exposed to in person and online.

Read TIME’s special report on sex ed in the age of porn with resources for parents and teens.

 

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