By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Richard Mattson will lead the virtual discussion about the Greater Binghamton Jewish Film Fest film “Our Almost Completely True Love Story” on Sunday, February 4, at 6 pm. For more information about the film and how to register, click here.
What research topic in clinical psychology would hold his interest for an entire career? That was the question Richard Mattson, associate professor and director of the undergraduate program in psychology at Binghamton University, asked himself when he applied to graduate programs in his early 20s. “There were more than a few contenders,” Mattson said in an e-mail interview, “But the field of relationship research appeared so broad and varied that I felt confident that, therein, I would never run out of room to grow intellectually. That prediction has thus far held up.”
Mattson still finds the field fascinating, but has also come to realize how vitally important intimate relationships are to human development. “Humans are social creatures and intimate partnerships can offer some of the most important relationships we will have in life,” he noted. “Moreover, the outcome of these relationships has major impacts on physical and mental health, and good relationship functioning is tied strongly to general well-being. Conversely, distressed intimate relationships can carry dire consequences for individuals and families, with some partnerships being a vector for psychological, physical and sexual abuse. Understanding the processes that lead initially happy unions in these very different directions can have very real implications for people’s lives. Though I’m glad that I still find this research entirely fascinating, it wasn’t until I had already chosen the path that I more fully understood how important it is to contribute scientifically to understanding such an integral aspect of the human condition.”
The film Mattson will discuss features a romance between two middle-aged adults who come from very different backgrounds. He noted that age and different backgrounds can affect how two people function in a relationship, although the result is not necessarily easy to predict. “Age will certainly impact the nature of an intimate relationship because different life stages generally entail unique motivations and priorities,” he said. “Someone in search of a summer fling, for instance, is likelier young, and holds different criteria and expectations for their partner than would a middle-aged divorcee in the marriage market. However, I ultimately think it is less about age and more about the situations that come with age, which in turn shapes one’s needs and expectations within an intimate partnership. Two people of the same age may have very different priorities, whereas two different-aged individuals may be on the same page with respect to romantic goals. People also differ in their romantic histories, which tend to accrue with age and affect subsequent relationships, but some younger folks may have more and varied relationship experiences than older counterparts. Considered overall, age probably matters in general, but results may vary from case to case.”
Mattson also noted that “the notion that opposites attract has a lot of romantic appeal, but the scientific consensus is that extant differences underwrite specific disagreements, and conflict surrounding those disagreements can be corrosive to the relationship over time. However, it is important to highlight that not all differences are equally relevant. Alternative opinions on the choice for takeout is not in the same league as differing views on what religion to raise the kids. Differences in the margins can actually be functional, as they can be complementary. But couples are in trouble if they are not simpatico on the big-ticket items.”
While Mattson doesn’t have a formula for finding true love, he does have suggestions for important things to look for in a relationship. “I’ve learned a good deal about intimate relationships along the way, not just as a a researcher, but also as a clinician and as a person who has been in them,” he said. “Based on these experiences, the following three generalities come to mind: (a) Choose your partner(s) wisely, for a long-lasting and loving relationship can be a shield against life’s troubles, or be the source of them. (b) Conflicts brewing from the outset of a relationship cast a long shadow. It is therefore important early on to discriminate between the things you can and cannot live with. (c) How partners communicate in times of stress is a good litmus test for how they’re doing over all. Love is easier on calm seas, but rough waters lay bare the underlying problems in the relationship.”