A white-blue light illuminated the lead pastor as he wrapped up Sunday morning’s first service. Here in the Bible Belt, alter calls tend to be delivered with emotional appeals for repentance and the hope of forgiveness and new life. But this one was different. The pastor wasn’t emphatic or providing a story of some person whose life was now in a better place because of their faith.
Rather, this alter call was delivered by a man of the cloth who had experienced what he described as a “pretty rough week.” His illustration included a reflection of visits with two couples who were in “a bad place.” The pastor wondered out loud why it was so difficult for his church members to be more open with each other. His voice cracked while reaching an emotional thesis: “One of them said, ‘It’s just not okay to not be okay.’”
There it was. A complex issue I have been studying for 17 years—the topic of relationship help seeking, and in this particular context, as it related to “relationship standard bearing.” On top of that, the quote he was sharing was wrapped tightly in a double negative—the type of phrase tending toward a higher level of confusion on the parts of both the listeners and the speakers.
The confusing double negative makes sense, however, within the context of what we have learned over the years about help seeking. For example, most marital experts will agree that during the 1970s, premarital education was still somewhat of a taboo subject, with only 20-40% of the population being open to the experience, and with most receiving their sessions in a faith-based setting. Flash-forward to the 21st century, however, and those who would “recommend premarital counseling to a friend” hovers in the 90-95% range. But that number drops to 80% when respondents were asked if they “would consider attending premarital counseling” themselves. The same trend is true for marital help seeking: it’s easier to suggest getting help to our friends than it is to consider getting help for ourselves. Why? Because it seems that when it comes to “ourselves,” seeking help is more complicated.
While there are many elements to the “it’s complicated” discussion, one help-seeking research dimension topic continuously trending for almost 20 years as important is "relationship standard bearing." In a recent study, my colleagues and I examined this variable specifically and tried to tease out some of the answers among the complexities encased in this dyadic phenomenon. We conducted a secondary data analysis on national help-seeking survey data my research team at Oklahoma State University had collected in 2008-2009.
The original study specifically targeted populations that had higher levels of diversity in terms of education and income, and higher levels of mixed black, white, and Hispanic populations (N=1112). Respondents were asked attitudinal and behavioral questions about marriage and relationship help-seeking either by educational venues (classes, books, etc.) or by more private paths (therapy, clergy, etc.) The age of our respondents was 18 to 35 years old, and they resided in 10 urban regions across the U.S. (cities with 1 million or more residents).
Relationship Standard Bearing
What we know to be true for contemporary couples across the U.S. is that interpersonal romantic relationships are heavily influenced by societal norms and beliefs. These beliefs can place a great deal of stress on a relationship’s capacity for self-efficacy and behavioral or emotional health. Perhaps “complicated” isn’t the right word for this discussion. I would argue that some couples, and even some researchers, would say that the norms and beliefs reflected by society as opposed to those experienced in real life are downright conflicted. Interpersonal relationships are complex, multidimensional, and transactional in nature. These interactions are not just limited to face-to-face encounters, but also occur through digital or telecommunications (i.e., social media).
Our secondary analysis findings showed that people are wrestling with what they believe they should hold out as their relationship to others and the public (read: bearing a certain standard) in comparison to what they are experiencing as their own relationship reality. This phenomenon seems to be more pronounced with some segments of the population over others. For example, both Hispanic and African American young men have the tendency to feel “pressure to make their relationship look good to others” more strongly than do white men (our reference group variable). And persons with professional degrees responded that they feel the pressure of relationship standard bearing stronger than persons in other education level segments. Finally, persons making the second highest income level ($35,000-$55,000) tended toward greater relationship standard bearing. So although there was a trend showing “the more education, the more pressure,” that same directional trend wasn’t there when it came to income. This is most likely because economic scales and purchasing power changes have such a high variability nationwide (to read the full study in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, go here).
What we know about persons with social anxieties—who experience increased levels of anxiety in social situations such as peer groups —is they tend toward self-enhancing behaviors. These behaviors lessen or disappear around more comfortable populations such as families of origin or with people they have known for longer periods of time. But we live in a fairly mobile society, flooded with images of what relationships “should be.” These other worlds, whether they be virtual or real life, can exacerbate a person or couple’s tendency to be relationship standard bearers. Couples who have newer relationships could also become natural standard bearers because they don’t have a history of wins and losses. This history provides couples with a lens to see long-term that a “real” relationship is bound to experience challenges from time to time.
What This Means for the Average Couple
As church came to a close, I looked around at the packed auditorium. So many young couples, many who had just moved to the area. So many were nodding when the pastor made his final remarks. “So many possible standard-bearers,” I thought to myself.
What I wanted to tell these young men and women is that if you feel pressure to make your relationship look good, and it affects your feelings about seeking help when you and your partner are struggling, please know this is normal. Know that within reach of your immediate reference group, there are most likely others feeling the same way. But most of all, please know that these pressures are mostly from the voices in our heads telling us there is too much to lose if we ask for help—and those voices are dead wrong. The “pressure to make your relationship look good to others” is too much pressure for anyone to bear. If you need help, here’s a good place to start looking: Find a Therapist.
Kelly M. Roberts, Ph.D., LMFT is a therapist, supervisor, consultant, researcher, and anthropologist. She currently advises the Department of Family Services and the Division of Integrated Services at the Chickasaw Nation in Ada, Oklahoma.
Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.