Bjarne Holmes is a Doctor of Philosophy and a program director for psychology at Champlain College. He has taught in three different countries and educational systems over the last 15 years.
A relationship scientist, he writes a blog for Psychology Today called “Love by the Numbers.” He also founded and produces the award-winning podcast series Relationship Matters, now being recorded at Champlain College.
The professor is in The Gambia for a university programme with the UTG, and Standard Associate Alagie Manneh used the opportunity to meet him. They talked about Valentine’s Day, psychology, and relationships.
What is psychology?
There is nothing as a human being that you are going to do that doesn’t involve other human beings. If you can understand psychology as a businessman, your business is going to improve 25%. Psychology helps you much better understand who you are yourself, why you think the way you do at the moment, why you feel the way you do at the moment and who other people are and why they think and feel that way, individuals, groups, and even society. Psychology is about also understanding the skills to persuade people. Psychology is something that simply is a tool to help people do better at whatever it is they choose to create of themselves. Whether it’s journalism, whether it’s politicians, whether it’s humanitarians, whether it’s people working in development, whether it’s medical doctors, whatever. With a psychology degree or programme, these people or businesses are going to be more efficient at what they do. Psychology has been for more than 15 years now the number one studied major across the United States.
Every year lovers all over the world celebrate what they called Valentine’s Day, but what exactly is Valentine’s Day?
Historically it comes from the Roman times. It was a celebration previous to that was the coming of the spring. You would execute animals… it was a fertility rite. You would execute some of the animals, you would run around and you would hit women with the animals and the women who you would hit, would be more likely to have children. So they had this ancient sort of fertility rite. When Christianity came in that part of the Rome, eventually it was competing with it. Two people that were murdered, who both acutally… in separate years happened to be named Valentine. It became Saint Valentines. It has an ancient history. When I say I am too romantic for Valentine’s Day, I am not saying that Valentine’s Day isn’t special, I am just saying that it doesn’t make any sense to focus on love one day, you should be focusing on love every day.
Many said there are seven types of relationships, what are they?
I wouldn’t exactly said that. However, they are infatuation or passion; liking or intimacy; empty love; fatuous love which includes commitment and passion; romantic love; companionate love; and consummate love.
Why do we need romantic relationships in our lives?
The best romantic relationships are actually the ones that start with friendship, ironically. It’s actually not the ones that start in the way that we often would feel that Valentine’s Day tells us which is like we believe there is a soul mate out there which of course makes no sense if you think about it. How can there be seven billion people in the world and it just so happens that the person you meet is your soul mate. It’s impossible. You don’t ever need a soul mate. It doesn’t make any sense. We have this belief that love is magic, it’s not. Love is hard work. A kind of hard work that’s rewarding.
The majority of a relationship is spent trying to live your life with another person, why is that not always easy?
I think as young people, we have some myths that we carry. One of the things we can do is to get rid of that myth. We know from science what it is that leads to happiness and relationships overtime. It is really, your ability to know how to have disagreements. Here is the problem; people get into relationship, they find a romantic partner, they fall in love. That kind of feeling can carry you for maybe one or two years. During that one or two years, is a critical period. Critical period when you need to learn how to fight well, how to have disagreements well, in such a way that everybody can resolve and feel good because that initial like romantic like ‘woo’ feeling, is always going to go down, is always going to change, which is okay. Is like a good stew, you put the ingredients in but with time it’s going to mature. Love matures, too.
You are a relationship scientist, what can Gambians do to improve their relationship with their respective partners?
I think a lot of people stay together but they are not happy. What you are going to need to stay together and be happy, are skills. Skills on how to negotiate, skills on how to communicate, skills on how to resolve disagreements and, that’s not something that love itself that you have in the beginning, is going to carry you on. It’s not going to carry you in the long term. Unfortunately, what happens with those relationships, is that they become less and less happy overtime. Love is not going to carry you.
How do you know your partner better?
It’s something that I find is kind of hard in Gambian society. It’s tricky because Gambia is such a communal society. Sometimes it’s not your partner, it’s your partner’s family sometimes. Everybody is involved and as a couple it becomes hard to do things. Brothers, uncles and everybody getting involved. It’s kind of everybody’s business. Nevertheless, people need to talk. People need to talk often. In the beginning of the relationship, we talk to each other all the time, we’re very curious about understanding who another person is. What happens is you keep communicating, you ask a lot of questions. So it’s true you actually know a lot about your partner. What happens with time is you assume you know everything about your partner. So you stopped talking. Here is the problem that people make; you might have found somebody you feel is your soulmate but then what people do is they get married and then they go on with their lives. They start having careers, people get focused on taking care of the children, family obligations, all these things. And they somehow assume that just because you found the person that matches with you well, and that you fell in love with, that’s it, magic. The truth is, that’s a really destructive way of thinking. It is as if you said I have fallen in love with journalism as a career. I am going to work really hard to get a job in journalism. But the second you finally made it to where you wanted to be, you said ‘I can now relax, I don’t have to do anymore work.’ That is a destructive mistake. The truth is marriage is just the first step. My advice is; sit down with your partner and ask open questions. Go out for a romantic dinner, maybe, why not?
What are the three most important things in a relationship?
The most important thing is understanding how to negotiate conflict. We have something we called the four horsemen of relationships, destructive things of relationships and they are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. When you look at happy couples, what they are able to do, the ones that survive overtime, is that they treat their relationship with a lot of care, they treat it as if it’s really your best friend.
What is a deep relationship?
If you want a higher level of intimacy, you have to do something that is very tough in Gambian society, you have to learn, even though is brutally hard, with your partner, to actually not keep any secrets at all. The only way to have a deep relationship is to learn to be brutally honest with each other about everything. Who are you to decide what’s going to hurt your partner and what’s not going to hurt her? The only way to be emotionally close is to learn to be brutally honest about everything, put everything on the table.
In The Gambia, many people rush to use the ‘L’ word, how soon should you say ‘I love you’ in a relationship?
I don’t think there is any timeframe that’s right or wrong. The type of love you experience in the beginning, is the equivalent of taking off the vegetables and throwing them into the stew. Just understand that the love you feel in the beginning, is a very immature type of love. Is okay to use it in the beginning, I don’t think there’s any too early too late. But just understand it’s a different thing later, and you shouldn’t stop using those words later. People do. They stop appreciating each other. It’s very easy with time, to start focusing on what the partner does not have -‘hey you are not doing this.’ We become very focused on what the person is lacking.
How can you show love without saying it?
I actually think that words are cheap. What I mean is the words ‘I love you’ mean really nothing in comparison to the things you do for a person. In Gambian society there is a lot of inequality among men and women. It’s very hard to get men to do cooking. Women who go to work end up coming home doing a lot of cleaning. I think it has to do with the little things you do for the person. It’s doing little things. Even though any fool can buy you a cake, one way to show your love is taking care of the person when he/she is sick. It’s the little things we do every day that matter. Maybe they have a headache, you come and touch their head for a little bit. It’s those little gestures that continue to demonstrate that you care for them.
How will you know if a person loves you?
I wouldn’t pay so much attention to their words.
How do you know if you are in love?
Most good relationships that are going to last start with friendship. In the beginning, if you just have this intense feeling, only, where your heart is beating really fast, you wanna be around the person all the time, what tends to happen is that you become blind. And you are very biased. What happens most of the time, as time goes on, this intense love that you have that is often related to Valentine’s Day, is going to change. There is no human being that can ever sustain it. It’s almost a psychiatric state you are in. What’s going to happen, is that’s going to change. And when you change, suddenly you are going to start seeing things you don’t like about that person. That’s when this initial intense love fails. If you have instead developed a relationship with somebody who you know, you already know their faults. You have already accepted a lot of their faults. Then when you start a relationship with them as it gradually grow into love, you already understand who they are.
What are the signs that you are in love?
Like I said, in the beginning, in that type of relationship where you just meet somebody, you are thinking about them all the time, you want to be around them all the time, you become almost speechless around them, you become shy, don’t know how to talk, your heart is raising really fast… those are indications of these type of initial infatuated love. The problem is, it often does not go beyond three or four months and then once you realise, once that comes down, because it will always come down, then you start seeing the person’s good and bad sides.
How does sex affect relationships?
It affects it a lot. It’s different for different people. Some people have a very high level of need for sex and sexuality, other people don’t. Some people are even asexual, so they are not very interested in sex. It does affect our relationships. It’s important you try to discover with people, where they are, who they are and how they match with you. Even that’s going to change with time. That’s a bit of an issue in a conservative society like The Gambia because you know, you are not supposed to have sex unless you get married. The problem with that, of course, you don’t know whether you are sexually compatible. That’s an issue for some people.
Why do people get tired of their sex life?
Because what happens is you have about two years during which there’s a lot of intensity with sex. What it does is it helps you form an emotional connection, bond, where you feel like you don’t want to live without this person. That same time, the intensity of the sexual desire tends to decrease…
What can couples do to make their sex life better?
Achieving pleasure is hard. Is up to every person to understand what is it that creates satisfaction and how can we create that? I think talk, I think be very honest. Don’t pretend. Don’t fake orgasm. Take responsibility to tell your partner what you like, and what you don’t like.
How do you handle fights in a relationship?
…Being able to recognise that there is a right time to bring a problem up. And that you should approach the problem from neutrality, not ‘you are like this or that.’
Happy Valentine’s Day