Healthy Relationships 1.23: Delayed Gratification

Delayed Gratification

Yesterday we talked about the importance of knowing and loving yourself, if you want a satisfying romantic life. You also need to allow plenty of time for relational development to occur naturally, as relationships go through predictable stages over time (see post titled, “Why Men and Women Fight, Part 8…”). While this development unfolds (or unravels), wisdom cautions delaying gratification.

Marshmallow Experiment

In 1970, Walter Mischel and Ebbe B. Ebbesen designed a study to understand when the control of deferred gratification–the ability to wait to obtain something that one wants–develops in children. The original experiment took place at the Bing Nursery School located at Stanford University, using children age four to six as subjects.

The children were led into a room, empty of distractions, where a treat of their choice (Oreo cookie, marshmallow, or pretzel stick) was placed on a table, by a chair. The children could eat the marshmallow, the researchers said, but if they waited for fifteen minutes without giving in to the temptation, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow.

Mischel recorded the strategies the children used to distract themselves as they resisted immediate gratification. Some covered their eyes with their hands or turned around so that they couldn’t see the goodies; others started kicking the desk, tugging on their pigtails, or stroking the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal; others simply ate the marshmallow as soon as the researchers left.

In over 600 children who took part in the experiment, a minority ate the marshmallow immediately. Of those who attempted to delay, one third deferred gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow.

In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI) and other life measures. However, recent work calls into question whether self-control alone determines children’s behavior. Strategic reasoning and a child’s age may be another key factor.

Statistics can be manipulated to make a pre-determined point, so it’s possible that a causal relationship between delayed gratification and life success is negligible, but it does seem to have both the intuitive ring of truth and practical veracity, too.

Delayed Gratification and Romance

When it comes to romantic relationships, delayed gratification is a critical factor in their success. Those of us who wrestle with anxiety simply have to learn that it takes time to develop a relationship naturally, and the outcome is simply not possible to see until a process is worked through to its end.

In the beginning of new romantic relationships, it’s natural to have to fight the feeling of needing to know what is going to happen, but fight it we must. We feel like we needed to know right now, because we don’t want to let the heart get engaged only to find out that the relationship isn’t going to work.

During this time of heightened hormones and heightened anxiety, one can intentionally cultivate the principle that while you’re waiting for one thing to happen, things occur that you couldn’t have anticipated would happen, and that sweeten the advent of the thing you’re waiting for. Have you observed that in other areas of your life?

A Personal Example

This process occurred several times in the nine years it took me to find Brad, a compatible match. I knew how important certain qualities were for me to have in a mate, and I was able to determine fairly quickly if the most important qualities were present. If they were not, I simply didn’t allow new acquaintances to develop any further than friendship, and I learned, and accepted, that those friendships wouldn’t last past six months when the other realized I was serious about not being interested in developing a romantic relationship.

So in the nine years I was single, I made and lost several friendships with men. The few that did develop beyond friendship were painful to end when it became clear that there were fundamental flaws in compatibility. Because I was so clear about who I am and what a compatible match would include for me, I sensed that when I found it, it would develop quickly. In the meantime, I needed to delay gratification.

When I met Brad, it happened just as I had imagined. Here was a man who had allowed life to teach him many of the lessons that I had learned, with the result of building character and solidity. Still, I didn’t kiss him on our first date. It was a policy of mine that we now laugh about. At the time, however, Brad was surprised; no one had ever refused him that simple assurance before. I figured, however, that if the connection was good, we’d see each other again, and if not, I hadn’t wasted my lips on a frog.

I assured him that my delay wasn’t for lack of interest but for commitment to two marshmallows. That was the beginning of a respectful foundation that we continued to develop over the next months and years.

Three Years to Bake Cake!

I allow three years for a solid relationship to develop through the early states of growth, as it takes at least that much time for a paradigm shift to take root. It simply takes this much time to learn who the other really is; this much time to allow your relationship to be tested and tried; this much time to see how you and your partner respond to conflict, repair painful interactions, and resolve issues; this much time to see how the dance you create together feels to you; this much time to see how the system between you operates and fluctuates. Certainly, it’s possible to recognize much earlier than that if a relationship is only icing and no cake, but if you have and want cake, it simply takes time to bake.

During this time, couples can be aware of observing each others’ character as life brings problems to resolve, individually and together. How the other views the world, makes decisions, reacts in conflict are all important considerations when determining compatibility, and it just takes time to see these unfold (or unravel).

It was hard for me to believe that any man could be as committed as I to a careful relational development process, to delaying gratification for the purpose of a better future, but I found that Brad was interested in building a solid foundation for a solid future, as well. He was a rare find, indeed, and I’m glad I was willing to let other romantic relationships go, painful as break-ups are, when it became clear that they would only bring pain in the end. Better to weather some pain now than to guarantee it for the rest of my life.

Yes, you have to accept that doing romance intentionally will be painful, because the heart can’t help but become engaged before you really know whether the dance you create together is one that you both want to dance over and over again through the years. And engaging in the relationship with your whole heart, knowing you could get hurt, is the only way to find this out, in the end. You have to risk if you want reward. Just calculate the risk with your whole heart, too, and you can strike a balance between reckless abandon and conscious awareness.


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