Columbia counselor, professor tackles the science of relationships
By Barbara Pash
Feb 11, 2015 at 6:15 AM
Beth Gallihue doesn't call herself a love expert. That's not the way the Columbia therapist and university professor would describe herself. But she does specialize in couples counseling and she does teach a course on the subject.
Gallihue is in the middle of the minimester she's been teaching every February for the last four years at Towson University in Baltimore. As an adjunct professor, she teaches basic psychology courses the rest of the academic year. The minimester course is different, a special-topic, upper-level elective titled The Psychology of Love and Intimacy.
Gallihue devised the course herself.
"It's a current topic and of general interest to a college population," she said. "I wanted something that would be meaningful to students."
The course is based on an academic field, called social psychology, that examines the impact of psychological, cultural and social influences on our understanding of intimate relations. While the field itself isn't new, it is ever-evolving with the times.
Course content came from academic research in the field and Gallihue's own experiences in her private practice as a licensed clinical social worker.
Gallihue, 53, grew up in Lutherville, a Baltimore County suburb north of Towson. She has been married for 14 years to Joel Gallihue, a Howard County school planner, and has two adult children from her first marriage. The family lives in Columbia.
As a licensed-clinical social worker with a master's degree in social work from Catholic University, Gallihue does individual and couples counseling in her private practice. She got into couples counseling partly to understand her own history, she said
In her practice, Gallihue has found that "people are searching for an authentic partnership, someone you can be real with, who 'gets' you."
But what often happens, she said, is that what first attracted you to a person starts to get on your nerves.
For example, you may be attracted to a person who is relaxed and easy-going, and then see that behavior as indecisive or wishy-washy. For another, you may be attracted to a person who is decisive and "has it together," and then see that behavior as bossy or controlling.
This is the point in many relationships where couples seek therapy to help them understand this dynamic, according to Gallihue. "Why has the perception changed?" she asked.
"That's what we work on in therapy — to recognize our own issues, to recognize the value the other person brings to the relationship," she said.
Figuring it out
When one of her students did a survey as part of her course work, she found that as the number of social media interactions increases, the amount of relationship satisfaction decreases.
Gallihue isn't in the business of bashing social media. Facebook, she points out, is only about 10 years old, Twitter and Instagram even younger.
"Twenty-somethings can't envision a world without them. It's an integral part of their relations, of how they communicate," she said, although it may interfere with the road to romance.
Two decades ago, Arthur Aron, a psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, published a ground-breaking research study he and his team called a practical method to create closeness.
The study paired two volunteers, male and female, who asked each other a series of increasingly more intense questions about themselves, their likes and dislikes.
The goal was self-disclosure and relationship-building, and the study accomplished that in spades. After 36 questions that usually took 45 minutes, the volunteers reported a feeling of immediate closeness with each other.
In her course, she conducts a number of exercises that focus on openness in relationships. One is a survey of attachment styles, how our attachment to our primary caregiver, usually the mother, carries over to our adult relationships.
Another is an exercise similar to Aron's, and with the same result.
"It's not even a gender issue. I find a similar pattern for both men and women," she said.
"When we disclose about ourselves and someone else listens to our story, it creates almost immediate closeness, even if it's a classroom exercise," Gallihue said. "Now, imagine the power this would produce if it was someone you were attracted to."
Gallihue has heard plenty of tales from the dating front from students and counseling clients. There's the one of going out to dinner with a date who spends the time talking to someone else on his or her phone.
Another is going to a party where everyone is so busy taking pictures of themselves at the party that no one is interacting at the event itself.
She has had people take out their phones and scroll through long text conversations, then ask her what it means. She can't begin to know.
Studies show that the actual words, the text message itself, accounts for only seven percent of communication. The rest is facial expression, body language and verbal vocalization.
"Are you saying 'no'!" she shouted, "or an ambivalent 'no,' " she whispered.
"People are dissatisfied with their communication but they don't know how to change it," she said. "I tell them, 'Put the phone away.' It goes back to Aron's study. You have to talk to each other face to face. Getting to know someone takes time."
Keys to success
Gallihue has five rules for a successful relationship:
• In order to get close to someone, you have to trust them. Trust is taking a risk. It's being vulnerable in order to receive the benefit of a relationship.
• Follow the five-to-one ratio of kindness to complaints. Say five wonderful things to your partner for every time you say, 'I wish you would have … .
• Savor the moment. Be in the present; make time for each other in person.
• Let your partner influence you. They can help you become a better person. It gets to the issue of trust.
• Be hopeful, have a positive attitude and be willing to be vulnerable. They're all aspects of the same rule.