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For one person, it was a dazzling smile belonging to a mountain climber. For another it was friendly words exchanged over a meal delivery.
All are examples of how we build relationships, according to sociologist Teresa M. Cooney and all show how the form of the relationship can be shaped by that very first interaction.
“It takes work to maintain relationships whether they are fleeting or not, so the questions we ask are things like, `Why is it some of these relationships can last versus those who do not?’” Cooney said. “What attracts us to people? What draws us to others?”
Cooney led a discussion Feb. 8 among a handful of residents Feb. 8 at the Anything Wright Farms library, part of the library’s Community Voices program.
Cooney’s event, “How Did We Meet,” paired discussion about the science of those first meeting written anecdotes by the people attending.
“We examine relationships over time. How relationships travel with us,” Cooney said. “Notice how parents, siblings, and other relatives we have in our lives develop the most enduring relationships versus those relationships we experience through a role, such as in the workplace or at school when you meet someone in the 1st grade.”
Cooney is a social gerontologist at CU Denver specializing in intergenerational family relationships and transitions within aging families. Her research has addressed how changing family demographics influence the later years of life, especially in terms of family relationships and support systems.
Much of her work is based on analysis of large-scale studies but she has collected primary data from young adults in divorcing families. Most recently, she collected interviews from women providing end-of-life care to their ex-husbands.
Maintaining a relationship is work, she said, but it seems to take less work for some.
“The questions we ask are things like, `Why is it some of these relationships can last versus those who do not? What attracts us to people? What draws us to others?” she said.
Maria Mayo, leader of adult learning programming at the library, asked each participant to share how they met someone in their life using the handmade `love’ cards at each table.
Stories ranged from owners meeting their pets for the first time to how a couple met overseas in Japan, to the friendships created by chance encounters.
As more stories unfolded during the evening, the mystery of how people meet became an intriguing reveal.
We’re not always ourselves, at first, she said.
“We often engage in impression management at the beginning,” Cooney said. “We’re motivated by certain goals, so our motivations in initial encounters become heavily focused, but over time that goes away. For example, when you see couples who have been together a long time, and they no longer try to impress each other.”
Opposites attract, similarities endure
From a sociologist’s perspective, research shows that similarities between people tend to work out, she said.
“When we are drawn to opposites, they might be fun for a while, but they are difficult to maintain over time,” Cooney said.
The people around us tend to help that all along, she said. She pointed to Romeo and Juliet as examples
“It’s actually hard to branch out,” she said. “In fact, sociologist expose the social forces that constrain our relationships. Society reacts like social rules when people pair up with people they don’t expect to be paired; there are oftentimes hidden norms and rules imposed on relationships.”
The stories we tell about how we met also evolve over time. Widows don’t tend to talk about the bad in their relationships after the spouse dies, for example. Instead, they idealize the relationship even though it wasn’t that way when they were alive, she said.
“People read meaning into first beginnings and how it happened; these `social forces’ influence how their stories are made,” she said. “For instance, today, when couples meet through an app, there’s a social control around admitting they found each other on an app. Couples will say they met at a bar, even though they really got there from an app.”
For more information on upcoming library programs, please visit https://www.anythinklibraries.org/events and be sure to select the Anythink Wright Farms location.
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