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Finding the New Normal

Don’t all couples want to know how their happiness stacks up against everyone else’s? In Jim Witte’s [1] new book, The Normal Bar (written with Chrisanna Northrup and Pepper Schwartz), they can find out that and a whole lot more. Using social science as a basis, Witte, director of Mason’s Center for Social Science Research [2], and his co-authors conducted the most extensive survey of romantic relationships ever, discovering some surprises along the way.

Jim Witte [3]

Jim Witte

What is the “normal bar” exactly?

We use the term the “normal bar” to characterize the range of attitudes and behaviors expressed and reported by different types of individuals. The term is meant to be descriptive and not prescriptive, and we recognize that the bar may shift over the course of a relationship and varies with different types of relationships. The idea is to provide individuals and couples a reference point against which they can compare their own relationships. We leave it to our readers to judge how their own normal compares with that of others. We do, however, try to identify which normal is most closely correlated with happiness. If readers feel their relationship does not measure up, they can gain insight through the book’s simple advice and tips for changing their relationships in ways reported by those who say they are happiest in their relationships.

A sticker on the front of the book proclaims that this is the “most extensive survey of romantic relationships ever!” Can you talk about how you collected all that data and what the major challenges were?

The survey is the most extensive based on the number of respondents, as well as the number of questions. Other surveys may have had more respondents or more questions, but it is the combination of nearly 100,000 respondents and more than 1,300 questions that sets the Normal Bar apart from other studies. Not every respondent answered every question; rather, respondents completed a short core survey and then they could choose sets of questions from one or more of 15 follow-up topics. Interest in a topic is a good predictor of survey response so we were able to get a large number of individuals to complete questions in each of the follow-up areas. To secure respondents, we worked with a team of media partners (AARP, AOL, Huffington Post, and Readers Digest), who promoted the survey online and in print. In return, we provided them results from particular survey questions as content for their websites. By using this range of partner organizations, we were able to collect data from a diverse sample.

What was the most surprising thing you found from the survey results?

One surprise was the importance that men attached to romance, not sex, but romance. For example, just over one-quarter (28 percent) of women reported falling in love with their partner at first sight, while nearly half of men (48 percent) said it was love at first sight. Also, men along with women wished they had better communication with their partners.

Who are the target readers for this book, and what do you hope they get out of it?

The target audience comprises individuals in romantic relationships who are looking for insights into how others, particularly those who characterize their relationships as “happy,” “very happy,” or “extremely happy,” are living their relationships. The book is certainly targeted more to women than to men and specifically to women who are between the ages of 30 and 60 and to women who are likely to have some education beyond high school. We certainly know that men and other women are among the readers from feedback and comments we have received. But we also know that women of a certain age and educational background who are interested in the quality of their romantic relationships are more likely to buy the book. On the other hand, these women were also those who were more likely to complete our survey. In this way, our approach is similar to that of an election poll. Election polls focus on likely voters, and the Normal Bar data comes from likely readers.

For all our readers, we hope they will be able to compare the current thoughts and behavior of themselves and their partners to the thoughts and behaviors of happy couples. After doing this, if a reader wants to change what’s normal in his or her relationships, we hope the advice and tips offered in The Normal Bar will provide the tools to do so.