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Russell Collins: Can a UFO Save Your Marriage?

How threatening times can bring us together

“‘Mankind.’ That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. ... We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive!” — U.S. President Thomas Whitmore declaring a worldwide military alliance against the alien space invaders in the movie Independence Day

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

In the summer of 1954, in Robber’s Cave, Okla., a group of boys calling themselves the “Eagles” raided the camp of the rival “Rattlers,” stealing knives and other possessions from the group. Fleeing back to their own camp, the Eagles gathered rocks to defend themselves when the Rattlers came seeking revenge.

The upshot of this encounter was that no one got seriously injured, and a groundbreaking study in social psychology was produced that promised to change the world. Or at least change the way that couples, tribes and nations would resolve conflicts in the future, by uniting toward a common purpose or against a common foe.

The study, which came to be called the Robber’s Cave Experiment, proved out the researchers’ theory that groups in conflict could be reconciled by introducing a certain kind of challenge, which they described as “a desire, challenge, predicament or peril that both parties in the conflict need to get resolved, and that neither party can resolve alone.”

Here’s how the experiment worked: The groups had been dropped off in separate areas of Robber’s Cave State Park, once a famous hideout for outlaws such as Jesse James and the Younger Brothers. For about a week they remained unaware of each other, until the researchers staged some overlapping activities, causing them to stumble upon each other like lost civilizations in space. Almost immediately, hostilities broke out.

Spiraling quickly up to the threshold of real violence, the ugly relations persisted even as the staff introduced opportunities for the groups to join each other at meals, watch movies and play baseball together. That’s when the researchers stepped in to set up a set of survival-related challenges: Restore the drinking water (the researchers had cut it off), obtain food (rescue a supply truck that had mysteriously gotten stuck) and procure entertainment (recover a movie that had failed to arrive; OK, that one may not be survival-related). Engaged in these challenges, the Rattlers and Eagles quickly merged into a group of campers on a mission.

A New Way of Looking at Being Human

The Robber’s Cave Experiment became an instant classic, inspiring a whole generation of “social identity” research about what it is that causes people to identify — often almost arbitrarily — one group as the friendly in-group, or “us,” and another group as the inimical out-group, or “them.”

In the years since Robber’s Cave, its lessons have been used extensively by academics to flesh out our understanding of the causes of conflict and racial stereotyping; by advertisers to penetrate the mysteries of brand loyalties (I’m a PC person and won’t buy an Apple product, for instance, but don’t ask me why; better yet, ask me!); and by organizational psychologists to understand the motivational power of groups in organizations. While it didn’t transform international relations or put an end to war, Robber’s Cave was the beginning of a new understanding of people and groups.

In recent years, social identity researchers have discovered how naturally and quickly we align ourselves with groups. Any group is better than no group, it seems; we are biologically wired for togetherness and belonging. The answer to the question “why them?” when it comes to group affiliation is often “because they were there.” Dodgers fans, Romanians, teenagers, Prada wearers, Democrats and Republicans, Christians and Jews: Like earthlings and aliens, our fierce loyalty to these groups is usually not so much a choice as the result of an accident of location or birth.

Just how arbitrary is this? Researchers are always pushing the boundaries here, and always coming up with the same result: very. The Eagles and Rattlers of Robber’s Cave were a bunch of middle-class, Protestant 11-year-old boys who didn’t know each other, had similar backgrounds and looked a lot alike. Except that they were randomly assigned to the different groups upon arrival and within days were preparing to bloody each other’s noses.

In another recent experiment, school kids as young as 3 years old were assigned randomly to groups on the basis of color — not skin color or even favorite color, but the color of their T-shirts — and quickly developed group loyalties, biases and favoritism.

As we grow up, it turns out, group affiliation and loyalties can have a dark side. With age, we become more rigid and stereotyped in our thinking about out-group members. People sometimes do bad things under the spell of group think — Nazi Germany being the obvious example. But adhering to group norms can also be a positive, civilizing force — not going 80 in a school zone, for instance.

But back to couples. Could a UFO attack help them, too?

As President Whitman proposed in the movie, an end to all earthly conflict will easily be achieved when the aliens attack. More mundanely, we got a happy call at our divorce mediation practice the other day from a couple — former clients — who had decided to reconcile after divorce.

Here’s what they described: The house was underwater; the only working spouse was just laid off; and their son, who is diabetic, needs medical care, which they will have to find money for if they can’t replace their insurance coverage when the policy from her employer runs out. “And with the economy,” the husband added, “it’s just going to get worse.” Here is the happy part: “I was thinking — we both were thinking — do we want to do this alone? Do we want to start over without each other?” This couple’s conflict had not been severe; they had just grown apart. Now they were feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed by circumstances, and something was changing in their relationship.

This phone call — and other similar conversations — had us asking ourselves, is there something about the current political and economic chaos that has people re-evaluating their relationships, looking at each other with new eyes? Or, more generally, can an external threat bring couples back together and — like a space invasion — sooth our wanderlust, dissatisfaction, intolerance, impatience and boredom, replacing them with a new appreciation of the safe harbor of our marriage?

Looking for Answers

Others have asked this question before. Paul Nakonezny and his colleagues from the University of North Texas and the University of Oklahoma tried to extract the answer from the divorce records surrounding the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Searching the records by county, they discovered that divorces dropped off significantly in the years after the disaster, with the most precipitous drop-off in the year directly following. More tellingly, the drop-off rippled out from Oklahoma City itself, so that the steepest declines were seen in areas closest to the bombing, the effect weakening as it radiated out away from the bombsite. Like the Rattlers and Eagles from Robber’s Cave, these couples may well have been unified against a common peril or challenge, choosing the support and structure of the relationship over divorce.

At a bluff-top wedding overlooking the ocean many years ago, I had an epiphany about love and marriage. Toward the end of the ceremony, the rabbi wrapped an oversized prayer shawl around the shoulders of the couple. Watching the pair against sunset, a single silhouette against the vastness of the ocean and sky, I had a sudden flash — almost hallucinatory — of the wedding party as a tiny band of ancient nomads facing the struggles and uncertainties of life in a windswept, hostile and dangerous desert world. For a dreamlike moment, the shawled couple seemed to be linking their arms — and their lives — preparing for a battle against insurmountable forces of nature and time, together and inseparable — until death.

My little moment was cut short as the wedding wrapped up and the group headed off to the reception in their Range Rovers and BMWs, but what stuck with me was the image of a couple united, not so much in love, but in their determination to survive and thrive against the odds.

I had a good feeling about their future together.

— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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