Beyond chemistry: Answering romantic questions with research rather than folk wisdom

By Wendy Donahue

Chicago Tribune (Mct)

Published: Tuesday, April 10 2012 6:14 p.m. MDT

For years, answers to the questions that turn lovers into loathers have been hard to come by, at least ones that are rooted in research rather than hunches. A new book, "The Science of Relationships" promises some "Answers to Your Questions About Dating, Marriage and Family" (Kendall Hunt) that are drawn from the studies of 15 university researchers nationwide.

"There isn't a lot of science behind couples therapy, but there is science behind how couples act," said co-editor and co-author Benjamin Le, a social psychologist at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. "This is building that bridge between researchers and clinicians."

"So much of what we do is in journals no one reads," said contributing author Jennifer Harman, Colorado State University psychology professor. "We wanted to give the general public access to the research."

The authors determined the questions they would tackle via online polls and submissions from their students. They also set up a website , where they continue the conversation.

Le and Harman chatted by phone recently about common, nagging questions, many of which are included in the book.

Q: Are we drawn to someone like our mother/father?

Le: There's a lot of work about how parents have interacted with their young children as a form of secure attachment as opposed to promoting an anxious or avoidant attachment. The attachment style is ingrained in the child and can be carried on to romantic partners. If the parent was not consistently nurturing or there for the child, the child will have expectations that their partner can't be relied upon. Studies show people will choose dissatisfaction if it's consistent with their expectations, versus things that make them change the way they see the world.

Harman: It may or may not be a healthy dynamic, but it feels comfortable. If people don't have a lot of self-worth because of early parenting, they enter relationships where that person confirms how they already feel about themselves. It makes it hard to improve and grow and change.

Q: What does that say about the advisability of divorce?

Le: There's work on attachment styles and pairings. It's actually quite common to have a couple where one person is avoidant and the other is anxious and very worried and jealous. Those relationships tend not to have a lot of satisfaction, but they're tremendously stable and common. Those relationships lasted just as long as people who were secure and healthy. So it depends on how you measure relationship success. Did they stay together, or are they happy?

Harman: If parents aren't modeling what type of relationship they want their child to see as normal, parents have to make that decision. Note that divorce does differentially impact men and women.

Sometimes, even if a partner wants to leave, they just can't. Financially it will really hurt them, women especially, if they end up carrying the child-care burden.

Many times, even if you're unhappy, being able to support your family is another really important thing.

Q: Wow, that's heavy. Let's move to, what makes someone hot, and others not?

Harman: The research would say that if exposure to something is increased, even subliminally, you'll like it more. Other factors contribute to whether you'd find that person attractive to date, but that's one. So, with online matchmaking sites, at first you might see profiles that aren't attractive, but the more you see them, they may not seem so bad. Some sites capitalize on that, where a member can pay more to have their photos featured daily. That frequent exposure will create greater liking.

Q: Are people less happy after they get married?

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