07:57pm Tuesday 21 January 2020

Love, Romance and Relationship Studies

 By Robin Lally

Love Photo

Understanding romance and attraction isn’t easy. But finding that perfect match makes it worth it.
‘It is important to be authentic with each other and be clear about how you see yourself and your partner in the relationship’  – Diana Sanchez

With Valentine’s Day just days away, love, romance and the yearning for a satisfying relationship often becomes more magnified than at other times during the year.

If you are in a committed relationship, it’s not unusual to wonder if it will last. If you can’t seem to make that perfect connection, you may ask yourself what you’re doing wrong.  And if you are the type of person to go from one romantic hook up to the next, finding a partner who will rescue you from what you may think is a road to nowhere may seem impossible.

To help us decipher some of the science behind romance, lust and love, we thought Valentine’s Day would be a good time to ask three Rutgers researchers to help us understand which relationships seem to work, why others don’t and how to look at your partner in a realistic light.

The three – Diana Sanchez, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences in New Brunswick, Charlotte Markey, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University-Camden and Harold Siegel, chair of the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University-Newark, have been studying love and relationships for decades and agree that being true to yourself may make the journey less rocky and much more satisfying.


Diana Sanchez

Diana Sanchez

Diana Sanchez: For a Healthy Relationship Be Honest About Who You Are

If you are the alpha type who thrives on always having the final say in the relationship, you might want to look for someone who is your polar opposite.

It’s not that having an alpha personality – strong, assertive and confident – is bad. But two alphas hooking up who see themselves as the most powerful of the pair could be on a collision course to disaster.

“In general two people identified as alphas in a relationship usually end up less satisfied with their relationships,” says Sanchez who researches traditional gender roles. “Most people hope that this can be managed. But it often becomes a battle for power that ends up more costly for couples in this situation.”

In a Rutgers study, Danielle Young, a postdoctoral researcher at Rutgers, and Sanchez recruited 179 couples who had been in a relationship for at least three months. Using a questionnaire and a social psychology test which measures the strength of automatic associations people have in their minds, Sanchez analyzed how couples viewed their relationship health, themselves and their partners.  Did they agree on their roles? Were they more assertive? Were they warm and caring?

The healthiest relationships – comprised of trust, dependability and satisfaction — occurred when these couples, mostly in their 20s, were honest with themselves and their partners about who they are and what they expect. Traditional gender roles didn’t seem to matter.  As long as individuals understood themselves and their partners and were in agreement of the other’s assessment, it didn’t matter who took on which role. Meanwhile, those who described themselves as warm and caring and whose partners viewed their selves as warm and caring were among the most satisfied in the study.

Sanchez says being authentic with your partner will create an atmosphere where you will be able to communicate what you want out of the relationship. Instead of being the one to always make the decisions, maybe these assertive individuals could learn how to negotiate and take turns making decisions.

“I think it is important to be authentic with each other and be clear about how you see yourself and your partner in the relationship,” says Sanchez.  “How you are and how you think you are in a relationship should be the same.”– Robin Lally


Charlotte Markey
Charlotte Markey

Charlotte Markey: With Same-Sex Couples, Equality Matters

Lesbian women who find their partners too controlling and gay men whose significant others have personality traits that swing too far to one extreme might want to reconsider sticking around for the long-term, according to recent research by Markey, director of the Healthy Development Lab at Rutgers University-Camden.

The study – which Markey co-authored with Patrick Markey (Villanova University), Christopher Nave and Kristin August (both at Rutgers-Camden) – surveyed 72 gay couples and 72 lesbian couples to explore how partners’ compatibility affected the quality of their relationships. Although the study focused on same-sex couples, the findings can be broadly applied, says Markey who notes she found similar results in a previous study of interpersonal traits in heterosexual couples.

“We found that women with partners who are domineering overwhelmingly report low satisfaction in their relationships,” she says. “Women value equality and don’t want to be bossed around. This finding suggests that over time assertiveness doesn’t wear very well with women.”

For men, the study found that any extremes in their partners’ personalities – whether they were overly passive or domineering, for example – led to discord in the relationship.

In both men and women, individuals who were distrustful and ambivalent to the happiness of others tended to report low levels of relationship quality.

These findings may suggest associations between relationship satisfaction and how individuals interacted socially. “For example, it may be that if you’re more interpersonally awkward, you exhibit negative qualities that cause others to not like you as much, which means you have less positive relationships,” Markey says. “This may become a cycle: Socially awkward people have bad relationships, which devolve into worse relationships.”

So, what should you do if you think you’re at risk of finding yourself in bad relationship after bad relationship?  Markey suggests that you spend some time working on yourself before jumping into the next relationship. Working with a therapist may have long-term benefits for both you and your future significant other.

Also, be cognizant of your partner’s traits and don’t dismiss them as behaviors that can be changed. “If your partner is domineering now, they likely will be that way 10 years from now,” Markey says. – Patti Verbanas


Harold Siegel
Harold Siegel

Harold Siegel: What a Valentine’s Gift May Say About the Person Who Gives It

If you don’t like the Valentine’s gift you receive this year, don’t think it’s you.  It may have been something that went wrong during the gift-giver’s childhood.

Harold Siegel, chair of the department of psychology at Rutgers University-Newark, has done extensive work on how family relationships during childhood can affect adult behavior, including the types of presents that people give. 

He puts gift-givers into three categories – ambivalent, avoidant and secure – and says the relationship they had with family years ago can determine whether they spend hours looking for the perfect present or give little thought to what they think is an annoying obligation.

People whom Siegel calls ambivalent are the best gift-givers because they have issues with abandonment and rejection and giving is a way to cement relationships they’re afraid of losing. “They were never certain that mom or dad would be there for them,” Siegel says. “They would be here on Tuesday, but on Wednesday you’re not sure.”

Then there are those children who got a lot of attention – unfortunately it was more negative than positive.  These children raised in avoidant family settings believe in themselves and their own self-sufficiency. Relationships don’t mean as much to them as adults.

“If they have to give a gift, it’s an obligation,” Siegel says.  “Maybe they buy a gift certificate, where they don’t have to think too hard about it.”

Finally, there are those Siegel categorizes as secure where everything went pretty much right.  They don’t feel like they need to prove anything so don’t expect them to spend lavishly or take a great deal of time looking for that special gift, Siegel says.

“You already know I care about you,” Siegel says these individuals are thinking. “I’ve demonstrated this to you all year long, not just of February 14.”

Still, when it comes to getting a gift this Valentine’s Day, don’t assume your loved one can be boxed into a category, Siegel says.

“Unless you know the field of psychology very well, I think it can be dangerous,” he says. “But knowing about these categories is a good way to avoid becoming upset because you’ll realize it may not be about you.”  – Rob Forman

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