The research of romance
Romantic relationship researcher Matthew Johnson gives his take on marriage and Valentine's Day
By: Peter Boer
| Posted: Wednesday, Feb 13, 2013 06:00 am
Psychologists, marriage counsellors and professional matchmakers start making a lot of media appearances in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day, but when was the last time you heard from a human ecologist?
Matthew Johnson is an assistant professor of human ecology at the University of Alberta. Human ecology looks at individuals in the context of how they function in their environment and what kind of environment is associated with healthy outcomes. Specifically, Johnson studies the field of romantic relationships – how they form, and what behaviours are associated with a positive relationship, looking at marriage and partnerships from psychological, sociological and even physiological perspectives in the hopes of understanding not just how they work, but why they work.
Q: Tell us about your research.
A: “Important part of a person’s environment is obviously relationships. For my research I look at some psychological factors such as mental health. I also look at beliefs and cognitions and how that plays out over time in your relationships. I think the field of intimate relationships research is very multi-disciplinary.”
Q: You recently released the findings of a study on confidence in marriage. What kind of confidence were you looking at?
A: “This study was looking at their confidence in their decision to get married specifically. It was about that transition point in their life, which is significant for a lot of people. It’s interesting because for many people, that decision has got a lot of anxiety associated with it. There are popular notions of having cold feet and wondering, is this the right thing to do? It’s looked at as a major transition point and there’s a lot of anxiety bound up in it.”
Q: And what did you find?
A: “I had data for the first three to four years of marriage on 610 couples and assessed how confident they were at the beginning of their marriage. Two years later I looked at how they were interacting together — how much time they were spending together, if they were going out to dinner or having conversations with each other. I then looked after three to four at just how happy they were. What we found was that those that were more confident when they entered marriage, two years later were spending more time and after four years were happier with each other. I thought that was an interesting story to tell.”
Q: What kind of factors do you think affect that level of confidence?
A: “I think there’s societal factors that shape that part of it. There’s some anxiety around marriage in general, making it work for a lifetime. Young adults today have seen a lot of marriages fail. It’s between half and 40 per cent, depending on where you are regionally. I think that contributes to lower levels of confidence and I think factors in a relationship shape that – how well you communicate and get along. I think that’s diagnostic of what will happen in the future and couples are tuned into that. What shapes it exactly? I think that’s still a question to be answered.”
Q: Of the literature available, what are some common behaviours associated with having a positive outcome in marriage?
A: “There’s thousands of articles that have looked at this very issue and that’s the big mystery we are trying to crack. You start out with a couple with all the promise in the world, that loves each other, that’s dedicated to each other and is entering their marriage thinking this is going to last forever. How do you get from that starting point to a place where 40 per cent are not making it? Research has uncovered a lot of factors associated with better outcomes. A lot of it is what you would expect – being warm towards each other, spending time together, making the relationship a priority, going out and trying new, fun activities together, having a good sex life … all of the things you’d anticipate helping your relationship do (help it). The potential more interesting question is why do people not do these things that intuitively would make for a better relationship?”
Q: And are there any answers to that question?
A: “I don’t know of any studies that have looked at it. I think that, over time, people stop for whatever reason and don’t pick it back up again. It’s difficult, if you haven’t gone on a date for a long time with your partner, to suggest that. It’s not a routine part of the relationship so it’s foreign. I think our relationships oftentimes get neglected and there isn’t a lot of effort to make them better until there’s a major problem. We take our partners for granted, unfortunately, and some of those important things fall by the wayside.”
Q: Valentine’s Day is that one day of the year we are supposed to be romantic with our spouses, save maybe our anniversaries. Does that one day really make a difference in a relationship?
A: “No. I think Valentine’s Day and anniversaries should be an extension of what is already going on in your relationship. I think it’s a good reminder to have these built-in days where you do take stock of how things are going and express appreciation of your partner and I think we do far too little of that and take each other for granted. But there’s a lot of pressure built-up around Valentine’s Day to do something romantic. I don’t think that’s helpful. I think it sets up for hurt feelings if you don’t meet that and a lot of stress on the part of the person trying to plan something.”
Q: So what kinds of things can couples do on Valentine’s Day to help their relationships?
A: “There is a considerable amount of research that says couples, if they engage in novel activities or do something you don’t normally do that’s outside of your routine, that helps give a boost of positivity in your relationship. I think these occasions are a chance to do something different or do an activity you don’t normally do as a couple like trying a new restaurant or a new game. We’re not talking rocket science here.”
Q: So when you say novel, you’re not talking about bungee jumping or taking up demolition derbies.
A: “Oh no, just something different, new and fun. It can be making a new dish you haven’t made before and enjoying that together. Something that’s novel and different can be helpful.”