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  • Writer's pictureGiulia Zoppolat

Relationship Science Roundup – Spring 2022

It is that time of year once again: allergy season. As much as I love rejoicing upon the sunny(er) and warm(er) weather (I still live in the Netherlands, after all), this season is also always tainted by the holy trifecta of tissues, allergy medications, and neti pot. Anyway, with (more than just) a little bit of envy for those who get to enjoy the picnics in the parc, rides along the canals, and walks in the meadows without sneezing up a storm, here is the next instalment of The Roundup, the latest in the science of relationships, Spring 2022 edition.

1) How many dealbreakers are too many dealbreakers for a relationship? One? Two? More? According to a new study by researchers at Western University, in Canada, the answer is 4, on average. In an interesting study design, kind of like ‘choose your own adventure’, but for dating, participants read a story about a potential dating partner and got to decide what to do as they went along. The story had 17 juncture points and, at each one, participants could decide if they wanted to continue getting to know that person or cut it off. At each juncture, participants read either a positive piece of information about this person or a potential dealbreaker (i.e. information about this person such as whether they were funny or lacked a sense of humor, were kind and thoughtful or had anger issues, had similar or different ideas on whether or not they wanted to have children). It took participants 4 dealbreakers on average to decide to call it quits. This study adds to the interesting body of literature that shows that people aren’t always all that choosy in relationships, and that it takes more than one dealbreaker to seal the fate of a budding relationship, even when we ourselves say that something is a dealbreaker for us. As one of the researchers in the study points out, “People often say they would never date someone with different political beliefs but when you’re presented with a whole person and that’s just one facet of their personality, things aren’t as black-and-white. You may choose to stick it out anyway, unless you also notice other issues.”

Write ups about the paper in the popular press are here:

2) Is spending time with others always beneficial? It is well established by now that social relationships are fundamental for well-being. People with strong social bonds are happier, better able to manage life stressors, and tend to live longer. But spending time with others doesn’t always make us feel better, and, while chronic time alone is generally bad, spending time alone can also have great benefits. A new paper finds that one of the factors that plays into whether social time or alone time is beneficial is whether people choose to be in that situation, and whether the situation is meaningful to them. Spending time with others can actually be detrimental when there is absence of a sense of control, and when the interactions are not meaningful. Because experiences tend to be intensified when with others (for better or for worse), a sense of agency in these situations is important in determining whether or not that social time will be beneficial, or not.

Research article can be read in full here:

3) Why do traits like personality matter in initial attraction but do very little to predict long term relationship success? This is a puzzle in the science of attraction: ‘who we are’ as people (e.g. our personality, our interests...) matters a great deal at initial stages of relationships but, as a relationship develops, it seems to matter much less over time. Instead, what becomes more important are the relationship specific characteristics that emerge over time: how the pair manages conflict, how partners interpret the other’s behavior, the inside jokes, the toxic dynamics… what is known as the couple’s ‘microculture’. According to the newly developed Mate Evaluation Theory (MET) of relationships, as the relationship develops, it is less important who your partner is, for good or for bad; instead, the dynamic between the two has a stronger effect on how people feel about their relationship.

Link to the full theoretical article here (for the true relationship science aficionados, as this is a doozy of an article!):

Alternatively, twitter thread by one of the authors:

4) How do friendships change in our 20s? In a fascinating new longitudinal study, researchers collected data from Canadian participants starting when they were 19, and then again at age 20, 21, 22, 25, and 30. At each time point, participants were asked to write down the name of their closest friend and then rate the degree to which they experienced intimacy (e.g. “How often do you share secrets and private feelings with this person?”), companionship (e.g. “How often do you play around and have fun with this person?”), alliance (e.g. “How sure are you that this relationship will last no matter what?”), and conflict (e.g. “How often do you and this person argue with this person?”). How did their relationships change over time? First interesting fact was that participants changed their closest friend three times on average over the course of the study. Second, all four features generally decreased over time. As can be seen in the figure below, people reported less intimacy, companionship and alliance in their late twenties, but also reported less conflict. Interesting gender differences emerged: at each time point, women reported greater intimacy, companionship and alliance with their friend compared to men, with men’s low levels of intimacy remaining stable throughout the time period. Men also reported more conflict compared to women overall (although, it is worth noting, conflict was generally low for all participants).

Image source DOI: 10.1177/02654075221097993.

While these findings perhaps may seem to paint a bit of a grim picture of close friendships over time, it is important to note that companionship and especially alliance remained fairly high, especially for women, throughout the course of people’s twenties.

5) You’ve heard of the five stages of grief, but have you heard of the four stages of healing from infidelity and break-up? While these experiences can be very painful, people also can experience healing and growth. The four stages are: the initial aftermath, characterized by intense emotions, a sense of ambiguity about the relationship (“should I stay or should I go?”), learning to heal, where people learn to cope with their emotions, make space for their own healing (including taking space from the partner or ex partner), and focus on themselves (pursue own interest, meet own needs), evolving healing, characterized by a deeper processing of one’s emotions, therapy, getting support from others and strengthening other relationships, and making meaning of the event (e.g. asking, “what is the lesson here?”), and deepening healing, where people move on emotionally (e.g. getting past anger after having processed it), and forgiving and trusting the self.

Image source DOI: 10.1177/02654075211067441

The biggest setback to healing? Unhelpful contact with their ex, especially early on in the process. And to answer a long standing question: does time actually heal? The passing of time does not in and of itself lead to healing, but it is what people do with that time that matters, as they move through the stages and engage in healing processes. So while infidelity and break-up can feel awful, it is not all terrible, and can actually be a powerful and positively transformative experience; as the researchers put it, “nearly all participants reported that healing from the infidelity had resulted in positive growth for them and made them a better partner.” One participant explained, “I don’t think I would go back and change anything just because going through all of that and experiencing all of that—as horrible as it was—improved a lot of my relationships with myself and other people.”

Full research paper can be found here:

6) This one is not about relationships, but I just couldn’t resist, it was too interesting. What is the link between having a sense of meaning/purpose in life and happiness? It seems like this might depend on how rich you are. In a study with more than 500000 people across 123 countries, researchers looked at the relationship between meaning and happiness for those with greater or lower financial resources. As expected, they found a strong correlation between meaning and happiness, but this correlation got weaker as income levels increased.

Why? The researchers suggest that “this effect is attributable to more affluent individuals having greater access to other external sources of happiness, which allows them to rely less on the internally constructed sense of meaning to enjoy greater happiness.”

Also, because lower income is associated with greater levels of depression and anxiety, focusing on meaning may be a way to cope with mental health challenges for those in lower financial brackets.

Image source DOI: 10.1037/emo0001090

That’s it for this instalment! Curious for more? Check out the previous Relationship Science Roundup.

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