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Researching Romance: Psychology Professor Studies Relationships
Dating advice, how to find the right partner and how to deal with rejection. There’s plenty of information on the topic of romantic relationships floating around, especially during Valentine’s Day. But how much of that information is credible? As someone who has conducted and published respected research on the topic, Dr. Sadie Leder, assistant professor of psychology and associate director of the HPU Poll, often battles that question. She approaches the subject head on with her students and teaches them that there are evidenced-based findings regarding mate selection, online dating and the psychology of love. It’s a topic that most find fascinating, but also one that can positively impact the way we think about love and romance.
Q. How did you begin researching relationships?
A. When I started as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I had no idea that people could make a career out of studying romantic relationships. It was the fortuitous enrollment in a class on the psychological study of Close Relationships that changed my life. I enjoyed and embraced the material so much, that I began working with that professor on research. Seeing the science that went into understanding a topic as fascinating as romance sparked a passion in me that continues to burn. I received a Ph.D. in social/personality psychology from the University at Buffalo with a research focus on the study of romantic relationships. Now, I am delighted to be able to share this field with my students and research assistants.
Q. Is there a particular topic that your research is focused on?
A. My research has focused on the conflict people experience between the goal to seek closeness and the goal to self-protect against rejection. My work builds from the idea that people have a fundamental need for connection. To satisfy this need, people must ultimately risk rejection. For instance, creating and maintaining satisfying relationships requires people to take a leap of faith or disclose private feelings. In a perfect world, partners would always respond with acceptance and love. Unfortunately, people sometimes find that making themselves vulnerable can lead to hurt, embarrassment or rejection. I examine how people negotiate their competing drives for connection and protection when navigating romantic life.
One of my areas of research examines these drives in the context of partner selection and relationship initiation, including who is likely to approach vs. avoid a potential romantic partner and under what conditions people may place priority on one goal over the other.
Q. You’ve been able to further your research through the HPU Poll. What have you found there?
A. Last year, the HPU Poll examined North Carolina residents’ feelings toward Valentine’s Day. We found that most participants reported believing in “true love” (91%) and a majority viewed the gift-giving aspect of the holiday as positive (60%). It appears that the general sentiment of the people we polled is that Valentine’s Day is a time to celebrate their affection and show their appreciation for loved ones. The majority of those polled still feel that presents are an important and beneficial part of the holiday, even though many people in North Carolina have seen rough economic times.
This year, we will be examining the types of Valentine’s Day gifts that people typically give, as well as investigating whether single N.C. residents believe that the holiday motivates them to celebrate their independence vs. seek out romantic partners. We will also look at how the use of online dating websites may be influenced by the holiday.
Q. How do you, as an expert, combat the pop cultural outlets such as magazines that spread relationship advice without research to back it up?
A. Because people are so captivated by the topic of romantic relationships, you often see it being discussed in a number of less than credible venues. To combat this, I arm my students with a combination of critical thinking skills and skepticism. I encourage them to be critical of information on all topics, but particularly when it comes to something as personally relevant as their romantic relationships.
Unfortunately, the bulk of knowledge on relationship research is housed in journal articles and textbooks that many people may never have the opportunity to see. I am proud to be working with an outstanding group of researchers to make these scholarly findings more accessible to the public through the Science of Relationships website. This online forum brings to light actual relationship research in the form of interesting and relatable articles. Many of the writers draw from pop culture or current events to help readers understand the work that is being conducted in the field of close relationships. Some of my recent articles utilize songs, like Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” or television shows, like The Big Bang Theory and Seinfeld, to help explain relationship phenomena like breakups, partner selection, and attraction.
Q. Ultimately, what are the pros and cons of the Valentine’s Day holiday?
A. Valentine’s Day is a great time of year because it reminds us to take a break from our busy lives to be thankful for those that we love. One of life’s greatest pursuits is finding a romantic partner, and it is a shame that once we find them we often take them for granted. I encourage you to take the time to let your special someone know how much they mean to you. If you are not currently in a romantic relationship, take the time to focus on your other close relations.
I will add that Valentine’s Day can sometimes be a double-edged sword. It reminds us to celebrate our romantic partners, but at the same time can cause stress. In a recent study of college relationships, it was found that the weeks before and after Valentine’s Day showed a higher rate of breakups than any other time of year. These researchers investigated further to find that this was particularly the case for struggling relationships. Often, the holiday can exacerbate issues that already exist. Thankfully, for those in healthy, satisfying relationships Valentine’s Day does not predict breakup.