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Researching Romance

Posted on February 4, 2014.

Dating and romance advice are easy to find in pop culture and the media, and chances are more of it will appear as the Valentine’s Day holiday gets closer. But how much of it can people really believe? Dr. Sadie Leder Elder, assistant professor of psychology and associate director of the HPU Poll, has conducted and published respected research on the topic, and encourages her students and readers to trust evidence-based findings on topics like partner selection, online dating and the psychology of love.

How did you begin researching relationships?

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.

Is there a particular topic that your research is focused on?

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.

You have undergraduate students working on similar research. What projects are they working on?

One of my previous research assistants, Ashlee Branch, has extended my partner selection research to look at why people may leave a current and stable partner for someone else. As she puts it, what causes people to “trade-up.”

In her study, she gave people different relationship scenarios and asked if they would recommend a person stay with their partner, or date someone else. She found men were more likely to recommend looking for someone with more desirable qualities, while women were more likely to recommend staying in the relationship. This suggests women put more value on commitment and stability than men. However, the study did not look at what people would actually do if they were the one in the relationship, which could change their answers.

She received first place at the Big SURS Conference last year for her research, and will be presenting at the national Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference this spring.

You’ve been able to further your research through the HPU Poll. What have you found there?

Last year, the HPU Poll examined North Carolina residents’ feelings toward Valentine’s Day. We found that 61 percent of respondents viewed Valentine’s Day as moderately to extremely rewarding. However, 58 percent felt the day had no influence on the closeness they felt for their partner. We also asked about what types of gifts people give. In 2013, chocolate and candy (33 percent), flowers (33 percent) and cards (26 percent) topped the list.

This year, we’re focusing on weddings and if that event can predict anything about the rest of a marriage.

Ultimately, what are the pros and cons of the Valentine’s Day holiday?

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 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.

How do you, as an expert, combat the pop cultural outlets such as magazines that spread relationship advice without research to back it up?

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. I was very proud to receive the “Best of 2013” Editor’s Choice Award for my article, “Cups or No Cups, Anna Kendrick was Right, You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone.”

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