Beyond Chemistry: The Science of Relationships

For years it has been difficult to find answers to the questions that make lovers lovers, at least those that are research rather than premonition. A new book, “The Science of Relationships,” promises some “answers to your questions about dating, marriage, and family” (Kendall Hunt), drawn from the studies of 15 university researchers across the country.

“There’s not much science behind couples therapy, but there’s science behind couples’ behavior,” said associate editor and co-author Benjamin Le, a social psychologist at Haverford College, Pennsylvania. “This is the bridge between researchers and clinicians.”

“So much of what we do is in magazines no one reads,” said contributing author Jennifer Harman, professor of psychology at Colorado State University. “We wanted to give the public access to research.”

The authors determined the questions they would answer in online surveys and submissions from their students. They have also set up a website,, to continue the conversation on.

Le and Harman had a recent phone conversation about frequently asked questions, many of which are in the book.

Do we attract someone like our mother / father?

Le: There’s a lot of work going on on how parents interacted with their young children as a form of secure attachment rather than encouraging fearful or avoidant attachment. The attachment style is ingrained in the child and can be passed on to romantic partners. If the parent has not consistently cared for or is there for the child, the child will have expectations that their partner cannot rely on. Studies show that people choose dissatisfaction when it meets their expectations as opposed to things that cause them to change the way they see the world.

Harman: It may or may not be a healthy dynamic, but it feels nice. When people don’t have a lot of self-esteem because of early parenting, they enter into relationships where that person validates how they are already feeling. It makes it difficult to improve, grow, and change.

What does this say about the usefulness of a divorce?

Le: We are working on investment styles and pairings. It’s actually quite common to have a couple where one person is avoiding and the other is fearful and very worried and jealous. These relationships are usually not very satisfactory, but they are tremendously stable and frequent. These relationships lasted as long as people who were safe and healthy. So it comes down to how you measure relationship success. Did they stay together or are they happy?

Harman: Unless parents are modeling what type of relationship their child should view as normal, parents have to make that decision. Note that divorce affects men and women differently.

Sometimes, even if a partner wants to leave, they just can’t. Financially, it will really hurt them, especially women, to take on the burden of childcare.

Even when you are unhappy, being able to support your family is often very important.

Wow, that’s hard. Let’s go to what makes someone hot and others not?

Harman: Research would say that if your exposure to something is increased, even subliminally, you’d like it more. Other factors will contribute to whether you find this person attractive yet, but this is one. With online matchmaking sites, you may initially see profiles that are not attractive, but the more you see them, the less bad they appear. Some websites benefit when a member can pay more to show their photos on a daily basis. This frequent exposure will generate greater sympathy.

Are people less happy after marriage?

Harman: Unfortunately, when you look at satisfaction levels, it falls, especially when kids come along. But as soon as kids go to college, things pick up again. In some longitudinal work it is not quite on the same level. But life happens. When it’s first time together, especially when you are younger, the demands of life are very different. What metric do you use to measure satisfaction? In the long run, people might find different things satisfying.

Le: During the honeymoon phase, you learn a lot about someone who is new. It can promote satisfaction and is good for your own self-image. Dissatisfaction occurs because you know this person and there is no novelty. Relationships get boring. New activities can save couples from decline. These things need to be stimulating both physically and intellectually. If you enjoy watching movies, that’s not enough because it’s passive. But if you enjoy hiking, these types of activities that are more physical tend to increase satisfaction.

Should we be monogamous?

Le: That’s a loaded question. What is best and what we are hardwired to are two separate things. In ancestral times, non-monogamists had more offspring. This is a very different question than what non-monogamy does to a relationship. It is important to note that the environments in which adjustments were made are different from the environment in which we are now. Our ancestral environment is adaptable to salty and fatty foods. We carry that with us. We love cheeseburgers and fries. It is currently not adaptable in our environment. And monogamy now does not bring all the advantages it once had economically.

Harman: It’s so culturally valuable to have relationships and families. If you adapt to it, it is adaptable because you adapt to the social norm and not stigmatize. But many people explore relationships outside of the hetero-monogamous norm. Promoting marriage with a life partner forever when you have a divorce rate over 50 percent makes people wonder how adaptable that is.

Can fighting be good or is it a bad sign?

Harman: Conflict is inevitable. There is some work on the four ways couples deal with this. One of them is the voice that allows you to discuss it openly and that is constructive. Loyalty is another one where you wait and see if it gets better. It’s positive that you’re not playing, but it’s very passive. More destructive is a passive-aggressive style … where you ignore the partner and say things unrelated to the problem. The last is the exit where you leave the room, slam the door and threaten to leave. Every time you start using negativity, many other positive actions are required to reverse it.

Le: Couples who think about the future step back and think about discussing this in a way that makes us both happy. Throwing something may make me feel good now, but in the long run it’s bad. Some papers deal with the ways in which people can suppress the impulse to whip. It’s about things in the environment that reduce the ability to control yourself, such as: E.g. the exhaustion of the ego where the energy after a long day of work where you can’t whip and now your partner is doing something and that muscle of self control is weakened. It can even lead to domestic violence.

Is day care good or bad for children?

Le: In research, as long as mothers could do what they wanted, children benefited. If she wanted to work and put children in daycare, that’s good. If she wants to stay at home but has to work outside, day care is bad.

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