UT professor offers insight on predicting lasting relationships

Henry Clayton Wickham

UT Department of Human Development and Family Sciences professor Timothy Loving stumbled into his passion for relationship research as an undergraduate here at UT . During his sophomore year, his introduction to family relationships professor asked him to be a research assistant in a relationship study that required male research assistants — he was one of the only guys in the class. In the study, Loving interviewed other men about their relationships.

“That’s was it. I was hooked and have been doing that kind of thing ever since,” Loving said.

Since then, Loving has studied how well friends can predict the success of relationships, as well as the health implications of a being in a happy or not-so-happy relationship. He is also the co-founder of ScienceOfRelationships.com, a website that offers expert advice to people with relationship questions and publishes articles about relationships for non-experts.

Daily Texan: How have you gone about looking at how well friends predict the success of romantic relationships?
Timothy Loving:
The general idea is this: You can ask somebody how their relationship is going to get and, to some degree, people are good at forecasting what is going to happen. But there’s not a whole lot of variation. If you take a sample of college students who are dating and ask them how committed they are on a scale from one to 10, the average is going to be somewhere around eight-and-a-half to nine. Everything’s peaches and cream for folks.

When I was at Purdue [for my doctorate], we asked people who weren’t in the relationship themselves, folks who aren’t walking around with rose-colored glasses on. We asked couple’s friends to complete a survey asking how committed he is on a scale from one to 10 and how committed she is. We got a feel for what they thought was likely to happen in the relationship overtime and ended up finding out that if we looked at friends’ reports, that helped us to refine our prediction about what was going to happen.

What was really crazy about it is once we knew what the female partner’s female friends thought was going on in the relationship, we didn’t have to ask anybody else. Their reports were more accurate at predicting what was going to happen than the people in the relationships themselves.

DT: How important are a person’s friends’ perceptions of their partner to the success of their relationship?
Critically important. The easiest way of thinking about is this: Nobody likes to be isolated. If we’re involved in something that we care a lot about, then we like to share it with other people. If our friends and family aren’t so keen on who we’re with, that’s going to create turmoil or imbalance.

However, there is some really fun new stuff coming out suggesting that, in the beginning, if some of our friends or, particularly, our family say, “No, I don’t like that person,” that might drive us to them. They call this the Romeo and Juliet Effect. But, eventually, when we’re in the day-to-day of it, it’s nice to have the support of the people around us.

DT: How have you studied the psychophysiology of relationships?
When I started, I worked at Ohio State studying how marriage affects health. We brought people in and gave them standardized wounds on their arms. Then they had a discussion, and we looked at how those discussions affected how their wounds healed over time. We found that for individuals who were in more negative relationships, their wounds healed at 60 percent the rate of individuals who were in more happy, well-functioning relationships.

DT: What are some misconceptions you think people have about how relationships work or what makes a good relationship?
A common thing individuals think is that if a relationship is meant to work, they will never have arguments. That’s impossible. If you watch some afternoon show, Rachael Ray or something like that, they’ll have this couple on it that says they’ve never had an argument. It’s impossible for people to coordinate their day-to-day lives and activities and not, on occasion, have conflicting ideas about what needs to happen. That’s natural.

It’s not about having the disagreement, it’s about how we have a disagreement. Not everybody has to always be a perfect communicator. Most people aren’t. But if, most of the time, we’re making an effort to be a good communicator, then that’s going to be good enough.

Another one is this distinction we sometimes make with folks when we break up with them: “I love you, but I’m not in love you.” We think we have to always have this strong, intense passion with somebody for the relationship to matter, for it to be real. The truth is that we’re hardwired not to maintain passion. It’s really hard for us to stay into somebody that much, and it takes a fair amount of work. I think a lot of folks might let some really good water flow under the bridge because of their misconceptions about what’s natural about the way relationships work.