What is the upstream approach towards improvement of quality in a relationship?
I’m interested in finding out if there are ways for us to help people build better relationships from the very beginning, or choose partners who are a better fit for them.
Much of relationship science focuses on helping people in long-term relationships – such as marriages – improve those existing relationships. We’ve made a lot of strides in this regard, but unfortunately, not all relationships can (or should) be saved. Some people are simply in the wrong relationship. My primary line of research focuses on how people choose romantic partners and enter into relationships. I’m interested in finding out if there are ways for us to help people build better relationships from the very beginning, or choose partners who are a better fit for them.
One of your many studies relates to settling for less out of fear of being single. How common is this and would you elaborate on settling for less?
Many single individuals are highly motivated to find a romantic partner, and are worried about winding up without a partner. That’s not surprising – there are a lot of very real benefits to being in a long-term romantic relationship. Some are intrinsic, like emotional intimacy and support. Others are extrinsic, like being perceived as more successful (our society rewards couplehood!). My colleague Stephanie Spielmann has pioneered a line of research on fear of singlehood, and essentially found that the more fearful people are of staying single long-term, the less selective they are in who they choose to date.
Do you think a fair percentage of men ‘cheat’ out of compulsion but want to remain with their partners? Similarly, do women ‘cheat’ or look for another man and leave after they find one because they are dissatisfied in their relationship?
Both men and women cheat on their long-term partners for a wide variety of reasons, which can include a loss of self-control in the face of temptation, frustration or unmet needs in their current relationships, wanting to feel desired, or other motivations.
In your opinion were humans born for monogamous relationships or is it more natural to be nonmonogamous?
As a species, we seem to crave sexual novelty and infidelity is more common than we’d like to think.
This is a difficult question to answer, as there is considerable evidence for both. On the one hand, humans are clearly primed to form long-term romantic bonds. Marriage is nearly universal across human cultures, and plenty of people live out their whole lives being intimate with no one other than their spouse. On the other hand, humans do not appear to be as good at monogamy as some other pair-bonding species. As a species, we seem to crave sexual novelty and infidelity is more common than we’d like to think.
What happens to those relationships with the primary partner where one or both engage in consensual non monogamy?
In the study that my colleagues and I ran, we recruited people who were thinking about engaging in CNM and tracked them over time as they opened up their relationships. We found that not much changed. People were similarly happy with their relationships before versus after opening up.
Tell us about your self motivation and those who inspired you towards the profession and specialty you chose?
Ultimately, I care about well-being. I want to help people live good, happy, fulfilling lives. And I believe that for people in long-term romantic relationships, the quality of their relationship is often central to their wellbeing. A good relationship can help you grow, heal, and achieve your dreams. A bad relationship can pull you down and make you feel trapped. Relationship quality also impacts broader societal outcomes – happy marriages can help people achieve financial mobility and stability, and create a better life for their kids. So I believe that by understanding how people wind up in the relationships they wind up in– and how we can help people improve their relational trajectories– we may have the power to do a lot of good.
Our readers are mainly the youth from different parts of the world who look up to achievers, and especially young achievers such as yourself for inspiration. A word of advice for them?
It’s not enough to have a dream. You have to also have a plan.
It’s not enough to have a dream. You have to also have a plan. Once you have a sense of what you want to achieve, my biggest advice is to research research research. Get all the concrete information you can get your hands on about how your chosen field really works. What does the career trajectory look like- how exactly do people get from where you currently are to where you want to be? What kinds of skills and qualifications do people in your field look for? Once you know where you want to go, build yourself a roadmap for how you’re gonna get there. Then, follow the steps, one day at a time.
Title photo: Shutterstock / Photos: From personal archive of Samantha Joel