Romantic Relationship Aggression - It Looks Different Than You May Think

When many people think of relationship aggression they stereotypically think of men hitting women, like the much publicized videotape of ex-NFL player Ray Rice knocking out his then fiancée, Janay, in an elevator in 2014. Observable forms of aggression such as this have helped shape our society's view of relationship aggression as being limited to physical violence primarily performed by men against women.

Since the majority of research on conflict and aggression in relationships has focused on the overt and observable forms of aggression, we know very little about the less visible forms of relationship conflict.1 Although boys are typically more physically aggressive than girls, what researchers have been discovering is that girls perform more non-physical forms of relationship aggression, like spreading negative rumors about their partner or excluding them from social circles.

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Dating: One Key Determinant of Who Ends Up Together

When people logon to a dating site, whether it is UK.Cupid.com or Match.com, what determines who ends up with who? Although there are a myriad of factors that lead individuals to form romantic attachments, a longstanding theory in relationship science makes a simple prediction. Specifically, the matching hypothesis predicts that people will pair up with a partner who has the same social mate value.1 Your social mate value includes all of the factors that go into making you more or less desirable to date such as your physical attractiveness, your personality, etc. Essentially, according to the matching hypothesis, if you’re in London dating and are a “7” out of 10 in terms of mate value you’ll end up with another “7,” or very close.  “10’s” go with “10’s,” “2’s” with “2’s” and so on.

Perhaps due to the matching hypothesis’s intuitive appeal, the field of social psychology has largely accepted it as true, despite a general lack of empirical support. To address this gap between theory and data, researchers from the University of California – Berkeley tested the matching hypothesis across several studies.

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Infidelity and Jealousy from an Evolutionary Perspective

When you feel as if someone poses a threat to your relationship (whether they do or not), jealousy likely creeps in. Researchers note that jealousy is characterized by fear of loss, distrust, or anger, as one is worried about losing a relationship due to a rival.1 Essentially, jealousy serves as a mechanism by which the person remains hypervigilant to protect his/her relationship from potential intruders. One common scenario which can elicit jealousy is when your partner is in the presence of available and datable others, resulting in the sense that a partner may be unfaithful.


In a previous article, I discussed theories of infidelity, focusing on the different perspectives offered by evolutionary psychologists and social-role theorists. The dispute between these two perspectives focuses on the difference in how distressed is measured. One approach is to use “forced choice” alternatives, which include answer choices in which a participant is to pick which is more upsetting from two pre-selected responses: your partner forming an emotional attachment with another individual (emotional infidelity) or your partner having sex with this other individual (sexual infidelity). Evolutionary psychologists have used this forced-choice paradigm to show that men are more upset by sexual infidelity, while women are more distressed by emotional infidelity.

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The Problem with (How we Treat) Highly Disciplined People

Self-control: it’s a skill that most of us wish we had a lot more of. Yet, every once and a while, you meet a person who has a seemingly mystical ability to make themselves do things they ought to do, and resist the urge to do things they ought not to do. It’s that person who walks their dog, eats their oatmeal, picks up coffee for everyone in the office, and still shows up to work by 9am. The person who gets their day’s work done by lunch and then works out during their lunch hour. The person who not only makes homemade cards for their friends and family’s birthdays, but actually gets them mailed on time.

It’s easy to envy such individuals. People who have high self-control are more likely to achieve their goals in a wide variety of domains. Research shows that people with high levels of self-control tend to get better grades in school, they are less likely to engage in problem behaviors such as binge eating and alcohol abuse, and they have better psychological adjustment compared to people with lower levels of self-control.1 High self-control also has important benefits for romantic relationships. For example, married couples with greater combined levels of self-control are more responsive, trusting, and forgiving of one another, they have smoother day-to-day interactions, they have less day-to-day conflict, and they are more satisfied with their relationships on the whole.2

Looking at the literature, it’s tempting to conclude that one simply can’t go wrong by having high levels of self-control, or by having close others with high levels of self-control. However, in a paper that just came out this year, Koval, vanDellen, Fitzsimons, and Ranby3 explored a potential downside to self-control: the high expectations that others might have of high self-control individuals. Below are the three ways we tend to treat high self-control individuals, according to Koval et al.’s research, that might be damaging for our relationships with such individuals.

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I Want What She’s Having: Women Copy Other Women’s Mate-Choices

So you’re a 20-something woman out at a bar. As it happens you’re currently single and kind of interested in meeting guys to possibly date. At this club there are 2 men, of similar physical attractiveness, who have caught your eye. Man A) is sitting in the corner alone, but man B) is talking with a really attractive woman who seems to be his ex-girlfriend. Are you more attracted to man A) or man B)? 

On the topic of human relationships, the famous Czech writer Milan Kundera mused, “[it is] one of life’s great secrets: women don’t look for handsome men, they look for men with beautiful women.”1

In the absence of any other information, humans tend to estimate the value of something by being aware of the demand for it. This is basic economics. Mate copying is the idea that an individual’s decision to mate or form a relationship with a potential partner is impacted by a direct observation of that person in a relationship with another, or knowledge of their romantic history.

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Is More Sex Always Better?

When it comes to sex, the more the better right? Popular perception would suggest that the answer to this question is yes. Media messages often tout the benefits of sex, going as far as to suggest that having sex every day in a relationship might be one route to greater happiness. In a recent set of studies my colleagues and I investigated whether more frequent sex was, in fact, associated with more happiness and found that it was, but only to a point.1

Across three studies of over 30,000 participants, we found that people who reported having more frequent sex in their relationship also reported being happier. But this association was no longer true at frequencies greater than once a week. To be clear, having sex more frequently than once a week was not associated with less happiness, it just wasn’t associated with more happiness on average.

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How a Little Exercise May Go a Long Way in the Bedroom

There comes a time in many long-term romantic relationships when couples experience some limitations in the bedroom. Such limitations arise when one partner faces physical, medical, or emotional issues that affect sexual performance, which can become distressing for both members of the couple and can affect relationship quality. If sexual intimacy is compromised, whether temporarily or permanently, are there things that partners can do together to help promote the rebuilding of intimacy?

Some researchers have addressed this question by targeting a population of individuals for whom the issue is particularly relevant: couples affected by prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is common among men as they age (though it can affect younger men as well), and often impacts men’s sexual function; many men become impotent as a result of the treatment. Impotence, understandably, drastically alters a man’s sexual and affectionate behaviors with his partner and undermine the quality of their romantic relationship. The wife/ partner may now assume the “caregiver” role exclusively, while the “sexual partner” role may be dormant. Professionals working with couples affected by prostate cancer have long recognized these issues and have sought to find ways to promote intimacy.

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“I Hope My Boyfriend Don’t Mind It”: The Implications of Same-Sex Infidelity in Heterosexual Relationships

Long before Katy Perry proclaimed that she kissed a girl and liked it, heterosexual-identified women were kissing other women. Although the phenomenon of female-female kissing isn’t particularly new, in the past decade scholars have turned their attention to better understanding the multitude of reasons why same-sex physical intimacy occurs between heterosexual individuals.

Generally when committed romantic partners kiss someone besides their partner, this is considered a form of cheating. Yet female-female kissing by heterosexual women does not seem to garner the same negative response, perhaps due to the varying reasons women report engaging in such behavior. Some heterosexual women report kissing other women as part of the college social scene or for men’s attention, while others do so to experiment or explore potential same-sex desires.1 A 2012 study found that both women and men perceive women who kiss other women in heterosexual spaces (for example, bars that heterosexual individuals frequent) as more promiscuous than those who kiss a man, and that women and men perceive such women as more likely to be heterosexual than bisexual or lesbian.2 In some ways, this last finding may suggest that women and men do not always perceive female-female kissing as necessarily an expression of women’s same-sex desire. So then what happens when individuals in heterosexual romantic relationships engage in more extreme forms of infidelity, such as sex, with someone of the same sex?

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Let’s Talk about Tech and Teen Relationships  

American teens spend a lot of time with their smartphones, and their interest in their phones may only be superseded by their interest in forming romantic relationships. Anytime you have two really important aspects of life intersecting, there is the potential for some really interesting data. Researchers at the Pew Research Center wanted to learn how teens use technology in their romantic relationships to meet, flirt and communicate.1 To get some answers, in late 2014 and early 2015 researchers conducted a national survey as well as several online and in-person focus groups of 1,060 American teens (aged 13-17).

Although the common assumption is that this technology has changed how teens deal with their romantic relationships. Let’s see what the data say…

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Ben Affleck Was Right: Relationships Are Hard Work. And That’s OK.

As many of you are no doubt aware, Ben Affleck got a lot of flack after his infamous 2013 Oscar acceptance speech, in which he thanked his (then) wife Jennifer Garner for the “work” that they put into their relationship. This comment prompted an intense backlash, which has been revisited in light of Ben and Jennifer’s divorce earlier this year. Many thought the writing was on the wall, and some questioned the very idea that marriage and work are synonymous, including this pointed article specifically questioning experts’ wisdom that successful relationships do in fact require work. Here’s a key quote from this opinion piece: 

…maybe if marriage seems like really hard work, there is something that needs a little fixing…. is our marriage work? It can't be. Because I never feel like I need a vacation.”

Well, perhaps it’s time for the Science of Relationships experts to weigh in. I’ll cut right to the chase: Ben was right. Relationships are hard work. And that’s OK.

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The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast - Danielle Sulikowski on Head Tilt and Allure

Does tilting your noggin like a bobble-head doll make you more or less alluring?Robert Burriss talks to Danielle Sulikowski.

Check out the newest episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness podcast here.


Connecting With Nature Promotes Connecting With Others

Connecting with nature just feels good. Nothing matches the feeling of serenity experienced when taking a quiet walk in the woods, listening to water flow over rocks in a stream, or taking in the enormity of a beautiful panoramic natural view. Obviously, in the moment, such tranquil settings do wonders for us. But does connecting with nature have longer-term effects by carrying over into other aspects of our lives after this exposure to nature? And how would this happen? Does nature affect our mood or our motivation to act prosocially? 

It’s hard to conduct empirical work that addresses these questions directly, but a team of researchers recently created a series of three clever laboratory experiments mimicking real world dilemmas to provide help determine whether connecting with nature affects our future behavior.

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Anxious-Avoidant Duos: Walking on Thin Ice in Relationships and Physical Health

While the Disney animated film “Frozen” is most famous for its lovable characters and award-winning song “Let it Go”, this kids’ movie can teach us a thing or two about attachment styles in close relationships and the important interplay between partners’ preferences for intimacy versus independence. In “Frozen,” the relationship difficulties that occur when these preferences clash are most evident between the two protagonists, sisters Elsa and Anna.

Anxious Anna and Avoidant Elsa: Attachment in “Frozen”

Attachment style describes the degree to which we perceive our relationships (usually romantic partnerships) as being secure, capable of meeting our needs, and a source of comfort in times of distress. People who are securely attached are comfortable depending on others as well as having others depend on them. Some people, however, have negative expectations in relationships, leading to insecure attachment styles. For example, individuals with an anxious attachment style fear rejection and abandonment, yet their cravings for closeness may inadvertently drive others away. In “Frozen”, Anna is anxiously attached. Her parents’ death and her sister’s abandonment leave her alone and desperate for love – so desperate, in fact, that she almost married a man she just met (Prince Hans). Whenever Elsa seeks distance in the movie, Anna continues to pursue her and ends up getting hurt in the process. Anxiously attached people may engage in behavior like this because they over-rely on their attachment figures for reassurance. 

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Life after Breakup: An International Survey

To better understand life after breakup, researchers surveyed 5,705 people in nearly 100 countries about their breakups and experience of grief afterwards. The most common reason for breaking up was “lack of communication.” Women were more likely to initiate a breakup; those who were broken up with experienced more grief than initiators. Post-relationship grief was more severe emotionally (e.g., anxiety, depression) than physically (e.g., insomnia, weight change). Among those who were dumped, women reported slightly more emotional and physical consequences than men, although post-relationship grief was high for both men and women. 

Morris, C. E., Reiber, C., & Roman, E. (2015). Quantitative sex differences in response to the dissolution of a romantic relationship. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 9, 270-282.


“Parents Are Less Happy”: Fact or Fiction?

Last month study results results1 from German researchers on parental well-being (or lack thereof) appeared in news articles around the world. This isn't the first time a study has made waves for supposedly demonstrating that nonparents are happier than parents (see here for more).2 This time, researchers found a headline-grabbing correlation. As CNN3 paraphrased,

According to a recent study, the drop in happiness experienced by parents after the birth of first child was larger than the experience of unemployment, divorce or the death of a partner.

Wow! Having a kid is worse for your happiness than losing the person you love the most. They seem to be inferring that creating life, with your life partner, is more traumatic than that partner dying!  

The NY Daily News trumpeted the news, too:

Having Kids is Worse for Happiness Than Divorce, Death of a Partner: Study

But all was not as it seemed. CNN noted, later in the article, that the findings were more nuanced:

The authors said they were not looking at what makes parents happy or unhappy -- they were specifically looking at why, although most German couples say they would like to have two children, they end up stopping after one. "On the whole," Myrskyla said, "despite the unhappiness after the first birth of a baby, having up to two children rather increases overall happiness in life."

Wait, so there's unhappiness after the first child, but "up to two children" increases happiness?

Which one is it?

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The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast - Casey Klofstad on Voice Pitch and Politics

How do voices and faces win votes? Robert Burriss talks to Casey Klofstad about his new research into voice pitch and the effect it has on perceptions of a political candidate's age, strength, and competence. We'll also look at how other nonverbal cues, including facial appearance, influence election success.

Check out the newest episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness podcast here.


Mythbusting Singleness with Dr. Bella DePaulo

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Bella DePaulo's book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. This section appeared on pp. 244-246 of Chapter 8, "There's Nothing Sweeter Than Solitude." You can read more about the book here.

In the stories we tell each other about the workings of society, it is the married people and the traditional families who are holding us all together. Single people—especially those who live alone—are the isolates, holed up in their apartments, lonely and friendless. Yet when social scientists do systematic research, they find something quite different: singles look more like Dan Scheffey than the caricatures. Results of several studies—some of them based on representative national surveys—show that it is the single people, and not the married ones, who are creating and sustaining the ties that bind us. Single people are more likely than married people to do what it takes to keep grown siblings together. They also spend more time helping, encouraging, and socializing with neighbors and friends. Singles are more likely to live with relatives than married people are, and they do more than their share of caring for aging relatives and others in need. Asked the question “Do you currently or have you ever regularly looked after someone, for at least three months, who is sick, disabled, or elderly?,” it was the single people, more often than the married, who said yes. Single people also visit their parents more and exchange help with them more, even when their parents are still relatively young and healthy.

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Dr. Samantha Joel on Relationship Decisions


Let Me Get a Turn! Don’t Do all the Talking in a Conversation (But Don’t Just Sit There Quietly Either)

Getting to know one another is fundamental to starting any close relationship. Thinking back to the first dates many of us have had, we probably started with very important questions such as “Why did you join Tinder? or “Why exactly did I swipe right?” As we delved deeper into the conversation, we may have discussed sequentially deeper topics such as whether we would like to be famous, what a “perfect day” may be, or even sharing embarrassing moments (my answers to this final question are probably responsible for a myriad of failed first dates). These questions (and more) came from an actual study which explored the generation of interpersonal closeness in the laboratory.1 Although conversations come in many forms, they are generally characterized by some form of reciprocity. In other words, we typically take turns asking and answering questions with another person during interactions. But we may also find ourselves interacting with someone who is more of a “chatty Kathy” who does all of the talking, or someone who just sits in silence listening to you. Would such one-way interactions end in a disaster, or does engaging in any form of self-disclosure, whether it is just listening or talking, still hold the power to lead to interaction number two? That is the question that my colleague Dr. Sue Sprecher and I set to answer in a recent study.2 

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Ghosting: The 51st Way to Leave Your Lover?

You just slip out the back, Jack; Make a new plan, Stan; Don’t need to be coy, Roy… 

If Paul Simon were writing his song today, he might add a 51st way to leave a lover—ghosting. This term hit my radar in June when I read that celebrity Charlize Theron had “ghosted” Sean Penn. I was intrigued and after quickly ruling out murder as plausible definition, I turned to Urban Dictionary for assistance. Ghosting, as defined by urbandictionary.com, is “the act of suddenly ceasing all communication with someone the subject is dating, but no longer wishes to date”. Phone calls, emails, and texts are no longer returned and digital traces of the relationship are wiped clean without an explanation.

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