Why is it that some relationship research doesn't resonate with you and your experiences? In this episode, Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt, the Relationship Doctor, explains why some relationship data is just plain WEIRD.
This episode is going to be slightly different from the standard Relationship Doctor episode. In honor of National Coming Out Day, which is October 11th this year, I felt it was important to address how—and why—some relationship research may not always resonate with everyone who listens to this show.
Whether you're listening to this podcast or perusing relationship research generally, there are a few things you should keep in mind, especially when applying some of what you learn to your own relationship.
Studies of romantic relationships typically occur in social science fields like psychology or communication. Over the past decade, research in these fields has relied on samples that researchers summarize with the acronym WEIRD.
That is, many of our samples are made up of people from
societies, such as the United States.
Moreover, even samples that come from the United States don’t always reflect the general population of the country. Compared to the general population, research participants are more often white, educated, and from urban areas.
Why does it matter that relationship research is WEIRD?
A lot of relationship research has assumed that certain behaviors or tactics in relationships have the same impact regardless of who is in those relationships—that is, regardless of how much money their make, their race, sexual orientation, and other key factors. Only recently have researchers started to consider how these assumptions might be wrong, and how a "one-size-fits-all" approach to relationships may not work.
Advances in statistical modeling are helping researchers identify subgroups or "types" of relationships. For example, prior work has found that marital satisfaction steadily decreases over time, leading some to believe that the happiest day of your relationship will be your wedding day.
New research, however, is finding that only a subset of couples experience declines in relationship satisfaction over the course of their marriage. What they believe happened in prior research is that those who experienced a decline in satisfaction really felt a decline, and brought down the average of the whole sample.
Another pillar of relationship research that is being re-examined is the demand-withdraw pattern. Identified as one of the most destructive patterns of communication in interpersonal relationships, demand-withdraw is when one partner attempts to pressure the other to make a change or have a discussion and the other partner stops communicating in response. Demand-withdraw is associated with lower levels of relationship satisfaction, increased feelings of stress and depression, and substance abuse issues.
However, recent research is beginning to show how the impact of the demand-withdraw pattern is different across couples with different income levels, with the negative impact of the pattern being stronger for more affluent couples. There is also some evidence that this negative impact is worse for heterosexual couples than it is for same-sex couples.
All of this to say: current research on relationships has not been very diverse. Research has generally focused on cisgender, heterosexual couples who are white and middle class.
When research takes into account factors like sexual orientation, we can learn new and interesting things about how different types of relationships work. For example, researchers have looked at the divison of household chores for heterosexual and same-sex couples.
In heterosexual couples, housework usually falls to the woman in the relationship, even if the woman is making more money than the man. In the case where a woman makes more money than her male partner, housework is slightly more equitable, but still heavily falls on the woman’s shoulders.
Same-sex couples, however, consistently have less segregated household tasks, meaning that both partners rotate tasks and do a more equal share of the chores.
More research is needed on couples from more diverse backgrounds with regards to race, gender identities, sexual orientation, interracial relationships, cultures, income, and more. The good news: researchers are embracing diversity! The not so good news: it's tough to recruit participants and researchers often have to rely on individuals and couples who are willing to participate.
Furthermore, even if researchers are conducting more diverse studies right now, the rigorous peer review process simply takes time—we may not have the research as quickly as we’d like.
My commitment to my listeners
In my own research, I have stressed the importance of sample diversity to ensure my results can apply to as many people as possible.
I study conflict in romantic relationships—specifically conflicts that are hard to resolve and often recur over time, known as serial arguments. Most of the research in this area looks at straight, college-aged daters. My research has found that what we know about conflict in the college-aged set doesn't hold true for people who are older, or in long-term relationships or marriages. Younger daters are more optimistic about the likelihood that they will resolve these “unresolvable” issues, whereas long-term daters are more realistic about that likelihood.
For this podcast, I'll be making that same commitment to diversity. I'm committing to finding research that represents those beyond the WEIRD, and beyond white, heterosexual daters wherever possible.
When bringing on guests to interview, I will showcase researchers who embrace amplifying marginalized voices, and who make an effort to understand relationship dynamics in understudied populations. For research on romantic relationships, this may be understanding unique relationship types, or non-heterosexual relationships, or populations that aren’t college-aged daters.
While not every episode will resonate with my entire audience, I hope that every listener can find something relatable and helpful through listening to this podcast—and hopefully learn something by looking beyond their own world.
Regardless of who you are or your relationship status, I hope you are able to learn something new from this podcast and gain insights into your own or even your friends’ and families’ relationships!