The Science of Relationships

February 13, 2017 • by Marc Airhart

What are the health benefits of romantic relationships? How can newlyweds avoid communication breakdowns that result from external stress? Do optimists make better partners?

Older couple, the woman's hand rests on the cheek of the man, both look content

In honor of Valentine's Day, we're speaking with Lisa Neff, a researcher studying what makes happy, healthy romantic relationships tick. Neff is an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. She answers several burning questions, including: What are the health benefits of romantic relationships? How can newlyweds avoid communication breakdowns that result from external stress? and, Do optimists make better partners?


MA: This is Point of Discovery. I'm your host and producer Marc Airhart. This week, we're celebrating Valentine's Day, a time to remind the special people in our lives just how much we love them. It's also a good time to talk about the science of relationships. Lisa Neff is an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. She studies romantic relationships and, in particular, she's looking for the special sauce that leads to positive and fulfilling marriages.

MA: Lisa, welcome to Point of Discovery.

LN: Thank you, I'm very glad to be here.

MA: Well, first off, why do you study relationships?

LF: Well, the study of relationships has tremendous societal implications. Relationships have a profound impact on both our mental health and our physical well-being. So, for instance, in survey after survey if you ask people how happy are you in life they say the way they determine the answer to that question is by assessing how happy are they in their close family relationships. If they have good fulfilling relationships, they tend to report greater life satisfaction. Conversely, we found that loneliness is really quite toxic for our mental health and well-being. So not only is loneliness associated with elevated levels of depression, but it also has been shown to interfere with basic mental functioning and executive control functions. But our relationships don't only influence our mental health. They also really impact our physical health, which I think is surprising to some people. So, for instance, there was a really great study a couple of years ago in the Journal of Clinical Oncology looking at cancer survival rates. And they found that married patients had a 20% greater chance of survival upon diagnosis than single patients did. But what was more astonishing to the medical researchers was that the survival benefits provided by marriage were greater than the survival benefits provided by chemotherapy. So our relationships really matter.

MA: Wow! That is really dramatic.

LF: It was a pretty dramatic finding. But further research suggests it's not just get married and suddenly you'll have fantastic health. The quality of your marriage matters a lot too. You have to think about is that marriage functioning well, is it happy and fulfilling. So, for instance, another study was looking at patients who had a heart attack and found that individuals in a happier, healthier, less hostile relationship were more likely to survive the heart attack compared to patients in less happy and less fulfilling marriages. And even more astonishing, there was a meta-analysis, and so meta-analysis is just let's aggregate a whole bunch of scientific findings in the field to sort of get a collection of what is going on in the state of science, and what they found was that people who have high-quality close family relationships had a 50% greater chance of survival than people who have poor quality relationships.

MA: Is survival, what do you mean, just in life in general?

LH: In life. Just a greater, more, a lower mortality risk essentially in life, yes. And what was even more astonishing was they compared the effect of our social relationships compared to other types of common well-known factors that influence our mortality risk, and they found that the effect of our social relationships on our mortality risk was even greater than things such as smoking behavior, physical inactivity, and obesity. So our relationships matter and they matter in some pretty important ways. So as a society, if we care about keeping people happy and healthy and reducing health care costs and having, you know, people function well in society we need to care about the quality of their close relationships.

MA: Neff told me that for newlyweds the adjustment to married life can be really hard. In fact, the risk for divorce is highest just two to three years into marriage. If newlyweds get hit with some external stress, say one of them loses a job or has to take care of a sick parent, the way they interact with each other can easily take a dark turn.

LN: When your partner lets you down or snaps at you, our initial gut instinct is to snap back, right? It's more of a destructive response. And so being a good relationship partner means inhibiting that destructive response, taking a pause and enacting a more positive response in return. When we're stressed out, when we had a hard day at work, when we're dealing with, you know, trying to figure out how to pay the bills, we're dealing with all these outside stressors, when we come home to our partner we just have less energy and resources to do those good things in the relationship. So, our communication tends to suffer. We're less likely to give our partner the benefit of the doubt when they do something annoying to us or are a little bit snippy with us. And so stress can sort of gradually erode those positive relationship processes, making it more difficult for the relationship to thrive.

MA: Based on your research, but what do you advise for newlyweds, how do you sum that up.

LN: Yeah, there are a few avenues that could help couples. It is difficult if stress is taxing all your resources for the person who's stressed out to overcome that, so I would suggest for the partner of the stressed-out individual to be a little bit more aware of the stress levels in the relationship. And if you know your partner is going through a particularly stressful time at work, maybe cut them a little slack when they're snippy with you or they let you down, they forget to bring the milk home like they promised, whatever, whatever it may be. Just remember that the stress level is having an impact on them and perhaps be a little bit more forgiving, be, you know, a little bit more- give them the benefit of the doubt. Also, it can be helpful if couples - and this can be difficult to do when couples are especially dealing with serious stressors like unemployment or whatnot - but to the extent possible try to incorporate as many small shared positive moments together. Small moments of laughter, taking time to have a leisure activity together, because an accumulation of those small positive moments can really have a beneficial effect when negative events do happen in the relationship and they can help reduce the impact of that negativity if you have accumulated some of those shared positive moments with one another right that makes sense.

MA: Right, that makes sense. Yeah, I hope my wife is listening to this. Just kidding. What about, you know, we hear a lot about the power of positive thinking. What role does that have in a relationship? Is that generally a good thing, does it work?

LN: It depends. So there's been a lot of discussion in the research about, you know, is it good to wear rose-colored glasses, to be highly optimistic and, you know, see your partner in the best possible way or should you be a little bit more realistic? Should you see it, you know, warts and all so you're not set up for disappointment? And there's a lot of debate not only amongst researchers but among the popular culture, right, some people have said, 'young people today, why are marriages failing? They just have unrealistic expectations, they're too optimistic, they need to bring it down,' but the answer is not so simple as one or the other. Because both an element of optimism and an element of realism are healthy and they work in conjunction with one another. So I've done some research looking at exactly that - when is it good to be sort of positively biased, have those rose-colored glasses, and when is it better to take those glasses off and maybe have a more accurate assessment of what's happening. And one way I've looked at this is to think about, how do you want to view your relationship partner? And what I found is that you can think about all the qualities your partner has. So you can think about, you know, how do you describe your wife. Maybe you think she's kind, she's wonderful, but maybe she's also a good listener, she's a fantastic cook, you know, whatever. So you have all sorts of very broad global ideas about who she is and then you have more specific concrete ideas about, you know, behaviors she exhibits in the relationship. And what I've found is that positive biases are very healthy at the global level. So newlywed couples tend to have rose-colored glasses at the global level. They think their partner is an even kinder, more wonderful person than the partner considers him or herself to be. That's that rose-colored glasses. But they also, the happiest newlyweds, at the more specific level, so when it comes to the specific behaviors in the relationship, the specific traits, newlyweds tend to be - or the happiest newlyweds - tend to be more accurate in their perceptions. So they understand that, yeah, my partner is a great listener but maybe not so socially skilled. They have an accurate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of those specific traits and qualities and having this sort of I call it global adoration and specific understanding. So you have a specific understanding of your partner strengths and weaknesses but all of that is you know encompassed in a more very global rose-colored glasses view of the partner. And having both of those things leads to the happiest relationship. So I found that couples who view their partner in this way, so they think their partner is the kindest, most wonderful person out there but they recognize my partner's kind of messy and you know they don't always do things perfectly, those partners are the ones who are least likely to divorce. They're also better at providing social support to one another because they have a better understanding of what their partner needs, they're able to assess, again, strengths and weaknesses that way, so it seems to be most beneficial.

MA: I asked Neff why being less rosy and more accurate when we assess our partners' specific traits, like do they clean up after themselves or are they a good listener, leads to a happier relationship.

LN: Having a general belief that my marriage is strong, you know, this is a good marriage, we're always going to be strong together, that is a positive sort of belief. Those, and I have a study where we looked at those kinds of optimistic beliefs versus much more specific expectation. So, for instance, my partner and I will always communicate well, my partner and I will always have an amazing sex life, so those more specific concrete dimensions and comparing optimism at each of those levels, and we found that when people had more optimistic global expectations for the relationship it was actually an incredibly positive resource for the relationship. So those couples, when difficulties arose, they were more active copers. They recognized the problem and they engaged in very positive active coping efforts to overcome that problem. However, if people had rose-colored glasses when it came to those more specific expectations about sex life, communication, those specific aspects of the relationship, the more optimistic you were in that domain, the less positive you were when problems arose down the road. The idea is that those kinds of expectations just set you up for disappointment. They're too specific, and so when they're challenged it tends to hinder people's motivation to work through the problem. And so those individuals tended to avoid issues. They would back away and then what happened was the marital problems just got worse over time and the marriage deteriorated.

MA: So, so there's sort of a mismatch between reality and how you view that particular trait.

LN: Exactly. So it's good to believe the marriage is good and strong, but don't start thinking that we're always going to communicate well, we're always going to have this great sex life.

MA: Ok. This is probably based on work that you've done in the past, but you have a new study now that you, I understand, are looking to find participants for? Can you tell me about that?

LN: Yes, yes. So, I have, you know, most of my research to date has been on newlywed couples, trying to understand those early years of marriage. But now I'm embarking on a new project called the Relationship Experiences Across the Lifespan. This project is looking, very broadly speaking, it's looking at how relationships change and develop as we grow older. And the reason I'm going in this new direction has a lot to do with the changing demographics of our society. So, census data has shown that there have been two important changes that could have some really significant societal implications, particularly when we think about the public health crisis. One is, we're an aging society. So I'm not sure if you've heard in the media, people are always talking about the graying of America. The idea is some estimates suggest I think by the year 2030 about 20% of the American population will be over the age of 65, which is a larger proportion than we've had in the past. So we're an aging society, but as a relationships researcher, something that's even more interesting is that compared to previous decades older adults are more likely to to be single and perhaps on the dating market again compared to, again, previous decades. So, older adults are finding themselves starting new relationships again at this later life stage and we know very little about relationships at this age and how they're different from the dating relationships of younger adults most of what we know about the early stages of relationship has been done on 20-year-olds, you know, younger adults and we don't know to what extent do these relational processes that we've identified generalize to older adults and just thinking in terms of again going back to the tremendous health implications of our relationships and how it's so important to have high-quality relationships, we really don't know, do dating relationships offer us the same kind of health benefits that married relationships do? Right, we know married relationships can be, a happy married relationship is very important to our health. But do these new dating relationships that are formed in later life have the same kind of health benefits. And so we are looking to recruit 300 couples in total. We're looking for both younger and older couples, both married and dating, so we can compare both kinds of, you know, married and dating relationships across the lifespan. And we're interested - one question, for instance, that we're interested in looking at is, how does the manner in which couples navigate conflicts and differences of opinion, how does that change as we get older and what are the consequences of different coping strategies for our mental health and physical health? So that is one of the big questions that we'll be looking at.

MA: Uh-huh. And are you're looking for people in all these categories?

LN: So right now we've currently collected data and recruited about a hundred and fifty of the 300 couples we want to run and so we're mostly done collecting the married couples. So we're primarily recruiting dating couples right now. We're looking for couples who are either between thirty and forty-five or who are 60 and older and who are in a dating relationship with their partner, so unmarried, you know, whatever term you want to use to describe it - romantic friendship, companionship - but we're looking for couples who are unmarried and have been together for about twelve months or less. So in a fairly new relationship with one another.

MA: And ideally in the Austin area?

LN: Ideally in the Austin area, so they could come and be interviewed by our research associates.

MA: If you'd like to participate in the study, we have information about applying at Just check the show notes for this episode.

MA: Well, Lisa, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Do you have any final thoughts, since this is Valentine's week?

LN: Ah, just that maybe Valentine's Day is a good reminder to incorporate those shared positive moments into your relationship, because every time you and your partner take time to laugh together and engage in some quality time, it gets deposited into a relationship bank account that can be an important resource when things can become more difficult. So take the time to fill up that bank account this week.

MA: I've been speaking with Lisa Neff, the associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. Lisa, thank you so much for taking the time to be on our show.

LN: Thank you for having me.

MA: Point of Discovery is a production of the University of Texas at Austin's College of Natural Sciences. We're on the web at I'm Marc Airhart. Thanks for listening.