Are happy relationships discovered or built?

July 22, 2019

Samantha Joel, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology

Story by Rob Rombouts

If romantic comedies hold any truth, real happiness comes when you meet your soul mate, someone you are just meant to be with.

But are happy relationships the result of compatibility, or hard work?

Samantha Joel, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology has received a 5-year SSHRC grant, valued at $228,442, to investigate “Are happy romantic relationships discovered or built? The role of early investment regulation in shaping relationship quality.”

The project will recruit people in new relationships and track them over two years, with the goal of understanding how relationship dynamics initially develop.

The project continues Joel’s work researching relationships. Previously, Joel looked at established relationships and how people chose to end those relationships if they were not satisfied in them. She found that people in long-term relationships have a hard time getting out of them, even if they are unfulfilling.

“After looking at that and getting a bit discouraged,” said Joel, “I thought, maybe we can help people to choose more compatible partners.”

Her next focus was looking at initial mate choice. She found that people are relatively unselective at the beginning of a relationship, being very open to dating a broad range of partners, especially within their own social group, and in turn, ignoring their own standards and possible ‘deal breakers’.

“Being in good relationships is protective, whereas being in a bad relationship can be detrimental for your health and wellbeing,” said Joel. “There is a lot of research on how people can improve their existing relationships, but we don’t know how unhappy relationships first develop.”

To address this gap, Joel will focus on the “fledgling state of a relationship, when people are learning more about new partners, and deciding whether the partners are right for them.”

“Destiny beliefs are the idea that some couples are inherently more compatible than others, and that some couples are meant to be together,” said Joel. “We know that people hold those beliefs, but we don’t know how accurate these beliefs are. Is it the case that some couples are just a better fit than others? Or is it the case that, if you put enough time and effort into a relationship, you can make it work with just about anyone?”

The project will recruit couples that are in new relationships to understand how relationship dynamics first unfold, and whether anything can be done in the early stages of a relationship to help build a better relationship, or identify relationships that look like they will not work down the road.

“Recruitment will be a big challenge,” said Joel. “A big part of why we know so little about the fledgling state of a relationship is the difficulty finding participants who are in such a specific, short-lived phase in their relationships.”

Joel said that we are in a state where people expect more from their romantic relationships and partners than they ever have before.

“In modern Western culture, a romantic partner is not just someone to raise a family with, they are also supposed to be a best friend, and a confidant. For many people their romantic partner is really their closest social tie,” said Joel. “It’s a great if things are going well, but if can be devastating if they aren’t. It’s all the more important to understand why some relationships thrive and some do not.”

“The early dating stages of a relationship are important, but we don’t know much about them,” said Joel. “Let’s find out what they look like, how people choose partners, and whether there’s anything we can do at that stage to help people wind up in relationships that are right for them.”