In this symposium at the 2015 SPSP meeting, four researchers (including Tim Loving and Fred Clavel, who are SofR regulars) presented their work on how romantic relationships are affected by the social networks around them.
Lisa Diamond led things off with a discussion of how same-sex couples feel more stress compared to heterosexual couples, because homosexuality is more stigmatized. In her study, 120 couples (some male-female, some male-male, some female-male) came into the lab and engaged in a task where they discussed a recent conflict they were having. Interestingly, whether same-sex couples felt marginalized by the broader community (i.e. whether they felt accepted by society or not) didn’t seem to predict negativity during this conflict discussion. But if they felt marginalized or having lower status within their spouse’s family (the in-laws) that caused problems within the couple. Not feeling equally accepted within a spouse’s family was associated with more negativity/hostile behavior, greater escalation of conflict (it became intense quickly), and a higher ratio of negative to positive interactions. Dr. Diamond suggested that same-sex couples may feel more distress in their relationship if their close circle of friends/family disapprove of them, rather than if the society at large disapproves of them.
Ben Karney presented some data from his student, Grace Jackson’s work on social networks and race/ethnicity. Previous studies have shown that in low-income communities, African-American couples are more likely to get divorced compared to Caucasian or Hispanic couples. But why? One answer is that social networks may affect couples differently within ethnicities. For this study, researchers recruited couples in low-income neighborhoods in L.A. (measured by their zip code), and asked them a series of questions over a course of 4 years every 9 months. Overall, whether partners knew each other’s friends or had mutual friends was linked with greater happiness for wives (but not necessarily husbands) but the effects were much stronger for black couples than white couples. Dr. Karney suggested that white couples are more “island-like” (i.e. they are less impacted by having mutual friends or each partner knowing the other’s friends) compared to black couples who are strongly affected by these variables.
Fred Clavel also examined race/ethnicity, and his study examined African-American couples in Iowa and Georgia over a 6 year period from 2007-2012. The research team investigated whether the external environment (neighborhood variables) could affect how much partners perceive each other to be supportive and helpful in managing stress. They assessed neighborhood variables including social disorder (e.g., broken buildings, gang activity, graffiti), economic disadvantages (e.g., unemployment levels, financial strain), and prejudice/discrimination (e.g., tension between ethnic groups). The results showed that when people experienced more financial strain and socioeconomic disorder (e.g., unemployment), this was linked to perceiving partners as less supportive. So this suggests that neighborhood variables negatively affect relationship communication. However, racial discrimination had the opposite effect—this was linked with perceiving partners as more supportive! Mr. Clavel admitted these results are puzzling but suggested that perhaps when couples feel that they are being discriminated against based on race, this activates a different mindset than when couples experience economic frustration. Basically, if African American partners see each other as being discriminated against by society, that will make them more aware of each other’s vulnerabilities, which might make them more likely to actively support and protect each other.
Finally, Tim Loving discussed how couples may or may not follow a traditional path of relationship development. We’re all familiar with the nursery rhyme, “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.” Well, what happens if people deviate from this traditional progression (perhaps their courtship is too quick, or if they have sex before meeting each other’s friends)? Dr. Loving’s team asked 330 married individuals if they thought that they followed a path to marriage that was typical or different from other couples, as well as their family/friends approval, and finally, marital satisfaction. Sure enough, when inividuals thought they did things “by the book” they also felt more relationship approval/support from their social network, and were also happier in their marriages. Responses from single people, who rated a friend’s recent marriage, showed similar findings. When single folks were asked about their friends’ marriages, they were more approving/supportive toward their friends if they believed that their friends followed the typical path for a relationship, and were also more likely to show behavioral support for those couples.
All of these studies show that social networks (friends/family), neighborhoods, and societal norms all have profound effects on romantic relationships—and couples might be unaware of how these variables impact them. Dr. Loving also suggested that future work investigate if these societal norms are different across non-American cultures.
Dr. Dylan Selterman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman’s research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their romantic partners and how nighttime dreams are associated with daytime behavior. In addition, Dylan studies issues related to morality and ethics in relationships, including infidelity, betrayal, and jealousy.