Aarhus University Seal

Research and love

Boredom, arguments and washing your clothes. Living with a partner can be difficult sometimes. An associate professor at AU has written a new book explaining the psychology of love and relationships.

Photo: Roar Lava Paaske

Just three minutes of argument in a relationship can be a sign that divorce lies ahead. Researchers from Washington University have videotaped discussions among 124 newly weds to register the occurrence of the positive and negative statements (both verbal and non-verbal) that they made. Among other things, the researchers observed whether the body language and gestures of the participants were hostile or friendly, whether they produced any patronising or scornful remarks, and whether they were trying to understand each other.         The researchers counted the number of positive and negative remarks to produce a measure of “negativity” in the discussions. The results showed that this way of measuring negativity was an almost shockingly precise way of predicting divorce. Six years after the study, 17 of the 124 couples were divorced – and these were the 17 couples that had shown the highest level of negativity in the discussions. The study has been repeated several times since then, still with great success.
“I was amazed when I read about this study. It’s almost depressing to think how much you can learn about couples by watching them having a discussion. The study shows that we could do a lot more to help couples communicate with each other at an early stage of their relationship,” says Thomas Nielsen, associate professor of psychology and author of the book Kærlighed og parforhold under forskernes lup, which presents a wide range of psychological studies of relationships and love.

You’re just not listening to me!

“You’re not listening to me at all!” Lots of couples have heard that kind of thing before. And the research shows that we do often fail to listen to what our partner is really saying. American psychologists asked 32 couples to discuss some of the topics they disagreed most about during their daily lives. All 64 participants were fitted with electrodes to measure physical signs of agitation.
The results showed that the people who were best at listening to what their partner was saying were the ones whose pulse rate dropped most while they listened. The people who were worst at listening were almost just as agitated when they were listening as when they were talking.
“When we’re agitated we simply don’t perceive things very clearly or think straight,” says Thomas Nielsen.
And one of the situations in which we become particularly agitated is when our partners criticise us. According to Thomas Nielsen, we often find it hard to accept criticism from our partners because we want them to like us and accept us as we are.

Talk about your anger

However, living together means that it is sometimes very hard to avoid being angry and frustrated with each other. The main thing is to keep ourselves under control and talk sensibly about the issues involved. In recent years psychology research has shown that our degree of self-control has a major influence on the success of our relationships.
“It’s important not to react destructively to anger, either by suppressing it or by shouting and arguing back. The research clearly shows that we need to find the perfect compromise when it comes to dealing with anger: talking about it. People who are able to talk about their anger have much better success in relationships than people who suppress their anger or start screaming,” says Thomas Nielsen.
In the book he refers to one way of preventing communication between couples from breaking down: what’s known as a “service check for couples”.
“Studies carried out in Germany demonstrate that a course in good conversational habits for couples can reduce the likelihood of divorce by 50 %. In other words, it’s a really good idea to get help before you start experiencing serious difficulties with your partner.”