Feb. 15-21, 2002
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Employees form union
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways
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How do I love thee? Let me count the ways

David Sbarra and Mary Waldron
Courtesy of David Sbarra
Friends David Sbarra and Mary Waldron are both clinical psychology graduate students.

By Anne Bromley

Notions of ideal love abound, from traditional fairy tales to modern films and TV shows, as if the quest for the perfect partner could really end in “happily ever after.”

Although we might wish true love could be as sweet as Valentine’s Day chocolate, even the most romantic relationship consists of a mixture of flavors from day to day, a U.Va. doctoral student is finding in his research.

David Sbarra, who is in his sixth year in clinical psychology, began two studies in the fall of 2000, one on dating and one on breaking up. He’s looking at how exclusive relationships among undergraduates progress over time and how individuals cope when things don’t work out.

“Despite all we know about how close love relationships develop, many important and unanswered scientific questions remain,” said Sbarra.

About 150 people are currently participating, but there have been as many as 300 people in the two-year project, which ends in May. After an initial interview, Sbarra and a team of undergraduate research assistants follow the participants via weekly e-mails that ask about the individual’s happiness with the relationship and how it’s going. Among the 10 descriptions respondents can choose to characterize their feelings about the relationship are: falling in love, being content but not in love, hitting a plateau, wishing to be just friends, fighting a lot or wanting to get out as soon as possible.

“Students report wide fluctuations in their week-to-week happiness and satisfaction with their relationships,” Sbarra said. “These kinds of ups and downs are par for the course in any relationship, and they don’t necessarily mean that the end is near. Most successful couples negotiate major questions about their relationship before settling into a more committed partnership.”

In the process of becoming attached, most college students think about things like whether the person is “right” for them, if the timing’s right, if they should take things more slowly, or — if it’s a long-distance relationship — whether it’s working out on those terms. Sbarra has found from the breaking-up study that the length of the participants’ relationships varies from five months to three years, with the average being about 18 months.

Females seem much more willing to talk about their relationships than males, Sbarra said. In fact, it’s been hard to get any guys to be part of the study. But that’s data in and of itself, even though it can’t be analyzed, Sbarra told a Discovery channel reporter last year on a segment covering this research.

So when the chocolate’s all gone, how do people cope with a break-up? What strategies work better or worse over time? Again, men more often avoid displays of emotion, whereas women tend to let their feelings out and try to work through them. Although popular psychology literature invariably says the latter approach is healthier, Sbarra said there’s not much of a scientific basis for that idea and it’s not necessarily the case. Some people seem to do just fine without going through an emotional upheaval. That doesn’t mean they’re getting over the relationship any faster, however.

He also stressed that “separating is much more of a process than an event.” Over the course of the weekly e-mails, his team is finding that those who do break up usually think about it for some time before actually doing so.

“People usually start wondering — ‘this might not be what I want; I think I want to see other people; this just isn’t the same anymore.’ It’s not uncommon for people to ‘take a break,’ and our experiences suggest that this is one way people start to uncouple. Taking a break is a comfortable and good way to try out being apart,” Sbarra said. Some get back together; some stay apart.

If they do go their separate ways, they may go into the other study, which is actually Sbarra’s main topic for his dissertation: how people cope with the dissolution of a serious relationship. Ultimately, he would like to develop a method to understand how adults grieve after their marriage ends. He’s been working with psychology professor Robert Emery, director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law, on a study looking at long-term adjustment, especially where children are involved.

The undergraduates who participate in the dissolution study go through an interview and fill out questionnaires about how they’re doing. Sbarra and his research team have participants (who don’t have to have been in the dating study) chart their moods and feelings in a daily diary for a month. They also wear beepers, enabling researchers to call and prompt them at random times every day to record their state of mind in the diary — or degree of heartache, as the case may be. Participants include both those who were left and those who did the leaving, but not necessarily both partners.

When they are interviewed a second time at the end of the month, most people have at least begun to adjust and get used to their new status, Sbarra said. So for those pining over Valentine’s Day, take heart — you’re gonna be all right.
§ Undergraduates can participate in the study. See http://faculty. virginia.edu/hoos-dating/

 

 

 

 


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