How do I love thee?
Let me count the ways
of David Sbarra
David Sbarra and Mary Waldron are both clinical psychology
By Anne Bromley
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.
we might wish true love could be as sweet as Valentines
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.
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. Hes looking at how exclusive relationships among undergraduates
progress over time and how individuals cope when things dont
all we know about how close love relationships develop, many important
and unanswered scientific questions remain, said Sbarra.
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 individuals happiness with the relationship
and how its 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.
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 dont necessarily mean that the end is near. Most successful
couples negotiate major questions about their relationship before
settling into a more committed partnership.
the process of becoming attached, most college students think
about things like whether the person is right for
them, if the timings right, if they should take things more
slowly, or if its a long-distance relationship
whether its 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.
seem much more willing to talk about their relationships than
males, Sbarra said. In fact, its been hard to get any guys
to be part of the study. But thats data in and of itself,
even though it cant be analyzed, Sbarra told a Discovery
channel reporter last year on a segment covering this research.
when the chocolates 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 theres not much of a scientific
basis for that idea and its not necessarily the case. Some
people seem to do just fine without going through an emotional
upheaval. That doesnt mean theyre getting over the
relationship any faster, however.
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.
usually start wondering this might not be what I
want; I think I want to see other people; this just isnt
the same anymore. Its 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.
they do go their separate ways, they may go into the other study,
which is actually Sbarras 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. Hes 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.
undergraduates who participate in the dissolution study go through
an interview and fill out questionnaires about how theyre
doing. Sbarra and his research team have participants (who dont
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
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 Valentines
Day, take heart youre gonna be all right.
§ Undergraduates can participate in the study. See http://faculty.