- Health and Wellness
- Innovation and Research
- Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences
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Love isn’t just about chocolates, roses and showy signs of affection: A strong relationship takes work year round. We asked Pitt relationship expert and Assistant Professor Amanda Forest what science can tell us about the art of making a relationship thrive.
One line of Forest’s research in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology is about the importance of what she calls self-disclosure: simply talking with a partner about your goals and feelings.
“When we reveal these kinds of things to other people, it gives them a chance to really get to know us and understand us, and to hopefully respond in ways that affirm our sense of who we are,” Forest said.
Just as important as sharing is making space for your partner to do the same.
“Research from other labs show that this question, ‘How was your day?’ can be really powerful,” Forest said. Her own work in the Pitt Relationship Processes Lab also shows that being responsive when your partner replies will make them feel more comfortable sharing how they feel. “That means listening and maybe setting aside your phone to show your partner they have your undivided attention — and demonstrating understanding, caring and validation when they’re talking to you,” she said.
It’s not always easy to talk with a partner about your inner life, and it takes time to build a foundation of talking about deep and personal topics, Forest said. But it’s worth it to foster more trust and openness in the relationship.
Be there in tough times
Communication in relationships is especially important when a partner is struggling — and offering support when that happens is another area of Forest’s expertise.
“Sometimes partners might want you to just listen, other times they might want you to help solve a problem. Or in some cases, they might want to be distracted or to be cheered up,” she said. One current project in her lab focuses on how to best communicate those needs to a partner. While that work is still ongoing, “We think that stating your goals and preferences could be helpful, especially if your partner didn't know them,” Forest said.
Although sharing feelings with a partner is important, other studies from Forest’s lab have shown that not every kind of sharing is helpful. Being negative too much of the time, for instance, could make it harder to get support from your partner when you really need it.
“It’s the ‘boy who cried wolf’ idea,” Forest said. “If you’re telling me you had this awful day today, I might attribute that to your disposition — you’re chronically negative — instead of the situation.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about your feelings, but if you find yourself venting to your partner every day, it might help to be more selective about what you share.
Even when you’re struggling, making an effort to be positive with your partner can go a long way. Forest and her former graduate student Kori Krueger (A&S ’17G, ’20G) showed that people feel better about the conversation and the relationship when they feel they’ve been able to successfully provide support to their partner. “Conveying gratitude or appreciation could be one way of helping partners feel like they’ve been helpful,” Forest said.
Help them pursue their goals
Another key to a strong relationship is to help your partner achieve their goals in life.
“When partners are instrumental to your goals, this promotes closeness and attraction in relationships,” Forest said. “The more of our goals someone is instrumental to, the closer we tend to feel to them.”
That doesn’t just mean specific, concrete goals you have written down. It can be anything from an academic goal to a financial goal or something to do with fitness or just being more connected with people.
Part of helping a partner achieve their goals is — you guessed it — communicating with your partner. “An underlying theme in my research is the importance of good communication,” Forest said.
Understanding your partner’s goals and asking about what excites them and motivates them can help you see how you can fulfill their needs.
Forest stressed that supporting your partner’s goals can come in many forms: It doesn’t mean you have to be an expert. “If your partner is trying to learn a new language, it’s great if you know that language and can be a study partner,” Forest said. “But it could also mean that you free up time for your partner to study by making them a meal or providing encouragement, or you help them come up with a study schedule.”
See the bigger picture
Forest also draws from research outside of her own lab when thinking about strong relationships, and one area that stands out to her might be unintuitive for some. “One thing that doesn’t come as easily to mind for people, but I think is important, is maintaining strong relationships with a wide network of people,” Forest said.
While it’s good to trust and rely on a partner, the expectation that a partner can meet all of your needs can be difficult to live up to, Forest said, leading to feeling overburdened or dissatisfied. Having other people in your life who can listen to you and help you pursue goals can also help your relationship with your partner.
“Although a lot of what I've said focuses on a particular relationship and investing there, it’s important to put that in the context of a broader network of relationships and working to maintain those other relationships, too.”
— Patrick Monahan