Romantic relationships: a psychologist’s view

On traditionally the most romantic day of the year we couldn’t resist the opportunity to put a few questions to social psychologist and romantic relationships expert, Dr Mariko Visserman who recently joined us at Sussex.

In this Blog, Mariko shares with us how she first became inspired to study romantic relationships, her thoughts on Valentine’s day, and her plans for future research projects.

Cartoon of two stick people smiling at each other with one offering a heart-shaped balloon to the other. Their shadows show confusion and sadness on their faces, representing their subconscious minds.

How did you first become interested in the psychology of romantic relationships?

Back when I was an undergraduate student I had a very inspiring teacher in a module on interpersonal relationships, which first sparked my interest in this topic: in some ways I was positively surprised that researchers actually study relationships! It’s a topic that may seem more based on intuition and not very tangible, but I think that this makes it particularly challenging to study relationships: they’re incredibly complex and difficult to disentangle. I learned that we can quantify relationship phenomena and make the study of romance tangible.

But my conviction in studying relationships truly took off when I learned about the profound impact that the quality of people’s relationships has on their health, wellbeing, and even their survival, so how long we’ll live! I care about understanding and promoting people’s wellbeing, and studying relationships—in particular romantic relationships—is a powerful tool in doing so.

What have been your most surprising research findings on romance to date?

I study how romantic couples navigate conflicts of interest, when they have different needs or preferences. For example, partners may have different preferences for what to have for dinner, which movie to watch, what their next holiday destination should be, or where to live. To resolve such conflicts, one partner may decide to sacrifice their own preference, for example by watching the movie that their partner preferred or even move to a different country to support a partner’s job opportunity.

One of the questions I’ve asked is how well romantic partners perceive each other’s sacrifices in their daily lives and how their perceptions in turn impact their relationship. In two diary studies, my collaborators and I asked each partner every day at the end of the day whether they had made a sacrifice for their partner and whether their partner had made a sacrifice for them, so I could directly compare partners’ accounts of what happened that day. I didn’t think that partners’ reports would perfectly align, but I was definitely surprised to find that in both studies partners only detected half of each other’s sacrifices!

This work also showed the impact that perceiving versus missing a partner’s sacrifice may have: people feel a boost in gratitude towards their partner and are more likely to then also express that gratitude to their partner, resulting in both partners feeling happier in the relationship. On the flipside, not recognizing each other’s sacrifices makes the recipient miss out on that gratitude boost and leaves the sacrificing partner feel unappreciated and dissatisfied—after all, they tried to support their partner’s wishes at a personal cost but didn’t receive any appreciation for this. So next time when you think that maybe your partner did something nice for you, giving them the benefit of the doubt could boost yours and your partner’s happiness in your relationship.

More broadly, this work illustrates the large inaccuracies with which relationship partners perceive each other and has made me believe that there is not one truth that defines a relationship. Partners each have their own experiences of a relationship—in some ways we share our lives but in separate worlds. And this doesn’t get better with time. In fact, while we don’t get more accurate in reading a relationship partner’s thoughts, motivations and behaviours, people often think they do! As a result, our perceptions become more driven by assumptions and we may fail to check in about what a partner is actually experiencing.

Valentine’s day – people either love it or hate it – why do you think this is?

I think that Valentine’s Day—a day on which we’re told to celebrate love—puts up a mirror and whether we like or hate its reflection may depend on whether we like what we see.

Being in a wonderful relationship, completely in love, surely will make this day a lot more enjoyable than when we’re involuntary single, or when a relationship is not going so well. It may also be especially hard for people who are in the middle of processing a romantic break-up – which can hurt in a way that mimics physical pain, so it cuts on a deep level. Valentine’s may be a painful reminder of what one just lost.

Personally, I think traditions like Valentine’s Day and more broadly how relationships are portrayed in pop culture may unfairly make people believe that they need to be in a relationship, to be in a perfect relationship, and for that relationship to be perfect all the time. That simply doesn’t align with reality and by setting the bar so high it’s easy to fall short of expectations. Why buy flowers on Valentine’s Day, paying premium, when you could spontaneously surprise a loved one at any point in time? Positive surprises tend to be more appreciated anyways. 

That being said, we could see days like this just as an opportunity to celebrate what we have, just like we do with birthdays and other anniversaries. Relationships easily get into routines and I think that reminders to take a pause and appreciate what we have should always be welcomed—but perhaps in a way that is authentic to oneself, on people’s own terms. And why limit this appreciation to a romantic partner when we could be celebrating any loved ones in our lives? Yes, romantic partners can profoundly benefit our wellbeing, but so can other close relationships. What matters is that people feel socially connected—having people in their lives who they feel close to, can turn to for support, and can enjoy life with.

What are your future plans for research and public engagement work?

In my future work, I aim to dive deeper into couples’ navigation of larger sacrifices, such as when one partner supports the other’s wish to move to a different city or even country to support their career ambitions. I also aim to look at larger sacrifices stemming from cultural values and lifestyles, such as learning a new language, giving up eating certain foods, or adapting to family traditions.

One reason why I aim to understand such larger sacrifices is because I think that—while they may be especially costly—they may also provide unique opportunities to gain new experiences, learn new things about a partner, ourselves, and the world we live in. The novelty and variety that this may bring can spark experiences of personal growth (often called “self-expansion”), which is a key ingredient to keeping relationships satisfying. I aim to uncover how we can benefit such process in the context of sacrifices; turning an adversity into an opportunity.

Another reason why I aim to better understand couples’ resolution of cultural differences is because I wonder if by learning to engage with each other’s differences at home—a context in which we may be most motivated to do so—we may promote our tolerance and openness to engage with differences in society at large. My hope is that such insights may contribute to combatting polarization and promote integration and mutual inspiration.

To disseminate insights, I love giving talks to general audiences in which I reflect on ways to maintain satisfying relationships, such as maintaining a healthy balance between personal and relationship needs, being responsive to each other’s needs and expressing gratitude, and engaging in novel activities that spark excitement and personal growth. In the future I would also like to do more specific consultancy work, giving scientifically-grounded relationship advice, which I think is especially important given that there’s so much unscientific relationship advice circling around. I would also like to learn more from people’s own experiences and use this as inspiration for my future work, so a more bottom-up approach to address important questions about relationships that matter to people.

Mariko Visserman recently joined the School of Psychology at Sussex after obtaining her PhD in The Netherlands and working as a Postdoctoral Researcher and Lecturer in Canada. You can find out more about Mariko’s work from her Sussex profile and her website which also includes media articles and infographics illustrating her work.

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2 comments on “Romantic relationships: a psychologist’s view
  1. Chris Bocay says:


    It was interesting to read your article. I especially liked your description about romantic partners and how well they note whether or not their partner has made any sacrifices for them.

    Unlike you, however, I wasn’t surprised by the findings. Actually, I was amazed that they even recognized 50% of each other’s sacrifices!

    This is, according to me, expected, for several reasons. One reason is that people are seldom as interested in other people as they may say that they are. And even if they may be interested in them, that is most often in a “curiosity” way, as opposed to in a “serving” way.

    Another factor is “time”. In the beginning of a romantic relationship there may be a strong interest in the other party, and therefore the attention on the other partner may be quite high. But after a while, even though one may still “love” the other party, one’s attention on the other is not what it once was. For after some time the usual story is that each of the partners start taking the other more or less for granted (but perhaps not equally so).

    A third factor is “power”. Who has more money, fame, or beauty, of the two partners? Although this was not discussed in your article, it’s an interesting parameter to contemplate. For there is always a certain power balance in every relationship (whether a romantic one, or otherwise).

    So my guess is then that those having the most power in the relationship will not only NOT be interested in doing very many sacrifices, but also typically be uninterested in what the other partner is sacrificing, as long as the other partner plays along and accepts doing most of the sacrificing.

    Finally, I liked your point about people often THINK that they get better in reading their partner’s thoughts, although they don’t actually get better. I totally buy that!

    Have a GREAT day!
    Chris Bocay

    • Mariko says:

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks so much for your reflection on these findings, it’s very interesting to hear your thoughts! I would have replied earlier, but I’m just seeing your response now, thanks for your patience!

      Regarding the role of people’s power and influence in their relationships: Indeed, it’s possible that people with a great(er) sense of power in their relationship may be less willing to make sacrifices for their partner and relationship. On the other hand, people generally seem to feel more satisfied in relationships in which they feel more equal (and often we see that partners have a similar sense of power, with each partner having a say in the relationship). In short, it’s possible that even when one partner has substantially more power in the relationship, and may sacrifice less, such relationship may be less satisfying and viable over time.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, very much appreciated!

      All the best,

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