University of Auckland, New Zealand
What does your research focus on?
Intimate relationships can have immense benefits, such as when support from relationship partners protects individuals from stressful events and helps them reach their personal goals. Close relationships can also undermine psychological and physical wellbeing, such as when couples experience relationship conflict. My research investigates both the benefits and costs of intimate relationships, with a particular emphasis on the relative success of different communication strategies used when couples are trying to resolve relationship problems or support each other. This includes identifying what strategies help couples maintain healthy relationships versus those that lead to dissatisfaction and dissolution.
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
At a general level, I am invested in this area because relationship research is relevant to everybody and has important practical implications. The challenges of dyadic research also mean that relationship researchers adopt novel and cutting-edge methods and analytic techniques.
At a more specific level, what I find most exciting at the moment is that understanding relationship processes requires contrasting effects across partners and across time. For example, our research has shown that the costs and benefits of different communication strategies depend on whose perspective you take — the person wanting change (agent) versus the person targeted for change (target). Not surprisingly, hostile and demanding tactics elicit defensiveness and damage satisfaction in the targeted partner. However, because these same tactics convey the nature and severity of the problem, targets are more likely to change across time, resulting in desired improvement and satisfaction for the partner who wanted change. In contrast, warm and affectionate tactics minimize conflict and preserve targets’ satisfaction, but these tactics downplay the severity of the problem, do little to spur target change, and therefore foster dissatisfaction for the agent who continues to want change. Positive-direct communication strategies, such as reasoning and offering possible solutions, are likely to be the optimal approach for improving relationships because these tactics balance the needs of both partners by producing desired improvement while reassuring targeted partners that they are valued and cared for.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
Garth Fletcher of Victoria University of Wellington and Jeff Simpson of the University of Minnesota motivate me with their passion and knowledge and inspire me to contribute valuable research with tenacity, graciousness, and balance.
To what do you attribute your success in the science?
Garth, Jeff, and determinedly sticking at it until I figure it out.
I also think the review process gets a bad rap — for me, responding to reviews has always resulted in a better product and made me a better scientist. The comments and feedback I have received from leading scholars like John Holmes of the University of Waterloo and Dave Kenny of the University of Connecticut have improved the quality of my work and propelled my research in new directions. These scholars, and others in the US and Canada, are also amazingly accommodating when a Kiwi knocks at their door and asks, “What do you think about …”
What’s your future research agenda?
I have several ongoing research programs I am excited about. All involve adopting a dyadic approach to understanding relationship processes by mapping how the responses of each partner jointly influence the other. The program I mentioned above focuses on identifying the mechanisms through which communication strategies resolve or magnify relationship problems. Another program applies a dyadic perspective to support contexts. Support can have benefits, such as helping people achieve their personal goals, but support can also have costs, such as producing feelings of incompetence and limiting the resources support providers have to fulfil their own needs and goals. The specific types of strategies that both support seekers and support providers use, however, are likely to determine when, and for whom, support will have benefits versus costs. Other processes I am actively investigating involve how partners buffer people’s insecurities, how different contexts influence the accuracy with which intimates understand their partners’ thoughts and feelings, and how sexist attitudes of both men and women shape personal and relationship wellbeing.
Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
As an emerging scholar, the pressure to publish can mean your early career is focused on pumping the research out. Try not to forget why your research is important and the lasting impact you want your research to make. I am trying to take my own advice because I believe it will lead to better, more meaningful research.
What publication are you most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?
Overall, N. C., Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., & Sibley, C. G. (2009). Regulating partners in intimate relationships: The costs and benefits of different communication strategies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 620-639.
In this study, we assessed couples’ communication strategies as they discussed relationship problems and identified the communication strategies that were most likely to produce improvement over time. I selected this paper because it is a good example of the dyadic approach I am committed to and has motivated several of my current studies.