Researching Relationships

Cheryl Carmichael studies theĀ ways in which social interactions between close relationship partners impact well-being.

On Friday, March 29, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Brooklyn College Cheryl L. Carmichael presented her research on perceived partner responsiveness in a Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NASC) Colloquium lecture titled, “Optimizing Well-being Through Close Relationships.”

Carmichael studies close relationships and their effects on health and seeks to understand how everyday behaviors can indicate responsiveness. Focusing on affectionate touch and text messaging, she investigates how these behaviors are related to close relationships and their functionality.

Carmichael explained that emotionally close and healthy relationships are tied to longevity and physical health. Factors such as exercising, healthy diets, proper amounts of sleep and abstaining from tobacco use are crucial to increasing longevity, but Carmichael pointed out that the meta-analysis from over 100 studies indicate that people with stronger social relationships have an overall 50 percent increase in odds of survival.

“[Close social relationships are] just as big if not a bigger predictor of decreased mortality,” Carmichael said.

One of the things Carmichael studies is the role that relationships have in different demographics. Information seeking is the goal of people 18-22 years old, and young adults tend to prioritize quantity of relationships over quality. However, around age 30, people tend to seek out emotionally-close relationships and their number of friendships dwindle; the social goal of adults is to find emotional closeness. Social scenes change accordingly; as people age from young adults into their 30s, there is less same-sex socializing and less group socializing.

Carmichael wanted to prove her hypothesis that people around age 20 favor quantity of friendships and that adults in their 30s emphasize quality of relationships. Furthermore, she wanted to prove this shift from quantity to quality increases psychological well-being in older people around age 50. Carmichael had access to data from a group of about 100 people that recorded their social interactions in their 20s and then again in their 30s. She tracked those people down, who are now in their 50s, and had them report on their mental health and the stability of their relationships. Her findings were congruent with her hypothesis.

“More frequent social activity at age 20 is associated with better quality friendships at age 50 [and] age 30 interaction quality is positively associated with higher levels of friendship quality at age 50,” Carmichael said.

She also found evidence of increased psychological well-being and happiness in the adults whose social patterns followed the trend of quantity transitioning to quality. Carmichael is curious about what contributes to high relationship quality.

“High quality of interactions is characterized by high levels of perceived partner responsiveness,” Carmichael said.

Perceived partner responsiveness is exhibited in three ways: understanding, such as having accurate insight into your partner’s thoughts and emotions; validation, such as respecting your partner’s emotions; and caring, such as expressing concern. This responsiveness is typically expressed through verbal cues (and text messaging today) or through touch.

A large quantity of communications is taking place through text messaging, Carmichael explained; over 75 percent of Americans report owning a smartphone and 80 percent of people surveyed say that the primary use of their cellphone is for texting. Carmichael recognizes the benefits of these computer-mediated connections.

“[Smartphones help people to] maintain connections with close others, increase relationship quality and promote intimacy,” Carmichael said.

Some of Carmichael’s research focuses on the use of emojis in text conversations and their role in discussions.

“A popular way to express sentiment without words through text messages is with emojis,” Carmichael said.

Carmichael noticed enhanced partner responsiveness when both the sender and the recipient used emojis; she explained that senders, who in her experiment were disclosing something negative, felt they were not being taken as seriously by the recipient when the recipient used emojis and the sender had not.

Carmichael explained that this response is congruent with other psychological research.

“Social mimicry is important in face-to-face interactions, so it stands that it could be important in text exchanges,” Carmichael said.

When interactions are taking place in person, Carmichael elucidated the importance of affectionate touch.

“In an intimate context, touch has been shown to ease tension and fear, increase mood, intimacy and well-being and promote physiological function,” Carmichael said.

Receiving and providing touch are equally beneficial and are associated with increased closeness, more accommodating behavior and decreased stress.

Carmichael ended by answering the overall question of her lecture.

“How can our relationships help us to maximize our well-being?” Carmichael asked.

It is important to engage in more physical contact with your partner, share good news with close others, include emojis and, if in an emotional state, whether it be good or bad, disclose to someone whom you know effectively helps you feel the way you want to feel.

Contact Isabelle Sapountzis at isapountzis@colgate.edu

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