By: Cassandra Aquart February 8, 2017
Finding a career path that you love in college isn’t easy. There are a lot of false starts disguised as love at first sight. And then there’s the heartbreak when you realize your desired career path isn’t working out. But if you keep following your curiosity, you’ll stumble onto a career path you love. That’s exactly what Dr. Marisa Cohen did. As an undergraduate, she flirted with her interests, and eventually found long-lasting love when she married her passion for educational and developmental psychology by entering into the relationship science domain.
Dr. Cohen discovered her love for psychology, research, and academia at Cornell. When her coursework as a Bio & Society major intertwined with human development, she loved it! “I really liked how you learn things that you can apply to your life. Psychology gives you a better understanding of who are you are as a person, and how to relate to others.” As a TA, she unearthed her passion for teaching and working with students. And she also dabbled in different research areas, eventually settling on educational research—while obtaining Ph.D.—that focused on how students assess their knowledge.
Following her curiosity, Dr. Cohen’s educational research intersected organically with developmental psychology, touching upon the periphery of relationships: how students engage with school. That realization led her back to Cornell in 2012 to take Dr. Cynthia Hazan’s human bonding course, igniting a passion in her to refocus her research on relationship science: what makes relationships thrive, and peoples’ perception of love and fidelity.
Today, Dr. Cohen (class of 2006) is an Associate Professor of Psychology at St. Francis College, and co-founder of the Self-Awareness & Bonding Lab. We caught up with her to learn more about relationship science, and gain some insight on how we can use science to reignite or sprinkle some extra passion in our relationships.
How can science help people find love? Is it not just about finding someone you have chemistry with, and shared interests and values?
We can use science to help inform our decision. As for looking for people that are similar to us, that’s actually a really important principle of relationship science that a lot of people don’t realize. The old adage that opposites attract is not true. It’s really birds of a feather flock together. So, it’s important that people ask all of these difficult questions early on in the relationship to find out about values, morals, and beliefs. You really want to find a person that’s similar to you.
So, why do people say opposites attract?
To an extent, we also want people to round us out. If you have a weakness in one area, it’s nice to have that in your partner so that person can help build you up in that area. The similarities have to be in the core traits: values, beliefs, and morals. For example, if you like pop music and the other person hates pop music, that doesn’t mean you are dissimilar and the relationship is not going to work. It’s nice to have someone that has different interests on the surface; that person can add to the relationship and push you in areas that you might not be familiar with. But the similarities are really important when it comes to those things that you hold dear to your heart, and from which you guide your life.
How important is the first date? And if one person thinks that the first date is a disaster, should he or she give the person a second chance? After all, some people are very nervous.
It’s really important. However, I wouldn’t completely rule out a person just based upon the first date for exactly the reasons that you mentioned. People are nervous. We go in with high expectations. We’re worried about how the other person is going to perceive us, and we might not always present our best self because of our anxiety. So, I encourage people to give the person another opportunity.
Also, it is really important to build a connection with the person even if you’re nervous. My relationship research, specifically on first dates, shows that we’re reading the other person’s verbal and nonverbal behaviors. And we’re constantly looking at whether our date is communicating interest in us. If that person seems closed off and uninterested, we shut down, and the first date is over before it’s physically over. So, even if you’re nervous, it’s important to let the other person know that you’re interested.
So, why do some relationships flourish and others fizzle?
First, it’s really about understanding yourself and what you want out of a relationship. Too often people just jump into a relationship that they otherwise might not have if they had a better understanding of what they wanted out of the relationship. Again, it goes back to making sure that you can build a life with this person, sharing similarities and values.
Also, relationships are hard work. To just maintain a relationship (and we’re not even talking about a happy relationship), the ratio of positive acts to negative acts has to be 5 to 1. And to have a happy relationship, the ratio is 10 to 1. A positive experience, which includes sex and genuine compliments, is any sort of positive interaction. What doesn’t count: saying something negative, and then overcompensating with numerous compliments. You have to genuinely experience five positive acts in your relationship to counteract any negative experience you might have just to maintain it. And negative acts include criticism, or any type of fight.
A lot of people think that relationships end because of fighting, arguing, or infidelity. As Dr. Gottman, a researcher at the University of Washington, said: “Relationships don’t usually end by fire, they end by ice.” That means that if you’re not getting that 5 to1 ratio of positive to negative acts, then you’re emotionally closed off and drift apart. And that’s what ends the relationship. Fighting is ok; it’s communication. It’s how you fight that matters.
What tips do you have for couples looking to improve their relationships?
Going back to the 10 to 1 ratio of positive acts to negative acts, you want to keep the acts heavily weighted towards the positive. And communication is really important. Be open and honest with what you want and what you need out of the relationship even if you are worried about how your partner is going to take it. If it is on your mind and you don’t communicate it, it’s going to seep out in other ways. People’s needs have to be met for the relationship to work.
All the research shows that conflict is fine, if not beneficial, depending on how you fight. If you’re able to fight and express your points of view, that’s good because you’re gaining an understanding about the other person. You’re going to fight. You’re going to have bad days. It’s a work in progress, as it should be.
What are some of the misconceptions people have about relationships?
In addition to the ones mentioned above, another big misconception is that the divorce rate is 50%, which is inaccurate. I’ve read several articles, and some experts say it’s closer to 39%. It’s difficult to estimate because there are many people who cohabitate and might not be legally married. The number is also artificially inflated by people who have been married several times. There are also many other factors to consider such as the age at which you first get married, which can affect the likelihood of getting divorced. Another misconception is that divorce is a bad thing. It’s much better and healthier, especially if kids are involved, to be in an environment where there is no tension and you both grow.
Are you currently working on any new projects?
In addition to the chapter in the human sexuality textbook coming out in June 2017, I just released my first book in December 2016. It’s called “From First Kiss to Forever, A Scientific Approach to Love.” The book explains relationship science in a way for non-scientists to understand the data behind the behaviors that lead to healthy relationships. I also have a couple of studies coming up that I developed with some students. I’m also a contributor to scienceofrelationships.com and will have a blog on Psychology Today called “Finding Love: The Scientific Take.”
What’s your favorite memory of Cornell?
Reunion. I went with my friends to their tenth year reunion in 2014, which was my eighth year reunion. When I go back to Cornell, I always change my social media status, as dorky as this sounds, to say that I’m going home for the weekend. There’s a sense of community there, and my closest friends are all Cornellians. Some of them I knew at Cornell, but most of them I met at alumni events. And the common thread: We all love Cornell and our experiences there.
To learn more about Dr. Cohen, visit www.sfc.edu/sabl!