Episode #48 – How to build relationships with other couples, the impact of COVID on relationships (both good and bad), the most significant predictors of friendship, and more!
We speak with Rich Slatcher, who runs the Close Relationship Laboratory at the University of Georgia. Rich has spent his career researching the effects of people’s close relationships on their health and well-being. Rich is also one of the lead researchers on the effects of COVID on people’s relationships, Love in the Time of Covid.
Highlights of our discussion include:
How COVID has impacted relationships (so far)
Where Zoom works well and where it can be destructive
Why Remote Work may be here to stay
Some of the biggest predictors of whether a friendship will start
How to Supercharge your Friendship with other Couples
Enjoy this episode!
Will Braunstein, A Dad’s Path: Hello, and welcome to another episode of A Dad’s Path Podcast. I’m Will Braunstein. Today we’re speaking with Rich Slatcher, who runs the Close Relationship Laboratory at the University of Georgia. The Close Relationship Lab explores the science of relationships. Today we’re going to dive in on relationships as a dad, marriage, and more. You can check out Rich’s work at richslatcher.com. Welcome, Rich.
Rich Slatcher, Close Relationship Lab: Oh, it’s great to be here, Will. Thanks for having me.
Will: Thanks a lot for coming on. We want to start with a study that you’ve been working on, I think an overview just came out on the effect of COVID on people’s social relationships. Loveinthetimeofcovid.me. It sounds really interesting. Can you talk about that for us a little bit?
Rich: Sure. My background is in the science of relationships. I teach classes on relationships and have been doing research in this area for, I guess better part of 20 years now. When March of 2020 came, we had a few in-person psychology research studies going on, and then when COVID hit, of course, everything totally shut down, like many others.
I was spending a lot of time online on Twitter, and there were a lot of psychology professors that were posting things about like, what are we going to do now? I think good number of people thought that this wasn’t going to last that long, but I had a sense. My wife had been very closely following everything since like January or December of even the previous year, but closely for a couple months, she convinced me that it was going to be a while.
When I saw a tweet from a grad student in the Netherlands named Giulia Zoppolat who was interested in doing a study on relationships during COVID, I replied to that tweet as did another colleague who I know, Rhonda Balzarini, and we had a meeting set up that week. Two weeks later, we had a website, had all of the surveys in place for what we wanted to measure.
The idea was, and is to just really see how the pandemic has impacted people’s relationships, but also generally just how happy and healthy they are. We’re looking at a variety of factors associated with happiness and success of people’s relationships. It’s grown to be a bigger project than we initially thought we’ve had, I think 13 waves of data collection at this point, the survey’s about 10 or 15 minutes. We had 5,000 in the very beginning and now have a core group of about 500 or 600 that have stayed with us for the whole study, which is pretty neat.
We’re trying to answer lots of questions. One of the more fun, new questions that we’re asking deals with, how pets are impacting or impacted us during the pandemic, how a lot of people talked about on social media, just how they got a dog or they got a cat or whatever, and just how helpful it’s been to have pets during the pandemic. We have these collaborators that have just heard about the study.
I’ve given academic talks on this project and people have really made the data very easily accessible to people, to other researchers. A lot of other people have come in and are now analyzing the data, which is fun. That’s one of the pet project is one of those.
It’s been a great way to, for me personally, to really find meaning during the pandemic when we were spending a lot of time at home and was fun to work with people who I’d never worked with before and connect with them and it’s been great. We were one of the first studies to get up and running. I think that was helpful too. As you just said, the most recent paper we just came out with is a big review of all the research that’s been done so far on relationships during COVID.
Will: Well, give us the secret. What did you find from the overview or from all the studies, what are some of the findings maybe starting there?
Rich: I’ll tell you some interesting counterintuitive findings. A couple spent inordinate amounts of time together, especially for the first six to 12 months of the pandemic. We asked the research question to what extent is spending all of this extra time together, good or bad for relationships. When I usually ask friends about this and I ask, “Do you think that all that time people spent together led people to, for example, be more or less bored in their relationship?” Almost universal response is “Well, probably more bored because they’re just spending all this time together. They’re sick of each other, right?”
Well, what we found was actually quite the opposite. The more time people were spending together with their partners, the less bored they were in their relationship. That was driven by people having time to explore new things together. They would bake together or they would go on, walks together, go on hikes together, cook together. That was a fun finding and I guess encouraging.
One of the things that we found in the early days of the pandemic, the first few months. A lot of our focus has been on those first few months, because I think in some ways they’re the most interesting because there’s so much uncertainty and the novelty of it all and everything was that people who were writing about their relationship, those people who had romantic partners, whether they’d be married or dating, we asked them to write about that for a few minutes, just to tell us, “How’s your relationship doing?”
One of the most common responses was I feel guilty saying this, but things are going great for me right now because I’m getting to spend a lot of quality time with my partner. People whose spouses maybe had worked a ton before the pandemic were at the office a lot, they were getting a chance to spend more time with, and people had to, by virtue of social distancing, prune, most of their social lives. You have this time that people got together, that really was good for a lot of couples.
Now, of course, it wasn’t good for everybody. One of the things we found was that if your relationship was on the rocks, going into the pandemic, by and large, it was very likely to just get worse. We’ve all heard that people with young kids struggled the most. People that have kids, the ones with young kids, that really struggle the most because of difficulty with daycare and just the perils of online learning. Outside of that group, we were surprised that a lot of people were doing pretty well during the pandemic in terms of their relationships.
Will: That’s really a positive finding, you said, pretty encouraging. I think it goes both ways. The spouses who are working a lot are now saying, wow, that that was actually a positive experience. I need to find better work-life balance. That’s maybe why we’re seeing more of the push towards remote work or the hybrid environment anyway.
As you said there’s a big push or there’s a lot more time you’re spending with your partner, your spouse, because you’re not going out, especially the first part of the pandemic. Friendships, I think, tended to take more work to keep going. It certainly had some challenges there. Did you have any findings from your study on friendships,
Rich: We did those people who were able to figure out how to navigate social distancing, well. In Georgia and Colorado, I imagine it was a little bit easier because we had fairly mild climates to do outside things. Those people who were able to spend more time with friends in person really benefited from that. They had, when we followed up with them a couple of months later, they were doing much better than those people who weren’t spending time with friends.
We looked at one of the big things that we’ve looked at has been Zoom, which never thought I would study that before the pandemic. That’s been pretty interesting too. Our initial findings were that Zooming with family seemed to be more beneficial for people’s well-being than Zooming with friends, perhaps because people hadn’t been in as close contact with family as they were during the pandemic, and by and large people focused on their closest relationships when they were doing Zoom.
The other thing we found was that smaller Zoom calls of with one or two other people were much more promoting of social connection than larger Zoom calls. In fact, extroverts especially seemed to dislike the larger Zoom calls. We found that was because they’re not able to talk and they’re not able to be responded to. Those two things are two really key ingredients to building social connection, what we call self-disclosure and responsiveness, partner responsiveness.
In a big Zoom call, you just can’t have that. You don’t have the social cues that you can pick up on that people are actually paying attention to. Whereas one on one video call like we’re having here, it’s much easier to pick up on people’s social cues, even when we can’t look each other exactly in the eye, I can tell you’re paying attention actively. That’s led to some other experiments that we’re doing now in with my graduate students looking at the effects of Zoom. We did a study of daily life that we’re analyzing the data now for winter of 2021 basically 6 months or so after the pandemic started where we had people– We asked them what they were doing throughout the day. If they were Zooming or with people in person and in Georgia, we had a lot of people by that time that we’re spending a lot of time in person with other people. We had pretty good variability in that, so yes, it’s opened up a whole new realm of research questions for us.
Will: I’m sure. Yes, Zoom to me was a lifesaver. In a lot of ways, being able to connect with friends that I actually wouldn’t normally see, that was also interesting is sometimes the friends I would normally get a drink with. Then it was also friends from college or friends in the past revisiting that.
The one challenge I’ve found since then, though, I’ll tell you is before COVID, I think we had more happenstance or random phone calls, a friend would call me, I’d call them. Whereas with Zoom it’s much more scheduled. Even though we’re not doing the scheduled Zooms anymore, I think we just need to get used to going back to the more regular, but not planned calls.
Rich: Yes, there’s going to be a transition for a while. I think depending upon what part of the country you’re in, you still feel more or less you’re still in the pandemic. Here in Georgia and in the south, a lot of people have been for the most part living their lives as they used to, but we have several friends and family in California and it’s quite different there.
Will: Yes, no, it’s like you said, a lot of variability around the country here and regardless, we’re all trying to keep our friendships and build them. The other challenge I think that I found was I had some new friendships that felt like they could become real friendships, but then when COVID hit, it was this isn’t someone I can really Zoom with, that thing.
Rich: Yes, we faced that. My kids, because we moved here to Athens, Georgia in the fall of 2019. They were just getting friendships going by March and then everything shut down. My kids ended up spending more time connecting with old friends back in Michigan.
It wasn’t until they resumed school in the fall in person that fall of 2020, which I feel fortunate. They were able to swing it with mask protocol and stuff that they really were able to form those connections so you’re right. For the newer friendships, they were either put on hold or maybe even never came back after the pandemic, yes.
Will: If we take a step back from COVID, but just focus on relationships and friendships I think I have some very close friends from growing up. I’m fortunate that way, a close one from growing up here in Denver, I can still hang out with and his kid. Then I also have friendships that I’ve fallen into through my kids’ friends. Some of those, especially at first, didn’t work out and it wasn’t because of me or them. They’re just not really my people.
At first, I felt bad about it. Why am I not making friends or the people I’m meeting aren’t my people? Then over time, I found there are my people, you just have to find them and balance. Some of them are also have kids who are friends. I’d love for you to comment on how you can supercharge that initial part of friendship, how do you get things going?
Rich: Social lives for those with young kids are really weird. You do have these friendships of convenience. I know as a social psychologist, that probably the biggest predictor of whether or not two people are going to be friends is not how similar their personalities are or other kinds of psychological factors. It’s how much they see one another, how close they live to one another.
For most parents, their lives are just totally wrapped up in their kids for those first several years, but especially the first few years as you’re adapting to parenthood. It makes sense if you’re going to be forming new friends, they’re going to be with those people. How do you supercharge it? I guess my advice would be, try to engage with as many of those parents as you can when you drop off if your kid’s in daycare, preschool. If there’s some kid birthday party that you go to interact try to get to know some of the parents.
Then be choosy. I think there’s an inclination. You’re so starved for adult human connection outside of your spouse, that you might jump into something, wanting to be friends with somebody. When if you’d met them at a party three years ago, you would’ve thought that was a pleasant conversation, but I don’t necessarily need to see that person again.
Just at any other point in your life, you’re going to have access to a lot of people who might be potential friends. You just need to have that pool approaching as large as it was before, just rather than going out to bars or hanging out with friends at parties in college, you’re hanging out at kids’ birthday parties.
Will: Yes, it’s a different hangout. I think as parents, especially new parents, we can get in ruts, any of us. I’ve also found reach out and reach out multiple times just because someone doesn’t reply once there’s going to be a time when you’re not going to reply once and you’re going to really be grateful if they keep reaching out to you.
Rich: Force yourself to do things that are social. I think in inclination of new parents, and this was just exacerbated by the pandemic is to just hunker down. That’s what you don’t want to do when you have young kids, you want to maintain those social networks that are so important to rely on, not in times of need, but also just to rely on for social connection.
I think it’s a pretty common mistake that a lot of parents of young kids make in not making that extra effort, which is hard when you’re totally exhausted and sleep-deprived.
I’ve seen through personal experience and also research just how important those relationships are in the early lives of your kid. What a lot of people don’t know is that when you have a kid it’s the beginning of a long decline in marital satisfaction.
[chuckles] It is a very stressful time for parents and just as humans. Anytime we have stressors like that, it can really negatively impact our relationships. It’s also really, really important for new parents, new dads to really try to have some fun with your spouse and do things where you go out just together or you carry the kid with you in the car carrier or whatever and keep that connection strong.
The people that I’ve known that are happiest and that adjustment to parenthood are still doing that. I’ve impressed. There’s a colleague I have in my department at UGA who he studies parenting in young childhood and I’ve been impressed three months, four months after he had his kid we’re playing tennis once a week and his wife is still riding her horse. They’re able to navigate that really well and take turns watching the kid so that they can have their own social lives. They can maintain that, but then they’re also going out together with the kid and just bringing the kid along so that’s really, really important.
Will: That’s fantastic because as we started the conversation with COVID and the effect on relationships, well, for a lot of people, that’s now over, or now we’re in a different stage, so we’re back to, Hey, I’ve got this stressful and beautiful relationship. I think you’ve done research on it, showing the links between how satisfied people are in their marriage and how physically healthy they are over time.
Rich: Absolutely. Yes.
Will: You got that from your website and you don’t know why that is.
Rich: Yes, we don’t. We know what some of the psychological factors that explain it are, but we have really very little idea biologically, why it’s the case? One of the most replicated findings certainly in psychology and medicine is that the more socially connected people are the longer they live. It’s a big effect, bigger than the negative effects of smoking bigger than exercise. It’s huge.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad from Brigham Young University who I’m collaborating with on a really fun project right now, looking at events that are hosted on the site EventBrite, That puts on a lot of different kinds of events, concerts, but also things like wine tastings and things like that. We’re trying to figure out what kinds of aspects of events that they’re hosting are promoting of social connection.
She really made a name for herself in this research where she looked at social relationships and mortality. We find that when you look at different kinds of relationships, basically the higher quality relationships are associated with better health. The higher quality parent-child relationships are associated with better health and health-related biology, but there’s really a lot to learn about that.
That was actually a little bit frustrating to me as a researcher, that it was so difficult and it’s very, very expensive to do that research when you’re looking at biomarkers and, and things like that. In part, because of the pandemic, but also a natural shift to my research, because I’ve been getting back to my roots as a social psychologist and really focusing on more broadly than how relationships impact health, how they impact wellbeing, why do they make us happy? That’s been pretty fun.
Will: That’s awesome. What I’d love to chat about a little bit more on the marriage front is couples with couple friends because I think that’s another thing that can be lost. I think you’ve done some studies on that.
Rich: I have. Yes, I’m one of the few people that it’s actually done research in that area. Now I see why because it’s really hard to do this research. It’s hard enough to get couples in the lab, but getting two couples in the lab at the same time presents some logistical and recruitment difficulties. Yes, this was work that I started quite a while ago.
Actually, it was the first project I did on couple friends was for my dissertation back at the University of Texas and it was driven by– Well, partly personal experience. My wife and I really benefited from having close friends together with other people.
Also in digging in the literature, there seemed to be a real gap. There were a lot of correlational findings where it showed that people who have couples who have a larger number of shared friends with their spouse tended to be happier. There’s a directionality issue here where it could be actually that people who are happier in their relationships are just seeking out more couple friends. I wanted to do as an experimental social psychologist, I wanted to do a lab experiment where we actually created a friendship in the lab.
We have this great paradigm tool that we use that’s called the fast friends. This is actually a lot of people are familiar with it, not the name of it, but the actual thing itself, because it was the basis for this New York Times article several years ago called 36 Questions to Fall in Love. I encourage you and your listeners to google that and check it out but it was basically something developed so that in the lab, over the course of 45 minutes, you could create some semblance of a friendship.
It’s based on people asking each other questions that are preformatted to build a relationship, so starting with questions, like if there was any person dead or alive that you could have as a dinner guest, who would it be? What’s your favorite childhood memory? Then asking increasingly disclosing questions, really condensing a process that usually unfolds over weeks or months into 45 minutes. We use this, it’s been used to create friendships between individuals and just see how the friendship formation process unfolds.
I thought it’d be great for forming couple friendships. We brought pairs of couples in, and have them go through this fast friends thing. We followed up with couples a month later and at least a third of them actually became friends in real life with the other couple, which is a pretty high number considering all the couples you might meet at parties and things like that. It’s not a third of them necessarily that I want to become friends with. That was pretty cool.
Will: Did you ask the same questions to the couples, as you would to an individual?
Rich: We did, we didn’t want to make it too focused on the relationship. We didn’t want to deviate too much. Of course, people talked about their relationship when things what’s your best recent memory that would often involve people’s partners, but it was more like how you might cause if you’re on a double date with another couple, you’re probably not talking about your relationship that much. You’re talking about a ton of things you’re talking about yourself and you might talk about your partner, but it’d be like my wife did this cool thing, last week or whatever.
What we found in addition to really being able to create couple friendships, we found evidence for this causal direction of couple friendships, positively impacting people’s relationships. After immediately following this, this double date with another couple people felt better about their own relationship later studies that we conducted, found that people felt more passionately in love with their partners and passions, a really hard thing to boost in relationships.
We know that one of the things that do that are novel and exciting activities for couples to do. This one might be just a novel thing that they did, but the explanation for it was in part how responsive the other couple was to you and your partner. If we’re having this group interaction and you feel like the other couples really listening to you, they’re really interested, they really get where you’re coming from.
You’re more likely to feel good about your own partner. It’s looking to other people for cues about your relationship. You see that they seem to be having a good time with you and therefore, wow. I must be in a good relationship that makes me feel better about my own partner because other people like us together.
Will: That makes a lot of sense.
Rich: It was fun to do that research, not easy, but, I really liked it and I think it has a lot of real-world implications.
Will: For sure, that really also goes back to what you’re saying about being proactive again, because, I feel I have a fair number of friends and friendships and couples and couples friends who are gosh, it is so hard sometimes just to get anyone out on a double date.
Rich: Do you all use babysitters?
Will: Yep, we have babysitters, but, some of us our babysitters are their parents who, can babysit from 5:00 to 7:00 or there’s always different restrictions.
Rich: You have to be flexible. Right. That was a game changer for my wife and me when our kids were able to be on their own. We spent a sabbatical in Switzerland from 2015 to ’16 and my oldest son had just turned 12. It was a very safe, small little Swiss village. We were able to leave the kids by themselves for a couple of hours to go out to dinner and stuff. It was just awesome.
We’re very close with our kids, but it’s stressful to find babysitters and it’s difficult and costs money and things like that. When we moved to Athens, we moved to actually a very central location right next to downtown so that it’s easy for all of us to really get out there and be social and have these kinds of everyday informal interactions that were lost during the pandemic.
There’s been some interesting research showing that interacting with strangers is actually really beneficial for your happiness talking to a bartender, just chatting with people randomly that you see out. That’s been really fun for both us and our kids to just be able to do that. For my wife and me to have the flexibility after we go out to dinner now that our kids are older and we see the Georgia theaters have some band playing and it sounds fun just to go in there and do it. You’re right. It involves more planning, and you have to be flexible, but there are ways to do it too. We definitely tried as best that we could during those babysitting years to do it at least a couple of times a month.
Will: You also brought up an interesting topic there of that it is really beneficial for us to be talking to a bartender, and having these random interactions, which we didn’t get as much. By the same token, we have kids, most of us on this podcast who are listening, young kids, and they’re in that same boat. I think it’s important, even if you’re not feeling like you want to go out if safety’s not the issue in your head, then I think it’s beneficial to get your kids out there, go to the park, get them interacting and might push you out of your comfort zone. Might push them outta their comfort zone. For them, especially it’s so important.
Rich: Everything out there suggests all the research out there suggests that it’s a really good idea to do that. When people are depressed, the last thing that they often want to do is go out and socialize. It’s ironic that one of the best things to alleviate depression is going out and being social. You get back home and you’re like, I’m actually glad I did that.
It was hard to, get out there and I’m glad to be home, but it was good.
I think now that people are now that we’re coming out of the pandemic and people are readjusting to socializing. Some people are a little bit skittish, not even necessarily because of health concerns, but just as they’re just not used to doing that anymore they’ve gotten into their routines watching Netflix or whatever, but it is so important to do that.
Also, we talked about double dates, but it’s also really important to maintain those friendships that you have outside of the relationship. It’s in a lot of ways easier to do that if both you and your partner are on the same page about that if both of you have a desire to do that, to a trade-off. “I’ll watch, I’ll be with the kids tonight. You go out with your friends.” There’s another thing I want to do later this week poker game or something, then I want to be with my friends. There’s a lot of negotiating that happens, which isn’t always easy, but it’s really important to do that.
Will: Totally agree. It’s just part of the balance of life and before we had kids.
Rich: It’s all about balance, if there’s one thing that I’ve strived for as a parent, it is it’s having that balance.
Will: Absolutely, and there are times when certain things will tug more and you’ll need to give them more attention, but we’re all on this journey together. Doing the best we can.
Rich: There are certainly plenty of I’ve been talking a lot about the selfish needs and I don’t use that term as a value-laden one, but just literally about the self that we have as parents. You’re also having a balance to want to spend quality time with your kids.
There are plenty of times where I’ve wanted to go and I have gone to my kid’s soccer game and had forgotten some, some other social opportunity that might have been really fun, but we want to be with our kids and, and watch them grow up. Also, I think part of this balance is modeling for the kids. How you can have a life of balance.
Will: Well, thank you, Rich, for joining us here. This has been an incredible talk. I’m really excited to listen again. You can find Rich’s work at richslatcher.com.
Rich: Thanks for having me, Will, I really enjoyed it.