When her husband has a bad day, Lisa M. Jaremka mentally reviews the research on how to offer him what he needs. "If he's asking for a solution to a problem, effective support would be providing a solution," says Jaremka, a social psychology graduate student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "If he just wants to get something off his chest, effective support would be to listen."
Jaremka knows such support is crucial to the long-term survival of romantic relationships.
But many partners, however well-intentioned, often don't give their loved ones what they need. "There is no objective 'good' support," says Jaremka. "You have to tailor the support to what the person needs."
Thinking about such relationship matters isn't just a way to keep her 7-year-old marriage strong; relationships are also the focus of her research. "When I was trying to decide whether I wanted to be a clinical psychologist or a social psychologist, knowing that my research could really help people helped me make the decision to go into social psychology," she says. "I want to be in that role of improving people's lives, of helping people have good relationships."
Jaremka realized just how important relationships are to people's happiness while conducting research for her undergraduate honor's thesis at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She asked college students and middle-aged adults about their most emotional experiences. Overwhelmingly, the participants described events that focused on relationships with other people rather than those that were more centered on themselves, such as academic achievements, work or hobbies. Her results are in press at the Journal of Self and Identity.
"It was through that experience of actually doing research in a social psychology lab that I just totally fell in love [with psychology]," Jaremka says.
After graduating in 2004, she took a year off to prepare for grad school and took a full-time job in the lab of psychology professor Sandra Murray, PhD, of SUNY Buffalo. Murray had just launched a five-year study of the factors, such as initially idealizing a less-than-ideal partner, that keep newlyweds together during the first few years of marriage.
Now Jaremka is focusing her dissertation research on relationships gone wrong — what happens both psychologically and physiologically when people experience rejection. For most people, says Jaremka, rejection is devastating. People's self-esteem often plummets and they may even lash out at the person who rejected them.
In addition, rejection activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which prepares the body for fight, flight or other action. "If the HPA axis is repeatedly activated or stays active longer than it normally would, that creates a lot of wear and tear on the body," says Jaremka. Such overactivation is linked to cardiovascular disease and other stress-related conditions.
For her dissertation research, Jaremka will simulate rejection in the lab. Participants will exchange getting-acquainted type information with each other, then learn — falsely — that their partners weren't interested in getting to know them any better.
To assess the effects of that rejection, Jaremka will use three strategies. Surveys will capture how the experience makes participants feel emotionally and how it makes them feel about themselves. She'll also look at behavioral measures, including the "hot-sauce paradigm," in which participants have an opportunity to give their partners hot sauce, knowing that they don't like it and that they're going to have to drink it. "It's been used in prior research as a measure of aggression," Jaremka explains. She'll also use saliva tests to examine the effect of rejection on certain hormones within the HPA axis.
"You can learn quite a bit about a person's current physiological state through their saliva," she says.
Her broader goal is to understand how our psychology is reflected in our physiology. More specifically, she hopes to solve the puzzle of how activation of the HPA axis is related to behavior after rejection. "We know that behaviors can cause the release of hormones," she says, "but whether or not hormones influence future behavior is a little less clear."
Jaremka's adviser, social psychology professor Nancy L. Collins, PhD, is thrilled by this novel approach. "If she's able to find the links between biology and different social outcomes — for example, when do people respond to rejection with aggression and when do they respond by seeking social support — it could open up a whole new area of research," she says.
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.