For Laura Sels, not a day goes past without talking about relationships. You could call her a romantic, although she doesn’t necessarily believe in the ‘one and only’. She spends a little too much time looking at things from a research perspective for that: after all, as a postdoc, she is studying emotional processes in romantic relationships. “I can spend hours philosophising and thinking about them. I look forward to actually helping couples in the future.”
“Sometimes I need to be careful not to take my work home too much. When I was single again, following two long relationships, I considered my dating experiences a little too much as an experiment (laughs). I enjoyed dating, but often because I found the whole dating procedure so interesting. It was a really exciting time: my own qualitative study of dating.”
Psychologist and Ghent University researcher Laura Sels laughs as she mentions it. She is currently working in Family Lab, the research group at Ghent University where she looks deeper into relationships.
How did you end up researching relationships?
Laura Sels “I have always been fascinated by them. As a teenager, I used to go to the library to read magazines and books about psychology. Human reasoning, what people do and why, and how they relate to each other: I find it incredibly interesting. During my psychology studies I suddenly saw there was something called ‘relationship research’ involving the investigation of love and relationships. I instantly knew that that was what I wanted to do.”
You weren't interested in becoming a relationship therapist?
“When I started my studies I did want to become a therapist. I could picture myself: someone there on a bench with their problems and me sitting opposite them in a brown armchair (laughs). However, during my studies I found the question ‘why do people do that’ much more interesting than the applied side of things. I soon realised that I was keen to research it. I am now focusing on how we can understand emotional processes in romantic relationships, and also end up improving them.”
So what are these emotional processes?
“These concern dynamic emotional processes. In other words: I take account of the fact that emotions are constantly changing; as a reaction to major or minor moments in life, or in response to each other’s emotions during an interaction. Partners do the latter all the time, either consciously or subconsciously. When you get home after a stressful day at work, it affects your partner. You may also seek support by talking about your day. How does your partner react? These are all different emotional processes which contribute to how happy you feel in your relationship, but also as an individual.”
Is there a secret formula for a good relationship?
“(reflects for a moment) I have to disappoint you. Sadly, there is no simple success formula. However, there are several things that often emerge in research, such as the importance of perception in relationships and how this is affected by how content you are with yourself. So it may be that your partner is very good at judging your emotions and therefore understands you well from an objective perspective, yet you do not feel understood. The sense of ‘being understood’ is particularly important. If you have the feeling that your partner does not understand you, you feel less positive in your relationship. It makes a big difference how you happy or unhappy you feel about yourself. After all, if you are unhappy, you will tend to perceive your partner’s reactions differently and more negatively than these were intended.”
So there is truth in the cliché 'you need to be happy with yourself, before you can be happy in a relationship?'
“Of course. You should know, I also believe that a relationship can be therapeutic. Sometimes a relationship can help you to get over certain things, but it also makes it harder to be positive in your relationship. This makes you more sensitive, for example, to small signs of rejection, causing you to get upset with your partner.”
How would you like to improve these emotional processes?
“I am looking into different emotional processes, such as the role of emotional influence, expressing emotions, empathic accuracy and how such processes contribute to the quality of relationships. Or actually serve to undermine them. How do partners affect each other emotionally? What are the consequences in your relationship of expressing or suppressing your emotions? What helps couples to feel understood? These are the questions I look into. If we have a better knowledge of how these processes work in different types of couples – such as ‘healthy couples’ and couples with emotional or relationship issues – we can end up training them. Therefore, together with Pauline Verhelst, a doctoral student who recently joined us in the lab, we are keen to research emotional processes in couples where the female partner is suffering perinatal depression. In the future, we would also like to train and improve these emotional processes, such as emotional expression and empathic accuracy, the use of protocols for therapists, tips via apps or even just group lessons on psycho-education.”
Lesgeven over emoties?
“Ik denk dat heel veel koppels daarbij gebaat zouden zijn. Niet alleen koppels, iedereen eigenlijk. Het is raar dat wij op school wel leren over wiskunde en fysica, maar niet over menselijke relaties, hoe je constructief communiceert met elkaar en hoe je met conflicten omgaat. Nochtans is dat van groot belang in ieders leven. Op het einde van mensen hun leven hoor je hen uiteindelijk zeggen dat relaties - in welke vorm dan ook - het allerbelangrijkste zijn. En toch leer je daar niets over. Dat zorgt voor veel problemen die je kan vermijden.”
Just now you mentioned 'healthy couples'. How are those defined?
“That’s a good question. You can do it in different ways. First and foremost you can look at partners who claim they feel happy in their relationship. That’s the easiest way. However, for example, you can also distinguish between couples who stay together and couples who end up splitting up. Only then you immediately face the fact that not all couples who stay together are necessarily happy. Furthermore, it is also easy for couples to feel happy together provided they have not endured emotional events. For example, losing a child or suffering a severe illness. In fact, you only really know which couples are strong when something emotional occurs and in the way they deal with it.”
Only then you can call it true love?
“Not necessarily, but it is a different and deeper kind of love.”
Are you a romantic yourself?
“That depends on what you understand as romantic. For example, I don’t believe in ‘Mr. Right’ and falling in love at first sight. That’s a matter of hormones, lust and projecting an ideal image onto someone. True love only begins when two people see and accept each other as they really are, weaknesses included. That goes way beyond the first rush of falling in love.”
Do you ever get tired of talking about relationships?
“Surprisingly not. My friends sometimes have to stop me, as I soon tend to go into depth when talking about relationships. Then I start philosophising and you lose me (laughs).”
And do people come to you for advice?
“Friends regularly come and talk to me, but I don’t mind at all. I like listening to their stories and help where I can. The funny thing is that everyone has an opinion on relationships, so there is always something to say.”
Laura Sels is a postdoctoral researcher in the Family Lab, part of the Department of Experimental-Clinical and Health Psychology (Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences). She often walks around in the historical city centre of Ghent and likes to philosophise about relationships.