Photo Courtesy Lorraine

U of C professor talks “dark side” of romantic relationships

By Tina Shaygan, February 13 2018 — 

University of Calgary professor and social psychologist Susan Boon researches the “dark sides” of romantic relationships, focusing on concepts like revenge and forgiveness. We sat down with her to find out what the psychological implications of breakups are, what the “Lovelab” is and why forgiveness isn’t always a good thing.

The Gauntlet: What exactly are the “dark sides” of a relationship?

Susan Boon: There are plenty of dark sides to relationships. Relationships can be the source of some of our highest highs and lowest lows. When relationships are going well, they are important sources of well-being. They’re also one of the number one reasons people seek counselling. It’s something that causes people to seek help and sometimes there could be serious implications for their physical health and mental well-being. Problems in relationships can bleed over to other areas in their lives.

Gauntlet: What happens when someone is going through a breakup, in psychological terms?

Boon: There are lots of things going on that can be significant upsets. It depends on how interdependent that relationship was. Even if it wasn’t necessarily a really emotionally intense relationship, when those connections get peeled apart, you find all the ways your partner helped you meet your goals. And when that’s ripped apart, all these goals are unmet. So even if it wasn’t a particularly emotionally intense relationship, people can feel a lot of negative effects they weren’t even expecting from a breakup.

We tend to think of breakups as very emotionally painful and with long-lasting effects. But one of the interesting things that one of my former graduate students — and now a sessional instructor, Kenneth Sheppard — found in his study is that people weren’t just as upset, on average, as stereotypes might suggest and recovered fairly quickly from a breakup. People thought it would be a more painful and longer-lasting negative experience than it actually was. There are cognitive errors that lead us to believe breakups to be more emotionally impactful than they tend to be when they actually happen. Of course, some people are completely dumbfounded by how painful things will be but the emotional intensity doesn’t last for as long as people expect it to.

Gauntlet: You also study revenge. Is revenge healthy? Why do people do it?

Boon: Sometimes it’s because people are so hurt they want the other person to feel that hurt too. I think there is an idea that people believe that taking revenge would make them feel better, not necessarily in a romantic context. Although people report that some of their reasons for getting even are to feel better, it’s less clear whether it’ll actually work. There is a view out in the world that revenge is sweet — that you can make yourself feel better if you get even. The research is really mixed on whether that is true. It sounds like sometimes, under certain circumstances, the sweetness doesn’t last. Right now, from a research standpoint revenge is bittersweet — it can be sweet but it comes at a cost. Or those good feelings don’t last. In our research, we’ve definitely had people say, ‘First I felt better but then I got thinking of what I’ve done.’

The thing with revenge is that it doesn’t get rid of the initial harm. You can’t undo what was done to you by taking revenge. So is it a healthy thing to do? I think it depends on how you choose to respond and what was done to you, to begin with.

Gauntlet: What about forgiveness?

Boon: Sometimes when you forgive, people don’t get the message. Sometimes there needs to be consequences. There are some people in the revenge field who believe that revenge can serve a social-regulation function. It can send a message that there are consequences. One thing about forgiveness is that you don’t tell the person they’re forgiven or clarify why you decided to forgive them, the person may continue to do what upset you until you say, ‘It’s enough.’ That is what a lot of our participants are saying. It’s not that they wanted the person to get hurt, but they wanted them to know what it feels like so they wouldn’t do it again. Forgiveness may not give the opportunity to send that message, or perhaps not as clearly.

Some research on forgiveness — although not in our lab — shows that under certain conditions, if you continue to forgive, it can be harmful in the sense that it fails to stop the behaviour that is upsetting. I’m more on the fence that sometimes when I say revenge can be healthy, I think I’m really saying there should be consequences that fit the crime and that’s more punishment. I don’t think punishment has that sort of negative connotation that revenge does.

Gauntlet: I know you have a team called the “Lovelab.” What is that?

Boon: The name has stuck but given what we study it should be called the “dark lab.” There are students who work with me — graduate, undergraduate, honours students and independent-study students and other students where we meet on a regular basis to talk about what is going and other issues that may arise. This past week, we talked about a journal article, which was suggesting that peoples’ expectations of marriage have changed quite a bit in the last 4050 years. We’ve talked about social media and its effect on social connection. We have discussions about different topics that are under inquiry.

Gauntlet: On a final note, from your research, what makes a healthy relationship?

Boon: People who really care about each other. And if we’re talking about something that is meant to be committed and long-term, then people who are willing to work. If you think that relationships don’t require work, then I’ve got news for you, baby. And people who value each other as individuals and value the relationship.

“Lovelab” discussion groups are open to all students. Those looking to attend the twice-weekly sessions can contact Dr. Boon for further information.

Interview edited for clarity and brevity.

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