Western study explores how beliefs about partners affect health of relationships

February 14, 2023

A pair of couples walks along the beach. (Photo from Pexels)

Story by Justin Zadorsky, photo from Pexels

How does a seemingly healthy romantic relationship become dissatisfying over time and what can be done to intervene?

“We all have a belief system about ourselves, but we also develop belief systems with our partners that act as a filter and guide the way we interpret the day-to-day behaviour of our partners,” said psychologist David Dozois, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Western University.

“If we have a well-organized negative belief system about our partner, then we tend to not cut the person any slack, and anything they do gets interpreted though this negative lens.”

Dozois is the director of the clinical psychology graduate program and is currently running a study examining how partners interpret each other’s behaviour to explore what might lead a relationship to become a negative experience.

Dozois’ study builds off previous research looking into belief systems about the self and how they relate to depression and other psychological disorders. Dozois has also researched on attachment styles and trust in relationships.

“It’s really the interpersonal belief system that we develop about ourselves that is driving a lot of depression and what really seem to be predominant beliefs we have about ourselves in relationships,” he said.

Dozois said there is a high link between relationship distress and depression and so he wanted to expand beyond self-beliefs and look at how individuals organize information and beliefs about those they love.

He theorizes that social comparing, where individuals compare aspects of themselves or their relationships to those of other people, may play a role in how some beliefs about partners may develop.
“Over time generally speaking positive expectations lead to positive relationships. Sometimes those expectations are too high and we are constantly social comparing to others’ relationships. The more we do that the more our belief systems start to develop in a negative way,” said Dozois.

To better understand how partner belief systems might go awry, Dozois and his team have developed a series of questionnaires that measure how individuals think about their partners.

Couples involved in the study are also put through a conflict discussion task that is filmed and played back for analysis. They are also asked to keep a daily diary for a few weeks.

“With all that information we hope to come up with better interventions to help couples learn to communicate differently, solve problems, and better accept the other partner, which can go a long way in improving relationship satisfaction,” said Dozois.

The study is currently underway with more than 150 couples already involved. The team is looking for adult couples of all gender identities, sexual orientations and age groups. A couple must have been in a relationship for three or more months to be accepted into the study.

Anyone wishing to join the study can email the research team at moodlab@uwo.ca.