Psychologist James Cordova and his students are studying what makes marriage and other close family relationships healthy and satisfying, and what techniques that people can use to keep those relationships strong.
Meet the researchers:
Interview with Larissa Christensen, Fall 2006
Larissa Christensen, a co-recipient of the psychology department's Herman A. Wilkins Undergraduate Scholar Award for Creativity, is interested in couples and family therapy.
In a recent conversation, she discussed her research participation in psychology and her senior thesis on couples' attitudes to relationship maintenance.
Did you know you wanted to study psychology when you came to Clark?
I wasn't positive, but I had taken some psychology courses in high school and it was the subject I was most interested in. I took introduction to abnormal psychology my first semester at Clark, and then pretty much from my freshman year I knew I wanted to become a psychology major. I'm also completing a minor in sociology. Psychology majors are required to complete a minor in another field.
When did you first start getting involved in psychology research?
It was either the last semester of my sophomore year or the first semester of my junior year. The psychology major has a research requirement and there are certain courses that you can take to fulfill that. You can also participate in a faculty member's research lab-pretty much all the professors offer some sort of lab on such topics as couples research or sensory perception. There's a broad range to choose from.
Which labs did you choose?
I first participated in Professor Bamberg's lab on qualitative research. In that lab we analyzed course evaluations for two Clark professors. We looked at what students were saying in the evaluations and what audiences they tended to address. We found that students tended to address three different audiences in their evaluation: professors, administration, or other students. We discussed and analyzed why students would choose a particular audience and the motivations behind their evaluations. We presented our research as a poster at two different conferences—those of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society—and at Clark's Academic Spree Day.
And you eventually joined Professor Cordova's couples research lab?
Yes. My involvement with Professor Cordova's lab has been ongoing. Couples research and family therapy are huge interests of mine so I really wanted to stay involved even when I wasn't doing it for credit.
I understand you're completing a senior honors thesis. What is the subject of your research?
I'm studying couples' attitudes about how much effort they feel they should put into maintaining the relationship with their partner, and how those attitudes relate to relationship satisfaction.
Some people think that if a relationship is meant to be, they shouldn't have to work at the relationship. Other people think that you have to work to make sure a relationship stays happy. How much maintenance do people think is necessary?
I use an analogy with plant care to illustrate the three types of attitudes I'm expecting to find. Some people think that, if you have a plant, you have to take care of—water it, put it in sun, that sort of thing. Others see relationships like cacti. Cacti are very hardy and can survive with minimal tending. Finally, there are people who have no idea at all how to take care of plants. They might think that a relationship needs maintenance, but they're not really sure how to go about it, or they feel uncomfortable doing it.
I hypothesize that most people will fit into the "more maintenance is necessary" group and that possibly there will be differences in attitude between men and women. Prior research suggests that women are more maintenance aware than men. But I'm also hypothesizing that people who spend the most time maintaining their relationships will also be the happiest.
Who are your research participants?
Heterosexual couples aged 18 to about 25 who have been together at least six months.
How have you been recruiting research subjects?
I recruited participants from home over the past summer and from classes at a small university. I have administered questionnaires to 30 couples for a total of 60 participants.
What is the process you're using to gather data?
I'm administering several questionnaires to each person who volunteers for the study. I'm using something called the Quality of Marriage Index to measure overall relationship satisfaction. I also used a questionnaire called the ECRQ (Experiences in Close Relationships Questionnaire) that evaluates relationship attachment style.
The final questionnaire about attitudes to relationship maintenance I created myself. The name of the questionnaire is FORM (Feelings on Relationship Maintenance). This questionnaire asks participants questions that relate to four different categories of people and how the feel about relationships. The set of questions represents people who feel that relationships need a lot of active and daily maintenance. The second set of questions represents people who feel that relationships do not need a lot of maintenance and should be fundamentally sound on their own. A third set of questions represents people who think relationship maintenance is important but may not know how or are uncomfortable doing the maintenance. Lastly, a fourth set of questions represents people who rely on their partner to do most or all of the relationship maintaining.
The packet of all three questionnaires is about 10 pages long and takes about 20 minutes to fill out. Each participant reads a number of statements and indicates on a scale how much or how little the statement applies.
Have you started analyzing your data yet?
I'm starting that right now by setting up a computer program called the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences that will help me analyze my data. I'm still waiting for some questionnaires to come back.
Do you know yet how you're going to use the money you received from the Herman A. Wilkins Award?
I need to talk to Professor Cordova about that. When the project is finished, I might use the money to cover the cost of presenting my results at a conference or for publishing my paper.
What are you hoping to do when you leave Clark?
Right now I'm in the process of applying to graduate schools offering marriage and family therapy programs.
What do you want to do when you finish your graduate work?
I would like to do clinical work. I would eventually like to get involved in program design and implementation for children and parents, especially those going through divorce. The court system right now only requires mediation in cases of divorce if there's immediate trouble, for example if they suspect abuse or if the parents are fighting very badly. That's the only time a court ever appoints a therapist to the family. In my opinion, whenever a couple with children gets divorced, they should be required to go to a program designed to facilitate what is in the best interest of their children, to teach appropriate parental behaviors, and to provide support for the children.
In your opinion, what are the advantages and disadvantages of participating in research as compared with more traditional classroom learning?
Clark is phenomenal in terms of the research opportunities that are available to students. I have friends at other universities that can't believe I could even get involved in research as early as my freshman year if I had wanted to, and maintained relationships with professors throughout my whole career at Clark—an amazing experience for me.
I knew early on that I wanted to be a psychology major, but I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with it. It's a very broad major. The fact that I had the opportunity to get involved in a bunch of different research programs, allowed me to think about what I did and didn't like doing.
The advantages of participating in research are getting some hands on experience to really narrow down what you might like as a possible career and the opportunity to really participate and be involved. I've been involved in a couple of labs for a while and I've actually done interviews and I know what the process is like. If I graduate and want to get my Ph.D., I know how to do research, and I wouldn't really be lost. And I think that Clark students who have been involved are a step ahead of students who've never had that kind of research experience.
As to disadvantages—I really can't think of very many, other than that research requires a lot of work and involvement. But it's definitely worth it.
Are graduate students working in the labs as well?
Right now, Professor Cordova's lab group meets once a week for three hours. Then, every other week, there's a meeting where we talk, perhaps about a journal article or current research that's going on. Undergraduates also meet with assigned grad students and help them with their research. That can include all kinds of things from data collection to making phone calls, and there's a broad range of topics that grad students are working on. So not only am I involved in Professor Cordova's work, but I also get to see all the projects the grad students are working on as well.
Do you find assisting grad students with their work helpful or an inconvenience?
The relationships you get to form with graduate students are really helpful. Those I've been working with have helped me put together my applications to graduate school. One of them is writing me a recommendation letter. They are incredible people and are very helpful.
So it sounds like you're part of a team.
Yes. And you don't feel like the lowly undergraduate. You feel like you're doing something important and contributing to research.