Couple expert studies love, sex, and marriage

Tinder is changing the way people meet, but Matthew Johnson, a relationship researcher, won’t be jumping on the “anything new is bad” bandwagon without data to back the statement up.

“There are compelling theoretical reasons to think beginning relationships on the basis of looks, and presumably many of those initial encounters are sexual in nature without much intention for a future could be problematic,” he said. “But we don’t know yet.”

As an assistant professor of Human Ecology at the University of Alberta, Johnson teaches courses on the science of couples and families. His research generally uses long-term data to understand the development of couple relationships as people move through life. His own experiences with relationships are part of the reason he works in this field — Johnson met his wife in university and they’ve been happily married for nearly ten years and have two children.

“In my own family, I didn’t have a good example of what a couple relationship should look like,” he said. “When I met my wife and fell in love and got married … at the core I wanted to understand how I could make this work for a lifetime.”

Johnson was also drawn to the scientific side of love. He tracks couples on long-term bases and analyzes data that emerges. One study he’s working on follows people for 25 years starting from the time they’re 18.

“I think on the surface (the science of love) sounds like a mushy, abstract thing to study,” he said. “Can there even be a science of intimacy and love? The reality is that it’s incredibly technical.”

Initially interested in helping families overcome difficulties, Johnson did his undergraduate degree in a family program and moved on to graduate work in marriage and family therapy. He ended up switching from clinical work to academia.

“I realized there were so many unanswered questions about how relationships work and how to make them work,” he said. “I felt really handicapped as a practitioner in not knowing exactly how to help the couples who were struggling in my office.”

As a grad student, Johnson also he loved students as they go through young adulthood. When he went looking for an academic job in 2012, he ended up at the U of A “by the luck of the draw” — and has been here ever since.

Many of Johnson’s students come to him for relationship advice. While he tells them he’s not their therapist, his advice to general students is to be intentional about how a relationship starts and build the kind of relationship they want for the future.

“As your relationships progress, dynamics stabilize over time,” he said. “Those patterns you lock into early tend to persist throughout the duration of your relationship.”

In his most recent study, Johnson looked at how couple relationships impact mental health. He found that more support from partners, especially during stressful times, improved mental health in the long run. However, Johnson also found that better initial mental health predicted more support from a partner.

“Those small, everyday acts of support that you provide to your partner, listening to them talk about their stress, conveying understanding, offering concrete forms of assistance,” he said. “Those things matter not just in the moment but really long term.”

Some of Johnson’s research ends up as clickbait; one story that ended up in CBC, the Huffington Post, and Science Daily involved a study that found when heterosexual men who helped more with household chores had more frequent and satisfying sex. Though Johnson’s studies are interest the public, he said working with the media is the scariest part of his job because he can’t control of how his findings are presented.

“Given that the public funds my salary, I feel an imperative to communicate my findings directly to the public in the hopes that I can make their relationships and their lives better,” he said. “When that’s misrepresented it’s a breach of trust between me and that media outlet who I’m really relying on to accurately convey my work.”

There are some media outlets that Johnson said he won’t work with anymore because they’ve distorted his work because they feel “the sexier the story the better,” he said.

For those in search of relationship advice, Johnson may be an expert, but he said there’s no one key to having a lasting relationship. Factors such as an individual’s stress level, personality, background, and a couple’s willingness to communicate and solve problems can all contribute to a relationship’s success.

As for students who aren’t in a relationship, Johnson said couple relationships aren’t the only important relationships in life. Students should find support in friends, family, and other sources.

“I don’t think being in a relationship is better for your mental health than not,” he said. “It’s really the quality of the relationship and I would argue that in most cases it’s preferable to be single than in a bad relationship.”