The quality of close relationships is one of the most important predictors of a long, well-lived life. In our research, we consider how both macro-level societal changes and micro-level personal identities drive the well-being of our closest relationships. Our work focuses on how soaring economic inequality affects how people across the socioeconomic spectrum cultivate and maintain their close relationships. We also focus on the identities of the people navigating these social structures, and how people’s understanding of their own identities affects relationship functioning. Specifically, we examine (1) how social class affects the challenges and strengths people experience in their relationships, (2) how people develop and understand their identities, and how this understanding affects people’s relationships. In a third line of research, we focus on how researchers can bolster the diversity and representativeness of their research samples—and why doing so is essential.
Social Class and Relationships
Social class inequality has starkly divided American society. More than half of Americans live paycheck to paycheck and could not cover an unexpected $500 expense, and by most measures (e.g., income, education), most Americans are lower socioeconomic status (SES) or social class. Yet, most relationship studies consist primarily of middle- and upper-class samples. Our work suggests that although relationship science has largely overlooked lower-SES participants, it is in these communities that high-quality relationships are especially important. Our work investigates how social class, as a pervasive cultural context, shapes both the challenges and strengths that people experience in their close relationships, especially their romantic relationships.
When people face financial constraints, these sources of strain redound to lower satisfaction and commitment to their own relationships (Emery & Le, 2014). For example, we find that lower-SES participants are less hopeful about building a financial future with their partner (e.g., someday owning a house together), which in turn is associated with relationship dissatisfaction. Due to these differences in resources and opportunities for behavior, life is more precarious for lower-SES individuals—they face greater risk of housing insecurity, job insecurity, and are less protected in unexpected emergencies. As a result, we theorized that lower-SES people may adapt to these risks by forming more self-protective mindsets in their close relationships, which can be adaptive for individuals but create challenges for the relationship (Emery & Finkel, 2022). In fact, lower-SES participants were more concerned about self-protection in their relationships, both on a daily basis and across a 2-year study. However, these concerns only emerged when they felt vulnerable in their relationships. In contrast, higher-SES participants were not especially concerned with self-protection, even when feeling vulnerable.
These findings suggest that strong relationships may be more important for well-being among lower-SES couples. In ongoing work, we are examining whether relationships can serve as a source of strength for lower-SES couples, as well as designing and testing interventions focusing on friendships and relationships across social class. Furthermore, we are examining the kinds of identities that lower-SES couples develop, and how these identities can be a source of resilience.
Identity and Relationships
Societal changes due to inequality and instability shape relationships, but so too does a person’s core sense of identity, especially when that identity is disrupted or changed. In our second line of work, we focus primarily on how uncertainty and instability in a person’s self-concept influence people’s relationships. How we see and understand ourselves shapes what we value, who we fall in love with, and when our relationships end. If the ways we understand ourselves shift or become unclear, this lack of clarity can undermine relationships (Emery & Gardner, 2020).
When people feel confused about who they are, they tend to avoid the kinds of experiences that result in personal growth or self-expansion (Emery, Walsh, & Slotter, 2015; ). They even attempt to sabotage their romantic partner’s growth, which ultimately makes both members of the couple unhappy in the long run (Emery, Gardner, Finkel, & Carswell, 2018). These findings suggest that lacking a clear sense of self can cause problems for people’s relationships. Yet, ironically, self-expanding actually appears to benefit well-being for people with low self-concept clarity (Emery, Hughes, & Gardner, 2022).
Conversely, negative experiences in relationships can result in an unclear self. For example, people high on attachment avoidance (who are reluctant to trust and disclose to their partners) experience confusion about who they are because their partners do not accurately know them (Emery, Gardner, Carswell, & Finkel, 2018).
More recently, we’ve been interested in people’s identities as a couple. We proposed a new construct, couple identity clarity, capturing whether people feel that they “know who we are” as a couple (Emery, Gardner, Carswell, & Finkel, 2021). We created a new scale to measure couple identity clarity, and we found that people with high couple identity clarity are more committed to their relationships and less likely to break up with their partners over time.
In ongoing work, we are examining how couple identities become part of a relationship’s broader culture. We are also examining the ideologies that people bring to their relationships and the kinds of identities that couples form across difference, such as among people in interracial relationships. This work recently received grant funding from the Russell Sage Foundation (Garr-Schultz & Emery, 2023-2025).
Metascience: Diversity in Relationship Science
Historically, diversity has been limited in relationship science—in our research questions, samples, and methodological approaches. One barrier to diversifying our samples can come from the greater challenges involved in recruiting and retaining lower-SES participants. In a methodological primer (Emery, Silverman, & Carey, in press), we suggest that trust and accessibility are key considerations when working with lower-SES participants, and we offer specific recommendations about how to build these into the research process.
Yet, even if researchers recruit more diverse samples, how do they report on the participants? Have samples become any more diverse over time? In one project (McGorray, Emery, Garr-Schultz, & Finkel, 2023), we coded 1,762 articles in major social psychology and relationship science journals from 1996 – 2000 and 2016 – 2020. We find progress in some areas—it has become more common over time to report participant race and sexual orientation. Yet, racial diversity in the samples was limited, and the median representation of sexual and gender minority participants was 0. We also examine reporting practices that can center Whiteness, obscure sexual orientation diversity, and imply that the United States is the contextual default. We highlight these issues with the hope that this work will contribute to conversations across the field about how to create more inclusive science.
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