Robin Edelstein, Associate Professor of Psychology
What questions have you been tackling in your research?
Most of the work in my lab focuses on how people differ in their approaches to and experiences in close relationships. I am especially interested in the psychological, physiological, and interpersonal implications of these differences, as well as how these differences develop and change over time and across the lifespan. For instance, in one line of work, we have focused on understanding why people with a more “avoidant” attachment orientation (i.e., those who are uncomfortable with closeness and intimacy) might respond defensively in emotional or intimate situations. We have also examined whether these defensive responses-- such as not paying attention to emotional information or avoiding people who are distressed-- have consequences for health, well-being, and relationship outcomes. In another line of work, we have been investigating how hormones, such as testosterone and estradiol, influence and are influenced by relationship experiences like partnering and parenting. For instance, we recently collected data from first-time expectant couples as they transition to parenthood; we’re interested in understanding how and why hormones change during this transition, in both heterosexual and lesbian couples, and the implications of these changes for postpartum outcomes. We’re also currently collecting data on hormone changes in couples as a function of emotional intimacy, and the extent to which these changes are related to people’s characteristic approach to closeness and intimacy.
What are some of the most important findings from your work?
My work on avoidant attachment and other “defensive” personality traits suggests that people might feel better in the short-term if they avoid emotional or stressful situations. But there can also be long-term consequences to this kind of behavior; for instance, defensive responses to emotion and intimacy can be problematic for long-term relationships, they can impair memory for emotional information, and they can even have physiological and health costs. My work on hormones in close relationships reveals that both men and women show meaningful changes in hormones during the transition to parenthood; these changes may be correlated within partners, and they appear to have long-term implications for postpartum behavior and relationship quality in both couple members. Also, more generally, although hormone research tends to be somewhat sex-stereotyped, in that (for instance) testosterone is assumed to be most important for men (and is most often studied in exclusively male samples), my and others’ findings suggest that this is an overly simplistic approach. Finally, I think that my work is beginning to point to the importance of including not only men and women, but also both couple members, in the same study to better understand how personality and hormones may operate at the dyadic level to influence relationship outcomes.
How can we use this knowledge in our everyday lives?
I think it is worth keeping in mind that, when faced with stressful or emotional situations, sometimes our initial response might be to avoid the situation or the people involved. This kind of response can seem easier and might feel better in the moment, but it could create longer-term problems down the road. A more constructive approach might be to think about more active responses that acknowledge the emotion and that at least try to engage with the feelings or the people causing the emotions. It may also be useful to think about how people differ in their feelings about closeness and intimacy, where those differences come from, and what approaches might be most constructive with different people. Sometimes acknowledging and better understanding these differences can be helpful for reducing conflict and misunderstandings. Finally, with respect to hormones, I think it is easy to get the idea from the popular media that the more testosterone you have the better, especially for men. But both men and women experience declines in testosterone as they enter into committed relationships and become parents, and these changes can actually help people in their roles as parents and relationship partners. So I think it’s important to understand the context in which we’re thinking about people’s hormones and relationship experiences.