Hot Topics in Love with Jennifer Hirsch

If you are a Yale student who survived shopping period this spring, chances are that PSYC 126: “Attraction and Relationships” was on your worksheet. Over 400 students packed into WLH 201 — a room fit for 200 — on the first day of class. Unfortunately, when Dr. Hirsch capped the course at 100 students, many were left out. Dr. Hirsch, who finished her PhD only two years ago, was surprised by the number of students interested in taking the course this semester. She thinks her course’s popularity is part of a larger trend: “The university has been getting more attention for its psychology courses, especially ones teaching topics with real-world applicability.” 


On the first day of class, she stated simply and clearly, “This is not a clinical psychology or self-help course.” Rather, the course takes a scientific approach to understanding how relationships function and develop over time. Her own research focuses on the overlap between our relational world and our emotional world, as well as how our relationships can affect our everyday feelings and other interactions. Hirsch’s responsibility as a researcher is to figure out how we can prove these effects. “It’s always a tricky balance,” she confesses, “because we all have our own experiences with relationships. Stepping out of your perspective and looking at relationships through a scientific perspective is hard to do.”  


Hirsch insists that the course has real-world applicability. “A big piece of why this course is relevant to students’ lives is adding names to explain experiences. Having the language to talk about relationships can be really powerful and help provide understanding.” The course deals with many subjects that are familiar to students and affect their own relationships. 


When I talked to Hirsch, she was getting ready to give a lecture about gratitude. As a part of her work as a professor, she has to bridge the gap between the scientific research and the real-world applicability that her students so crave. Research on gratitude has shown that partners don’t express as much gratitude as they should. But Hirsch thinks the solution is easy: just say “thank you” more. “It won’t be as weird as people think, and it may go a long way with your partner,” she explains. 


As she stands on a stage during each class, lecturing to her hundred students, Hirsch has concrete goals in mind for each one. . “My hope is that everyone walks away from this course feeling and understanding that relationships are important, that they take work and are worth that work and investment,” she says. She also wants students to understand that even topics that seem very abstract— like love and attraction—can be studied scientifically. “Relationships are really important and we know why they are important because of scientific studies such as the ones discussed in class,” she affirms.  


Recently, Hirsch has spent time thinking about the much-discussed modern medium  of love: dating apps. But dating apps are more of the same: they can be similar to what relationships look like in real life. “The underlying principles in relationships are largely the same [in dating apps], but they differ in the way they function out in the real world,” she tells me.  “Dating apps and websites talk about having an algorithm and finding a perfect match, but in reality what is going to make a healthy relationship has to do with the same principles that are going on offline: responsiveness, caring for each other, communication and vulnerability.” It isn’t about where the relationship starts, but rather it’s about whether the factors that contribute to a good relationship are present. Her take presents good and bad news: yes, your true love might be on Tinder, but they might be just as hard to find on the app as in the real world.


Hookup culture can famously derail a search for true love. Hirsch views it as a symptom of a cultural change that is happening across generations. “I can’t comment on whether hook-up culture is new or if there’s new attention on it in a way there hasn’t been before,” says Dr. Hirsch. What has changed are the expectations people have from relationships. “Sometimes what we think a relationship looks like or should look like doesn’t always match up with what they do  look like.” 


She added that there are always differences in what people’s long term goals are for a relationship, or what they expect from a marriage. She frames her discussion using a concept coined by another psychologist called the “all-or-nothing marriage.” 


“The all-or-nothing marriage describes the idea that many marriages and long-term relationships nowadays are less satisfying than they have been in the past because we expect more of our partners than previous generations.” Yes, your grandma was right when she said millennials are too picky. There are two sides to every coin, though: “There is a flipside,” Hirsch reveals. “Because of this, the happiest relationships are more satisfying than previous generations could ever expect.” In summary: “We expect everything from our partners. If they fail to meet that bar, it’s not good; but if they do meet it, it is even better than it used to be.”


Healthy relationships are very important for our well-being—at Yale and beyond. There is no one formula for love (if there were, Hirsch would know it). Rather, it’s important to realize this Valentine’s Day that there are plenty of people who love us and make us feel loved.

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