Janina Bühler joins the Emmy Noether Program of the German Research Foundation / Junior research group will examine the fundamental dynamics of relationship events and personality change in various age groups
4 October 2023
Relationship events are significant for couples. In the first ten years of a relationship, the partners tend to experience many important relationship events. They may move in together, have children, or separate again. "The way that a relationship is perceived and how it develops depends to a large extent on the personality of the respective partners," said Professor Janina Bühler of the Institute of Psychology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). "On the other hand, the relationship or a certain event in this relationship can also impact the corresponding personalities." For example, it has been shown that the self-esteem of mothers decreases after the birth of a child. The reasons for this are still unknown. In a new research project, Professor Janina Bühler will be looking at such aspects by examining the associations between relationship events and the partners' personalities. "These interactions are an exceptionally fascinating topic well worth exploring," added the psychologist. The research project has been enlisted for the Emmy Noether Program of the German Research Foundation (DFG) and with this support, Bühler will establish and lead a junior research group at Mainz University. The DFG will provide funding of EUR 1.6 million over six years.
Focusing on reciprocal links between relationship events and personality
A couple relationship is one of the closest and most important relationships people experience across the lifespan. In her new research project, Professor Janina Bühler will be considering major events in these relationships, such as marriage and divorce, and their reciprocal links to personality traits such as neuroticism and self-esteem. "There is no doubt that these connections exist. But we want to ask how and why they arise," said the researcher. Bühler has already worked in couple therapy and was appointed Junior Professor for Personality Psychology and Psychological Assessment at JGU in January 2022.
In psychology, there is differentiation between the two possible sides of these reciprocal links. There are so-called selection effects that involve the impact of personality on a relationship; for instance, people who score high in neuroticism tend to be less satisfied in their relationship. Then there are, in contrast, socialization effects; in this case, relationship events such as marriage or separation can impact how personalities develop. The main focus will be on these socialization effects in the research project. "However, we cannot separate the one effect from the other and need to consider both as there is dynamic interplay between them," noted Bühler.
Snapshots of couples' everyday life
In order to determine what form these processes take, couples will be asked about aspects of their everyday lives, such as how dominant they are in a particular situation and how satisfied they are about the relationship. "To really understand how certain situations evolve, we need to scrutinize the ordinary day-to-day of relationships in detail." For this purpose, an experience sampling method will be used that will involve comprehensive surveys in which the couple members will be asked to report briefly on their current situation five times daily over ten days. These surveys will be repeated every three months over four years. It is expected that the resultant 'snapshots' will provide a better understanding of why, for example, mothers experience a decrease in self-esteem after childbirth. The results of investigations undertaken to date in this connection have proved to be either negligible or contradictory.
A total of 750 couples living in German-speaking countries are to be recruited for the survey, consisting to one third each of couples in the young, middle-aged, and older adult age groups. Because the level of satisfaction with a relationship changes the most in the first ten years and can reach a low point after these ten years, it can be surmised that important events will most probably occur during this period. The investigation will thus concentrate on couples who have been together for ten years at the most, a situation which is, of course, not so common in the case of those over 65 years of age. However, this group is of particular interest because of the increasing rise in the frequency of the phenomenon known as grey divorce.
Taking a differentiated approach to relationship processes
"By ascertaining backgrounds and relevance, we will be able to analyze the underlying dynamics. It may be, for example, that an event is not absolutely always good or bad," stated Bühler, drawing attention to the fact that a separation can also be perceived as a positive experience. In general, it is anticipated that the results will help to better explain those mechanisms that function as protection or risk factors in response to relationship events. This knowledge can also be used in future studies designed to prevent distress in couple relationships and in interventions to treat distressed couples. "The nature of a relationship is an important factor that determines well-being, regardless of an individual's age or background. So it is very important that we learn more about the related aspects," said Bühler, explaining the objective of the project.
Professor Janina Bühler of JGU will realize the project in collaboration with Professor Kai Horstmann of the University of Siegen, Professor Jaap Denissen of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and Professor Paul W. Eastwick of the University of California, Davis, in the USA. In Mainz, a doctorate and post-doctorate position are being set up for the project.
The DFG Emmy Noether Program
The Emmy Noether Program of the German Research Foundation gives exceptionally qualified early career researchers the chance to qualify for the post of professor at a university by leading an independent junior research group for a period of six years. Postdocs and temporary junior professors in an early phase of their scientific career can apply for this program with an excellent research project.