Researchers receive $2.5 million NIH grant to continue relationships and health study

AMES, Iowa -- The phrase "love sick" has been popular for years, but can love -- particularly love gone bad -- really make you sick?

That's what a team of four researchers from Iowa State University's Institute for Social and Behavioral Research will investigate after receiving a $2.5 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The ISU researchers will study the change in the development of romantic relationships and marriage in young adults, and the link of relationship development to changes in physical and emotional health.

Researchers Fred Lorenz, Kandauda Wickrama, Rand Conger and Rebecca Burzette are conducting the study, titled "Relationship Development and Health in Young Adults."

Continuing Family Transitions Project

The project will provide a rare inside view at romantic relationships and marriage in young adults through an extension of the Family Transitions Project -- an ISU study of more than 500 young adults from an eight-county area of Iowa that began in 1989. The targeted area was selected because it mirrored demographics from across the Midwest. The study initially collected data from a sample of Iowa parents and children, who were in the seventh grade when it began. The children are now young adults who are nearly 30 years of age, with many of them married and with children of their own.

The initial purpose of the project was to study family adaptation to economic hardship, which was represented in Iowa by the financial "farm crisis" of the late 1980s. They studied the reasons why there are more divorces and more adolescents with emotional and behavioral problems under conditions of economic hardship, but not problems among all families with these conditions.

The researchers have been videotaping family members interacting with each other over the duration of this study, since past studies have found that individuals are poor reporters of their own behaviors. As the adolescent children have grown into adults, the overall focus has shifted away from economic issues to the transmission of parenting practices from parents to their children, behavioral disorders, and relationship quality.

The previous findings

Their previous research has led to four books -- the latest being "Continuity and Change in Family Relations: Theory, Methods and Empirical Findings" (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004) -- and more than 100 research papers published in professional journals. Some of their past research included the following findings, among others:

  • A combination of recent stressful events and more chronic adversities will combine to undermine adaptive interactions in romantic relationships.
  • Children who were recipients of nurturing and involved parents when they were adolescents expressed more warmth and lower hostility toward their dating partners.
  • A change in marital quality has long-term consequences for physical health.

"The distinctive strength of this study is that it contains multiple waves of data from now three generations within a family," said Lorenz. "Some of the kids will soon be as old as their parents were when we first began this study.

"In this latest study, we are seeking health outcomes from marriage," he said. "Do people who have supportive spouses and relationship partners have better health, or is it the health that determines the success of the relationship? When you have 20 years of data like this, you can examine that."

Goals of the latest research

The researchers believe that adolescents' experiences in their families of origin are important in shaping early adult romantic relationships, and that the success or failure of their romantic relationships are tied to changes in physical and emotional health. They are specifically focusing on the following topics in this study:

  • Timing of marriage. The researchers are examining the effects of characteristics in the family of origin, personal attributes, and other life experiences on the timing of relationship initiation and the transitions to marriage and cohabitation.
  • Intergenerational transmission of relationship quality and patterns of interaction. They are studying intergenerational pathways -- such as personal attributes and diverse life experiences -- that are expected to link characteristics of the family of origin to the quality and stability of adult romantic relationships.
  • Relationship quality and health. They're examining mutual influences between the successes or failures of relationship characteristics -- such as patterns of interaction, relationship quality and stability -- and their relationship with the physical and emotional health of romantic partners.

They plan to complete this latest round of research in 2011.