Relationship advice from the Heart of KU

Valentine’s Day is here, love is in the air. Pick-up a glossy magazine, flick a few pages and very quickly, you will find a celebrity sharing their relationship advice with you. Turn on the television, and dating shows like “The Bachelor” will show you the trials and tribulations of finding love in the modern world. Should celebrities and reality TV be shaping our ideas about something as important as love?

Researchers across the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at KU also have a lot to say about love and relationships. So this Valentine’s Day, we’ve put together a relationship advice column based on recent research. Unlike “The Bachelor,” our researchers propose complex and multi-faceted understandings of love that avoid clichés and a single path to a successful relationship.*

*Warning: this advice does not come with relationship success guaranteed.

Start stand-up comedy:

Romantic comedies commonly depict two rivals vying for the heart of one character. More often than not the romantic competition is between a classically good-looking, successful professional who is as dull as dishwater and a less obviously attractive suitor who is kind and, most importantly, has a great sense of humor. Like the hare and the tortoise, after a slow start it is the latter that eventually wins the heart. Is there truth in the idea that humor lies at the base of all good relationships?

The answer is overwhelmingly yes, according to communication studies associate professor Jeffrey Hall. Laughter is the cornerstone to a successful relationship. But it is not as simple as being a great teller of jokes.  According to Hall, the key to success is to find a partner who shares your sense of what is funny. “What is strongly related to relationship satisfaction is the humor that couples create together,” Hall’s research finds.

Love sells:

The idea of the gold-digger, someone seeking a companion’s money rather than true love, recurs in countless books, films and songs. Shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” highlight both men and women seeking fame and fortune by broadcasting their search for true love to the whole of America. While the contestants repeatedly state that their feelings are genuine, it is far easier to argue that the prospect of celebrity and financial gains is what really motivates their participation in the show. Why else would anyone choose to put their search for “The One” in the public spotlight?

The connections between love and money are evident across the world in a whole range of complex dynamics. For example, consider researcher Akiko Takeyama’s work on Japan’s thriving male geishas. Takeyama’s research took her into Tokyo’s red-light district, where she met men from largely poor backgrounds seeking to gain wealth and fame by selling companionship and attention to female consumers. This is not a simple commercial transaction. “People’s emotions really confuse what is real and what is commercial,” says Takeyama, an associate professor of anthropology and women, gender and sexuality studies. Ultimately, what Takeyama’s research shows is that the hope of love and affection can become “an object to be bought and sold,” so keep your wits about you when a stranger saddles up to you in a bar and asks you for a drink.

Read more books:

Stephen Daldry’s film “The Reader,” based on the book by the same name, tells the story of a love affair between a 35-year-old female tram conductor and a student in his late teens living in 1950s Berlin. The short-term relationship largely hinges on the younger student reading books to his older and illiterate companion, played by Kate Winslet. The film’s plot then shifts forward in time. But one of the key messages from the early part of the film is that books are integral to their connection, and provide a vessel for exploring emotion and self-definition.

It turns out that books not only provide characters for people to explore their own emotional identities, but the very act of reading is an important attribute for those seeking a romantic partner. According to Christy Craig, a doctoral candidate in sociology, American women attend book clubs because the status of “reader” carries high importance in the dating field. These same book club members were also found to place high value on the act of reading in their expectations for a partner and “would never date or marry a non-reader.”

If you catch your partner reading Fifty Shades of Grey, don’t jump to conclusions:

The success of risqué novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” is emblematic of a revived interest in the romance genre. E. L. James’ book started, of course, as a piece of “Twilight” fan fiction, which focused on a love triangle involving a vampire, werewolf and a human. Why has the erotic romance genre come back in vogue? Are these books a threat to the normality of day-to-day relationships? Perhaps history can be instructive.

In December 1785, the vicar general of Madrid ordered the arrest of two Mexican priests for reading a graphic book, titled “Le Portier des Chareux”. The book had been banned because it contained pornographic passages that the author used as a venue to discuss forbidden philosophies that critiqued the Catholic Church. However, associate professor of history and women, gender and sexuality studies Marta Vicente suggests a far more innocent reason why these persecuted priests, and other ordinary early modern Europeans, read the banned book. Analyzing the inquisition case, Vicente argues that these priests did not read for political ideas or graphic depictions. Like most other 18th century readers, they just liked to joke around about the scenes. Probably true today, too.

While we’re talking about the brooding romantic vampires of “Twilight,” let’s also remember that the depiction of a desirable vampire is of our day. Originating from 11th century Slavic folklore, vampires have taken on a wide range of guises, many of which differed greatly from the sexualized versions depicted in most recent films, books and TV shows.  Just ask vampire expert and assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures Ani Kokobobo, whose course explores The Vampire in Literature, Film, and Television” throughout history.

Lesson: don’t judge a Dracula by its cover.

Worldly travelers are cool, but do they make good partners?

The Beat generation had a certain cool about them. Their Bohemian lifestyle and adventurous outlook on life sparked a creativity that many find attractive. Road-trip novels like ”On the Road” have no doubt inspired many Americans to throw a few clothes in a bag and see where the wind might take them. Tales of travel and worldliness are certainly qualities many look for in a partner. The question is, however, does a spirit of wanderlust also lead to a light-footedness when it comes to love?

Omri Gillath, associate professor of psychology, argues that people who move around a lot “develop attitudes of disposability toward objects, furniture, books, devices,” but also personal relationships. “Even in romantic relationships, when I ask my students what would they do when things get difficult, most of them say they would move on rather than try to work things out, or God forbid, turn to a counselor,” Gillath said.

Listen to your heart, fight for love:

The final and most important piece of advice is that many have had to fight against prejudice and adversity for love, and these battles continue today. This is evident in a chapter on the history of health and the LGBTQ movement published by Katie Batza, assistant professor in the Department of Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies. Batza examined sites of discrimination, protest and service that have played critical roles in the LGBTQ movement in American history as part of a larger study led by the National Park Service. The historical examples Batza analyzes serve also as reminder that battles over the right to love continue to this day.

Photo and video credits:

  1. Feature image courtesy of KU Marketing and Communications
  2. Victorian Lovers image from Danish “Puk” magazine illustration, 1894, via WikiCommons.
  3. Image of the lady smoking, via KU News.
  4. “The Reader” image, via wikipedia
  5. “Madrid Fair in Cebada Square,” Manuel de la Cruz Vázquez, via Wikimedia Commons
  6. Vampire collage, all images via wikipedia
  7. Relational Disposability video, via Gillath Lab
  8. The Willard State Hospital, via