Associate Professor of Psychology Cheryl Carmichael is a relationship scientist who conducts research in the areas of health and the social regulation of emotions. Last year, Carmichael earned an $896,346 grant from the National Science Foundation to expand her research on responsiveness in relationships. The grant will advance research on how verbal and nonverbal cues influence physiological function, relationship quality, and well-being. Carmichael gave some advice for couples for Valentine’s Day and relationships in general, as the world struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep distance from some while spending a lot more time with others .

BC: With many people being forced to stay indoors for Valentine’s Day, what advice would you give couples to help them make the most out of the day?

CC: You may be stuck at home, but if you want to celebrate Valentine’s Day you can do something out of the ordinary to make the day special. Research suggests that when couples engage in novel and arousing activities together, they experience a boost in relationship quality, so the key is to think of ways to get out of your routine and do something different.

Given that the pandemic has limited so much of our social behavior, you might think about your favorite pre-pandemic couple activities that you can no longer take part in and get creative about ways to reproduce that at home.

Liked going out for cocktails together? Get the ingredients for a cocktail and make it at home, with all the flourishes.

Miss going out to restaurants? Look up a new recipe that you’d both enjoy and cook it together (and if the idea of cooking sounds terrible to you, order out instead).

But instead of eating side-by-side in front of the television, set up for a more romantic dining experience—throw in a tablecloth, a candle or two, and some of your favorite music to set the mood. After dinner, dance together in your living room. Try dressing up in your fanciest clothes and getting ready as if you’re having a big night out. Putting yourselves into those clothes can put you in a different mindset than the everyday pandemic uniform of daytime pj’s and nighttime pj’s. And if it would make you and your partner happiest to have a Netflix binge and a pint of ice cream from the bodega next door, that’s a great way to spend Valentine’s Day, too!

BC: How do you see COVID-19 having both positive and negative effects on relationships?

CC: A major focus of research in my lab is positive relationship experiences. For relationship partners who live together, one of the benefits of spending so much more time together is that it provides lots more opportunities to engage in positive relationship behaviors—more affectionate touch, more shared laughter, more fun. However, the pandemic has given rise to negative circumstances that have now become sources of chronic stress as we approach the one-year mark in the United States. Trying to navigate pandemic-induced strains (e.g., financial insecurity, potential exposure to the virus, simultaneously working from home, managing childrens’ remote learning, caring for elderly parents) is taking a toll on people’s physical health and emotional well-being, and can give rise to conflict in relationships. It may be more challenging to take some much-needed space from cohabiting relationship partners. And for relationship partners who don’t live together, the opportunities to engage in positive relationship experiences are altered at best (sharing laughs together over video chat as opposed to in person) or eliminated at worst (engaging in affectionate touch may be unsafe or impossible). In addition to undermining relationship quality, this deprives people of a major source of happiness.

BC: You launched a “HEART Lab” at Brooklyn College. How is that helping students get the most out of their relationships?

In the HEART Lab, we’re doing research in basic and applied relationship science to answer questions like: What makes for good-quality relationships? How do high-quality relationships promote health and happiness? Much of our work revolves around the concept of responsiveness, or how relationship partners show understanding, validation, and care to each other in a variety of contexts. We look at this in their behavior (e.g., affectionate touch) and in their mediated communication (e.g., text messaging). We also examine how people use their social networks to regulate their emotional states. One of the great things about studying relationships is that students often find it inherently interesting, so it draws them in. Once they’re in, students are exposed to theories, engage in data collection and coding, and learn firsthand about the findings of our studies. They’re developing a science-based knowledge of positive relationship functioning that they can take out into the world with them. It becomes easy for students to see connections between the phenomena we’re researching and how these very phenomena play out in their own relationships.

BC: How has the pandemic influenced your research?

CC: The pandemic hasn’t really influenced the kinds of research questions that we find interesting, or the work that we are pursuing—we still want to know how relationship behavior promotes health and happiness. The pandemic did put a halt to all of our in-person data collection. My students and I have had to find ways to investigate our research questions with online data collection methods. While we are grateful to have this option, it’s limiting because we like to study behavior in vivo. Asking people to tell us about their behavior is not the same as observing that behavior in real time, and in the flesh. Try as we might to provide an accurate accounting of what we’ve done and how we feel, we’re not always on the mark. Moving to online data collection means that we haven’t been able to pursue some of the most compelling research questions that we’re looking to explore, such as examining how peoples’ nonverbal signals of understanding, validation, and care might contribute to their physiological markers of health. For example, we don’t currently have the means to measure participants’ cardiovascular activity if they can’t come in to our lab. But we’re optimistic that we’ll be able to resume that in-person research in the near future.

BC: Once the world returns to a sense of normalcy, what lessons can be taken away from the COVID-19 pandemic that can strengthen our relationships?

The pandemic has had one of two effects on our relationships. It either prevented us from seeing our close others (the ones we don’t live with), or it increased the amount of time spent with our close others manifold (the ones we do live with). For the former relationships, having to isolate from loved ones over the last year has drawn attention to the importance of those close relationships. It hits especially hard for the survivors of those who died alone of COVID-19. The pandemic has been a harsh reminder that we shouldn’t take our relationships for granted.

CC: Clichéd as it may sound, I think people will have a renewed appreciation for time spent with loved ones once we are able to be together again without restrictions, and this can be very good for our relationships. For the latter relationships, having to spend more time than ever before with a very narrow set of our closest others, combined with being unable to engage in previously independent activities (e.g., working outside of the home, or going to exercise classes), has drawn attention to the importance of having space and time of one’s own. Many people have had to switch back and forth between personal and professional roles repeatedly throughout the day or have had to give up some of their roles altogether. So, in addition to the renewed appreciation for being able to spend time together with loved ones, I think people will also experience a renewed appreciation for being able to fully engage different aspects of who we are, and the freedom to participate in different domains of life in a more compartmentalized way once we are able to resume former activities. This can also be very good for relationships.