Loyola Magazine

Tips for fostering healthy romantic relationships

Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D., offers insights into the psychology of relationships
Two brightly colored flowers intertwined at their stems

Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D., professor of psychology, is co-author of the forthcoming textbook, The Science of Romantic Relationships. Her research focuses on social psychology and relationship science, and she enjoys translating empirical research into accessible language in her popular Psychology Today blog, Meet, Catch, and Keep, which boasts more than 30 million views to date.

She recently spoke with Loyola magazine about navigating the inevitable ups and downs with a romantic partner.

Portrait photo of Theresa DiDonato

As seniors prepare to graduate, what advice would you give them about navigating romantic relationships in this new chapter of their lives?

Relationships require risks! It can be hard to be vulnerable when you may get hurt. While having a romantic partner is not needed for happiness, if you’re relationship-ready and motivated to find a partner, choose wisely and be bold enough to make the first move.

Healthy relationships give partners a chance to grow as individuals and as partners.

What advice would you give to any of our readers who are looking to be a better romantic partner—or begin a new romantic relationship?

Healthy relationships give partners a chance to grow as individuals and as partners. Whether you’re in a new or established relationship, fostering opportunities for self-growth (called self-expansion) can bring partners closer together. Explore a new city, go bowling or hiking, try a new restaurant. These “date night” activities can help people grow, and concurrently, feel that their relationship is more satisfying and intimate.

What is a fun fact about relationships that the typical reader might not know?

People often think that jealousy is uniformly problematic. In relationship science, we recognize that jealous thoughts, emotions, and behaviors may be an evolved mechanism that, in the right doses, is designed to help keep partners together.

During a time of busyness and burnout, how can someone set appropriate boundaries, show up, and be a good romantic partner?

As most people probably know, stress that originates outside of a relationship (e.g., work, school, financial stress) can have deleterious effects on the inside of a relationship. It does this by taxing our energy and resources, making it harder for us to manage ongoing, regular relationship problems, while at the same time introducing new problems into a relationship.

Having a supportive partner, someone who validates and understands the stress we’re under, helps to reduce the adverse impact of the stress on your relationship. In addition, finding ways to maintain affectionate communication during stressful times can go a long way to protecting relationships from the problems of stress. Maybe you don’t have the energy to talk about the problem, but a hug or other nonverbal expressions of love or affection might soothe the effects of your stress.

Loyola’s psychology department recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. How has the scholarly understanding of the psychology of relationships changed—or not—over the past five decades?

Relationship science had a rough beginning. When government funding was provided to study love in the 1970s, people across the country were aghast, thought it was a total waste of money, and sent the researchers hate mail! Luckily, the early visionaries persevered. Today, relationship science is a thriving, multi-disciplinary field.

How does being at a Jesuit university shape the way you teach your classes and share knowledge about relationships?

I try to appreciate the fact that my students each have their own network of relationships, some healthy and some not, and that their lives are being affected by these relationships in profound ways, every day. Appreciating this facilitates cura personalis (care for the whole person) in my teaching.

Donate to Support Graduate Psychology Students Making an Impact in Underserved Communities

In celebration of its 50th anniversary at Loyola, the psychology department is raising funds to create annual Commitment to Justice Awards in Psychology. The financial awards would support graduate students enrolled in the Doctorate of Psychology in Clinical Psychology or the Master of Science in Clinical Professional Counseling programs—and who are working with underserved communities. The department is halfway to its initial goal of $25,000—with an ultimate goal of reaching $50,000 to endow the awards in perpetuity. Make a gift at loyola.edu/give.