How Hope Affects Relationships: Expectations, Obstacles, and Sharing Optimism | Eshkol Rafaeli

“The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner, and Professor Eshkol Rafaeli and his team at the Affect and Relationships Lab at Bar-Ilan University have taken that to heart. Funded by the Hope & Optimism initiative, they have been investigating how hope functions in a couple—or a ‘dyad’, the most romantic term of all—especially as a dyad becomes a triad. Their research focuses on the emotional and mental health of couples having their first child, as it’s a major life transition. So does hope fluctuate? Is it contagious? Must both be hopeful, or is one optimist enough to carry everyone through? Here, Rafaeli discusses his team’s findings, and future work. This video was filmed as part of the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism.


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Transcript: My name is Eshkol Rafaeli. I’m a psychologist and a relationship researcher from Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and I’ve been involved with the Hope and Optimism Initiative for the past couple of years as one of the grantees on the social science side. This initiative funded a research project that we are nearing the completion of now. It’s a study looking at couples in the transition to parenthood, couples who are expected their first child who we follow for a period of time, starting in the third trimester of pregnancy all the way through at this point six months postpartum. We’re actually hoping to continue this work and be able to follow them through one year and then two years after the child is born. We do this work both because we’re really interested in this population of couples in this juncture of time. It is so full of expectations but also fears and dreads. So we’re interested in the population and we’re also interested in this quality of hope and trying to see—through use of this population—to see something about the nature of hope. To try to understand something about, what hope is at the level of not just one individual but in this case a couple or family, an emerging family.

We have three premises that guide our work. Two of them are already underway and the third one is more of a future direction that we’re hoping to pursue. The two that are underway are looking at hope as more than just a stable quality, an individual characteristic that differentiates one person from another or maybe one couple from another, instead recognizing that hope has this fluctuating component to it—that it could change over time, that there are ways in which the stability or instability in it beyond just a set level could be really interesting and important. So this dynamic quality of hope is one thing we’re looking at. And we do that by having these partners, these couples, tell us about their hope, expectation, and optimism repeatedly. We do this both in the long range of things, so following them from prepartum through postpartum over the course of these basically nine months from the third trimester through six months after birth, but also for a period of time around three months after they give birth we have them complete daily diaries for a period of three weeks where we look at fluctuations on a daily basis. We ask them to report their own feelings and to impute feelings about their partner so that we’ll be able to see how these things change from moment to moment. So that’s one premise or one idea that we have in our work.

A second idea that I alluded to earlier is the idea that hope is more than just an individual characteristic, that there’s something about it that could be interesting to explore or to understand at the level of a system, a dyad in this case— a pair of people. We’re curious whether hope is contagious. For that you need these two people’s reports of their own hopes to see whether one person’s hope affects the other over time. We were wondering whether it’s compensatory, whether the presence of hope for one could carry them through difficult periods like the sleepless days that come after birth or the prepartum period where there’s often a lot of anxiety about what this will be like, what parenting will become like. Is it enough for one person to have hope for both partners or do we really need it to be high for both? Those are two premises that we have the data for, at least in part. We’re still waiting for the last of those couples in our sample to complete the three month and six month postpartum, but thankfully all the people that we recruited in this study have, by now, given birth to healthy babies which was a relief.



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