Dr. Jennifer Jill Harman: Examining Intimate Relationships Across Cultures

Women's Dating

Dr. Jennifer Jill Harman: Examining Intimate Relationships Across Cultures

Hayley Matthews Hayley Matthews • 3/11/16

TL;DR: With two master’s degrees in counseling psychology, a doctorate in social psychology and more than two decades of research under her belt, Dr. Jennifer Jill Harman is clearly one of the leading experts in the field of dating and relationships.

Whether it’s analyzing psychosocial factors involved with HIV or recognizing power plays between pairs, studying about intimate relationships is Dr. Jennifer Jill Harman’s bread and butter.

As an associate professor at Colorado State University, she is driven to helping us better understand how our closest bonds impact our choices in life.

Assumptions versus reality

From working as a counselor in a methadone clinic in the Bronx to examining what marital roles mean in Tanzania, Harman has seen firsthand how relationships influence people from different backgrounds and cultures and how expectations of those relationships vary.

Assumptions versus reality

Dr. Jennifer Jill Harman, an associate professor at Colorado State University.

“The number one goal in my research is to examine if some of the assumptions we make about relationships are true across many different populations,” she said. “My work is really driven by trying to understand if the things we believe about relationships truly play out in different contexts.”

One of the more interesting assumptions Harman studies is how people think their partner has or does take part in the same risky behaviors they do, whether that’s drinking, engaging in certain sexual activities or remaining faithful.

“In dating, we see this all the time,” she said. “People go on dates and we assume we have more in common with others than we actually do. Those perceptions that we’re similar can sometimes be a danger if the person is a lot riskier than you are.”

Shedding new light on the meaning of relationships

Continuing on the theme of how different cultures view sex and relationships, Harman’s recent work has examined what women from around the world think about sex.

For example, to women in Nepal, sex is a very taboo subject and they are considered promiscuous for even talking about or engaging in it. Whereas, American women are more open about sex and European women even further still.

“I like studying populations that we don’t know a lot about,” she said. “By shedding light on some of these differences and what the meaning of different relationships are, I think it helps open people’s eyes that there are other ways of existing in relationships.”

"By shedding light on some of these differences... I think it helps open people's eyes," Dr. Jennifer Jill Harman said.

“My number one goal in my research is to examine if some of the assumptions we make about relationships are true across many different populations,” Dr. Jennifer Jill Harman (left) said.

Harman also is expanding her research about power in relationships to how it affects children in the form of parental alienation, which examines how fathers and mothers can turn their children against the other parent.

“There’s very little work done on it, and people don’t really know how to handle it,” she said. “I think for people who are dating again and have children, it can be a real problem because you have exes who are jealous or threatened by potential new partners and then use children as pawns, making things really, really hard.” For more information about the study, you can see her webpage at www.jenniferjillharman.com.

For those who want to learn more about this field of psychology, Harman is currently teaching a free online course with ScienceofRelationships.com. Registration is still open, and the class runs for another seven weeks.