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“I had no idea that you could get paid to study intimate relationships”

Claire Kamp Dush, associate professor of human sciences

Why do you study what you study?

“I was always interested in intimate relationships. When I was a young girl, I thought I would never get married, perhaps because I lived in what might be one of the smallest towns in America (Brussels, Illinois, population 150). There were slim pickings. Because I lived on a farm and far from town, I also read religiously, and our very small library did not have a wide selection, but did have lots of romance. Thus, I became fascinated by romantic relationships. This never went away. As a first-generation college student, I had no idea that you could get paid to study intimate relationships. But I took a class in human development and family studies at (the University of) Illinois, and from there I learned that you could study families, which led me to design a senior thesis focused on intimate relationships. When I got to grad school, I realized there was still a lot to learn about intimate relationships, and happily delved in.”


Tell us about your biggest “a-ha!” moment so far.

“My biggest a-ha moment so far is probably the work I am doing on the ways that marital happiness has changed from the 1960s until now. It is a fascinating project that is not done yet, but so far the evidence points to a decline in ‘very happy’ marriages over time, and an increase in ‘pretty happy’ marriages over time. I am calling this ‘the rise of the mediocre marriage.’ I need to do more work on this project, but I am really excited about where it is going, and what the implications may be for American marriages.”


What’s the weirdest thing in your office or lab?

“When I won the Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching, my graduate and undergraduate students gave me a present wrapped in lemon-printed wrapping paper. When I opened it up, it was a photo of Beyoncé from the music video for ‘Hold Up’ and with the lyrics printed on it. I love it! Beyoncé is my favorite artists, and it was so thoughtful of my students to give me this gift.”


What’s the worst thing that’s happened in your scientific career?

“The worst thing that has happened in my scientific career has been gender discrimination. It is sometimes overt, it is sometimes subtle, but even as a tenured associate professor I experience it. Now that I am tenured, I have more power to challenge the status quo. It can be very stressful, but as one of my favorite authors, Brené Brown, says, ‘Speak truth to B.S.’ That is something I am learning how to do.”


How do you stay motivated when your work stalls or doesn’t pan out as you hoped?

“I have so many accountability/productivity strategies – I even did a daylong workshop on it recently! Some of my favorites include having an accountability group and using distraction blockers like RescueTime. I also persevere even in the face of rejection. I now have almost five million dollars in grant funding from two large NIH grants. But, I had 12 grants rejected over five years to get to that point.”


What do you most wish people understood about your work or about science in general?

“What I try to tell my students is that family science is applicable to more than just their personal lives. It will touch their professional lives just as much as their personal lives. The interface between work and family is strong. When we are distressed in our marriage, it will likely show up at work and vice versa. Thus, taking care of our family relationships is just as important as doing our jobs well. The other major point I try to make to my students about the science of intimate relationships is to keep their expectations about those relationships in check. No one person can be the perfect lover, your best friend, give amazing social support and help you reach your goals. I encourage them to make sure they have a ‘diversified social network’ meaning that they cultivate good, meaningful relationships with others outside of their partners, and that these relationships will also support their intimate relationships. I have an amazing group of women I am friends with in my book club and close relationships with a few of my colleagues, and having their support and love takes a bit of pressure off of my amazing husband Aaron to be everything for me.”

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