We humans have developed our civilization by way of human connections from long ago up to the present day, but interpersonal relationships have always been a source of concern for us. In particular, it is not uncommon for dating and married couples who were once close to each other to experience various life events and break up as a result.
Chisato Tani, a third-year doctoral student in the Graduate School of Human Science, is attempting to answer the question of how dating and married couples can build good relationships. Tani has been interested in the process of how people form relationships ever since she was young. After entering university, she fell in love with psychology, a discipline that provides the logical underpinnings for what people unconsciously think when they connect with others. This innate intellectual curiosity is what drives Tani to devote herself to academic research while also working as a counselor. We asked Tani to tell us more about her approach to research.
Going to university to find an answer to a question she had as a child.
“Ever since childhood, I have always wondered why there is a clear distinction between people who get nervous when they talk and those who don’t. My desire to figure out how people can build a relationships where they can feel comfortable and at ease is what led me to pursue this career path." According to Tani, this is what led to her decision to study psychology. She chose to specialize in the field of clinical psychology, a field where she can search for the answers to the questions that have puzzled her for years. Now that she has moved on to graduate school, she spends her days conducting research with a focus on the emotional issues that individuals face. One topic she deals with in particular is "intimate relationships,” or relationships in which people feel comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities with each other.
Tani first encountered psychology at university where she studied the emotion of compassion, that is, the innate kindness of humans. Later, in her master's program, she explored how counselors and clients (i.e., those who come for counseling) can build a secure relationship based on the experiences she gained in her counseling practicum. She began her counseling practicum at about the same time as her master's program, and she decided to make this her focus because she struggled to establish good relationships with her clients at first. She is now pursuing her doctoral degree and is working to elucidate how intimacy developed between dating and married couples and other pairs of people who are close to each other. As she continued taking her studies to the next level, she has explored and researched relationships in more detail trying to figure out what leads to intimate relationships and how they can be built.
Is human vulnerability the key to intimacy?
At present, Tani is focusing her energy on observational research. This is a method whereby the researcher directly observes subjects in the field to obtain data. The advantage of this method is that it allows a researcher to ascertain what is happening now and to hear first-hand opinions in real time. Surprisingly, there are few prior studies dealing with adult couples and married couples in Japan. Researchers believe that this may be due to cultural factors, such as the lack of the custom of counseling two people at the same time, and adequate research methods and data have yet to be established. Despite this, Tani continues to focus on observational research. She explains: “The starting point for my research was the desire I had in my daily life to know what I should do to build good and secure relationships with people. I believe that clues for this lie hidden in real communication. This is why I insist on pursuing observational research that allow me to experience things in the field first-hand. The lack of prior research makes this difficult, but I think this is the way I can get closer to what I want to know.”
According to Tani, the keyword in these studies is human vulnerability.
“There is prior research that shows that intimacy is enhanced when one partner discloses their vulnerabilities to the other partner and those vulnerabilities are accepted. In other words, in order to build intimate relationships, it is important for both partners to try to understand the signals that the other partner sends about what they are thinking and feeling. Even if you do not immediately understand your partner, adopting an attitude of trying to understand them is itself a step toward creating intimacy. However, studies have shown that it can be hard to maintain this kind of mutual relationship when the circumstances surrounding the couple change significantly, especially during the transition to parenthood. At times like these, we do not fully understand the steps we need to take to restore intimacy.”
By quantifying the data obtained from her observational research and making full use of both qualitative and quantitative approaches, Tani is trying to establish a practical method for how two people who are close to each other can resolve their differences in feelings and create intimacy.
Sometimes things don't go the way I want them to. But I enjoy my research, so I keep at it.
When we asked Tani what motivated her to enter the doctoral program and delve further into her research, she told us the following. “I have always loved doing research, including my undergraduate thesis and when I was in the master’s program. It was an amazing experience to uncover things I did not know or could not even imagine. As your thesis takes shape, you obtain all kinds of advice from references, research collaborators, and professors. I enjoy this process the most because it allows me to develop a multifaceted perspective that I never would have thought possible.”
That being said, research does not always go as planned. Often, in the course of their research, researchers will encounter results that differ from their hypotheses. But Tani refuses to give up even when this happens. “If the results are different from what I had envisioned, I try to think that this means there was some other factor that was important. By adopting this mindset, not only can I revise my hypothesis, I can adjust how I carry out my experiments, which enables me to obtain even more accurate and provides me with clues that can lead to new discoveries."
I want to use what I have learned to help my clients.
While pursuing her doctoral research, Tani also works as a clinical psychologist. In the field of clinical psychology, there are still very few people who conduct research and engage in practice simultaneously. Despite this, Tani remains positive. According to her, the advantage of playing the dual role of researcher and clinical psychologist is that the things you do in one role can be applied to the other. “It is a waste not to apply the knowledge you acquire through research. By counseling in a clinic, I can check to see whether my theories are practicable or not. Conversely, real-life experiences in the clinical field and the questions that arise there often lead to breakthroughs in research. In fact, having studied intimate relationships and interpersonal relationships, I find it easier to infer how clients are feeling in counseling situations."
Now, having advanced to the doctoral level of her studies, Tani says it is meaningful for her to work in a clinical setting. “Working as a clinical psychologist, I began to think more deeply about what I could do for my clients. Before entering the workforce, intellectual curiosity was the motivation for my research, but now a new element has been added to the mix. This makes me feel like I need to learn more and more to help my clients with their problems." In addition to her own intellectual curiosity, Tani is motivated to use the knowledge she has gained to give something back to society.
Her journey to answer the questions she has had since childhood continues. There is still much work to be done.
Tani belongs to the Ritsumeikan Advanced Research Academy (RARA), a group of students and faculty members from various graduate schools who hold discussions and work hard together beyond the boundaries of their respective specializations. As part of RARA, she had an opportunity to present her research to students at one of the affiliated junior high schools. After the session, many students said they wanted to hear her speak again. Some of them even said they would reconsider their own behaviors in order to build intimate relationships. Applying the knowledge gained from research to society Tani's actions are already beginning to produce results.
Currently, she is seeking a career that will allow her to continue her research while staying engaged with the community. “How to build secure interpersonal relationships is a topic I want to continue working on. Among other things, there is still more that can be done in terms of the research on dating and married couples that I am doing for my doctoral dissertation. So, I intend to keep pursuing that ." Intimate relationships—everyone’s starting point and an eternal theme we all deal with. Tani will keep working to unlock their secrets.