Take 10 with... Jessica Maxwell

Dr Jessica Maxwell, from the School of Psychology, gives us 10 minutes of her time to discuss her research about sexual well-being.

Jessica Maxwell

1. Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

The interconnectedness of sexual and relationship processes.

2. Now describe it in everyday terms!

I examine how couples can best maximise their sexual well-being, and how their relationship and sexual experiences mutually affect one another.  

3. What are some of the day-to-day research activities you carry out?

In addition to the typical activities of faculty members (e.g. emailing students, meeting with collaborators, preparing ethics, etc), these days my research activities involve designing a dyadic daily diary study in which romantic couples will respond to the survey every night for 3 weeks. I plan to start this study with a graduate student in the spring. You can also often find me analysing and writing up existing data I collected during my postdoc and graduate studies, including devising behavioural coding schemes for past participants’ video data (e.g. videos of couples expressing love, interviews of people considering moving in with their partner etc).

4. What do you enjoy most about your research?

I love that my research topic and findings are very relatable and applicable…most people have direct experience with romantic relationships. For this reason, I often get unique insight and new perspectives when I share my findings and research plans with friends and the public. In general, my favourite part of my research is sharing what I find—whether that be informally in everyday life, or in more formal academic settings.

5. Tell us something that has surprised or amused you in the course of your research.

Given that I study relationships and sex, I have a series of funny anecdotes, but some may be inappropriate for a university webpage! I’ll settle for one awkward study and one heart-warming one:

I once conducted a study where I had romantic couples come into the lab and I instructed them to recount “A time when you felt a lot of love for your partner”. The participant looked confused and asked if they could talk about their love for a past partner…how awkward! After that I made sure to clarify participants were to talk about their love for their current partner sitting across from them.

My favourite heart-warming story is that I like to think that I played Cupid. I conducted speed-dating studies at the same comic book convention a few years in a row. One year a couple came up to me at the convention to tell me that they had started dating after being matched at my event the previous year. Even though I was mainly conducting the events for research, helping people find love was a great by-product.

6. How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

One challenge that comes to mind is when conducting my dissertation research I was unable to replicate a key effect using an undergraduate sample. This was puzzling to me, because in several other community samples I had observed the same effect—that believing sexual satisfaction takes effort and work to maintain was significantly associated with sexual satisfaction. Yet this did not reach statistical significance in my sample of undergraduates.

7. What questions have emerged as a result?

Ultimately, I think the above was a useful experience, because it prompted me to then explore whether relationship length might be a moderator of our effects (it was—the effect emerged for those in longer relationships) and allowed me to consider other boundary conditions. Now when designing studies, I always try to carefully consider whether I think the process in question will differ for those in new relationships versus in more established relationships.

8. What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

Put simply, I hope my research can give couples tools to improve their sex lives and relationships. One specific way I aim to do this is by helping couples have more realistic expectations for their sex lives; for e.g. realising that sexual satisfaction takes effort and work to maintain, and that declines in sexual desire over a relationship are normative. I think people underestimate how common it is to experience bumps in their sex life along the way, and become needlessly anxious that there is something wrong with their relationship.

9. If you collaborate across the faculty or University, or even outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

I just started last month, so have not yet had the chance to collaborate with many faculty at the University of Auckland. I am very excited to do so, especially since the university has a range of scholars researching gender and sexuality from different lenses!

I will be collaborating with Nickola Overall and the students in the Researching Emotions, Attachment, Close relationships and Health (REACH) lab here in the School of Psychology. This is a wonderful opportunity because these scholars bring different theoretical approaches (e.g. ambivalent sexism) to the study of relationships. And I also look forward to conducting research with the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study team.

My research approach is very collaborative, and I will be maintaining existing collaborations with several of my colleagues in North America. I believe collaborations are invaluable for so many reasons, including facilitating the ability to replicate findings, and ensuring large samples for adequate power. Collaborations have allowed me to look at sex and relationship functioning in diverse samples I would not have been able to otherwise, such as in new parents.

10. What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Be meticulous in organising your data files and recording your analyses! You think you will remember everything but years down the road you may want to delve back into that data, share it with collaborators, etc. In general the more organised you are, the easier your life is.