Vanier Victory – Love, sex & relationships

Photo of graduate student Nathan Leonhardt
Thursday, July 18, 2019 - 10:27am
Carla DeMarco
Q&A with Nathan Leonhardt, a 2019 Vanier scholar in the Department of Psychology

Nathan Leonhardt (NL), a graduate student in Professor Emily Impett's Lab in U of T Mississauga's Department of Psychology, was recently awarded a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (Vanier CGS).

In this profile Nathan provides more insight into his area of research on the ways in which couples can thrive in their sexual relationships, and the project he will undertake over the duration of his Vanier award. 

Q: Could you provide an overview of your research and your specific area of study?

NL: I once heard that love is the answer, but sex raises a lot of questions. I think It’s important to work out some of these questions because sexuality is often the biggest distinguisher between romantic relationships and any other type of relationship. Interestingly, academic conferences on relationships typically give sexuality limited attention, while academic conferences on sexuality typically focus more on the physical than the relational aspect of sexuality. Much of my focus is bridging the gap between relationship and sexuality research.

More specifically, I focus on how couples can flourish in their sexual relationship. In the social sciences we often look at satisfaction as the main outcome in a study, which I believe is an important but incomplete part of high quality sexual relationships. The danger of having satisfaction as the only outcome is that someone can feel satisfied from sex in a casual experience or a long-term relationship, yet these experiences often have important differences.  I’m working on finding ways to capture growth, belonging, meaning, and engagement in long-term sexual relationships, which hopefully enrichens our understanding of high quality, long-term, relational sexuality.

Q: How did you get into this area of research in the first place? Was it always an area of interest?

NL: I think if you were to tell my high school self what I’d be studying in the future, I would be completely shocked. I’ve long been interested in figuring out what makes people tick and I was fortunate enough to have professors at Brigham Young University – where I obtained my bachelor’s and master’s degrees – take some of my scattered thoughts and help me channel them into statistical and writing skills that could contribute to research.

But some of the most important experiences in forming my specific line of research happened while living in Bulgaria for two years as a church missionary, and later returning as a volunteer in an orphanage. As a missionary, I developed a close tie with a family where the husband was sexually unfaithful to his wife. In the orphanage, I had the opportunity to work with victims of sexual abuse. I think seeing the devastation that could come from sexual choices and circumstances inspired me to research a clearer ideal for sexuality and relationships. I believe that what we aim for influences how we live.

The things I’ve seen over the years have fascinated me in both how bad life can get and how good life can get. In general, I believe that sexuality and relationships intersect in making us susceptible to deep hurt and sorrow, while also heightening our capacity for joy and fulfillment. I believe if most people were to think of their most meaningful hurts and joys, a large percentage of those experiences would have something to do with relationships and/or sexuality.

Q: Can you tell me about your experience working with award winning UTM Professor Emily Impett?

NL: So much I could say! She’s as competent and driven as she is caring. Her feedback is thorough without being biting. She generates ideas quickly enough that she could keep all her students focused entirely on the things she wants to dive into, yet she accommodates others’ interests, making sure they’re working on the things they want.

I think the highest compliment I can give her is that she’s made a foreign country feel like a home. As someone introverted and used to smaller cities, coming to a large city without knowing anyone was a big move. But she found ways to quickly integrate me into her lab, helping me feel that my voice matters, and that I have support.

I’m the third student of hers to receive a Vanier scholarship. I think that shows something remarkable about her mentoring.

Q: I understand your research proposal is titled “Sexual Flourishing as a Buffer to Declines in Satisfaction during the Transition to Parenthood.”

Can you delve a bit deeper into this project that you will be focusing on for this Vanier award over the next three years?

NL: The transition to parenthood can be a confusing time. Bodies change. Hormones fluctuate. A little person disrupts sleep. These tend to take a toll on the relationship. In our project, we aim to follow 250 couples during the transition to parenthood, to better understand how couples successfully adjust.

We think that being sexually satisfied going into this period may not be a strong enough anchor on its own for confronting challenges that arise in the relationship. We think that couples who enter this period with a sexual relationship that also is built upon a combination of growth, belonging, meaning, and engagement could be better prepared to deal with this major life transition.

Q: Have you come across any findings so far that you have found particularly surprising?

NL: So far, I’ve collected data (not specifically focused on the transition to parenthood) trying to establish measurement for sexual flourishing: the previously mentioned combination of growth, belonging, meaning, and engagement. This sexual flourishing measure I created is closely connected to sexual satisfaction, but there are some interesting differences. In just one example, sexual satisfaction is linked more closely to viewing sexuality as being primarily for pleasure; sexual flourishing is linked more closely to viewing sexuality as being primarily for relationship building.

Q: How did you find out you won the Vanier and what does this honour mean for you?

NL: I got an email telling me that a decision had been reached. But it didn’t tell me what the decision was! I was directed to a website that had the decision. I tried to log in, but realized I forgot my password. Second try? Incorrect! Third try? Phew! Login successful. But then the decision wasn’t on the main page of the website! With way too long additional clicking and scrolling, I finally found the letter. I saw the words “I am pleased...” and my racing heart paused. Alone in my Deerfield office, I took around 15-30 minutes to quietly process my gratitude for everyone that helped me get to this point. I contacted those I was close to, thanking them for their support. It really felt like a team win.

I think as researchers we risk getting stuck in an academic echo chamber that makes us question whether our work has worth and is making a difference. Receiving the Vanier increases my confidence that my ideas have value. It increases my confidence in my ability to be an influence for good. I hope this can encourage other researchers who study relationships and sexuality. It highlights that this is an important subject that can impact peoples’ lives.

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The Vanier CGS provides funding each year to attract highly qualified doctoral students to Canadian institutions. The awards are valued at $50,000 per year for three years during the recipients' doctoral studies, and the areas of research include health research, natural sciences and/or engineering research, and social sciences and humanities research. 

Go to the Vanier CGS website for the full list of Vanier Scholars for 2019.

Photo of Nathan above by Maeve Doyle.