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The OU researcher revolutionising relationships with tech

Despite the controversy surrounding relationship and sex education for UK children, the subject is fast becoming a mandatory component of primary and secondary school curriculums throughout the four nations. Nevertheless, Professor Jacqui Gabb says many adults are still left asking questions. “Beyond the age of 16, there is little support for people to build the skills they need for healthy relationships. As a result, most people don’t look for it, while those who do might turn to Google for answers.”

The Professor of Sociology and Intimacy has been researching families and relationships for the past 25 years. “My interest in the social sciences has always been about social justice. I am a feminist researcher who fundamentally believes that our relationships dictate how we organise society”, Jacqui explains. “I’ve also always wanted to change the world by understanding how our relationships work, what they consist of on an ordinary day-to-day basis and what this can teach us about improving people’s lives.”

It's the little things that keep couples connected

During her career, Jacqui has researched thousands of couples worldwide to understand what makes their relationships tick. “I’ve looked at the minutia of people’s lives, what they do with their partners every day”, she says. “I’ve come to realise it’s not the grand gestures that make relationships work, but the small everyday moments from making a partner a cup of tea in the morning to volunteering to walk the dog when it’s raining that are the most significant. This interaction of giving and receiving makes our connections meaningful.”

Still, Jacqui was not content with just understanding the keys to happy and healthy relationships. So, in 2020, she began collaborating with a tech start-up to put her knowledge into practice to help real couples. The result was Paired, the first relationship app featuring advice from qualified clinical psychotherapists and academics for all couples. The app, which features daily questions, tips, quizzes, and games to nudge people to have conversations and take small actions to nurture their relationships, now generates more than 65,000 daily conversations, primarily in the UK, US, Canada and Australia. “It’s been incredible to see my science positively improving people's relationships", says Jacqui, who now splits her time between the OU and being Paired’s Chief Relationship Officer. “It’s become the world’s number one relationship app, and independent research found that couples who use it consistently for at least three months increase their relationship quality by 36%.”

Increasing access to support

However, Jacqui quickly rejects any suggestions that Paired is ‘gamifying’ love. “We want it to be fun and engaging, of course, but we’re not turning relationships into a game. What’s important is that these conversations happen outside of the app. Paired prompts couples to do real-life things, talk about even the most challenging subjects, and listen. That’s why it makes a difference.”

Paired has also shown Jacqui, who admits she is not a great app user, the power of mobile health – or mHealth technologies to widen access to vital support. “If you asked someone what mindfulness was 10 years ago, they might look at you with a puzzled expression. But the explosion of digital health and wellbeing tools since has made meditation mainstream and available to all”, she reflects. “When we designed Paired, I was adamant that it had to be inclusive. That’s why there’s a paid and free version why it works for all relationships, regardless of age, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation. We’re also now translating the app into new languages to help even more people benefit from it.

Jacqui is committed to enhancing pre-crisis relationship support, in which she says technology can play a vital role. “People need to know that psychological support isn’t just something to look for in an emergency, but something equally crucial when things are going well. Apps like Paired can be a crucial resource to routinise the idea of caring for our wellbeing and relationships.”