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A Light in the Dark

Merissa Ferrara, communication professor

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When Merissa Ferrara landed five college roommates her freshman year, she didn't know that she'd live with the women for all four of her undergraduate years.

And she didn't know that their romantic relationships would end up figuring so prominently in her academic career.

A professor in the Department of Communication, Ferrara studies the "dark sides of communication," analyzing how lies, mistrust, jealousy, betrayal and other factors can set back a relationship.

"We all dated a lot," says of those undergraduate years, and "I was really amazed at how we dealt with relationship transgressions."

These days, she uses a broader base of study participants than the people she shares a house with. Recently, she's been conducting studies on when people are willing to take a romantic partner back after a betrayal; how exes are discussed in current relationships; the guilt and anxiety felt by people withholding secrets from their family; and issues of envy and jealousy regarding weight loss.

For the weight-loss study, Ferrara observed that many friends' and relatives' initial support of a loved one losing weight soon gave way to "social undermining."

Friends and relatives, she discovered, could become frustrated by their loved one's desire to change, not understanding why they insisted on eating different foods and exercising frequently, even if their loved one was obese and weight loss was medically important.

Ferrara's students find it easy to connect the lessons in class with their personal lives. One student who has taken classes from Ferrara, says she often finds herself sitting in class saying "Oh yeah, that's happened to me," or "Oh yeah, I can use that with my boyfriend."

The class makes such an impact on students in relationships that many recommend their significant others sign up for professor Ferrara's courses the following semester.

While some of her class topics may be emotionally unpleasant, Ferrara hopes there's a payoff in confronting them.

"I still study the dark side," she says, "but I also figure out how to put it to good use."