• Kale Monk working at his desk
    Kale Monk working at his desk
  • Kale Monk interviewing coupleMichael Hicks
    Kale Monk interviewing coupleMichael Hicks

Six University of Missouri faculty members have been selected as the inaugural group of MU Engagement Scholars. The scholars were selected by the Office of Extension and Engagement for their potential to create dynamic engagement opportunities for Missourians.

During the yearlong program, scholars share their research with the public and develop public engagement plans related to that research. The scholars are assisted by the staff of The Connector, a university unit that helps researchers engage with the public through professional development and programming.

Dr. Kale Monk is one of six scholars chosen. Learn more below about his background and his research and how he puts that into practice.


Kale Monk: The relationship researcher

I’m Kale Monk, and I study relationships — romantic ones in particular. I’m an assistant professor in the University of Missouri’s Department of Human Development and Family Science and state specialist for youth and families with MU Extension.

My research focuses on understanding why some couples and relationships thrive and what explains the unstable, even harmful, nature of others.

Like nutritious food and exercise, healthy, loving and supportive relationships are better for our overall health and well-being, too. Research and data confirm this.

Here are some specific areas of my research:

  • Identifying how romantic relationships become unstable or tumultuous
  • Determining the mental health consequences of relationship instability
  • Exploring how couples maintain relationship quality across life transitions (e.g., the transition to marriage for engaged couples, the transition home from deployment for military couples)
  • Determining how to help improve intimate unions or help individuals safely leave distressing relationships

I grew up in Bennington, Kansas as the youngest of two children. I’ve been with the University of Missouri since 2017. As a first-generation college graduate, I received my undergraduate degree in psychology and master’s degree in couple and family therapy from Kansas State University, before earning my doctoral degree in family science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

When I’m not researching and teaching, I like to watch reality TV (particularly the Real Housewives), perform my heart out in karaoke (especially anything Lady Gaga), and bike the MKT trail with my wife, my 20-month-old daughter and our new 10-month-old Pomeranian, Remy.


How did you get interested in this field?

I have always been fascinated by relationships. In junior high and high school, for example, I wondered why some of my friends had no issues attracting romantic partners and initiating relationships, whereas others just couldn’t find a partner even when they wanted one.

Similarly, I wondered why some of my friends had long-lasting, affectionate and supportive relationships characterized by deep connection whereas other friends had extremely volatile or conflicted interactions with their romantic partners. What explains these differences?

More personally, my college partner and I broke up and got back together eight times. You heard that correctly — eight times! I wanted to know why we kept going back to each other even when we both knew we were not a good fit for each other. She was a fantastic person, and I was... fine... but why didn’t we “work” together? I needed to understand more and knew that I wanted to be a therapist or someone who worked in the relationship science field in some capacity.

Learning how relationships affect our physical health really sealed the deal.

Please tell us more about how relationships affect our physical health.

In one of my favorite studies that I read about as an undergraduate student, couples were brought into a lab and a small cut or lesion was administered. The researchers followed the couples over time, and they found that those in more distressed relationships healed 60% more slowly than those in more supportive, satisfying relationships.

I think we sense intuitively that bad relationships add to our stress, and that impacts our health. But here was the actual physical evidence of that.

We see strong health implications across a number of studies. For example, several meta-analyses looking at hundreds of studies demonstrate that social connectedness and support are important for our longevity. Those who are more socially isolated are more likely to die prematurely than those who are socially connected. And these affects are equal-to or stronger than many other widely accepted public health determinants like smoking, exercise, and environmental pollution.

Why does this research matter?

You don’t have to convince people that having easier, less contentious interactions with people is really important. The most popular Google searches are people actively seeking health and relationship advice, particularly young people.

Research also shows that people at the end of life say their top regrets are about relationships: they wish they’d spent more time with family or made amends with someone they hurt or became estranged from. This shows how important this field really is. Why wouldn’t we look to science and research to help us figure out healthier and better ways of relating... of living?

How can science help?

Say you’re talking with a military couple who’s struggling when the deployed partner comes home. If you can share the science about how to readjust to each other’s presence and help each other achieve goals during this time of transition, then you can potentially help validate and normalize their experience.

Similarly, if people understand how important their relationships are for their health, they might be more intentional about supporting one another. If we know someone whose partner is sick, relationship research can be helpful here, too. For example, numerous studies show that different parts of the brain light up when we experience emotional or physical pain, but when we are holding the hand of a partner or loved one, there is reduced activity in the brain regions associated with pain; reports of pain may decrease from “painful” to “uncomfortable.” The mere presence of a caring, loved one can change our breathing, calm our fight-or-flight stress response. This shows concretely how to reduce distress. Obviously, hugs and holding hands isn’t enough to cure many illnesses, but relationships can provide a lot of other tangible supports. For example, individuals can encourage medical check-ups, or provide reminders to take critical medications, along with the joint promotion of other healthy habits, together!

Similarly, solid relationship science can counteract popular, but potentially harmful and outdated narratives about relationships. For example, how many times have we heard “if you love something, let it go – if it comes back, then you know” or “two people have to fall apart in order to come back together”? These statements might imply that breaking up and getting back together is ideal. Although there are always some exceptions, on average a pattern of breakup and reconciliation (i.e., “on-again/off-again relationship cycling”) is associated with less relationship satisfaction and commitment and more psychological distress and physical aggression. So, science can help us understand how to help people stabilize their relationships or safely leave them if they are beyond repair.

Science and research aren’t just hearsay or anecdotal examples. Rather they can help equip us with reliable and tested tools and strategies to avoid certain predictable outcomes. For instance, how a conversation starts is highly predictive of how it will end. If we know that, then we can predict that starting a difficult conversation with positive statements like expressions of appreciation, sticking to “I” statements instead of criticisms, and focusing on the one matter at hand predicts a better outcome for resolving that issue. We determine which tools and strategies are good to practice and use.

Surprising fact?

People with a “soulmate” mentality (believing there is one perfect partner for you – “relationship destiny”) are more likely to experience problematic relationship outcomes. Why? Because they may not be as willing to put in the hard work to make the relationship work. They start with the mindset that “You should be able to read my mind and know what I need and want.” “If fate says we should be together, we should never disagree and should always be in tune.” Then when disagreements inevitably arise, they are more likely to assume “you must not be the one I should be with” and may continue to be disappointed when they can’t find that perfect partner. All relationships take some degree of effort to maintain, so a “growth” mindset is more realistic and helpful.

What is an “engaged” scholar?

An engaged scholar is someone who works for and with various communities — the public — in some capacity. I want people to have the information they need to develop healthier and happier lives. I want it to be accessible and understandable to them. The information we get from research can empower us to identify and change old habits and make healthier decisions ahead.

My work is also geared toward practitioners — which means making my research and that of others more digestible, as well as doing direct education with communities.

What’s your one key tip to better relationships?

You don’t wait until your car breaks down to get it worked on. You do preventive maintenance. You check the oil. You rotate the tires. You address things before they become a major issue or cause more damage. Relationships are similar. Relationships take a lot of care, maintenance and work.

One key suggestion is to respond to a partner’s bid for connection appropriately. We see in the research that mundane, daily interactions are really what determine the success of a relationship — not grand gestures. So, when partners attempt to connect in subtle ways – asking what you want for dinner, mentioning a fond memory, asking your opinion, pointing out something interesting they heard at work or read in the newspaper – these everyday interactions are “bids” to connect. Partners can respond negatively (“turning against”), positively (“turning toward”), or in a neutral manner (“turning away”). How a partner responds can be highly predictive of divorce if they are invalidating, hostile, or contemptuous.

For example, my wife really likes the Kansas City Royals. Saying I am neutral about baseball is generous. A few years ago, she said “The Royals are going to the World Series!” And I responded in some innocuous way like “Oh. Neat. What do you want me to make for dinner?” This was a neutral response, but I could immediately tell she was discouraged because she wanted to say more about something she was excited about, and I changed the subject instead of capitalizing on this opportunity to connect more deeply. It wasn’t as bad as me saying something like “All you talk about is the Royals... who cares about the Royals?” This would be an example of a “turning against” response, which would have been even more discouraging. However, a response that allows us to connect (turning toward), would have been best: “You must be so excited! What does this mean for the team? Who is your favorite player?” This type of response allows us to learn more about each other, share in each other’s excitement, and grow our intimacy.

Relationship concerns? There’s an App for that!

Relevate is an interdisciplinary team of relationship scientists, educators, therapists, and software engineers working together to create a relationship education web-based platform to provide trustworthy, research-based, romantic relationship information directly to the public. Dr. Monk is the director of engagement and outreach for Relevate.

Scholars, educators, and practitioners with expertise in romantic relationships will contribute to the “library” of relationship knowledge and advice.

But the web-application, “MyRelevate,” doesn’t stop there! Users of MyRelevate (aka Relevateers) will be able to create a profile and receive relationship information that is tailored to their circumstances and needs.

The Relevate team hopes to secure more funding to expand the resource and launch the app late in 2022.


Dr. Monk is featured on several radio shows and podcasts. His research on how breaking up and getting back together can lead to psychological distress has been featured in many notable news outlets, with a projected reach of over 238 million people, according to the MU News Bureau.

Here are just a few examples of some of these featured articles: