Robert Emery

Emery, Robert

Primary Appointment


Contact Information

317 Gilmer Hall
Telephone: (434)-924-0671

Research Disciplines


Research Interests

Children, Families and the Law

Research Description

My research focuses on children, families, family relationships, and various psychological processes of special importance to families such as a systems perspective, grieving relationship loss, emotional pain, and parenting. A major focus in recent years (in collaboration with Eric Turkheimer) has been studying twins to control for genetic and shared environmental selection into family experiences as a way of isolating true (or as true as you can get) environmental influences on behavior, emotion, and well-being.

The twin method is the focus of my current, funded research (a three year grant that began in June 2011). We are studying the “marriage benefit,” the physical and mental health advantages associated with being married. This work tackles the essential question: Does marriage actually cause benefits correlated with it (for example, less depression and antisocial behavior or greater longevity), or is the “marriage benefit” a spurious result of nonrandom selection into marriage? This is a classic correlation or causation question. After all, happier, healthier, and wealthier people make more attractive mates.

With my UVa colleague, Eric Turkheimer, and Paul Lichtenstein of Karolinska Institute in Sweden, we are studying marriage (and cohabitation, divorce, happy marriage, abuse, same sex marriage – anything related to marriage) by comparing large samples of twins in Sweden (200,000 twins), the U.S., and Australia. The twin design can be both straightforward (directly comparing twins discordant for marital status) and statistically elegant and complex (graduate students are expected to master and conduct sophisticated modeling analyses). We also have begun fun, but relatively small scale qualitative studies of twins. Click on this BBC news story to get a flavor of this work:

I also maintain longstanding interests in more applied topics, especially family conflicts that affect children and involve legal/policy issues. These interests include the consequences of divorce for children, child custody disputes, divorce mediation, how children are affected by marital conflict, triadic (systemic) interactions, psychological pain, and grief. Several graduate students in my lab are conducting smaller projects on these topics, and these may lead to bigger efforts in the future. Two current examples are research on frequent infant and toddler overnights in two homes and attachment insecurity (secondary data analysis), and studies of what we call “parental denigration,” extreme putdowns that are controversially assumed to be deliberate “parental alienation” in some legal circles. In addition to my empirical work, I write and work with related issues in broader ways in my roles as Director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law and as Associate Editor of Family Court Review.

I am particularly interested in graduate students whose interests span both my more basic and more applied interests, who are eager to develop skills in the use of quantitative methods, and who do so with an eye toward clinical and/or policy applications.

<b><i>UNLEASH (Undergraduate Research)</b><</i>

Our broad research interests include children, families, family relationships, family conflict, and various psychological processes of special importance to families such as the genetic vs. environmental contributions to development and psychopathology. Special consideration is often given to ways in which research findings are applicable to legal/policy issues. Currently, our research specifically addresses the “marriage benefit,” the physical and mental health advantages associated with being married. This work tackles the basic but essential question of whether marriage actually causes benefits well-documented to be correlated with it (such as less depression, greater longevity, and increased income) or whether these marriage benefits result from nonrandom selections into marriage. We predominantly use the twin design to purse a variety of specific questions related to the marriage benefit.

RA duties include conducting literature searches, data entry and checking, facilitating studies, and other administrative tasks. Contact: Prof. Emery

Selected Publications