5 questions with Bill Henninger

UNI family services professor Bill Henninger


With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, the UNI family services professor shares what he’s learned about love and dating from his research and teaching — and how “The Bachelor” ties it all together.

The first time Bill Henninger sat down with his wife to watch “The Bachelor,” he didn’t expect the “contrived” reality show to become an obsession, much less for it to become a major part of his teaching. Henninger, associate professor of family services, came to UNI with experience working with children with social and emotional disabilities, and that’s where he expected his teaching and research to focus. But when he was asked to teach a class called Human Identity and Relationships, which would focus on dating, he jumped at the chance to try something new. Through the course, he’s able to incorporate his love of “The Bachelor,” while exposing UNI students to some of the same family services theories that drive his work with children, creating a class that is as entertaining as it is enlightening. 

You’re a professor of family services. What exactly is family studies and how does it relate to your research in dating?

Family studies is going to be the study of anything that comprises family development. So it could be human development, development of kids, it could be family relationships, it could be dating relationships. Dating is a social interaction, so it wasn’t too far of a jump from one of my first jobs working with kids who had social emotional disabilities and teaching them how to learn social skills.

What are some of the specific aspects of dating that you’ve researched? What are some of your major findings? How has dating changed since you first started doing your research?

One of the big interesting things is, obviously, online dating. If you look at kind of the history of it, at one point, online dating was very much viewed as — if you lived in China and I lived here and we were soulmates, this was the way we were going to meet. And as it progressed, what they found is that people don't really want long distance relationships. So now they're very much looked at as, you have all these potential mates around you, but how are you going to meet them? With the advent of the Internet, we don't socialize like we used to. And so now these are kind of a way to figure out who's single and who you match up well with.

I think online dating also changed dating in some ways. People look at dating more like shopping. You hear a lot about how younger generations are less likely to get married and I wonder sometimes if that is that there's kind of this overabundance of options. There’s always something better. Another thing that has changed is 15, 20 years ago, online dating was kind of looked at as this, like, last ditch attempt to find somebody. Now, I talk to my college students, and they’re just open about it. It’s not this scarlet letter anymore.

You’re a fan of “The Bachelor” and have referenced the show in your classes. What is the appeal of the show and how does it relate to your academic work?

I taught an honor section of human identity and relationships, and I had this bright idea where we went through a whole season of “Married at First Sight,” which is a show on TLC. Basically, there are these experts and they match people up. The whole idea is these experts should be able to find you your soulmate. And they follow them for six weeks and see if the people will stay together. And it's fairly legitimate. It's not like “The Bachelor,” where it’s super contrived. Students were really, really into that. And it was a really cool starting point. 

One of the more interesting things about “The Bachelor” is that it is very contrived. And so the first day of class I bring it up and people are like, ‘Oh, it’s so fake,’ and I understand. It is fake. However, when they breakup on that show, they use a lot of the same breakup scripts we do. We also talk about social penetration theory, and that is you start out with very broad kind of safe topics when you first start dating someone and then you dive deeper the more you get to know them. And if you watch “The Bachelor,” they do that, it’s just really, really accelerated.

Valentine’s Day is coming up — based on your research, how is this holiday significant? Does it impact relationships in a real way? 

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone say Valentine’s Day has actually made or broke the relationship. So I think we put a lot of effort into it, when it’s really just another day. It’s another day to be nice. I guess if I was going to give advice to people, I’d say you really shouldn’t care so much about what your spouse does for you on February 14, but what do they do for you on, like, March 22; on a random day. If you’re having a really crappy day and you go home and complain, do they listen to you? Do they try to address your needs? If that’s the case, then you’ve probably got a winner. If it’s somebody who does a bunch of amazing stuff or you on the 14th and nothing for the rest of the year, it’s probably not a good match. 

Is there a research-backed method to securing a date for Valentine’s Day and having the date go well? Is it worth trying to find a date?

Online dating is probably the way to go because you’re dealing with all potential mates. Next, with your online dating profile — pictures, pictures, pictures. Those are the biggest predictors. Make sure that there’s a picture, obviously, of you. And then a picture with you doing something you enjoy. Make sure in your description you talk about things you like to do. One of the biggest predictors of dating success is mutual interest. On the first date, dress nice, but you don’t have to wear a tuxedo. Show up on time. Stay off your phone. Stay away from talking about your exes. Smile, smile, smile. Ask as many questions as you are asked. Try not to monopolize time, but also answer questions. It’s a social exchange, so it’s a back and forth. I try not to tell people how to live their life, but what I would say is, if you’re single, you’re probably going to have a lot more fun doing something with all your single friends on the 14th.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Looking for more Bill? You can listen to an interview he did for the Alumni Association’s podcast here:  https://unialum.org/podcast-archives