Media Releases

New research: When it hurts to think we were made for each other

July 24, 2014

TORONTO, ON — Aris­to­tle said, “Love is com­posed of a sin­gle soul inhab­it­ing two bod­ies.” Poet­ic as it is, think­ing that you and your part­ner were made in heav­en for each oth­er can hurt your rela­tion­ship, says a new study.

Psy­chol­o­gists observe that peo­ple talk and think about love in appar­ent­ly lim­it­less ways but under­ly­ing such diver­si­ty are some com­mon themes that frame how we think about rela­tion­ships. For exam­ple, one pop­u­lar frame con­sid­ers love as per­fect uni­ty (“made for each oth­er,” “she’s my oth­er half”); in anoth­er frame, love is a jour­ney (“look how far we’ve come,” “we’ve been through all these things togeth­er”). These two ways of think­ing about rela­tion­ships are par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing because, accord­ing to study authors social psy­chol­o­gists Spike W. S. Lee of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Rot­man School of Man­age­ment and Nor­bert Schwarz of the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, they have the pow­er to high­light or down­play the dam­ag­ing effect of con­flicts on rela­tion­ship eval­u­a­tion. Here’s why. If two peo­ple were real­ly made in heav­en for each oth­er, why should they have any con­flicts?

“Our find­ings cor­rob­o­rate pri­or research show­ing that peo­ple who implic­it­ly think of rela­tion­ships as per­fect uni­ty between soul­mates have worse rela­tion­ships than peo­ple who implic­it­ly think of rela­tion­ships as a jour­ney of grow­ing and work­ing things out,” says Prof. Lee. “Appar­ent­ly, dif­fer­ent ways of talk­ing and think­ing about love rela­tion­ship lead to dif­fer­ent ways of eval­u­at­ing it.”

In one exper­i­ment, Profs. Lee and Schwarz had peo­ple in long-term rela­tion­ships com­plete a knowl­edge quiz that includ­ed expres­sions relat­ed to either uni­ty or jour­ney, then recall either con­flicts or cel­e­bra­tions with their roman­tic part­ner, and final­ly eval­u­ate their rela­tion­ship. As pre­dict­ed, recall­ing con­flicts leads peo­ple to feel less sat­is­fied with their relationship—but only with the uni­ty frame in mind, not with the jour­ney frame in mind. Recall­ing cel­e­bra­tions makes peo­ple sat­is­fied with their rela­tion­ship regard­less of how they think about it.

In a two fol­low-up exper­i­ments, the study authors invoked the uni­ty vs. jour­ney frame in even sub­tler, more inci­den­tal ways. For exam­ple, peo­ple were asked to iden­ti­fy pairs of geo­met­ric shapes to form a full cir­cle (acti­vat­ing uni­ty) or draw a line that gets from point A to point B through a maze (acti­vat­ing jour­ney). Such non-lin­guis­tic, mere­ly pic­to­r­i­al cues were suf­fi­cient to change the way peo­ple eval­u­at­ed rela­tion­ships. Again, con­flicts hurt rela­tion­ship sat­is­fac­tion with the uni­ty frame in mind, not with the jour­ney frame in mind.

Next time you and your part­ner have a con­flict, as Profs. Lee and Schwarz would advise, think what you said at the altar, “I, ____, take you, ____, to be my husband/wife, to have and to hold from this day for­ward, for bet­ter, for worse, for rich­er, for poor­er, in sick­ness or in health, to love and to cher­ish; from this day for­ward ‘till death do us part.” It’s a jour­ney. You’ll feel bet­ter now, and you’ll do bet­ter down the road.

The study was pub­lished in a recent issue of the Jour­nal of Exper­i­men­tal Social Psy­chol­o­gy.

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Ken McGuf­fin
Man­ag­er, Media Rela­tions
Rot­man School of Man­age­ment
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
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