It’s typical to assume that it’s hard to be both brilliant and happy in your relationships. If you’re super-smart, how can you also manage to relate to those who aren’t your intellectual equals? It turns out that this is an empirical question, and one that new research may just be able to answer. According to a team of investigators headed by Dutch psychologist Pieternel Dijkstra and colleagues (2017), there are good reasons to expect that the intimate relationships of the gifted aren’t really that good. But might there be a surprise when examining the actual data?
Previous research conducted by Dijkstra showed that gifted single men tend to look for partners who themselves are smart, valuing intellectual attributes more than personality or orientation to having a family. Additionally, when it comes to friendships, those with the highest IQs want to associate with people whom they can learn from, rather than people with whom they are more emotionally allied. They are also more sensitive to criticism, and can feel misunderstood by people who don’t see the world from the same highly refined lens as they do. On the other hand, the intellectually gifted, Dijkstra and her team noted, can be more open to new experiences, have more favorable attitudes toward women’s careers, and boast higher self-esteem. These latter attributes should auger well for their relationship happiness.
The Dutch team operated from the framework of attachment theory in their analysis, a view of relationships that regards the way you approach your partner as an extension of the way you related to your parents (or caregivers) as an infant. In so-called securely attached relationships, you feel that you can rely on your partner to support you. If you are insecurely attached to your partner, you constantly fear either being neglected or abandoned, and can become anxious at the thought of separation. It’s also possible that, in response to fear of abandonment, you take on a dismissive or detached way of relating to those who would wish to be close to you.
In addition to attachment style, Dijkstra and her colleagues believed that the way gifted individuals approach conflict resolution could become a factor in determining the quality of their relationships. The Dutch researchers believe that there are two dimensions to conflict resolution. The first is the degree to which you are concerned about yourself and your needs, and the second, independent, dimension is the extent to which you are concerned about the needs of your partner. From these two dimensions emerge four conflict styles:
1. Integrating (high concern for self and for partner)
2. Dominating (high concern for self and low for others)
3. Obliging (low concern for self and high concern for partner)
4. Avoiding (low concern for both self and partner)
A fifth conflict style is also possible in which you find the middle ground on both dimensions and seek compromise. As you might expect, the most adaptive styles are integrating and compromise; the others can lead to negative outcomes over time in the relationship.
Now, on to the research itself: Because finding the intellectually gifted can be a challenge, the Dutch investigators used a strategy identified by earlier studies of seeking out members of the Mensa Society. The individuals in this organization, which numbers approximately 100,000 worldwide, need to have their brilliance vetted via intelligence test scores showing that they are smarter than 98 percent of the population. The 196 heterosexual adults in the Dijkstra et al. study were recruited from the Dutch Mensa Society and then compared with a control group of 146 adults not measuring up to those standards. The Mensa members were indeed high IQ: More than half had scores of 140 or higher. Although the IQs were not available for the control group, they were not as well-educated as the Mensa participants, and an estimate of what their IQ might be placed them squarely in the range of the average IQ of 108.
Members of the two online samples completed a series of questionnaires assessing their attachment style, conflict resolution style, and relationship quality and satisfaction. With regard to the basic question of who’s happier in their relationships, the findings showed no differences in perceived relationship quality according to gifted status. Being an intellectual superstar, therefore, doesn’t condemn you to relationship misery. However, when it came to style of conflict resolution, the Mensa group showed a greater tendency to steer clear of disagreements with their partners. Rather than engage in the more effective strategies of compromise and integration, the intellectually gifted preferred avoidance.
Why would the very smart be immune from avoidance’s negative consequences? Dijkstra et al. reasoned that, based on the idea that like attracts like when it comes to intelligence, the Mensa members were more likely to have partners who shared their brilliance. According to the similarity theory of relationships, being like your partner in personality and intelligence means that you’ll have more “shared emotional experiences” accompanied by fewer disagreements (p. 275). Because the intellectually gifted value the life of the mind, they’d be more likely to pair up with partners who see life from the same elevated plane. Thus, although they tend to avoid conflict when it occurs, perhaps those at the upper reaches of the IQ scale are just less likely to have disagreements with their similarly well-educated partners.
There was one potential downside to this otherwise rosy picture: Those in the Mensa sample scored higher on insecure attachment, particularly the variety in which people fear being abandoned by their partners. Dijkstra and her colleagues believe this may reflect the fact that “gifted individuals may feel threatened more easily and experience fear in situations that involve emotional intimacy” (p. 276). Still, even this aspect of their relationship style didn’t detract from the quality of their relationships. Perhaps they’ve learned to modulate their hypersensitivity over time, and therefore not allow their fear of rejection to interfere with their ability to enjoy their relationship with their long-term partners.
We can learn from this study that being smart doesn’t doom you to poor relationships — and that even if your approach to your partner isn’t perfect, it’s still possible to experience satisfying levels of intimacy. You may not be able to change your IQ but learning to adapt to your personal strengths and weaknesses is a change from which anyone can benefit.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Dijkstra, P., Barelds, D. H., Ronner, S., & Nauta, A. P. (2017). Intimate relationships of the intellectually gifted: Attachment style, conflict style, and relationship satisfaction among members of the Mensa society. Marriage & Family Review, 53(3), 262-280. doi:10.1080/01494929.2016.1177630