We can thank the human brain’s propensity for shortcutting—it’s called the availability heuristic—for having whatever meme, old wives’ tale, or cultural trope about relationships we’ve heard most frequently pop into our heads as an accepted truth.
If you’re dubious, consider the ripple effect of the planetary metaphor John Gray used in his blockbuster book from the 1990s, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, and how that metaphor has shaped cultural discussions for years in both obvious and subtle ways. The shorthand, among women, was a certain look, arched eyebrows, and the words: “He’s a guy. What did you expect?”
Herewith a bit of necessary myth-busting and cultural trope-bashing about relationships—and the skinny on what science knows but you might not.
1. Independence is (NOT) the opposite of dependence.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point, our cultural picture of the ideal couple became that of two independent entities, each competent and self-reliant, but nevertheless yoked. "Dependence" became a dirty word, a sign of weakness or being "less than." Was this a reaction to the 1950s vision of the dependent homemaker or a byproduct of feminism? It doesn’t much matter because it’s not true.
The truth is actually slightly strange and counterintuitive and it’s even got a name: the dependency paradox. Working from attachment theory, Brooke Fenney hypothesized that support given to an individual in a close relationship might actually facilitate and foster independence and self-sufficiency, instead of inhibiting it as the cultural tropes hold. And that’s just what she found across her experiments: Just as children who know they can rely on the secure base of a caring parent explore more adventurously, so too an adult in a close and supportive relationship will stretch him or herself to the limit and achieve more when he or she knows there’s help in time of trouble and setback. Keep that in mind when you read a writer’s dedication to his or her partner or spouse, saying “this book wouldn’t exist without you." It’s probably true.
2. Living together is (NOT) a good test drive for marriage.
I'll admit it: I believed this for years and years, and even recommended it to younger people, all the while blocking out the actual experiences of all the couples I knew who lived together first and divorced anyway. Well, the research of Scott Stanley and his colleagues has finally provided the answer to why living together first actually decreases the likelihood of marital success—a tendency to “slide” into marriage as the next, inevitable step rather than embarking on a deliberate, committed process of decision-making. The key idea is inertia: People move in together for all sorts of reasons (or no reason) which pertains to the relationship—lost job or lease; convenience; it seems “right” or “can’t come up with a reason why not,” etc.—and without necessarily consciously increasing their commitment to each other. Once moved in, marriage—and here’s inertia again—seems more inevitable than not, especially in view of the dismal alternatives—deciding to leave, facing a breakup, loss of friends, splitting up possessions and/or pets, being lonely, etc. You can see how “sliding” into marriage can be easy as pie but, alas, not a good recipe for a stable marriage.
3. Like (DOES NOT) attract like, especially when it comes to looks.
Yes, it appears that “mate value” dominates the dating scene, which is why we expect the captain of the football team to snag the prom queen; the summa cum laude to marry a lawyer, not a plumber, and so forth. But wait a minute: It turns out that this observation isn’t a hard and fast rule (which is what it seems when you’re in the thick of it); has little to do with ultimate relationship satisfaction; and that odd, mismatched-on-the-surface couple may actually have something on Mr. And Ms. Hotness Personified.
Lucy Hunt. Paul Eastwick, and Eli Finkel hypothesized that the length of time a couple knew each other before getting romantically involved would moderate the effect and importance of physical attractiveness and mate value, as would the existence of a friendship beforehand. And that’s what they found. There’s something heartening about this finding, don’t you think? It appears we can overcome our most reductionist instincts at least some of the time. Maybe the real hottie in the room isn’t the girl or guy who appears, on the surface, to be one.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2015
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Fenney, Brooke C. “The Dependency Paradox in Close Relationships: Accepting Dependence Promotes Independence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2007), vol. 92, no. 2, 268-285.
Stanley, Scott M., Galena Kline Rhoades, and Howard J. Markman,” Sliding versus Deciding: Inertia and the Premarital Cohabitation Effect,” Family Relations (October 2006), 55, 499-509.
Hunt, Lucy L. and Paul W. Eastwick,” Leveling the Playing Field: Acquaintance Length Predicts Reduced Assortative Mating on Attractiveness,” Psychological Science (2015)