4 Relationship Questions Most People Can't Answer
We intuitively respond incorrectly when we try to answer these basic questions.
Posted Aug 15, 2018
We can intuitively predict many results of basic psychological research, but sometimes our intuition leads us astray. Below we review four questions regarding relationships which we tend to answer incorrectly.
1. Which traits do you most strongly desire in a romantic partner?
You will probably have little trouble choosing the traits you think are most important in a mate. People tend to say that traits like a good sense of humor, kindness, intelligence, and honesty are most important to them in a potential romantic partner (Lippa, 2007). However, it turns out that the traits we think we most strongly value have less influence than we predict over whom we actually like and dislike. For example, Eastwick et al. (2011) showed that participants’ trait preferences had a large impact on their anticipated liking of a potential partner before any face-to-face interaction. However, after their in-person interaction, the trait preferences had no influence at all on their liking for that individual. Furthermore, other research shows that although women think that earning potential will be more important to them, while men believe that physical attractiveness will be more important to them, real-life interactions suggest that attractiveness and earning potential are equally important to both men and women looking for a mate (Eastwick and Finkel, 2008). These experiments raise the intriguing possibility that we don't accurately assess which traits are the most important to us in a romantic partner, and that in-person interactions make more of a difference to our mate preferences than traits do.
2. Do opposites attract?
Think about your latest romantic partner. Would you say that he or she was similar to you or different from you? Most of us intuitively assume that we are very different from our partners, and when we do, we are often thinking about personality characteristics. For example, my husband's personality is very laid-back, while I often describe myself as stressed out. While it is true that we are less likely to resemble our spouses in personality than attitudes (Luo and Klohnen, 2005), you are probably more similar to your partner than you realize, even in terms of personality. One reason that we may guess that opposites attract is that when we compare personality traits, we do not match our partners in absolute levels of single personality characteristics (one partner is likely to be more extroverted or less conscientious than the other); we tend to match our partners in the patterns across personality traits. For example, you might find that both you and your partner are relatively more extroverted and agreeable, and less neurotic and open to new experiences. Couples' personality patterns across traits are likely to be more similar than their levels on any one particular trait. This “profile-based similarity” is associated with romantic satisfaction in spouses (Luo and Klohnen, 2005).
3. Who is more romantic, men or women?
Most people assume that women are more romantic than men. However, when we assess romantic beliefs, men appear to be more romantic than women. For example, men are more likely to believe in love at first sight and that "love conquers all" (Sprecher and Metts, 1989). Men also fall in love faster than women and are more likely than women to say "I love you" first in their relationships (Harrison and Shortall, 2011). One reason that we may believe women are more romantic is due to the different ways that men and women express their romantic feelings. Men tend to express their feelings in more practical ways, such as through sharing household tasks, while women are more likely to use more affectionate and emotional expressions of love (Shoenfeld et al. 2012).
4. How upset will I be if we break up?
Especially in very long and close relationships, we expect that we will be devastated by a breakup. However, when we think about breaking up with a partner, we tend to overestimate the distress we will feel following the split. Although we are certain that we will be desolate, the actual experience of a breakup is almost always less upsetting than we anticipate it will be, even when we are very much in love (Eastwick et al., 2007). Both immediately after a breakup and 10 weeks later, individuals' actual distress levels were significantly lower than they had predicted they would be. Our breakup predictions seem to show an "intensity bias”; we anticipate that the separation will have a bigger emotional impact on us than it actually does. Researchers speculate that our "psychological immune systems" are activated in order to combat our negative feelings and distress following a breakup (Eastwick et al., 2007).
Portions of this post were adapted from The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships, Copyright Madeleine A. Fugère, 2015.
Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., & Eagly, A. H. (2011). When and why do ideal partner preferences affect the process of initiating and maintaining romantic relationships? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(5), 1012–1032. doi:10.1037/a0024062
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Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., Krishnamurti, T., & Loewenstein, G. (2008). Mispredicting distress following romantic breakup: Revealing the time course of the affective forecasting error. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(3), 800-807.
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Sprecher, S., & Metts, S. (1989). Development of the “Romantic Beliefs Scale” and examination of the effects of gender and gender-role orientation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 6, 387–411. doi :10.1177/0265407589064001