Why You Shouldn’t Overthink Your Relationship
Research shows how we go wrong when we try to figure out our feelings.
Posted June 2, 2015
A common piece of advice when you’re trying to make an important decision is to generate a list of pros and cons. This advice is often extended to our romantic relationships. You wonder, “Should I break up with my boyfriend (or girlfriend)?" and then you generate a list of your partner's faults and assets.
Yet, this strategy is actually likely to be remarkably ineffective in illuminating your true feelings about the person. But why?
When we overanalyze things, we get confused and make poor decisions. Usually people’s stated preferences predict their actions pretty well. If people say they like a task, they’ll spend more time doing it; if they think a landscape is pretty, their facial expressions will show more pleasure as they look at it. But when people are asked to analyze their reasons for liking that task or landscape, suddenly their behavior doesn’t match up with those preferences anymore.1
This happens in our romantic relationships, too. In one study, 39 couples were asked to answer questionnaires about how satisfied they were with their relationship.2 Half of those couples were first asked to analyze the relationship. They were asked to “list all the reasons you can think of for why your relationship with your dating partner is going the way it is,” and to “take time to analyze your relationship, and describe why it is good or bad. Be as specific as possible." Immediately after analyzing their relationships, they completed a questionnaire assessing their relationship satisfaction. The control group just completed the satisfaction questionnaire without analyzing their relationships first.
All of the couples were contacted four to eight months later to see if they were still dating. For couples in the control group, the correlation between how satisfied they said they were in the first part of the study and whether or not they broke up several months later was fairly large. This is what we would expect: Happier couples are less likely to break up—not exactly a news flash.
But what about the couples who were asked to analyze their relationships before answering the questions about relationship satisfaction? For them, the correlation between how happy they reported being, and whether or not they broke up was basically zero. The way they felt about their relationships after that detailed analysis was totally unrelated to whether or not they broke up. Analyzing their relationship had actually caused them confusion about assessing their relationship, and the attitudes they reported toward their relationship after that careful analysis were essentially wrong, and had nothing to do with their long-term happiness.
Why does introspective analysis lead us to confusion? One possibility is that it causes us to think we have special insights that we really don’t, and to pay more attention to those insights and less to our actual behavior.3 Thus, rather than simply looking at how you actually interact with your partner as an indicator of whether or not you’ll stay together, you come up with what you think is a rational explanation for your feelings.
Additionally, many factors that affect our preferences are unconscious.4 We’re not aware of many of the factors that truly drive our feelings, so we make up rational explanations—but these explanations aren’t accurate. Our emotions are especially difficult to understand, so trying to apply rational tactics to understanding why we feel the way we do can backfire and leave us more, not less, confused about our feelings.
To add to that, we are really bad at predicting our emotional reactions to future events. We typically overestimate the strength and the duration of our future emotional responses, both positive and negative.5 This applies to our relationships, too: People tend to overestimate how unhappy they will be following a breakup.6 In particular, this effect seems to be driven by people’s tendency to imagine that the initial impact of the break-up will be far worse than it actually is. In one study, 69 college students who had been involved in a relationship for at least two months took part in a 9-month longitudinal study.7 Every two weeks, they reported on whether or not they were still in the relationship. If they were still with their partner, they were asked to rate how unhappy they would be if their relationship were to end within the next two weeks. If they had broken up, they were asked how unhappy they were about the breakup. On average, people predicted that they would be significantly less happy after breaking up than they actually were during those two weeks after the break-up happened.
This overestimation of our emotional reactions occurs for two reasons:5
- When we think about a future event, we forget that it doesn’t exist in isolation. Your relationship will end, but you’ll still have your job, your friends, your hobbies, and everything else that contributes to your happiness.
- We often underestimate how good we are at making sense of negative events and coping with them.
And who was especially bad at predicting how they’d react to a breakup? People who reported being more in love with their partners, and people who thought their prospects for finding someone new were especially bad. People who didn’t have a major role in initiating the break-up were especially likely to overestimate how unhappy the breakup would make them.7
So, what should you do when trying to decide a relationship’s future? First, don’t overthink it, and throw away that pros and cons list before you even start it. Second, when assessing the potential impact of the break-up, think more broadly about your future, not only about the specific effects of the end of the relationship.8
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior. Read more articles by Dr. Seidman on Close Encounters.
1 Wilson, T. D. (2002). Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
2 Wilson, T. D., Dunn, D. S., Bybee, J. A., Hyman, D. B., & Rotondo, J. A. (1984). Effects of analyzing reasons on attitude–behavior consistency. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 5-16. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206
3 Pronin, E. (2009). The introspection illusion. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol 41 (pp. 1-68). San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.
4 Wilson, T. D., & Dunn, E. W. (2004). Self-knowledge: Its limits, value, and potential for Improvement. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 493-518.
5 Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective forecasting: Knowing what to want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 131-134.
6 Gilbert, D. T., Pinel, E. C, Wilson, T. D., Blumberg, S. J., & Wheatley, T. P. (1998). Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 617-638.
7 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, 800–807.
8 Hoerger, M., Quirk, S. W., Lucas, R. E., Carr, T. H. (2010).Cognitive determinants of affective forecasting errors. Judgment and Decision Making 5, 365–373.