Romeo & Juliet, Do Your Parents Approve of the Relationship?

Does parents' approval of your relationship make it seem more or less desirable?

Posted Jun 01, 2019

This post is the first in a series of three articles written by students in my Spring 2019 Close Relationships course. All three posts focus on how your larger network of friends and family can affect your romantic relationships. This first article, by Jessica Zamora, Brooke Yerger, Noah Nguyen, and Leeann Essig, examines how the approval of your parents may affect your relationship. 

Wikipedia
Frank Dicksee's "Romeo and Juliet"
Source: Wikipedia

Most of us hope to find a romantic relationship that will last a lifetime. However, relationships can also be stressful. Take Romeo and Juliet for example: All they wanted was to love and be with each other, but their parents had other ideas. The story of Romeo and Juliet may not be too farfetched, despite the dramatic ending. Your parents' approval really can affect the fate of your relationship. But is young lovers' lust stoked by the idea that the relationship is forbidden fruit? Or do we ultimately need our family's approval in order for our romantic relationships to be successful?

The Romeo and Juliet Effect in real life?

The story of Romeo and Juliet is one that everyone knows. Two young, sexually crazed teens fall madly in love with each other, despite the fact that their families are fierce rivals. The two love each other so much that they end up dying because they wanted to run away together and not face their parents' disapproval. Since the 1970s, researchers have studied the idea of the Romeo and Juliet effect, named for Shakespeare's tragedy. The Romeo and Juliet effect states that the more parents try to interfere in a relationship, the stronger that relationship will become; just like Romeo and Juliet. The idea is based on the notion of reactance, a phenomenon where threatening someone's freedom to do something or have something, makes them want the forbidden fruit even more. If you tell a child she can eat any candy she wants, except for the blue one, the blue candy is the one she'll want. There is research to support the idea that this phenomenon affects our attitudes toward romantic relationships too. For example, one study found that pairs of opposite-sex strangers who secretly played footsie beneath a table were more attracted to each other those who played footsie in full view of their table-mates or who didn't do it all. But does this play out the same way when a relationship partner is forbidden due to parents' disapproval?

In 1972 Driscoll, Davis, and Lipetz found that parental interference in adult committed relationships or marriages was linked to increased levels of love and commitment. But just as Romeo and Juliet's love was short-lived, the Romeo and Juliet effect may be fleeting as well. Romeo and Juliet were only together for a couple of days before they both died. Research suggests that if they had lived longer, more than likely their relationship would start to fail. These researchers pointed out that the Romeo and Juliet effect appears in small windows of time, and tends to fade.  The feelings of love that people feel usually only last a couple of weeks, maybe a few months. After that, they begin to fade and don’t continue over a long period of time; which may not be the best thing for a marriage. So in other words, parental opposition to the relationship my stoke feelings for your partner initially, but just because you're really into someone for the first few days, weeks, or even months, it doesn’t mean that you will feel the same way in the long run after the novelty wears off. 

What does research say about the Romeo and Juliet Effect?

A lot of research has found the Romeo and Juliet effect to be incorrect. Participants in most studies report that high levels of interference or a low level of approval from their families decrease their relationship quality. So, what influence do our parents have on our relationships? Research that examined the relationship between parental approval and relationship satisfaction found that positive support networks increase relationships satisfaction, especially among women.

Why does the belief in the Romeo and Juliet Effect persist? It may be due to the small window of time that it appears in or it could be due to the small amounts of parental disapproval that people overcome. Either way, despite all the evidence that shows parental disapproval is not a good thing for a relationship, some still believe in the existence of the Romeo and Juliet Effect.

Who do parents want their children to date?

Naturally, parents want the best for their children, and children want the best for themselves. However, as any parent or child knows, they will disagree on what "the best" is. This is no different when it comes to choosing a mate. In studies where people are asked to rate how important different qualities are for their own spouse or their child's spouse, their answers don't totally line up. When it comes to their own mate, they rate good looks and a fun personality as more important than when sizing up potential mates for their children. However, the mate coming from a good family or having a similar religious background were more important qualities for their child's spouse than their own. Parents are also less likely to approve of casual sexual flings for their children. So parents emphasize compatibility and commitment over the qualities that are most likely to inspire passion in their children.

Wikipedia
A South Indian wedding
Source: Wikipedia

What does culture have to do with it?

The importance of parental approval of romantic relationships is actually very much tied to culture. A cultural distinction that is particularly relevant to the role our families play in our romances is the distinction between collectivist cultures and individualist cultures. The United States, Canada, and Australia are examples of individualist cultures, whereas Indonesia, Korea, and Japan are collectivist cultures. Individualistic cultures emphasize personal achievements and value uniqueness.  They also stress the importance of freedom and personal choices – Individualists think it's important to let people do their own thing and be themselves. Collectivist cultures emphasize family goals first and foremost, above individual needs or desires. Being loyal to and fitting in with your friends, family, and co-workers is extremely important, even if it means not doing what you want. Because they value their child's personal freedom, mothers and fathers in individualist cultures tend to approve of their children’s significant others, even if they have reservations about them. People who belong to collectivist cultures do not earn parental approval so easily, and their parents are more likely to influence who they choose to date or marry. Typically, these parents have input into the significant other from the start. If they don't get that early input, they express their discontent when they don't approve of the mate because they want a relationship for their child that fits into the goals of the family.  In fact, in Asia and the Middle East, which are generally more collectivist societies, it is relatively common to see arranged marriages

In addition, people with low self-esteem might be especially affected by family approval. For those low in self-esteem, feeling that your family doesn't approve of your relationship can lead to doubts about the relationship – This is true in individualistic and collectivist cultures. However, in collectivist cultures, not only does disapproval from your own family affect how you see your relationship, but so does the approval of your partner's family. In individualistic cultures, children value their personal relationships with their parents, but relationships with in-laws are less important, since they are not really considered to be an extension of oneself. But in collectivist cultures, where the harmony of the entire social network is valued, approval from both sets of parents is important.

Despite Americans' ideals of independence and loving our partners no matter what the world thinks, our parents have an impact on who we date or marry. Romeo and Juliet didn’t have their parents' approval and it pushed them closer; ultimately closer to the end of their lives. In the real world, dating someone who is "forbidden fruit" may have some short-term appeal, but family approval matters, and this is especially true in collectivist cultures where family loyalty and harmony are especially important.

Gwendolyn Seidman
The authors (from left): Leeann Essig, Noah Nguyen, Brooke Yerger, and Jessica Zamora
Source: Gwendolyn Seidman