Actively Shaping Our Romantic Futures

Why relationship decision making research matters

Posted Sep 10, 2012

Sometimes, after reading about the science behind romantic relationships, you may come away with the feeling that you are predestined to meet a particular romantic fate. You may feel like your unchangeable characteristics—such as your childhood experiences, your mate value, your predisposition to neuroticism, or the length of your index finger—mean that your relationship future is set in stone. I don’t think that any relationship researcher would actually claim that this is the case; there are a great many people who defy the odds, both for better and for worse. But for people trying to actively improve their relationship experiences, it can sometimes be difficult to see what they can do to affect change.

There are indeed many unchangeable factors that determine who we’re attracted to, when we fall in love, and even whether or not we’re likely to wind up divorced. But at the end of the day, relationship outcomes aren’t just dependent variables to be predicted by a host of pre-existing factors; they’re also choices that we actively make. It’s ultimately up to us to decide whether or not to ask that cute student out for coffee, whether or not to sign the lease, whether or not to walk down the aisle, and whether or not to end a struggling marriage. It’s up to us to decide whether to deal with our partners' concerns sensitively or dismissively, to communicate our feelings of love or jealousy, to give in to our partners’ wishes or to protect our own interests. And when researchers examine how people make these relationship decisions and how they can make better decisions, they empower people to take control of their own romantic futures.

The first overarching goal of this blog is simply to describe how people make relationship decisions. What sort of pros and cons do people consider, and what kinds of choices do different types of people tend to make? The second goal is to explore how people can make better decisions about their romantic relationships. What sort of decisions lead to better outcomes, and why? I hope that by sharing this information, I can encourage you to think about your own relationship choices in new ways, and I hope that I can give you some tools to help inform your decisions.

I feel like I should elaborate on this last point. Can reading about relationship research actually help people to make better relationship decisions? I honestly believe it can. In fact, personally, I turn to the literature for most relationship choices I make. I truly feel that when a decision is tough and all your options seem equally good (or equally bad), nothing is more reassuring than scientific data. When I was trying to decide what, exactly, I wanted in a romantic partner, I looked to the research. When I finally found a partner who had all those traits and more, and I was trying to decide how quickly the relationship should move forward, I looked to the research. And now, as I’m deeply in love and I’m starting to think about making the ultimate relationship plunge, I’m once again looking to the research (the data say I should wait about eight more months to get engaged, if you’re curious).

Of course, not every research finding will be helpful for every person. Sometimes the research may not apply to your particular situation, or something you may feel like your gut just goes against the literature and you’re going to trust it. But, on average, if you inform your relationship choices with science, you should wind up with more satisfying relationship experiences than if you had not done so. That’s why, as researchers, we do what we do. And hey, if you’re going to take the advice of anybody, wouldn’t you rather it be based on the experiences of hundreds or thousands of participants rather than just one person’s opinion? (Yes, Dr. Phil, that was a dig.)

So, this is what I aim to accomplish with this blog. I want to tap into the vast reserves of information that relationship science has to offer, and share it with you. That way, you can be free to inform your own relationship choices with it, like I use it to inform mine. I hope you enjoy the research, and I hope you enjoy the blog!

About the Author

Samantha Joel, M.A. is a Ph.D. student in psychology at the University of Toronto.

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