Despite our best efforts to find and keep love, dating and relationships seem more complicated and confusing now—especially when compared to the stories of past generations. Even the stories in the media seem to be changing, leading us into dissatisfaction and conflict with one another. This makes it harder to find the right themes and ideas to follow for satisfying dating and relationship experiences.
These observations lead to a few questions: Why is society changing in this way? Why are the stories and guidance around relationships becoming more confusing in the process too? What can we do about it?
Fortunately, even within this time of relationship change and uncertainty, the social sciences can provide assistance to see us through.
Culture, Social Scripts, and Relationships
To help understand the connections between larger cultural processes and individual behaviors in love and romance, Simon and Gagnon (1986) applied the idea of Script Theory to personal relationships. This theory explores how we use mental versions of scripts or narratives, much like a story or movie, to help understand the world around us and organize our own behavior within it. The content and structure of our personal scripts, in turn, is influenced by three general layers of information:
- Cultural Scenarios: The instructions, guides, and social norms that shape roles and customs within our society and culture.
- Interpersonal Scripts: Individual differences, ideas, preferences, and biases that each of us adds to our roles and interactions with others.
- Intrapsychic Scripts: Our own private world of wishes, desires, and experiences.
Given that, each person's script or narrative is a combination of cultural, interpersonal, and internal influences. The goal is to create a coherent narrative out of those pieces, in order to give meaning to life, keep in line with social norms, direct personal relationships with others, and meet personal needs as well. Specifically, within romantic relationships, these scripts and narratives would include things like gender roles and personal stories of love, which help reduce confusion and guide individuals toward fulfilling their romantic goals. Essentially then, such scripts help us all make sense of uncertain things in life, especially where choices are unclear—as is often the case with love and romance.
Changes to The Social Script
As Simon and Gagnon (1986) also note, however, cultures change over time. These cultural changes result in different scenarios and scripts for individuals to manage too. Specifically, Simon and Gagnon (1986) note that societies change from the traditional (Paradigmatic) to the modern (Post-Paradigmatic), leaving individuals to cope with the following differences and modifications...
- Paradigmatic Societies focus more on cultural scenarios. These are often considered more traditional societies or cultures, which provide a limited number of norms, roles, and scenarios for individuals to follow. Within such societies, there is a high degree of shared meaning and understanding, both between individuals and among different domains of life, due to the coherent roles and norms. Thus, traditional societies provide structure for individuals—making life easy to understand, orderly, and meaningful. Within relationships, these would be things like courtship rituals, stages of dating, and gender roles. Nevertheless, such a limited set of norms and roles can constrain personal choices and preferences as well.
- Post-Paradigmatic Societies focus more on the intra-psychic and individual scripts. These are more modern societies or cultures, where many of the norms, roles, and scenarios that structure social life are being discarded or overturned. Within these societies, people have more ability (and responsibility) to act as an individual and make personal choices. Within relationships, individuals get to explore preferences and fulfill desires that might have been restricted by traditional roles or norms. Nevertheless, without those shared norms and cultural scenarios, everyone also has to negotiate and define each individual relationship with each new partner. As a result, more options also come with less certainty and more work.
Coping with Modern Social Changes
From the above, as societies modernize, we can see the general trade-off between structure and choices. Nevertheless, even with the benefit of greater individual choices in modern societies, the erosion of cultural scenarios and traditional norms can lead to a loss of meaning and connection for individuals too (known as Anomie). As a result, as societies modernize, individuals who experience such anomie and confusion are left with two general solutions:
- Reestablish cultural scenarios: Folks can continue to follow the more traditional social norms, scripts, and roles within their lives to again provide meaning, understanding, and connection with others who share those traditional structures, goals, and cultural scenarios.
- Take responsibility to create personal fulfillment: Individuals can understand and create their own unique meaning, purpose, and roles with others, who share those more modern and individual preferences, scripts, and goals.
More recent research suggests we are in the midst of such cultural and relationship change, where individuals attempt to apply one of the above solutions in their lives. For example, a review of the dating literature by Eaton and Rose (2011) noted this dichotomy. On one hand, the researchers found support for some individuals adopting a friendship script to their dating lives—using it as a more modern and open-ended approach to starting a relationship. On the other hand, the research also showed that many individuals were still utilizing more traditional and gendered scripts in their love lives as well. Thus, while some people seem to be finding success by embracing social changes, others are still following more traditional scripts to date successfully and find satisfaction in their relationships too.
Research by Endendijk, van Baar, and Dekovic (2019), evaluating changes in traditional double-standards between men and women, provided evidence for this mixed approach to modern relationships too. Conducting a meta-analysis of studies from various countries, the researchers found that higher levels of gender equality in a society were associated with fewer traditional standards. Nevertheless, even within such societies, there was also evidence for the continuation of some traditional standards. The standards that remained appeared to align more with evolutionary and biological explanations of potential differences between males and females. This suggests that some individuals benefit from the social freedom of unique self-definition within open-ended roles, whereas others find more success within the certainty of traditional standards and norms that may align better with their biological and gendered preferences.
Sorting Through The Confusion
It appears that, depending on your preferences and orientations, there are indeed two effective ways to sort through the confusion of modern dating and relationships. On one hand, you can reestablish and follow traditional cultural scenarios. On the other hand, you can create and negotiate your own unique path. In either case, though, you are still building a personal love life script to guide you. In turn, that requires understanding and integrating the three components identified above:
1) To start, you need to see the current cultural scenario clearly. This includes understanding the cultural and biological double-binds that can confuse women and frustrate men, leading to a punishing situation for everyone. It also requires a closer look at the pros and cons of gender roles, in order to consider how you want to structure and organize your own relationship with others going forward. Taken together, this will help you to sort out the conflicting demands and social signals—and create a stronger foundation for your own love life.
2) From there, the next step will be to explore the pieces of your existing interpersonal scripts. This will include identifying common biases that can prevent you from finding and keeping love, as well as perceptual problems that can make it hard to understand whether someone likes you. Also, it will be important to understand how low self-esteem can lead people to sell themselves short in love too. Taken together, these perspectives will help you overcome unrealistic expectations and biases—in order to better focus on your positive attributes, be kinder to yourself and others, and figure out what will truly satisfy you in a relationship.
3) Finally, it is also essential to consider your intra-psychic scripts and personal experiences as well. Particularly, it is common for people to have some bad experiences in relationships, often due to the cultural and interpersonal confusion above. Those experiences can lead to anxiety and feelings of rejection, which make it harder to connect with others in the future. Given that, the final component of a successful love life script will be to learn how to reduce anxiety around dating and relationships and deal with potential rejection. By dealing with that anxiety and rejection, you will create a strong foundation to put your best self forward and get your needs met in relationships too.
© 2020 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Eaton, A.A., & Rose, S. (2011). Has dating become more egalitarian? A 35 year review using sex roles. Sex Roles, 64(11), 843-862.
Endendijk, J.J., van Baar, A.L., & Dekovic, M. (2019). He is a stud, she is a slut! A meta-analysis on the continued existence of sexual double standards. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 24(2) 163-190.
Simon, W., & Gagnon, J.H. (1986). Sexual scripts: Permanence and change. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 15(2), 97-11.