Allen R. McConnell

Allen R McConnell Ph.D.

The Social Self

Romantic promise or problems? Clues from ourselves and others

Four clues of promise and problems in our relationships

Posted Feb 11, 2011

With Valentine's Day right around the corner (and spring, hopefully, not much further behind), it seems that many people are interested in love and its assessment.

Recently, students in my social psychology course asked me to identify some indicators one should consider in oneself and in others for guidance on issues ranging from "is my infatuation really into me?" to "should I dump this person?" Although there is no such thing as sure-fire clues, the literature gives us some insights about how to identify promise or problems in our love lives. Below, I present two phenomena that indicate romantic promise and two that reflect problems.

Promise: Behavioral mimicry

A considerable amount of research has established that we tend to mimic the people we like, and we tend to like people who mimic us. In this context, mimicry can be anything from nonverbal gestures to speech patterns. For example, if you like someone who casually plays with his hair while talking to you, you may nonconsciously begin playing with your hair when talking to him. The range of mimicked behaviors is expansive and can include everything from how we fold our arms, to how our bodies lean, to adopting others' verbal catch phrases and speech dialects.

Importantly, the research on mimicry indicates that it's a two-way street. You may be able to tell whether Mr. or Ms. Right is into you by noticing whether that person is mimicking you, and you may gain insights about whether you're really into someone else by noticing whether you are mimicking others. One piece of advice I give my students is to strike up a conversation with people they like and change their posture during the discussion (e.g., cross their arms, put one hand in their pants pocket) and observe whether others do something similar. To the extent they mirror your actions, the research literature suggests that they are more likely to have positive feelings about you.

Promise: Empathetic concern

When you have conversations with others, do they express empathy for you or do they simply focus on themselves? For example, if you note that you've been battling a cold, do they seem to reflect your feelings and take your perspective, or do they seem uninterested in your plight and quickly shift the conversation toward a recent accomplishment of theirs? Empathy is quite simply the act of putting yourself in someone else's shoes and imagining their situation and feelings, and there is considerable evidence that empathy is very important for healthy relationships.

For example, to the extent that one empathizes more with others, that person is likely to be more helpful, less prejudiced, and exhibit greater attachment. If you are interested in building a healthy relationship where listening and caring is paramount, having empathic concern is central. If the other person doesn't exhibit a sufficient amount of empathy toward you, it's unlikely to grow with time. If the person exhibits narcissistic qualities -- don't walk, run away from them!

As with mimicry, observations of one's own empathy can provide a real barometer for gauging how we really feel about others. If you find yourself digging deeper into another's plight, feelings, and history, it probably reflects greater interest in them. On the other hand, if you are tuning out while they are pouring their heart our to you, perhaps it's an indicator that things just aren't clicking with this individual.

Problem: Contempt

Many people would assume that when on a date, the worst expression one could see on their date's face might be anger or perhaps boredom. But according to researchers such as John Gottman at the University of Washington, it really is contempt. In one seminal study, these researchers examined videotapes of newlyweds having a discussion about an issue of on-going disagreement in their marriage. The researchers coded the behaviors of those involved and tracked the couples over the next several years to see who stayed together and who got divorced.

In their research, they found that expressions of contempt were the strongest predictor of divorce. In other words, when couples exhibited behaviors such as rolling their eyes and speaking in a patronizing voice, it was more likely that those marriages would end in divorce. Contemptuous behavior is especially damning in relationships because it reflects one person viewing the self as on a morally or intellectually "superior plane" to the other. So when a partner says things such as "I could do so much better than you" or "why can't you see the logic in this," they are exhibiting contemptuous behavior. When one shifts from disagreeing to being condescending toward their partner, a spiral of defensive and destructive behavior results. Gottman and colleagues found that they could predict who would get divorced with considerable accuracy from just 3 minutes of videotape. With 15 minutes of coding the couple's videotaped behaviors, they could predict divorce with 90% accuracy.

Problem: Relationship inputs and outputs out of sync

Work on equity theory reveals that people prefer fairness in their relationships. However, it is important to note that equity doesn't require 50-50 with respect to relationship contributions and benefits for each person, but rather, that relationship investments and benefits should be proportionate. For instance, research would suggest that a relationship where one person puts in 80% of the effort but gets 80% of the benefits is more likely to be a happier relationship than another situation where someone puts in 70% of the work but only gets 50% of the relationship benefits.

Thus in everyday life, the goal of a relationship shouldn't necessarily be 50-50. However, both individuals need equity in the balance of their contributions and benefits in order to maintain relationship satisfaction.


One thing to bear in mind is that some relationships flourish and others wither for reasons that defy the basic principles of psychology. Love, lust, and connection are multifaceted -- there is no single recipe or checklist for happiness. However, a number of findings in the psychological literature indicate that if we pay a bit more attention to ourselves and our partners, we are more likely to maintain and build healthy relationships and more likely to avoid (or end) relationships that are destructive and problematic. Finally, it is important to note the above lessons not only apply to our love lives, but to our relationships with friends, family, and co-workers at well.

Happy Valentine's Day!!!