The Dark Side of Believing in True Love

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Old-fashioned romantics might have the wrong idea about love. Strong beliefs in true love could be blinding you to both the good and bad in your partner, with sometimes toxic results.

  • By William Park

Have you ever explained issues you have with your partner to your friends, only for them to think they are not worth worrying about? Or have you seen a friend start a new romance with someone you think is completely unsuitable but they seem to go from strength to strength?

Psychologists have found two scales that influence how we start and maintain relationships.

One measures how much importance we put onto first impressions and early signs of compatibility, while the other measures how likely we are to work through problems in relationships. They are called implicit theories of relationships (because we don’t often talk about them). We might intuitively think of ourselves as more or less likely to believe in true love – but this is not something that we openly discuss with others or are conscious of when we start new relationships.

Together, these two scales can tell us if we are more likely to avoid talking about issues with our partners, look for faults where they might not exist, and ‘ghost’ our way out of relationships. Differences in these implicit attitudes can also help us understand the reasons that others’ romantic choices often seem inexplicable to us.

To find out how you score, take the two quizzes below.

The Soul Mate scale

Answer the following questions on a scale of one to seven, where one is strongly disagree and seven is strongly agree.

  1. Success in a romantic relationship is based mostly on whether the people are “right” for each other.
  2. There is a person out there who is perfect (or close to perfect) for me.
  3. In marriages, many people discover (vs. build) a deep intimate connection to their spouse. 
  4. It is extremely important that my spouse and I be passionately in love with each other after we are married.
  5. I couldn’t marry someone unless I was passionately in love with him or her.
  6. There is no such thing as “Mr. Right” or “Ms. Right”.
  7. I expect my future husband or wife to be the most amazing person I have ever met.
  8. People who are searching for a perfect match are wasting their time.
  9. The reason most marriages fail is that people aren’t right for each other.
  10. Bonds between people are usually there before you meet them.

Now for scoring. First add your answers for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9 and 10. For questions 6 and 8, you need to subtract each answer from the number 8 and use the new number as your answer for that question. For example, if you answered “6”, add a 2 to your total. Once you have your final total, divide by 10 to get your average for this scale.

The Work-it-out scale

Answer the following questions on a scale of one to seven, where one is strongly disagree and seven is strongly agree.

  1. Success in a romantic relationship is based mostly on how much people try to make the relationship work.
  2. In marriage, effort is more important than compatibility.3. In a relationship, love grows (vs. love is found).
  3. If people would just put in the effort, most marriages would work.
  4. I could be happily married to most people, if they were reasonable.
  5. The reason most marriages fail is that people don’t put in the effort.
  6. How well you know someone depends on how long you have known him or her.
  7. If I were to marry a random person, I would be satisfied.
  8. Only over time can you really learn about your partner.

To find out your score, add together your answers and divide by 9.

The questions in this quiz are taken from the Relationship Theories Questionnaire used by Renae Franiuk, of Aurora University, Illinois, in her research into implicit theories and relationship satisfaction and longevity. Franiuk uses ‘Soulmate’ and ‘Work-it-out’ to describe the two scales. Other researchers use ‘destiny’ and ‘growth’ to describe similar scales.

If you scored highly for ‘soulmate’ beliefs and are surprised by this, Franiuk says you won’t be alone. “People have a tendency to think they will be a ‘work-it-out’ type but we see pretty high endorsement for ‘soulmate’. When we hear about the theories on the surface, ‘soulmate’ turns people off because it’s not scientific but it’s just a word. We could call it something different to make people want to identify with these romantic beliefs. It’s not surprising that we want to believe these ideas when so much in Western culture pushes people towards them.”

For people who score well on the growth scales, a conflict can improve the strength of the relationship

Now you have your score, what should you look out for? When relationships are struggling, people who score highly on growth scales cope best. In fact, the presence of a problem to work through can improve the strength of the relationship; couples who score highly on growth scales actually report feeling better about their relationship after a conflict has been worked through. For these people, it might be necessary for small, fairly inconsequential, issues to arise in the relationship to keep the couple focused on working together. The more investments a couple make, the more committed they feel. They enjoy the challenge.

For these reasons, growth believers will overlook big differences in compatibility. For them, compatibility might become more aligned with time – and that is something that is worth being worked on.

The opposite is true for people with strong destiny beliefs, with some potentially toxic consequences.

Particularly in the early stages of a relationship the presence of an issue can precipitate a break-up, as the destiny believer realises that their “perfect” soulmate is fallible. The destiny believer may argue that their partner “never really understood me” or that a small fault is “evidence that we’re not really compatible.” This is the case even if the couple are relatively well matched, Franiuk has found.

People who believe in true love are more likely to ‘ghost’ their ex-partners

Worse still, they may exit the relationship in a less-than-charitable manner. People who believe in true love are more likely to ‘ghost’ their ex-partners – avoiding contact until the other person gives up speaking to you. Perhaps because the ghoster does not feel it is worth the investment to try to maintain the relationship if the other person is not ideal for them and does not see the benefit in providing feedback. “They don’t see it as a negative thing to do,” says Gili Freedman, a psychologist at St Mary’s College of Maryland, who studies social rejection. “Your score on the growth scale had less of an effect overall, although, if you scored highly for growth you were more likely to feel negative about ghosting.”

If they don’t break up over an issue – and still believe that they’ve found their true love –  the destiny believer may simply overlook the issue altogether. “Destiny believers tend to be more forgiving of a partner and more likely to avoid a fight because they want to believe that this person is their soulmate,” says Franiuk. That could be positive for minor disagreements. “But if you’re avoiding big conflict you end up staying with someone who is not good for you.”

And the consequences can be extremely serious. Destiny believers who have been together for longer are more likely to overlook issues, fooling themselves into thinking they are a better match because of the amount of time they have been together.

“We found that the longer destiny theorists stayed in relationships with someone who is not the right person, the more they reported violence,” says Franiuk. “They downplay problematic relationships. They might give someone a longer chance than other people might. Some might see warning signs early and end the relationships, but there will be some who don’t believe they are in a relationship with the right person but for economic reasons they remain and their personality traits make them more forgiving, which puts them in dangerous situations.”

It would seem that romantic beliefs remain fixed over time. So, once a destiny believer, always a destiny believer. “These theories are deeply held. Once people hit their 20s and 30s personalities are pretty stable. Like personality, relationship building is developed at an early age – children form these ideas based on the relationships around them,” says Franiuk.

The two implicit theories do not need to be mutually exclusive, though. “You can have beliefs that relationships improve when couples work on them together, but [still believe] there is still the ‘right’ person out there for you,” says Freedman. “There are not going to be many people that think that no growth is possible. And we can still alter the ways we express those beliefs. We would expect that past experiences will shape how we approach new relationships.” So just because you believe in romantic destiny, you might end the relationships in a more compassionate way, rather than ghosting, or you might make a more conscious effort to work through problems rather than overlooking them.

They say the course of true love never did run smooth – but a greater awareness of our own romantic tendencies might just help us navigate those bumps and turns along the way.

 

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