Psychology of Social Connection

(How) To be, or not to be (in a relationship)

October 24th, 2020 · 4 Comments

Have you ever gone on Instagram or Facebook on Valentine’s Day (while you yourself were single) and had your feelings hurt by the fact that everyone and their mom seems to be in a relationship? Pls it can’t be just me. Or maybe you’ve had your entire extended family grill you at Thanksgiving dinner about whether you got a bae, and if not, why you don’t got a bae? If so, I bet (after wishing to be a smol amoeba floating away into the abyss), you’ve at least asked yourself “why?” Why do we care ~SO MUCH~ about being in relationships? How does one,,, relationship? And how do you do it well (or not so well)? Read and learn, young grasshopper, read and learn.

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Why do we fall in love?: (reason #3512458045 why humans are weird) -Gaby

WHAT’S UP GUYS welcome to your very own crash course on Human Monogamy™:

A long

long

long

long time ago (~5-7 million years ago, to be exact-ish), human apes would diverge from our last common ancestor (LCA) shared with bonobos and chimpanzees (Stoneking, 2008, pp. S46-S47). And so began the Story of Us.

For context, the LCA looked and behaved NOTHING like modern humans and rather is hypothesized by many in the field (including Harvard’s very own Dr. Daniel Lieberman) to have more closely resembled chimpanzees (Lieberman, 2013). As such, in our initial splitting off from African apes it was easiest to keep a lot of key chimp-like characteristics, which meant that ancient humans had a very, very spicy and promiscuous mating structure in which both males and females had multiple mates. This. Makes. Sense. For males→ you maximize the amount of offspring while minimizing responsibility to care for each one, essentially nullifying paternal load. For females → you maximize the diversity of male genetic contribution to your offspring, thereby increasing your chances of producing evolutionarily fit babies. Boom. You’ve now got selection wrapped around your finger.

“Unless???” –our ultra-social human nature.

As it turns out, somewhere along the course of our evolutionary history, humans started to live longer than the average chimp. As such, we could spend a longer time developing during childhood, giving us time to grow bigger brains and bodies (Chapis, 2017). Bigger brains and bodies required a whole lot more energy though, which made baby-making a pretty expensive investment given heightened parental responsibility to supply so much food (energy) and resources for each kid. Moms no longer wanted so many mates to keep track of due to paternal uncertainty (males are more likely to invest in their offspring if they are sure that it’s his genetic material he’s protecting), and Dads now wanted to keep it to one mate so as to minimize paternal cost and maximize investment to a select group of offspring. Who would’ve thought big headed babies could bring people together ugh <3

And so, just like our brains evolved to prefer to be in groups and care about what others think, we also evolved psychological “fail-safes” (i.e. norm psychology, jealousy, oxytocin release that gives you those warm fuzzy feelings when you’re around your partner) to make sure that we engage in monogamous relationships through the universal acceptance of social constructs such as dating and marriage and #cuffingszn. 

P.S. Did you know! Though not as ~unique~ as it is in humans, pair bonding can also be found in other species! My all-time favorite example is of the Titi monkeys, who intertwine their tails together when sitting next to each other or when sleeping :’)) 

 

How do we stay in love?: Ingredients for a long-lasting relationship -Suyeon

So now that you know why we fall in love, let’s talk about how we stay in love— starting with the fact that dating someone does not mean that that person will stay with you forever. You may find out that you are not compatible with each other or have conflicts so often that lead you to think about breaking up with your partner. Although I love my boyfriend, I sometimes give up everything and declare freedom when we have conflicts over and over.  

Then the question is, how do we maintain our romantic relationships? There are two important ingredients that could enable your relationship to last long as you want: Perceived understanding and gratitude. According to Gordon and Chen (2016) conflict becomes detrimental only when there is an absence of perceived understanding between two partners. Once your partner seems to understand what you are upset about, solving a conflict becomes an easy problem. Surely, it is hard to try to understand another person’s mind when I am upset—which is why conflicts, in most cases, are detrimental. One quick solution I suggest is to sleep! Whenever a conflict arises, don’t try to argue with your partner at the moment—I would sleep and think about what I would say after I wake up. It becomes much easier to understand from the other’s perspective after you sleep tight. 

Another ingredient for a long-lasting relationship is gratitude. Gordon et al. (2012) demonstrate that people who feel they are appreciated by their partner tend to feel more gratitude towards their partner. Indeed, feeling appreciated could be a reward in a relationship. We feel valued as our partners express gratitude towards us. Therefore, feeling appreciated promotes desirable behaviors within humans since we perceive the feeling as a reward followed by those behaviors. We never get tired of hearing “Thank you”, right? 

 

Why is it so hard to say “no” ? – Anna

We’ve talked about what might make us fall in love and how to maintain that love, but what happens when a suitor makes unwanted advances & the person being pursued reluctantly accepts it? Has this ever happened to you? Coming from NYC, I can relate to these unwanted advances, where my responses are rarely made based on my own wants and desires, but rather on how I think the person talking to me will react. Let’s imagine someone approaches you in the subway and asks for your number. You look ahead and try not to make eye contact, but the more you ignore them, the more aggravated they become, and they begin to speak more loudly and get closer to you to elicit a reaction. You decide to look at them and smile, and tell them you have a significant other already, but you are flattered by their advance. All the while, you don’t have a significant other and you’re utterly disgusted by this person. Why sugarcoat it? 

Bohns and Devincent’s article “Rejecting Unwanted Advances Is More Difficult Than Suitors Realize” attribute this response to the fact that rejecting someone is fundamentally “awkward and uncomfortable” because of the egocentric dynamics at play (2019). A suitor is much more likely to underestimate their target’s discomfort in an advance, both because of rationalizations that might protect their ego & the tendency for targets to sugarcoat their rejections, such as by laughing it off or ignoring it rather than outright rejecting them. Revisiting the subway, you may have decided to lie about having a significant other out of fear or guilt. You know it’s easier to defend rejection when you have a significant other, so the rejection will seem as though you had no choice but to reject them, making it easier for the suitor to accept it without taking a huge hit to their ego. Even further, this sugarcoating may have been due to genuine fear of getting hurt or harassed by an aggravated suitor who’s ego might get easily bruised. 

Overall, we see two things going on. You, the target of the unwanted advance, are more aware of the other, what their intentions may be, and how they may react to rejection. Meanwhile, your suitor is less aware of your discomfort and is guided by their confidence that you’ll reciprocate. If this is the case, what should you do in cases of unwanted advances? As a psychologist, I’d say tell your suitor about the discomfort you feel, and let them get a better understanding of your feelings in the self-other model that could guide their actions. But, as a city girl, I’d say, smile, nod, and get the heck out of there. 

– • – • – • –

When it comes to love, you never know. Maybe the road to finding your soulmate will be completely by chance or an uphill battle of “not the ones”. We’re here to tell you not to sweat it too much, since there’s actually a lot of psychology behind why you fall for someone and why you might not. So, the next time you find yourself crushin’ hard on someone, just hoping that you don’t or that they don’t mess it up, relax a little bit! Have faith in yourself and the fact that it’s literally in our nature to gravitate towards others. Take a deep breath, read up on our do’s and don’ts on finding love, and the rest should be history 🙂

xoxo,

Anna, Gaby, & Suyeon 

 

References:

Bohns, V. K., & DeVincent, L. A. (2019). Rejecting unwanted romantic advances is more difficult than suitors realize. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(8), 1102-1110

Chapais, B. (2017). From Chimpanzee Society to Human Society: Bridging the Human Gap. Chimpanzees and human evolution (427-463). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Gordon, Amie M, & Chen, Serena. (2016). Do You Get Where I’m Coming From?: Perceived Understanding Buffers Against the Negative Impact of Conflict on Relationship Satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110(2), 239-260.

Gordon, A.M., Impett, E.A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 257-274.

Lieberman, D.E. (2013). The Story of the Human Body. New York, Pantheon Books.
Stoneking, M. (2008). Human origins. EMBO Reports, 9(1S), S46-S50.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • Anonymous // Oct 24th 2020 at 9:50 pm

    Hey Anna, Gaby, and Suyeon!

    Queeeeens, y’all put together a wonderful post.

    Gaby, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m OBSESSED with your writing style. Like I can hear you saying what I’m reading, and it’s hilarious. Plus, your HEB perspective is always so cool; it really set the scene by explaining how and why we came to have relationships in the first place which warmed me up to the topic.

    Suyeon, I loved the phrasing of ~ingredients~ for a long-lasting relationship. Your point on the importance of sleep is spot on; I wasn’t expecting it to come up here, which just goes to show that despite being SUCH an important factor to our wellbeing in every way, many people (myself included) forget about the role it plays in everyday life. I’ve definitely noticed that when I’m low on sleep I’m a lot quicker to snap or be moody, especially with my family. Sleep literally seems to be our reset button. I wonder if there’s a difference in taking a nap vs a full night’s sleep on being able to see other people’s perspectives.

    Anna, your section on why it’s so hard to say no rings too true. I can be a big sugarcoater. Unless someone seems threatening, I can’t bear the thought of saying no outright. Especially if I’ve talked with them before, I always think about how I would feel if I were them. It takes a lot of confidence to approach someone romantically, and often it means they’ve thought about it for a bit. So I’ll usually end up apologizing, mentioning something about how great or kind they are, and finally getting to some sort of turn-down like “I’m not really looking for anything right now.” The thing is, I know that they know that they’re being rejected, so sugarcoating still doesn’t feel much better. But, leading someone on because you couldn’t say no feels just as bad, if not worse, so I think being clear that you’re not interested is super important; it’ll hurt but for a shorter time, like ripping off the bandaid. I have to learn how to do this still lol. I also wonder if certain personality types prefer a blunt rejection vs a sugar coated version and vice versa.

    Overall, this was a riveting read; great job everyone!!

    -Julie

  • hannahpearce // Oct 26th 2020 at 10:12 pm

    Hey Anna, Gaby and Suyeon 🙂

    I really enjoyed your blog post. I loved the style and it was really fun and easy to read.

    I really enjoyed reading the evolutionary side. Gaby your writing style is so fun. It’s so interesting to see how we have evolved and how it relates and explains why we behavior the way we do. It all just makes sense when you explain it. Also the Titi monkeys intertwining their tails is so adorable!!

    Suyeon, you bring up a really good point on how to maintain our relationships. I agree that sleep is so important. Like Julie mentions, I didn’t really think about it in the context of perspective taking in relationships, though it makes total sense. I think sleep could also just give you some time to actually think and calm down a bit. Like you mention its very easy to snap when you feel upset so taking a bit of time is so important. I also agree that a little gratitude goes a long way and can make a world of a difference. I think this is true for all relationships and not just romantic.

    Anna, you did a really good job of explaining why it is so hard to say no. Saying no to someone can be so awkward that it’s almost easier to just say yes and like you mention it can be a huge ego thing for the person asking so sometimes it is just easier to find a way to sugarcoat it rather than poke the bear. But, as Julie mentions, there are times when you actually know the person and you are very aware of what they are feeling and how much courage it took for them to approach you that plain rejection is just too harsh so you sugar coat it a little mainly to make yourself feel a bit better but also to hopeful not make them feel bad either.

    Well done everyone – I really enjoyed reading and learning about how to be or not to be in a relationship 🙂

    -Hannah

  • gracerotondo // Oct 27th 2020 at 12:46 am

    Really great blog post!

    Gaby – I never knew about the evolutionary origins of monogamy so this was especially interesting to learn. I think it’s especially interesting how chimps and humans differ in their approach to producing evolutionarily fit babies. Chimps’s strategy to achieve that goal was to have as many babies as possible and hopefully one or two would be evolutionarily fit whereas humans’ strategy is to have fewer babies and invest time and energy in those offspring to cultivate them and help them become evolutionarily fit. It makes total sense given our capacity to think and care for others is much greater and more developed than that of chimps, but it’s still a fascinating distinction to make.

    Suyeon, I especially took to heart your advice to sleep as a quick solution to moodiness. Though it may feel like you’re procrastinating dealing with your problems by sleeping, it is really so helpful when you just need to just clear your head so you can reenter future social interactions in a better headspace.

    Anna – I can (unfortunately) relate to your anecdote about unwanted advances in public spaces. It’s so uncomfortable when someone is persistently pursuing you and their advances are completely unwelcome. I, too, have used the little white lie of having a significant other to try and sugarcoat the rejection but you made an interesting point – why do we have to sugarcoat it? I think it’s interesting to think about how targets consider their suitors’ feelings when handing them rejection, but suitors almost never consider their targets’ feelings when making persistent, unwelcome, advances — such a double standard…

    Thank you all for a thought-provoking post; I really enjoyed it!

  • Anonymous // Oct 27th 2020 at 1:22 am

    Hey Anna, Gaby, and Suyeon,

    Laughing at the Valentine’s Day comment. Instagram is so full of posts near Valentine’s Day and I am always like “wow, these people went to Paris on Valentine’s Day…why wasn’t I taken on a surprise trip here?!”

    Gaby – as with your last post, you brought the fun, blog-like energy! So engaging. I loved learning about the evolutionary background behind why selecting one mate makes sense for humans.

    Suyeon – I agree with sleep helping you understand another person’s perspective. Sometimes the moment can feel so heated, but I find even if I take 10 minutes and maybe think about something else or take a breath, I realize that there’s no real reason to be having conflict. Taking a step back helps me to relax a bit and then focus on understanding the other person’s perspective.

    Anna – this is so true. While I am a pretty blunt person, I tend to sugarcoat things because I don’t want people to feel badly. Especially if it’s in a romantic sense, I would definitely sugarcoat it to the max because I know how I would feel to get flat out rejected.

    Always love reading these posts!

    —Camerin

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