I Don't Think That Word Means What You Think It Means
Love post #2: Implicit Theories of Relationship
I will confess what has always felt like a dirty secret to me: I believe really strongly in romantic love– its power to transform and to heal. Plus if, like me, you have ever been in love you know that it can be delicious– thrilling, intoxicating, and capable of inspiring hope even in dark places.
Given that I feel so strongly about romantic love, given that I have been raised all my life on all the romantic mythologies that run rife through our culture, you’d think that love would be a cakewalk for me. I believe in its power. I’m willing to commit myself to it. What else could be necessary for Love to welcome me as a dedicated supplicant?
But romantic love has not been an affirmation of my faith and commitment. It’s been more like one of those myths where the hero is assigned multiple deadly, painful labors. This confused me until, in the course of researching my book on the notion of soulmates, I came across a host of psychological studies which helped me understand what the hell was going on.
The soulmate mythology is a particular iteration of what researchers now call an Implicit Theory of Relationship. You might be familiar with the notion of mindsets when it comes to education. I’ve written about them before when talking about making mistakes. The fixed mindset holds that intelligence is fixed. Therefore, making mistakes in learning is indicative of an inherent lack of intellectual capacity. A growth mindset, in contrast, is based on the belief that intelligence is developed through learning and challenge. Mistakes are simply challenges to be overcome in pursuit of greater knowledge, rather than a sign of the learner’s inherent intellectual capabilities.
When you take the notion of mindsets and apply it to romantic love you get a spectrum of implicit theories about the nature of romantic relationships ranging from strong destiny beliefs on one end and strong growth beliefs on the other. Examples of destiny beliefs include: love at first sight; relationships only succeed if they are meant to; the goal is to find The One; there is a single person out there who is the other half of my soul and the love between us will eclipse all others. Growth beliefs include: relationships are developed and cultivated over time, and successful relationships evolve through the resolution of risks, challenges, and difficulties rather than their absence.
Implicit Theories of Relationship are best understood as a spectrum because it is absolutely possible to hold some measure of both beliefs at the same time. They are not mutually exclusive. But the further you get to the opposite ends of the spectrum the pitfalls of each perspective become clear.
If you’ve never thought of mystical notions of romantic love as systems of belief or ways of thinking as opposed to Ultimate Truth this may be hard to wrap your heart and mind around, but stick with me for a moment. Multiple psychological studies have looked at the impact of strong beliefs in romantic destiny and found they present challenges to actually experiencing lasting and satisfying love.
Strong destiny beliefs cause their proponents to constantly evaluate partners to see whether or not they fit an ideal. If they do, then destiny believers experience a very high level of relationship satisfaction. However, that satisfaction is dependent on their partner maintaining their ideal qualities unfailingly. In order to aid that maintenance, destiny believers can be extremely hostile to any suggestion that there are either a) discrepancies between their ideal and their partner, and b) that they and their partner have divergent ideas about the ideal nature of relationships generally or this specific relationship. Destiny believers will go to great lengths to avoid conflict, amplifying the qualities of their partner they perceive as ideal and consistent with their own while ignoring or downplaying any inconsistencies or qualities they perceive as less than ideal.
There are some benefits to this tendency towards thought distortion. Anyone who’s ever been in a long-term romantic commitment will tell you that the capacity to idealize your partner and not jump into conflict at any opportunity can be useful in surviving the day-to-day frustrations of partnership. Where strong destiny believers run into trouble is that their thoughts are not only distorted but highly polarized. As soon as anything strongly threatens their idealized sense of their partner as The One They Were Destined To Find the imbalance flips. They amplify their partner’s less ideal qualities and ignore their ideal qualities.
This can manifest as leaving relationships quite quickly, as soon as any quality that is less than ideal presents itself, or staying in relationships while withdrawing emotionally and looking for the next ideal option.
You’ll notice that nowhere in this scenario is the strong destiny believer engaging in attempts to actually work on the relationship. If it is destined then you don’t have to work on it, right? Strong destiny believers don’t take any responsibility for the ways in which their behavior contributes to the demise of a relationship because they do not believe it is in their power to alter Fate. Strong destiny believers can, in fact, be both utterly unethical and completely unrepentant. If that one great love is on the line then what does lying, cheating, emotional neglect, or even violence matter?
So, what about the far growth end of the spectrum? How do those folks operate? Though strong growth believers are not without standards, they don’t tend to engage in thought distortion when it comes to assessing their partner’s qualities because those qualities don’t exist as portents of doom, but simply as curiosities and challenges. They tend to view conflict as inevitable and potentially relationship-enhancing, rather than something to be avoided at all costs. And when relationships end they process that as an inability or unwillingness to do the work by the parties involved, rather than a sign of whether the relationship was meant to be.
Where do strong growth believers run into trouble? Since they tend to be taskmasters when it comes to growth, both in themselves and in the relationship, they can be judgmental and impatient when their partner offers to change something and then can’t seem to do it within the growth believer’s optimal timeframe. Instead of thinking about how difficult the change is, they tend to think that the lack of change, or the pace of change, is due to their partner just not trying hard enough. They also can tend to see every single discrepancy in belief or behavior between themselves and their partners as a growth opportunity, wanting to process, discuss, and hash out every single, blessed thing.
Beating a dead horse is when you keep pounding away at something that is way past done. Strong growth believers are prone to this, as well as to sticking with relationships that are not actually salvageable because they just can’t let go of the idea that we can work it out if we just try hard enough.
If you couldn’t have already guessed, I err towards the growth end of the spectrum, with all of the failings described above. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have any beliefs in destiny, for what it’s worth. My destiny beliefs mostly confine themselves, however, to the realm of familial relationships. I believe that my children chose me, just like I chose my own parents, in order to become the people we were best capable of being. But that doesn’t mean it’s all been rainbows and unicorns. We push each other’s buttons, get under each other’s skins, and challenge each other to evolve (hopefully). To the extent that destiny is involved in relationships beyond the familial, I believe that we draw the people to us that are going to teach us the lessons we need to learn. Sometimes those lessons are enjoyable and sometimes they aren’t, but we are meant to grow. Humans don’t tend to grow when they are totally comfortable, so destiny is as likely to hand us discomfort as anything else. It is up to us to develop wisdom in response so we can add it back into the collective when we go.
I struggle with romantic destiny beliefs because they strike me as disempowering and based on a desire not to learn anything. This is not to say that strong destiny believers reject any kind of learning. I’ve had multiple relationships with strong destiny believers who were incredibly smart and curious about acquiring knowledge and facts. Where their interest in learning stopped was where it concerned who they were as people and in relationships. They were intellectually impressive but emotionally stunted, and they didn’t think it mattered because someday they would find the perfect relationship where they would be unconditionally loved and accepted. There would be no conflict, no trouble, no need to constructively communicate across differences. It would all just be pure bliss.
And, you know what? If they manage to meet someone who strongly believes in romantic destiny and that they are also The One, they might be able to find that. Reality doesn’t tend toward constant pure bliss as far as I can tell so searching for it with singular dedication seems something of a fool’s errand, but who am I to say? What I will say is that approaching romantic love with some appreciation for the spectrum of Implicit Theories of Relationship– where you fall on it and where your partner (or potential partner) does– may save you a lot of heartache. If you fall too far apart on opposite ends of the spectrum what you each see as your best qualities will exacerbate each other’s worst tendencies. Trust me.
The most important takeaway, however, is this: studies have shown that a growth mindset in learning environments can be developed, which leads to greater confidence and educational success. Whether or not you think destiny has a part to play in romance, some development of a belief in growth can provide lasting satisfaction and deeper authenticity as partners evolve over time. Change is the only reliable aspect of life. Shouldn’t our theories about romantic love, therefore, embrace curiosity and learning as we all change together?