A new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has found that relationships, much like most things in life, are all about perspective. When you see love as a beautiful journey of growth and occasional struggle, your love life is more likely to prosper. When you want your relationship to be perfect or believe you have one and only soul mate to “complete” you, you’re likely to have a tough time sustaining happiness in love. Luckily, improving that kind of emotional rut is as easy as a simple shift in perspective. The study divides views on love into two “frames” — a union between two halves who are made for each other, or a journey with ups and downs. To better explain the unity concept, the research team linked it to an Aristotle quote: “Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” People who see love like a journey, on the other hand, are more likely to relate to traditional wedding vows that promise to love one another for better or for worse.
The research team surveyed 73 participants who’d been committed, engaged or married for at least six months. Without being told about the two frames, participants were asked to take a short quiz in which they identified five phrases and indicated whether they’d heard them before. Some of the phrases had nothing to do with romance, but others were designed to veer the participant’s mind toward one of the two frames. Phrases like “my better half” and “made for each other” got quiz-takers thinking in terms of unity, and phrases like “look how far we’ve come” indicate a journey mindset. Once they’d been unknowingly exposed to one of the frames, participants were told to either describe two times they’d fought with their partner, or two times they celebrated together. After that, they numerically rated their satisfaction with the relationship. In follow-up research, participants were also asked to identify pairs of geometric shapes that pointed toward either circular unity or a maze that indicated a journey.
Participants who’d been exposed to the unity mindset reported much lower satisfaction with their relationships after describing a fight — likely because they were comparing their real-life relationship to the Disney movie ideal the unity frame makes us think of. Participants who’d been exposed to the journey frame reported pretty much equal levels of satisfaction whether they were recalling a fight or a celebration, because they viewed their relationship’s ups and downs as an expected part of the whole package, and perhaps even a growth opportunity. The participants who recalled celebrations reported satisfaction across the board, so viewing love as a unified ideal isn’t so harmful when times are good. It’s when rough patches hit that a unity frame becomes problematic, because you’ll find yourself wondering if small hurdles with your partner are really sign that you’re incompatible instead of a small blip in the grand scheme of your relationship. After all, if you felt that you and your partner were made solely for each other, it’d be hard to understand why you’d ever have to disagree.
Essentially, taking the unity frame to heart can sometimes lead a person to believe that simply finding a partner is when life’s struggles end and that from then on, your compatibility will do the work to stave off conflict. Romantic comedies certainly don’t help with this. In reality, life’s ups and downs will still hit us hard, whether we’re coupled or not, and even the happiest of pairs may come up against disagreement. While some people are more compatible with us than others, I do think there is way more than one potential soul mate out there for each of us — at the end of the day, it’s about choosing someone, “made for each other” or not, and setting out to find whether you’re able to grow together on your journey.