An interesting new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology reveals there are two common ways of talking about relationships . . . and the way you talk about your spouse might reveal whether your marriage is headed for trouble.
The first way people talk about their spouse is by referring to them as their “other half” or “soul mate.” According to social psychologists Spike W. S. Lee of the University of Toronto and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Southern California, the “soul mate” crowd tends to overreact to conflict. (As a mental exercise, just imagine how Cinderella would respond to Prince Charming’s desire to hang out with the guys all weekend, or how he’d respond to her repeatedly leaving the cap off the toothpaste.)
The second way people talk about their marriage is the “our relationship is a journey and we’ve come a long way” approach. According to Professors Lee and Schwartz, people with this “journey view” are able to deal more handily with problems.
“Our findings corroborate prior research showing that people who implicitly think of relationships as perfect unity between soul mates have worse relationships than people who implicitly think of relationships as a journey of growing and working things out,” Professor Lee said. Their press release at least partially explains how they came to this conclusion:
In one experiment, Profs. Lee and Schwarz had people in long-term relationships complete a knowledge quiz that included expressions related to either unity or journey, then recall either conflicts or celebrations with their romantic partner, and finally evaluate their relationship. As predicted, recalling conflicts leads people to feel less satisfied with their relationship—but only with the unity frame in mind, not with the journey frame in mind. Recalling celebrations makes people satisfied with their relationship regardless of how they think about it.
In a two follow-up experiments, the study authors invoked the unity vs. journey frame in even subtler, more incidental ways. For example, people were asked to identify pairs of geometric shapes to form a full circle (activating unity) or draw a line that gets from point A to point B through a maze (activating journey). Such non-linguistic, merely pictorial cues were sufficient to change the way people evaluated relationships. Again, conflicts hurt relationship satisfaction with the unity frame in mind, not with the journey frame in mind.
With this in mind, Professors Schwarz and Lee offer advice for married people.
“Think what you said at the altar, ‘I, ____, take you, ____, to be my husband/wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward ‘till death do us part.’ It’s a journey. You’ll feel better now, and you’ll do better down the road.”
In other words, perspective matters. This study is a great reminder not to set your marriage up for failure by overly romanticizing your spouse and asking them to meet unrealistic standards.
So, do “soul mates” even exist?
My pastor has a succinct way of framing the whole issue.
“How can you tell if your wife is your soul mate?” he asks.
“If you’re married to her.”