Over the past year, after receiving my doctoral degree, I have taught courses on the psychology of romance and relationships at the University of Toronto and consulted numerous couples on how to better their relationships. One of the core concepts that I’ve always found to be the most mind-boggling both to my clients and students alike, is the idea of just how much influence our own minds have over our relationships.
The power of perception, particularly in relationships, is strong, and it all begins with an initial impression. Think back to who you were when you met your partner. Are you exactly the same person you are now with them? Did you maintain a consistent impression between your partner, your friends, and your parents, or were you attempting to seem a bit more impressive, a bit more charming, and a bit more suave? Many times, particularly in the beginning of relationships, much of what we say, what we oh-so-carefully choose to wear, even how much we eat, may be a strategy deployed to subtly influence what the person sitting across the table thinks of us. And when it comes to impression management, there are quite a few strategies that we tend to use: Ingratiation, or, doing favours and being open with our compliments so that others can like us. Or, have you ever met someone who went on and on about all of his or her accomplishments and treated a conversation as if it were the long answer to the interview question, ‘what is your biggest achievement’? Self-promotion, when it comes to wanting to leave a powerful impression, is one of the most deployed strategies; we display our accomplishments to others in order to elicit their respect. Being overly aggressive or intimidating is another way that we can impress upon others that we are ‘tough’, or playing the damsel in distress can help us receive nurture from others.
Did you carefully deploy some of the strategies above, or were you completely at ease with yourself? If we’ve carefully planned out the impression that we would like to leave on another person, we may be what psychologists would refer to as ‘high self-monitors’: Individuals who pay very close attention to the environment around them, and change their behavior to fit in. Conversely, low self-monitors tend to make the same impression regardless of the environment they’re in. While there are cultural differences to high and low self-monitoring, in Western society, high self-monitors are generally social butterflies, who have many friends with diverse occupations and interests. However, because high self-monitors must consistently be monitoring his or her impression, and because it tends to be so cognitively taxing, high self-monitors tend to spend less time in their relationships, and thus have shorter relationships than low self-monitors, who are happy to be themselves, regardless of the situation at hand.
Whether we closely monitor the impressions we aim to leave on others, or are ourselves in every scenario, this is only one half of the equation. Being on the receiving end of a first impression is equally important, and the way you perceive your partner can very much influence the future of your relationship, if you decide to pursue a relationship at all! The idea of receiving a first impression, called the primacy effect, suggests that the initial information we learn about someone influences how we interpret all of the later information we receive from them. For instance, let’s say you were set up on a blind date to meet Greg in a coffee shop. You enter right on time, and notice Greg sitting by himself with an empty cup of coffee. You greet him with a smile, but he refuses to stand up or even shake your hand. You are completely thrown off, and immediately, your perception of Greg is that he isn’t particularly warm, he doesn’t seem to be very open, and clearly doesn’t like you very much. While Greg texts you a few days later asking if you’d like to go out on a second date, you decline, figuring a person who is so rude is not someone who warrants a second date. What you may not know is that a few moments before you entered the coffee shop, the barista spilled scorching hot coffee on Greg, spilling all over his pants. In order to avoid the embarrassment, he refused to stand up when you walked in. A high self-monitor, Greg was trying to manage his own impression on you and didn’t tell you what happened so that you wouldn’t perceive of him as clumsy. Now, say, a few weeks later, you are invited to attend a party, where you see Greg, who is the centre of attention and extremely affectionate towards you. Because of your initial impression of him, you believe in your initial perception of him – a psychological bias we are all, unfortunately, privy to – and best chalk up Greg’s jovial behavior to assuming he has had too much to drink, when, in fact, he is only being himself. One way of getting around this erroneous way of thinking, particularly when it comes to our relationships, is to give our partners is a second chance, and confront our judgments of them and try to find contradictory evidence to our initial beliefs.
The idea of how we view evidence is called the attribution theory, where attributions are our personal explanations of events. We can attribute events as either they are internal, that is, speaking to a person’s personality, or external, speaking to the situation that person may be faced with. We also see events as either stable and lasting, or unstable and temporary. When it comes to how we view ourselves, we tend to believe the best in ourselves: When something goes right, we attribute it to some sort of internal process, such as being a good person and the reaping the awards of our charming personality. When something goes wrong, we tend to attribute it to an external process, noting there was nothing we could do and we were stuck in an impossible situation. For others, however, this attributional process tends to disappear, particularly in relationships: If we see ourselves in a happy relationship, and our partner’s behavior is positive, we tend to assume it’s an internal and stable trait that our partner has. For instance, if our partner comes home with a large bouquet of flowers and we are in a positive relationship, we assume that our partner is incredibly caring and that this trait will remain in him or her over time. However, if we are in an unhappy relationship, and her partner brings home flowers, instead of attributing it to an internal trait, assuming our partner is kind and caring, we assume this positive behavior is external and unstable: We might say that our partner only brought home flowers because he or she has done something wrong and needs to make up for it. The same logic applies to negative behaviors. In a happy relationship, if our partner lost his or her temper, we would attribute it to an external and unstable event, thinking that surely our partner was in a stressful situation and it would not occur again. Interestingly enough, however, in an unhappy relationship, if our partner were to similarly lose his or her temper, therefore behaving negatively, we would attribute it to an internal and stable process, assuming that our partner is constantly mean and this trait is not likely to change.
Both impressions and perceptions come to a wondrous and sometimes catastrophic shift when we enter into long, stable relationships. Throughout the courting process, not only do we try to manage our impressions, while not fully being aware of the perception we are gaining from our partner, we simultaneously employ what is known as the ‘self-enhancement’ motive, wherein we like to know that our partners think highly of us, or see an enhanced version of us. While in short-term relationships, having our partner think highly of us brings us closer together (since we’d like to know that our partner likes us and thinks highly of us). However, in marriage, a pesky little motive known as ‘self-verification’ appears. Self-verification is the need to know our partner sees us for who we really are, not only under rose-colored glasses. In long-term relationships, such as marriage, having a partner who loves you despite your faults becomes more important in creating a close bond than having a partner who sees us as enhanced and perfect. For instance, say we tend to be naturally temperamental. In dating, if our partner enhances our self-image by suggesting we are calm, we would feel a close bond. However, as time goes on and the relationships builds, if our partner still feels we are calm, yet we ourselves know we tend to be temperamental, the closeness felt would erode. If, however, over time, our partner notes that we are, in fact, not as calm as once thought but he or she loves us, in any case, the authenticity of the relationship would feel intact, we would feel intimately known by our partner, and, ultimately, more close.
How does one avoid “the marriage shift”? Lessen the management of your own impression and try, as so many wise men and women have noted before me, to just be yourself. Remember, the goal is not to win someone over or attain his or her love by pretending to be what you think your partner may want. There is only so long one can hold off being another person. Instead, focus on the end goal: Creating a lasting, happy, close and stable partnership. The only way this is possible is to make sure your partner can see you for who you are, and love you not in spite of it, but because of it.
Written By: Mariana Bockarova