Schemas are a very influential part of our lives. We know we have schemas about objects, places and even events (check this article for how schemas even control your emotions). We have very rich, detailed schemas about who we are, what we like and how we act. And we also have rich schemas about how we act in relationships. Today, we’re going to talk about our schemas about relationships; what makes them work and what makes them break down.
To start, we all have general relationship schemas. Schemas that are usually shared among our communities about relationship types. For example we all generally know what a fling is, a one-night-stand, ‘going steady’ and what it means to be married. These schemas are dictated by the prototypical features of these relationship types; the most stereotypical, immediate and what psychologists would call ‘salient’ characteristics of a relationship. A fling, for instance, is short, intense and passionate. Often associated with overseas travel. When you hear ‘fling’ your schema for that is activated and you think immediately of the most relevant elements of that relationship ‘type’.
Schemas aren’t always useful though. It’s our brain’s way of creating a shortcut to save us thinking. As a result the whole world is a victim of them. Our fling may be short, ending with no strings attached but our partners’ fling may have some long-term feature built in. A recipe for hurt.
And in these schemas we contain the ‘rules’ of relationships. The rights and the wrongs within a partnership, both general (in all relationships) and locally (in our relationship). For instance, a study conducted in the 1980s by Argyle and Henderson showed us that married couples often agreed that ‘faithfulness’, respecting privacy’, ‘secret keeping’ and ‘keeping partners informed of schedules’ were all rules of a marriage.
This is where rule violations come in. Maybe we’re not having as much sex as we think we should be, or our partner is overly-critical of us. Whatever it is, if it violates our rules, or our expectations of a relationship, we might conclude our relationship is in trouble. Our rules act in the background to influence our current judgements (or for those in the know, a distal factor influencing the proximal circumstance).
Relationship rules aren’t always that specific either. One of the more global schemas people create about romantic relationships was researched by the amusingly named Chip Knee in 1998. The age old soulmates vs. work-through-it argument. Is there one person for each of us? Or is it us to us to work with the person we already have? Knee calls these Destiny (soulmates) and Growth (battle through) schemas. We are all settled more in one camp than the other and the two theories or ‘rules’ have pretty significant impacts on our relationship longevity. People who are more inclined towards Destiny are far more likely to end troubled relationships than those who are more Growth oriented. Relationship satisfaction differs too. Destiny people are far less satisfied in relationships with more conflict, and Growth people are far less fussed.
So these relationship rules can be pretty important. They can impact not only how we act in a relationship, but our relationship satisfaction itself! So, how do we figure these out (I hear you asking)? All you need to do is ask yourself, or the person you’re interested in a couple of questions. Start with something like ‘what’s the worst thing a partner could do?’. The answer might be cheating, abuse or maybe lying. This sort of thing really clearly indicates what their important relationship rules are. What about ‘what are three things my loved one should do for me?’. These sort of questions will quickly and easily cut to the bone of our relationship schemas. Ask them of your parents, your friends, your siblings. They all have relationship rules and knowing and navigating these are big keys to relationship success.
Schemas are one of the most influential psychological theories. Learn about seven more and how to hack them for your benefit here. Or maybe learn about the three things that control your relationships here. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.
Thumbnail image courtesy of Necia Dewgard (Flickr)