There are ‘secret’ rules that govern how you approach life. Granted, you’ll know what some of them are, but many people don’t have that much insight into them and we can never really be sure of them all.
Psychologists call these rules ‘schemas‘ and you make them yourself or learn them from the people around you. Here’s the quick and dirty; schemas are unconsciously formed expectations about how the world works. They’re scaffolds about the characteristics of things that allow us to predict the future and act accordingly. If I do this, the world responds thus. These schemas exist for objects, places and even events (check this article for how schemas even control your emotions). As you might predict, this system of inner oracles determines how you approach almost everything you do, including how you act toward other people. But perhaps more importantly, they also determine how you think people should act toward you.
Today we’ll be concerning ourselves with these rich schemas; those we have regarding how people should act in relationships, what makes them work, and what makes them break down.
Let’s start big picture. Schemas the pertain to relationships are usually formed by and shared within our communities. For example, we all roughly 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, or a holiday. When you hear ‘fling’ your schema for that is activated and you think immediately of the most relevant elements of that relationship ‘type’.
This is helpful. This kind of stereotyping is super useful, and saves our brain from using up all of it’s processing power on crunching the numbers on concepts that come up frequently (contrary to what you might have heard, stereotypes aren’t all bad). But schemas aren’t always such a blessing. In the case of relationships, what tends to happen is that people’s scaffolds for relational types diverge. Usually in a harmless way, but sometimes it is a source of immense friction. For example, our idea of a fling might be short, ending with no strings attached but our flingee (what’s even the right word for that?) might have slightly different ideas about what a summer love means (I refer the reader again, to Grease – very important psychological touchstone, I promise). This kind of misunderstanding is a recipe for hurt.
These schemas, you see, contain the ‘rules’ of relationships, both general (in all relationships) and local (in our relationship). For instance, some work conducted in the 1980s by a research team at Oxford 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.
The astute armchair psychologist may have identified that where rules exist, so too does the potential for a violation. Maybe we’re not having as much sex as we think we should be, or our partner is overly-critical of us. Maybe someone is into polyamory. 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.
Relationship rules aren’t always that specific either. One of the more global schemas people create about romantic relationships was identified by close relationships expert Dr Chip Knee in 1998. Do you believe in serendipity? Or do you believe that we have to work at it? Do we each have a soulmate, or is it our duty to work through the problems we might 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. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist at The Dirt Psychology.