How Relationship Troubles Can Influence Unrelated Aspects of Your Life

When a romantic relationship isn’t going well it seems like it influences everything in life. This brings up a slew of interesting questions. What is the exact nature of a relationship’s influence on unrelated decisions? How might different kinds of relationship troubles influence people in different ways? For example, in what ways do you behave differently when you’re considering breaking up your significant other as opposed to when you feel like they’re considering breaking up with you? (Also, are relationship troubles really enough to support the late-night “enhancement” infomercial industry?)

Cue the literature! A new study by Sandra Lackenbauer and Lorne Campbell examined people’s regulatory style when they felt or were primed to feel as though their partner was not living up to their ideals, and when they felt they were not living up to their partner’s ideals. The researchers found that feeling as though your partner was the reason for incompatibility led people to become “promotion focused” – a psychological orientation where the tendency is to be motivated by gains, growth, and not missing out on positive outcomes. On other hand, when people felt that they were the reason for the incompatibility, it led to a “prevention focus” — an orientation where the tendency to is to be motivated by the need to maintain responsibilities and avoid negative outcomes.

Within the context of a relationship, none of this is too earth-shattering. When you believe there’s reason your partner might leave you, you orient yourself in way geared toward preserving what you have. When you feel as though your partner isn’t good enough, you orient yourself in a way that’s geared toward taking advantage of new opportunities.

Where things get interesting is that your regulatory orientation is a broad psychological state that influences actions in a variety of different ways and in a variety of different contexts. If your relationship is constantly at the forefront of your mind, the regulatory orientation it induces will influence all aspects of your life.  For example, if being worried your girlfriend will dump you makes you prevention focused, you might take fewer risks work. Alternatively, the promotion focused instilled by thinking about how your boyfriend isn’t good enough might make you more likely to try a new restaurant. The fact that your relationship influences your regulatory orientation means the relationship can determine whether you’ll respond better to rewards or punishment, and it can even affect your views on government intervention and public policy.

The broader lesson is that the big things in life often influence us is unforeseen ways. Something like regulatory focus is too subtle and unconscious for a person to be aware of in the moment, but in general I think people can behave more rationally by having a better understanding of their psychological states. In other words, if you’ve just had a big fight with a friend or are nervous about a job interview, when you’re doing something unrelated it’s a good idea to pause and think about how those events might be influencing your current thoughts and feelings. You probably won’t need to be grounded in psychological literature to pick out a few minor ways that your feelings could be better aligned with reality.
Lackenbauer, S.D. & Campbell, L. (2012). Measuring Up: The Unique Emotional and Regulatory Outcomes of Different Perceived Partner-Ideal Discrepancies in Romantic Relationships Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0029054

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