Dig into the Romeo and Juliet Effect

Dig into the Romeo and Juliet Effect, which describes the tendency to find someone more desirable when met by parental opposition.

In 1972, psychologists at the University of Colorado surveyed 140 couples to determine whether a relationship facing parental disapproval was more likely to strengthen or crumble under the pressure. Can long-term success of a romantic relationship be predicted by the perceived approval or disapproval of the couple’s friends and family? Dig into the trend known as the Romeo and Juliet Effect.

If I told you not to press this big red button, what would you do? For many people, there’s no greater motivation to do something than being told they can’t. So, what is it about being told “no” that triggers this response? One of the most enduring explanations for this behavior is what psychologists call reactance theory. Reactance is a motivational state that occurs when people feel their freedom is being threatened, and it compels them to take actions they see as restoring that freedom. Sometimes this emerges as general frustration or direct argument, but the most straightforward response is to simply do the thing they were told not to.

This behavior plays out in public spaces, like when people ignore health campaigns they perceive as overbearing, and in private spaces, like parent-child relationships. However, there are situations where something being forbidden actually makes it less tempting. In 1972, psychologists at the University of Colorado wanted to know if a romantic relationship facing parental disapproval was more likely to strengthen or crumble under the pressure. To answer this question, they surveyed 140 couples, varying widely in measures of happiness, but all fairly serious in terms of commitment. Only some couples reported perceived parental opposition to their relationship over the study’s six-month period. But those that did also reported a steady increase in love for one another.

The researchers named this trend the Romeo and Juliet Effect after literature’s most famous forbidden lovers and concluded that the results were largely motivated by reactance. But in the decades since this publication, most follow-up studies have suggested the opposite is true. In fact, the long-term success of a romantic relationship can be predicted by the perceived approval or disapproval of the couple’s friends and family. This trend is known as the Social Network Effect. So why doesn’t reactance win out over the Social Network Effect? You might think it’s because we value our existing relationships over our potential relationships. But in most cases, disapproving friends and family are just voicing negative opinions or passively not supporting a relationship.

It’s rarely a dramatic choice of us or them. And when it comes to parents, most people with good relationships with their parents feel they can ignore their parent’s advice without serious consequences, while people with bad parental relationships often don’t care what they think anyway. So if disapproved relationships are more likely to fail, does this mean we’re not willing to fight to date who we want? Well, it might vary from person to person. One theory is that there’s actually two types of reactance: defiant reactance, which is impulsively doing the opposite of what we’re told, and independent reactance, which reflects our deeper desire to make our own choices.

For example, if you tell someone with high defiant reactance to lower their voice, they’ll probably start shouting. Whereas someone with high independent reactance is more likely to simply ignore the request and do what they believe is appropriate. So when it comes to relationship disapproval, a defiant person might respond by pursuing their romance in secret, but that doesn’t change how the group’s opinion negatively impacts their relationship. Conversely, someone with a particularly independent personality might be capable of ignoring their friends’ concerns and loving whomever they want. The idea of defiant and independent reactance is fairly new, and researchers are still working to uncover all the motivations behind the Social Network Effect. But these theories help illuminate the important relationship between reactance and our competing needs for independence and inclusion.

How we balance these desires varies across individuals and cultures. But no matter how prone to reactance we may be, our social networks are vital to our sense of identity and well-being. This is especially true in our romantic relationships. Studies have found that support from a few close companions can help buffer against disapproval from others. And most relationships do better once the individuals involved find supportive social networks. This outcome might not seem as romantic as a forbidden love affair, but it’s actually in keeping with the story of Romeo and Juliet, whose embattled relationship couldn’t endure the threats of extreme disapproval.


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