Social Support for Relationships Part 1

The Romeo & Juliet Effect

One of the things I love about being a relationships researcher is that I can sit down to watch a Hollywood flick and consider it productive time because it gives me so many great research ideas. Hollywood loves to investigate the inner workings of relationships and love, albeit not always with the most accurate or "empirically informed" lens. Take, for instance, the concept of support for romantic relationships. This is a widely studied topic in social psychology and has graced the screens of numerous Hollywood flicks. According to how love stories typically play out on the silver screen, love conquers all, opposites attract, and in-laws are terrifying creatures. For example, in The Notebook, Allie’s parents deceive Noah and Allie because sadly, Noah is from the "wrong side of the tracks" and is not good enough for the well-bred Miss Hamilton. Despite being kept apart by disapproving parents, love wins out in the end, so much so that by the end of the movie (spoiler alert) love even wins out over Alzheimer’s disease (who knew!). (Total digression - check out this awesome LGBTQ Cancer Screening program from the Canadian Cancer Society that does a play on movie covers, like the Notebook!)

But beyond what Hollywood has to say on the matter, how does support (or approval/disapproval) of romantic relationships actually play out in the real world, with real relationships? When parents disapprove, are partners brought closer together through rebellion (like in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet)? Do son-in-laws bend over backwards to impress their new in-laws (yet constantly fail), as in Meet the Parents? What happens to a relationship when it meets withdisapproval from friends and family? What about when it meets with disapproval from all of society, such as in the case of marginalized relationship types: same-sex, interracial, age-discrepant, or interfaith?

Fortunately, relationship researchers have provided us with some answers to these questions through their studies of how approval and disapproval of romantic relationships affects the functioning and outcome of those relationships.

Take, for example, Romeo and Juliet, the original star-crossed lovers. In 1972, Driscoll, Davis, and Lipetz observed what they called the “Romeo & Juliet Effect,” such that the more parents interfered, the more love the “rebellious” lovers felt for one another. The implications for such an effect could be far reaching. Don’t like the person your child is dating? Don’t dare show your disapproval or you’ll only bring them closer together! In fact, many parents seem to intuitively know that perhaps they should not push too hard on “forbidding” their children’s romantic relationships for fear of only drawing the relationship out even longer.

Despite the intuitive appeal of the Romeo & Juliet effect, researchers have had a very difficult time replicating Driscoll and colleagues’ results, with the majority of research finding that supporting a relationship has positive relationship outcomes and not supporting a relationship has negative relationship outcomes. This pattern holds true for both same-sex and mixed-sex relationships, such that relationships that meet with greater social approval are also more likely to report greater levels of satisfaction and well-being and tend to endure longer than relationships that meet with disapproval.

In the next two parts of this series, we’ll examine how approval/disapproval of romantic relationships can be associated with the mental and physical health of the individuals within the relationship as well as what you can do if you are in a relationship that is meeting with disapproval from friends and family.

For the Fact Checkers:

Driscoll, R., Davis, K. E., & Lipetz, M. E. (1972). Parental interference and romantic love: The Romeo and Juliet effect.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 1-10.

Felmlee, D. (2001). No couple is an island. A social network perspective on dyadic stability. Social Forces, 79(4), 1259-1287. doi: 10.2307/2786866

Blair, K.L. & Holmberg, D. (2008). Perceived social network support and well-being in same-sex versus mixed-sex romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25(5), 769-791.

Sprecher, S. & Felmlee, D. (2000). Romantic partners’ perceptions of social network attributes with the passage of time and relationship transitions. Personal Relationships, 7(4), 325-340. doi: 10.1111/j. 1475-6811.2000.tb00020.x

This blog was cross-posted on the Science of Relationships website.


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