Last week, as the supposed Rapture was looming, how were things going in your relationship? Did the impending end of the world and your earthly demise change how you were thinking about your partner? You might be surprised to learn that this is something that scholars have studied quite a bit, working from the general perspective of "terror management theory."
Thinking about death affects how people evaluate individuals from groups you are affiliated with ("in-groups") versus individuals from out-groups. For example, when primed to think about death, people feel more favorable to those with similar viewpoints or affiliations and less favorable to dissimilar others than they usually do. So, if you're a Red Sox fan, you like your team and hate the Yankees even more (if that’s even possible) when you've been made to think about death. This may sound crazy, but there is some logic to this prediction. The basic idea is that grabbing onto people and groups who validate your viewpoints is a good way of lessening anxiety caused by your impending doom and it helps protect your self-esteem, which is threatened by thinking about death.
So, what about thinking about your relationship partner under conditions of "mortality salience" (i.e., when you think about your own susceptibility to death)? A committed relationship partner is the ultimate in-group; hopefully you like your schmoopie even more than you like the Red Sox! So focusing on that relationship should provide a really effective buffer from the anxiety caused by thinking about death. This is exactly what researchers find-- when people are made to think about death, they report even higher relationship commitment than usual.1 Similarly, participants report wanting more intimacy with their partners after thinking about death.2
However, it's not quite that simple. Thinking about death doesn't always make you feel more committed to your relationship. Remember what we said about liking people similar to you more, but those dissimilar to you less, upon thinking about death? Given what we know about similarity in couples, you might expect differences for couples that are similar to each other versus those that are dissimilar. If you think about the similarities between you and your partner and encounter thoughts of death, your commitment is elevated. But if you focus on your dissimilarities, thinking about death makes you less committed to your relationship.3 Essentially, thinking about death polarizes your thoughts about the relationship. In general, similarity is a good thing in relationships, and when facing death, it's even better. Dissimilarity is usually not so good for relationships, and when the grim reaper comes a-knockin', it's even worse for your relationship.
Now that the world didn't end, how's your relationship going?
1Florian, V., Mikulincer, M., & Hirschberger, G. (2002). The anxiety buffering function of close relationships: Evidence that relationship commitment acts as a terror management mechanism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 527-542.
2Hirschberger, G., Florian, V., & Mikulincer, M. (2003). Strivings for romantic intimacy following partner complaint or partner criticism: A terror management perspective. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 20, 675-687.
3Strachman, A., & Schimel, J. (2006). Terror management and close relationships: Evidence that mortality salience reduces commitment among partners with different worldviews. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23, 965-978.
Dr. Benjamin Le - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le's research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.