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When Friends and Family Disapprove: Is There a “Romeo and Juliet Effect?"

I saw a fantastic symposium on what happens to people in romantic relationships when their friends and family disapprove. As Colleen Sinclair and others explained, findings from one classic study conducted in the 1970s showed that disapproval from parents can make a relationship even stronger. This finding was dubbed the “Romeo and Juliet Effect,” after Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers whose families were hated enemies (and thus, would not approve of their relationship). But time after time, further studies have failed to replicate the Romeo and Juliet effect, finding that instead, relationships fair a lot better when family and friends approve and support them. The presenters in this symposium tried to tease apart what exactly happens when the surrounding social network disapproves of a romantic relationship.

Across many studies that used a variety of different research techniques, the researchers didn’t find any evidence for the original “Romeo and Juliet Effect.” Participants never felt better about their relationships when their friends and family disapproved. Instead, disapproval from others tended to predict major relationship difficulties (drops in satisfaction, commitment, passion, and so on). However, in certain circumstances, people were able to maintain their relationships even when others disapproved:

1)      People were still motivated to stay with their partners when only some people disapproved of their relationship. For example, if a couple’s close friends disapproved of the relationship but their family members approved (or vice versa), then the relationship did not suffer. It was really only when everyone was against the relationship that people began to take their perspective seriously. Maybe Shakespeare was onto this when he gave Romeo and Juliet some supportive friends, such as the friar and the nurse.

2)      People with strong growth beliefs – those who tend to believe that relationships take effort over time to overcome challenges rather than being “destined” to succeed or fail – were more likely to stay together in the face of disapproval from others. It seems that they interpreted disapproval as a relationship obstacle that they could work through together, rather than as a sign that they weren’t meant to be together. So, maybe Romeo and Juliet weren’t really into the idea of “fate” after all--or else their families’ disapproval may have sent them running in opposite directions.

3)       People who have a strong desire for independence – those who very much dislike the idea of others interfering with their decisions – were also less affected by others’ disapproval of their relationships. But it’s not that they went out of their way to defy others: the researchers found no evidence of people trying to do the exact opposite of what others wanted. Rather, they just tended to disregard the opinions of others, continuing to stay with their partners just as they would have if they hadn’t learned of their friends and family’s disapproval.  So, the idea of teenagers using their relationships to rebel against their parents wasn’t really supported. It would seem that Romeo and Juliet tried to be together regardless of the fact that their parents disapproved, and not because their parents disapproved--parents’ disapproval doesn’t give people any extra motivation.

Altogether, the research suggests that relationships fair a lot better when other important people in the couple’s life are supportive of the relationship. In certain circumstances, relationships can be resilient in the face of disapproval, but under virtually no circumstances does that disapproval seem to be a good thing for the relationship. And really, if you think about it, this new perspective on the effects of disapproval in relationships jives even better with Shakespeare’s classic play. It’s not like Romeo and Juliet’s relationship ended all that well, anyway...

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Samantha Joel - Science of Relationships articles

Samantha's research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner?

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