The motto “live and let live” sounds great in theory, but many people find it difficult to carry out in practice. Instead, people tend to think that their own lifestyle is totally awesome and that other people should make the same decisions that they have made.
Relationship decisions in particular can be an easy target for judgment. For example, you may know a single person who derides their friends for pairing up, questioning why anyone would choose to shackle themselves to one partner rather than “live it up” with the single life. Or you may know that smug married couple who pushes for other couples to also tie the knot, so they can similarly bask in wedded bliss.
Researchers have coined this phenomenon “normative idealization”: the tendency to idealize one’s own lifestyle (“My way is the best!”), and to see it as normative (“Everyone should be more like me”).1 These researchers predicted that this tendency for normative idealization actually comes from insecurity. People tend to idealize their own relationship status not because they’re confident that it’s ideal, but because they’re trying to feel better about their own lives.
If the researchers’ hypotheses are correct, then people should be particularly judgmental of others’ lifestyles when they feel threatened regarding their own lifestyles. To test this idea, the researchers conducted four studies measuring participants’ perceived permanence of their current relationship status. For single people, the researchers measured how difficult single participants thought it would be to find a romantic partner; for romantically attached people, the researchers measured how difficult they thought it would be to leave their current relationships. The logic here is that the more “stuck” you feel with your current lifestyle, the more threatened you should feel by the idea of people happily enjoying the opposing lifestyle (i.e., the one that is currently unavailable to you). In other words, if you feel like your current relationship status is your only choice, you are more motivated to believe that those people with the opposing relationship status would actually be happier if they were in your shoes.
In the first study, the researchers measured participants’ perceived stability of their relationship status, as well as how normative they viewed their relationship status to be. As predicted, when people in romantic relationships felt that it would be difficult for them to end those relationships, they were more likely to endorse relationship-normative statements like, “Individuals who are in long-term romantic relationships generally have more meaningful, fulfilling lives than those who are not.” Similarly, when single people felt that it would be difficult for them to enter a romantic relationship, they were more likely to endorse single-normative statements like, “Although many people feel pressured to find a long-term romantic relationship partner, many people would prefer to be independent.” In other words, when people felt their current relationship status was more permanent, they were more judgmental of the opposing relationship status.
Although this association is interesting, it doesn’t tell us anything about causality. The hypothesis is that the feeling of being permanently “stuck” with a particular lifestyle leads people to defensively disparage the other lifestyle. However, it’s also possible that people who prefer a particular lifestyle are more likely to do things that actually make that lifestyle more permanent. For example, maybe people who really do think relationships are the best are more likely to invest heavily into their relationships, to the point that becoming single again would be difficult. To rule out this alternative hypothesis, the researchers conducted an experiment in which some people were temporarily made to feel that their relationship status was more permanent. This was done by asking people how long they expected to remain in their current relationship status, and manipulating the upper anchor of the question. People who were asked to rate the question on a scale from “now” to “the end of my lifetime” subsequently felt that their current relationship status was considerably more permanent than if they rated the question on a scale from “now” to “the end of this year.” Next, participants evaluated a hypothetical job candidate who was either single or in a romantic relationship. The researchers found that when people were made to feel like their current lifestyle was permanent, they made more negative evaluations of the job candidate who had the opposite relationship status. In other words, people who felt that they were permanently stuck living the single life were more negative toward a romantically-attached job candidate, whereas people who felt permanently stuck with their partners were more negative toward a single job candidate.
The researchers concluded by commenting that if people like to idealize their own relationship status, and if couplehood is the dominant relationship status, then this may help to explain why our society is so geared toward couples, often at the exclusion of single individuals. In other words, these findings may help to explain the prejudice that exists against single people (you can read about this prejudice here).
These findings are interesting because both singlehood and couplehood have their respective advantages and disadvantages. Single people can live more independently, making decisions for themselves without having to factor in another person’s wishes. Couples, on the other hand, are able to share their experiences, their strengths, and their resources. Given this inherent trade-off between independence and interdependence, we might expect people to draw the reasonable conclusion that no one way of living is right for everyone. However, as this package of studies rather convincingly shows, we can be quite defensive about our own life choices. A person who has taken a different path in life can threaten our confidence in our own lifestyle, particularly if we feel that our own lifestyle is not easily changed. A good way to combat that sense of threat is to convince ourselves that our way is the only right way. So the next time you catch yourself looking down on someone else’s lifestyle…ask yourself if it’s possible that you’re actually a little bit envious.
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1Laurin, K., Kille, D. R., & Eibach, R. P. (2013). “The way I am is the way you ought to be”: Perceiving one’s relationship status as unchangeable motivates normative idealization of that status. Psychological Science, 24, 1523-1532.
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?