As the semester winds down, I like to conclude my course on interpersonal relationships with some general parting words of advice and a few apropos pop culture references.
Last season on How I Met Your Mother, Robin shared a sagely perspective with Ted during a friend’s wedding. She suggested any relationship requires two essential ingredients: “chemistry” (meaning, how compatible people are with each other), and “timing” (basically, whether people meet each other at the right place, right time). As I heard this, I immediately thought how perfectly that sentiment meshes with relationship science and what a good message this is for my students as they head off to break.
You can think of “chemistry” as a combination of individual differences and personality traits (like attachment styles) that both partners find ideal. It’s the magic spark that people feel when they are drawn to someone who enjoys the same passions (like music or food). As psychologists will tell you, the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts—an individual partner’s traits aren’t nearly as important as how well both partners’ traits mesh with each other’s. For example, two people who are both high or both low in openness to experience might do very well together (they may both prefer experiencing new things or sticking to their routines, respectively), but two partners with very dissimilar levels of openness might clash with each other.
Timing, on the other hand, is quite different. Timing fits with what social psychologists call “the power of the situation.” For decades, psychologists have shown that what determines people’s behavior is often not their personality traits but rather the situation they’re placed in.1 As I’ve written before, how much you feel attracted to someone depends on whether the forces of the world place you near each other (like on the same dorm floor or in the same classroom). In this case, attraction has little to do with people’s traits, but everything to do with the whether they come into contact, sometimes by random chance (or “destiny,” if you believe in such things). The “power of the situation” mantra has become a central theme in social science—and yet, many people often neglect this perspective in their own lives. People tend to focus their attention on personality/internal factors to explain behavior, while ignoring environmental factors—this is known as the “correspondence bias.” 2 (Note: this may be a uniquely American phenomenon; not all cultures display this tendency.)
So what other kinds of situational forces influence behavior in relationships? Well, think about when you first meet someone…what is the context of your encounter? Are you meeting them at a bar after you’ve had a few drinks, with your friends right by your side acting really obnoxiously? (I knew I stopped hanging out with those guys for a reason.) Or are you meeting at the gym during a sweaty work out? Or at a classy art gallery? What if all your friends only want to have casual hook ups, and they actively discourage you from pursuing something more serious? Just think about how your behavior might be dramatically different in these situations—about how variables like the physical setting, arousal, alcohol, and social networks may profoundly influence your relationships.
Assuming you feel attracted to a potential partner and start to hit it off, timing strikes again. What if one of you just ended a long-term committed relationship with someone else? What if there are some leftover feelings? You might not be ready to start another relationship yet. What if one of you recently experienced a conflict with a friend or family member? You might feel vulnerable and not ready to trust someone new. What if, instead of meeting in this moment, you met each other 6 months later…how might your behavior be different? More importantly, how might your relationship be different?
Heed Robin Scherbatsky’s wise words: “If you have chemistry, you only need one other thing – timing. But timing’s a bitch.” You might assume that other people are a certain way, and that’s just the way they are. They can be hot or not, responsible or immature, romantic or cynical, etc. But if you make these assumptions, you may be fooling yourself. The truth is much more nuanced—and much more interesting. People do not behave exactly the same way from the minute they’re born to the minute they die, and they lose sight of the fact that situations and environments are really powerful influences on others’ behavior. Any particular moment can make us funny, confident, exciting, hesitant, skeptical, introverted, flirtatious, or none of the above. And it’s all temporary—who knows what next week’s situation will bring.
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1Benjamin, L. R., & Simpson, J. A. (2009). The power of the situation: The impact of Milgram's obedience studies on personality and social psychology. American Psychologist, 64(1), 12-19.
2Ross, L. D. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173 – 220). New York: Academic Press.
Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.