RELATIONSHIPS AT RISK: HOW THE PERCEIVED RISK INCREASES THE INTENSITY OF FEELINGS

There are many studies on the psychology of romantic relationships, sometimes frivolous or inconclusive. On the contrary, the study we present in this article, published in the prestigious international journal Motivation and Emotion (Springer Nature), is rigorous and innovative: developed within the UniSR-Social.Lab, the research laboratory in Social Psychology of Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, this research has studied for the first time how the perceived risk of ending a romantic relationship influences the intensity of the couple’s feelings.

Dr. Simona Sciara
Dr. Simona Sciara

Specifically, it appears that a growing perception of the risk of breaking up intensifies attraction and commitment, to the point where the perceived danger is so high that these feelings are drastically reduced.

The research was conceived and conducted by Dr. Simona Sciara, first author of the work, a former student at the Degree Course in Psychology of our University and Official Member of Social.Lab, and Prof. Giuseppe Pantaleo, our Full Professor of Social Psychology and Director of the UniSR-Social.Lab.

“IN LOVE WINS WHO FLEES” AND OTHER COMMON EXPERIENCES

For some time – says Prof. Pantaleo – I had been interested in studying the dynamics of emotional and motivational processes in interpersonal relationships; it is a far from intuitive dynamics, which gives rise to so-called “paradoxical effects”. Dr. Sciara studied these processes in the area of romantic relationships, analyzing the intensity of feelings of attraction and commitment within the couple”.

It is a fairly common experience that objective, external factors influence the intensity of the couple’s feelings: it is the case, for example, of the so-called “Romeo and Juliet effect”, where parental interference in a love relationship intensifies the feelings of romantic love between members of the couple, studied by Richard Driscoll and colleagues already in 1972. Still in the mid-’70s, however, Jack Williams Brehm had formulated a theoretical prediction on the intensity of motivation [1], then resulted in the theory of the intensity of emotions [2]: “A true jewel, which we chose to follow with this study”.

Indeed, the UniSR research has systematically demonstrated how the perception we have of a certain obstacle mediates the effect of objective obstacles on the intensity of romantic feelings. Not only that: this theory also sets a threshold beyond which the attraction we feel towards a partner who plays hard to get does not diminish gradually, but suddenly. In short, much more than just “in love wins who flees”.

THE ORIGINALITY OF THIS WORK

Dr. Sciara explains: “We analyzed the reactions of 104 young adults who, due to their “passionate” nature, are well suited to a study aimed at evaluating the modulation of the intensity of feeling, all involved in a stable couple relationship (on average for 2 years): this is particularly relevant and marks one of the turning points compared to previous researches. In the literature, studies on romantic relationships often require participants to imagine possible partners or ideal people: instead we have established as an inclusion criterion that all participants should be truly involved in a relationship”.

Photo credit: ShutterStock
Photo credit: ShutterStock

In a control condition (unknown risk) the intensity of the basic romantic feeling is measured. If our partner does something that we consider unimportant – she continues – the intensity of feeling is greatly reduced. In the face of a greater fault, on the other hand, such as behavior that arouses suspicion of betrayal, the intensity of romantic feeling increases. Although paradoxical, this reaction is sensible, even from an adaptive point of view, as it would help to maintain and consolidate the link with the partner. Finally, when the partner’s attitude towards us becomes negative to the point that we perceive a concrete risk that the relationship ends, then we cross the threshold beyond which the intensity of feeling drastically decreases, until it disappears. And this happens even before the relationship ends”.

Variations in the intensity of the couple’s feelings as a function of a growing perception of the risk of breaking up.
Variations in the intensity of the couple’s feelings as a function of a growing perception of the risk of breaking up.

The intensity threshold is subjective and depends on the importance that that partner and that particular relationship have for us: “In the face of very important relationships we are willing to overcome enormous obstacles, which only increase the threshold and, therefore, intensify the feelings of love and union with the other person”.

Photo credit: ShutterStock
Photo credit: ShutterStock

WHAT “OBSTACLES” TO BE OVERCOME?

In our opinion, it is useless to list all the possible negative characteristics and behaviors of the partner who, in theory, could act as obstacles. This is why we asked ourselves: what gathers together the negative characteristics that may give rise to the perception of breaking up? Our study has shown that everything that is perceived as risky for the relationship is able to modulate the intensity of the feeling in a non-obvious way”.

NEXT STEPS

The project was developed as Dr. Sciara’s Master’s Thesis (achieved with honors and honorable mention) but, as both specify, “it has never been simply a thesis”: “The study started with the aim of doing research, and it has become a thesis almost collaterally: this is a very peculiar aspect of our University, which allows our students to be immediately involved in the research process” Prof. Pantaleo finally reflects”.

What are the next steps?

In the future we would like to investigate to what extent the same theoretical prediction also applies to negative feelings: for example, if it were jealousy, the more the partner tried to reassure us, the more we should be jealous, to the point beyond which we would really feel completely reassured and jealousy no longer had any reason to exist”.

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1. Brehm, J. W. (1975). A theory of motivational suppression. Unpublished grant proposal, University of Kansas

2. Brehm, J. W. (1999). The intensity of emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 2–22

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