Self-preservation can make us do all sorts of things to make ourselves feel safe. For example, you can push unpleasant memories to the ‘back of your mind’, you can pick fault with others to justify your own drug-taking (legal or illegal) and you can neglect to help a fellow human being bullied or beaten for fear of embroiling yourself in a potentially dangerous situation. Whilst the motivation behind psychological or physical self-preservation tactics may make sense to us in one way in that immediate situation, it doesn’t mean we always do what’s right, even for ourselves, in the long-run.
When your focus in a romantic relationship is on self-preservation, things like compassion for your partner, thoughtful behaviours, and ownership of your mistakes, can become a distant thought. Such thoughts, feelings and behaviours can sabotage your own well-being, your partner’s well-being and your relationship. On the other hand, when your focus in a romantic relationship is on ‘us-preservation’, things like compassion, thoughtful behaviours, and ownership of your mistakes, become more of a priority. This focus results in thoughts, feelings and behaviours that can serve your own well-being, your partner’s well-being and your relationship. But what happens when you think your relationship is going to end, for example, because your sister says, ‘I can’t see you two lasting’, or because in the midst of a long-winded argument your partner spits out, ‘I think maybe we should divorce’? What drives your subsequent thoughts and behaviours, aside from your feelings for your partner? Self-preservation?
Recent research by Sciara and Pantaleo (2017) highlights that when we believe our romantic relationship is going to end, we can start to feel less committed to the relationship and have weakening romantic feelings for our partner, but not always.
One-hundred and four participants took part in the study. Some were manipulated into believing false statistics and hearing negative evaluations of the relationship questionnaires they had completed, in order to make them believe their romantic relationship was likely doomed for a break-up. Remember, in a position of authority, a person can make others believe falsehoods, especially if they put a statistic on it. Participants were either led to believe that their relationship was at a low, moderate or high risk of breaking-up in the future, or were not manipulated in this way whatsoever.
Interestingly, rather than there being a correlation between the more you believe the relationship is going to end, the more your commitment level diminishes or strengthens, and the more your romantic feelings for them diminish or strengthen, the pattern was instead cubic rather than linear. So the results took this form below (I’ve added examples to help).
When the risk of break-up was:
- not mentioned, the intensity of romantic commitment was strong (e.g. no break-up on the horizon = ’I feel a strong sense of commitment to my romantic partner);
- low, the intensity of romantic commitment was significantly reduced (e.g. slight possibility of us breaking up = ‘Errr, maybe I’m not that into you, actually’);
- moderate, the intensity of romantic commitment was strong (e.g. reasonable possibility of us breaking up = ‘Oh no, I really like you!’);
- high, the intensity of romantic commitment was significantly reduced (e.g. high possibility of us breaking up = ‘Fine, I’m really not that into you anyway!’)
When the risk of break-up was:
- not mentioned, the intensity of romantic feelings was strong;
- low, the intensity of romantic feelings was significantly reduced;
- moderate, the intensity of romantic feelings was strong;
- high, the intensity of romantic feelings was significantly reduced.
Rather than self-preservation, the researchers liken this effect to how we might feel stronger romantic feelings for someone because it is a forbidden love of some sort, e.g. an interracial marriage or age-gap relationship. When there is a barrier of some sort between us and what we think we want, forced upon us by specific others or society, we might experience those romantic emotions more strongly and feel even more resolute in our endeavour to ‘fight against the odds and let our love prevail’.
So before you decide to move in with the partner you’re in a long-distance relationship with, or before you ask someone to postpone their goals that require them to move to another country, decipher whether your intense feelings for them are real or superficial. Looking at the time line of any drastic/sudden changes that occurred in the intensity of those emotions, will help you to discover the truth. For example, if you only now, suddenly, for the first time in your relationship, feel like you want to marry your partner because they’ve said they want to take a job opportunity somewhere far away, maybe it’s a superficial feeling of love and commitment. Get clarity and then make the right decision.
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