Is there a Romeo and Juliet Effect in Psychology? In 1972, a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggested that there was a “Romeo and Juliet effect” in early-stage relationships The study concluded that the more parents try to interfere, the stronger that bond of young love becomes.
This was an amusing notion that seemed to have a lot of common sense behind it. This study became widely popular and has been cited hundreds of times in textbooks and professional journals.
The only problem is that the study was either poorly designed or a statistical anomaly. The truth turns out to be precisely the opposite.
More recent clinical research tells us that relationships lacking active support from a couples’ family and friends, not only have less relational satisfaction than relationships that receive such an endorsement, they are also less likely to thrive long term.
Would Romeo and Juliet in couples therapy have a different outcome? We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers rent asunder by their feuding families. In the play, the escalating disapproval of their kin leads the hapless lovers to commit suicide.
Now that’s a rough way to end any relationship.
But what if Romeo and Juliet found a science-based couples therapist in Verona? Could their romance have been saved?
I am sorry to report that the research is a tad pessimistic. Even if the Montagues and Capulets refrained from swordplay, our gentle therapist of Verona would still have had her hands full. But she could have at least given the star-crossed lovers some sound advice.
But the reason why has more to do with the couple themselves than the problem of an unfriendly social network.
Divided loyalties create a hostile environment for sustaining empathy, and empathy is the essential foundation of marital satisfaction.
The research tells us that when we dis our partner’s buds and family, the more fragile our bond will become over time.
The less we like our partner’s peeps, the less likely, over time, that our partner will feel connected to us.
If our social network frowns on our new partner, research tells us that our peeps are more likely to incite friction and interfere with our normal couple-bonding process. You may be surprised to learn that over one-third of failed relationships cite the disapproval of family and friends as critical stressors that lead to a breakup.
It’s pretty likely that minus the drama, the Montagues and Capulets would have figured out a way to separate Romeo and Juliet with just their sharp tongues, instead of swordplay. Romeo and Juliet in couples therapy might learn how to bring their families together, or at least die trying…oops…
Our Therapist of Verona would instruct Romeo and Juliet in couples therapy to start by firmly embracing their identity as a Montague or a Capulet. A little differentiation would go a long way here. The two clans should meet but under your positive and hopefully watchful eye.
Have a block party, but make it clear that out of respect for you, your guests are required to check their swords and sharp tongues at the door.
Create many social situations for prominent members of the two families to hang out together. Research is clear on this. The more you both get to know each other’s peeps, the more comfortable you will most likely all become.
Familiarity breeds comfort more often than contempt. The less you know each other’s friends and family, the more anxiety expands into a defensive disconnection.
This research also warns that skill in deftly juggling time with your partner, and time with your friends and family is a harbinger of future relationship success. It’s a dance.
You don’t neglect your friends and relatives, or your partner. That’s why your ability to create situations for people to meet each other and overcome their hesitancy is crucial.
The elegant solution is to increase everyone’s comfort level at the same time. But you have to take the lead in showing solidarity as a couple and goodwill toward all. And that’s a tall order for a pair of moody, horny teenagers.
The key to relational success is to value all of your intimate relationships and to advocate to all of them that mutual respect and willingness to suspend judgment about your romantic partner for your sake is an important value.
It’s crucial not to placate troublemakers. If they act out, take them aside for a private chat. Tell them this relationship matters to you. Be a united front in seeking the blessings and goodwill of everyone…including the troublemakers. Work to win them over.
Of course, this is a “your mileage may vary situation.” But patience, good humor, and a cool head will serve you well. Discuss essential personalities in your family with your partner.
Develop strategies to ingratiate critical centers of influence. Thoughtfulness, preparation, and cultural sensitivity may also be required.
Romeo and Juliet in couples therapy would learn that emotions can sometimes swing like a pendulum. In other words, an excellent first impression can turn a wide arc toward the positive, because the anxiety of the unknown has been lifted.
Never underestimate the value of a positive first impression. But a skittish, skeptical, or stand-offish stance may reinforce their fear, and establish a pattern of emotional distance that may undermine your bond for years to come.
Ignore power differentials. Problems with acceptance impact couples of all ages. You want your partner’s kids approval as much as you might want support from his or her parents. The bottom line is this; if the relationship is important to your partner… it is also important to you.
Don’t be above a reasonable degree of beguilement or flattery. If you win them over quickly, you will vastly improve your odds of marital success long-term.
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Felmlee, D. H. (2001). No couple is an island: A social network perspective on dyadic stability. Social Forces, 79(4), 1259-1287.
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Lehmiller, J. J., & Agnew, C. R. (2007). Perceived marginalization and the prediction of romantic relationship stability. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 1036-1049.
Parks, M. R., Stan, C. M., & Eggert, L. L. (1983). Romanic involvement and social network involvement. Social Psychology Quarterly, 46, 116-131. DOI:
Sprecher, S. (2011). The influence of social networks on romantic relationships: Through the lens of the social network. Personal Relationships, 18, 630-644. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01330.x
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.
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