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Star-crossed lovers: When not to trust an intuition of compatibility

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | April 2, 2012

Imagine you are reading profiles in an online dating service, and you come across a description like this:

“I will treat you like you are God until you break my trust and then you are just another person…. warning ahead, I do have a very bad temper…. I do admit I will get jealous if you are always going over to one of your guy friend’s house….”

What would you think? Being treated like God sounds great, and his jealousy may mean he really gets invested in his relationships, that he really cares. And who wouldn’t want a little fire and spice in their partner, someone with real passion?

If you had a similar kind of reaction to this person’s profile, or know someone who always falls for this kind of guy, read on.

A paper published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Zayas and Shoda, 2007) examined the influence of prior experiences on partner preferences. The researchers themselves constructed a believeable-looking “online dating service,” and thus were able to track the study participants’ preferences and selection of various partners. Although the study participants didn’t know it, the researchers had carefully chosen the profiles so that they differed in systematic ways.

For their first study, the researchers focused on heterosexual women’s preferences, and the mens’ profiles that they looked at differed in how much they signaled potential for psychological abuse in intimate relationships. The profiles themselves were actually real, with the profiles of potentially abusive men written by men who scored high on characteristics associated with abusive personality: impulsivity, anger, jealousy, low self-esteem. A separate sample of participants independently confirmed that the profiles gave off warning signals of potential abuse.

The researchers’ results are sobering: women who had a history of being psychologically maltreated in a prior relationship were three times more likely to choose potentially abusive dating partners than women without this history. In other words, women who are at risk for being abused in their relationships are more likely to be attracted to the very features that others see as clear precursors of abuse. Often, these choices are rationalized precisely along the lines I hinted at earlier: intense jealousy is misinterpreted as caring, and anger is romanticized as “dangerous.”

In a second study, the researchers turned the tables around, and focused on heterosexual men’s preferences. Their question was this: who do potentially abusive men prefer? The results showed that men who scored high on a measure of inflicting psychological abuse were 1.5 times more likely to choose a partner who is high on attachment anxiety. Attachment anxiety is a disposition associated with victims of abuse, and is characterized by an intense anxiety over rejection. As such, people high in attachment anxiety are particularly vulnerable to being “treated like a God” during the courtship phase of a relationship: being flooded with flowers, adulated, constantly called. Fears of rejection overwhelm the ability to detect an unhealthy balance between independence and interdependence in their relationships.

What does one do in the face of such data, with people high in attachment anxiety and their potentially abusive partners essentially judging each other as highly compatible?

Simple as it may sound, one powerful answer is to rely on your social networks. Listen to what your friends are saying. This is critical advice both if you are attracted to a potentially abusive mate, or if someone you care about begins describing abusive relationship patterns.

Sometimes, we need to rely on other people to help us see what we cannot.

You can follow my posts through Twitter and Facebook. Copyright 2012 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved.

Cross-posted from Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton’s blog on the  Psychology Today website.

Comments to “Star-crossed lovers: When not to trust an intuition of compatibility

  1. I’m sorry if I confused you, Anthony St. John. I was trying to be tactfully rhetoric about the subject. You don’t just bring in the name of God into a volatile and uncertain situation.

    I know all about the traumatic effects of divorce. I suffered greatly when my parents ended their marriage for the second time. I won’t get into the specifics, but for most of my life, there were chronological gaps, and for the most part, my life was anything but linear.

    At thirteen, I found myself wondering what it was like to be schizophrenic. I actually told myself, Maybe I will find out.. if this feeling of despair doesn’t go away. Prior to this, I had a lot of love for God. Slowly, I was brain washed into thinking that God didn’t care about me, but I never stopped caring about him. Over the years, my life spiraled downward and downward.. I’m pretty sure that I reached the bottom of Hell!

    I can explain it, by saying that, since I had lost the image of love in my family, I had no drive to excel at secular endeavors. My drive was to feel loved again. I took, a great interest in people, rather than myself.. I had some religious roots, but I never found that oneness that I was longing for. Eventually my personal needs, desires and goals began to overtake me, and I (mean while, I was diligently studying the Christian bible) didn’t know where to turn for help, because I was taught that I needed to wait for the rewards of my faith; somewhat true 🙂 But not at all what I expected, it was better!

  2. Micah, the problem is that we have a hideous divorce rate in America because people don’t include mutual respect and integrity along with love.

    And the hellacious consequence is that far too many children suffer irreparable psychological trauma because of far too many parents who never should have had children.

    The worst case consequences we are currently experiencing in America today are social tipping points that are sending us into the crash and burn mode because the vast majority of our social, political and economic leaders fail the tests of humanity due to their avarice and immorality. All you have to do is listen to the top three GOP presidential candidates castigating each other to realize they are totally unacceptable leaders.

  3. The “online dating service” study was not unethical, and whose ethics are you talking about anyway, their’s?; God’s?; your’s? If the person has good intentions, and favor of the universe; they will attract a good mate regardless of the methods that they use. Are you saying, that if the controlled subject finds out that the test is fake, they will give up on love?

  4. “When not to trust” is one of the greatest questions in human relations.

    RULE #1: Morality is a predominant requirement for trust in any relationship.

    Lessons of history include far too many moral failures by our highest levels of political and religious authority that have caused far too many social, political and economic breakdowns. Some major examples include:

    1) Politicians in Ancient Athens, even after they created the first Democracy, continued to fail to achieve cultural values with enough morality to prevent many wars between the oligarchs and demos, and

    2) Renaissance Rome where the culture of religious leaders was dominated far too frequently by greed and immorality that also led to frequent social chaos and wars.

    The fact of life today is that far too many American political (many who claim to be religious) and religious leaders are European descendants, and we still fail most hellaciously to practice the Golden Rule and prevent wars and poverty.

    So with our wired in human failure mode of immorality that is a constant threat to our survival, romance is definitely one of the most dangerous activities of human interaction where the saying “trust, but verify” has yet another meaning.

  5. While this is a fascinating study, I wondered about its construction. Do you mean that a fake dating site was put up on the internet? And that the personal information of some individuals was “planted” to create particular effects? Did the subjects know that they were involved in a study? If not, I find it ethically questionable.

  6. I come across attachment anxiety being associated to toddlers out of their fear of being away from their mother or father or fear that a parent leaves them temporarily, like going to office, etc. Since they do not have a sense of time, parents being out of sight it means for them that they will not come back anymore.

    It is very interesting to recognize that attachment is associated to fear of rejection in adults. As such, it may appear to originate to a childhood experience as well of rejection of the people important in their life.

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