Do your feelings about a romantic relationship or your partner change significantly when it’s over? In today’s show, Gabe talks with researcher Aidan Smyth who conducted a study probing people’s feelings about their relationships — both during the relationship and after it was over.
What’s your experience? Do you recall your ex with fondness, indifference or negativity? And which of these emotions are best for moving on? Join us to hear the science behind feelings in romantic relationships.
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Guest information for ‘Aidan Smyth- Relationships’ Podcast Episode
Aidan Smyth is a graduate student in the Psychology department at Carleton University who studies romantic relationships, mindfulness, and goal pursuit.
About The Psych Central Podcast Host
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Computer Generated Transcript for ‘Aidan Smyth- Relationships’ Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to the Psych Central Podcast, where guest experts in the field of psychology and mental health share thought-provoking information using plain, everyday language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of The Psych Central Podcast, I’m your host Gabe Howard and calling into the show today, we have Aidan Smyth. Aidan is currently a graduate student in the psychology department at Carleton University. His area of study focuses on romantic relationships, mindfulness and goal pursuit. Aidan, welcome to the show.
Aidan Smyth: Thank you very much, Gabe.
Gabe Howard: Aidan, you’re here today because you conducted a study that had some surprising results and garnered you some national attention. In a nutshell, you discovered that people’s feelings about their romantic relationships, both past and present, aren’t based on fact at all, but more how they feel in the moment. Can you tell us about your study and what specifically you were looking to discover?
Aidan Smyth: Sure. So this work was inspired by a fairly large body of research that suggests that for better or worse, we aren’t always as accurate as we might like to believe when it comes to the way that we think about our partners and relationships. For example, our perceptions of our relationships can be quite subjective and are often biased by our hopes and our goals. So assuming you want your relationship to work out, you might tend to see it through rose colored glasses, so to speak. For this particular study, my colleagues and I, Dr. Johanna Peetz and Adrienne Capaldi, we were interested in what happens to people’s perceptions of the relationships after a breakup when they may no longer be motivated to see it in the best possible light and in fact may even be motivated to see it in a negative light. Specifically, we were interested in whether or not people who had recently experienced a breakup would show a bias in the way they remember their former relationships. And we wanted to see if they would recall them as worse than they actually said that they were while they were still dating.
Gabe Howard: How did you find people who were in a relationship that they described as good, got them to break up and then asked them if they saw the, because that’s like right where my mind went, right. Like, it seems like in order to do this research, you had to find a happy couple and then follow them around until they broke up and then said, hey, what did you think of that relationship? Just to see. But I’m not a researcher, so I imagine that’s not how you did it.
Aidan Smyth: You know, that’s not a bad summary, actually. The study design was quite simple. We basically did recruit people who were in romantic relationships and we asked them how satisfied they were in those relationships. And then we waited a few months with evil grins on our faces, I suppose you could say, at which point we contacted them again. And a quarter of the sample had experienced a breakup at that point. And so at this point, we asked those individuals how satisfied they had been a few months earlier while they were still dating their now ex-partner.
Gabe Howard: And you found out that the information that they gave when you contacted them the second time was wildly different than the information they gave you the first time.
Aidan Smyth: Yes, after a recent breakup, people thought that they hadn’t been as happy as they actually had been, and they also recalled their former partners as less compatible than they actually had originally said that they were. So essentially, they recalled their past relationships as worse than they actually were, or at least worse than they said that they were while they were dating. Interestingly, it didn’t seem to matter how long they had been in those past relationships for.
Gabe Howard: And just to clarify, when you first met these couples, they said we’re happy with each other. She’s great, he’s great, we’re happy, we’re dating. Everything is hunky-dory. They’re the one. And then after they broke up, it was, oh, I always knew that this wasn’t going to work out. I was miserable every day and I saw it coming. Is that sort of the answers that you were getting the second time around?
Aidan Smyth: There’s certainly a little bit of that going on, and I guess one thing to highlight would be that the people who ended up breaking up did in fact report less satisfaction in their relationships than the people who ended up staying together over the course of the study. So there was a difference even at baseline there at the start of the study in terms of how satisfied people were. But, yes, then after the fact, we did see some inaccuracies in terms of the way that they recalled their past relationship.
Gabe Howard: On one hand, it doesn’t surprise me that when you’re in a relationship, you would describe it as positive and I know putting a research modality on it or anonymity. I’m assuming that you didn’t interview them together. You interviewed each participant separately.
Aidan Smyth: Yes, so and it actually wasn’t even couples that were included in the study, it was individuals who were in romantic relationships. So,
Gabe Howard: Gotcha, gotcha.
Aidan Smyth: Yes.
Gabe Howard: So it doesn’t surprise me, again, not a researcher, that when you’re in a relationship, you would describe it positively. There’s a little bit of self-protection there, right? I mean, if somebody sat me down and said, Gabe, are you happy with your relationship? And I was like, no, I’m miserable and I hate it. That doesn’t make sense. There’s like a protective quality that’s like, no, of course not. I love her. We’re working hard. I can see using positive language like that, even if I had reservations. Did you notice sort of a read between the line language, even in the positivity, or was it just straight up happy?
Aidan Smyth: The way that we actually measured sort of their levels of satisfaction in the relationship was actually just with questionnaires. So we weren’t doing interviews with these individuals, which would be interesting to do as well, though. And I think you’d pick up on a lot more of the descriptors that you’re talking about there. But we looked at questionnaires and looked at the way their scores changed when they rated their relationship satisfaction and partner compatibility.
Gabe Howard: And what did you find out? What was the bottom line of all of this at the conclusion of the study?
Aidan Smyth: Basically, the bottom line was that people they were inaccurate in the way that they recalled their former relationships and essentially thought that they had been significantly less satisfied than they actually said they were while they were still in those relationships.
Gabe Howard: And if I understand correctly, you also found out that a lot of people realized that they didn’t hate their exes as much as they thought they did, and hate’s a strong word, maybe, maybe dislike? Weren’t as miserable did. Was that a flip side as well?
Aidan Smyth: So this is what we found, I’m not sure if the participants would acknowledge this or that they were aware of this,
Gabe Howard: Fair enough.
Aidan Smyth: We didn’t directly look into this in the study. But one possibility is that this finding could have to do with the fact that our memories of the past are often colored by the way that we feel in the present. Given that a breakup is often accompanied by a lot of emotional distress, these difficult feelings may sort of get in the way of people’s ability to recall their former relationships accurately and instead may lead them to remember them as worse than they actually were. Another possibility is that this type of bias might actually help people cope with the breakup and start to move on from that former partner. We know from past research that the way people think about their ex-partners is quite important when it comes to getting over a breakup. For example, thinking fondly of an ex has been associated with continued attachment to that partner, preoccupation with the former relationship and, ultimately, worse recovery from the breakup. And I guess it’s worth noting that this can also be problematic for the person’s subsequent relationships as well. Other research shows that recognizing the shortcomings of an ex-partner can help with adjustment and recovery after a breakup. And in fact, some researchers argue that people are unable to get over a breakup until they fundamentally change the way that they view their former partners and relationships. So to bring it back to this particular bias, if someone is no longer available to you as a romantic interest, then a bias towards viewing them in a slightly more critical light might actually provide some reassurance and comfort and reduce those feelings of regret.
Gabe Howard: Just to clarify, it sounds like your study has shown that people just are completely inaccurate in the way that they recall past relationships.
Aidan Smyth: It’s important to note they weren’t completely inaccurate when it came to the way that they recalled their past relationships. For example, it wasn’t as though they said they were absolutely head over heels in love with their former partner. And then after the breakup, they recalled that relationship as absolutely awful, although I suppose that is possible and could be the reality for some individuals. But yeah, they generally weren’t completely derogating their former relationships. It was more so that on average, they recalled them as slightly worse than they actually said they were while they were dating. And in that sense, it’s possible that after a breakup, people simply remove the rose-colored glasses and are no longer seeing that relationship in an idealized manner.
Gabe Howard: But isn’t that healthy, isn’t it good to really see somebody for who they are?
Aidan Smyth: Yes, I mean, these types of biases, it can be sort of a little unsettling almost to learn about them for the first time. And the idea that perhaps we’re not as accurate as we like to think in terms of the way we think about our partners and feel about them. But some researchers do speculate that these and similar types of biases are actually an important feature of a healthy and satisfying relationship. And often we see in past research that these types of biases are associated with greater relationship satisfaction.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much for explaining that. I guess I need to understand, when are people in the best position to evaluate the quality of a relationship? Is it when they’re in the middle of it or only after they’ve broken up? Because obviously, if the best position to evaluate is after they’ve broken up, nobody in a healthy, happy relationship can ever get a true read on what’s going on.
Aidan Smyth: This is a really interesting question and one I’ll admit from the get go that I certainly don’t have the answer to, but it’s interesting to think about because there’s sort of this implicit assumption that we’re probably going to be more accurate in the way that we think about our relationships while we’re actually in them, as opposed to once they’re over and some time has passed. To give a poor analogy here, if you are eating a sandwich and I asked you how enjoyable that sandwich was, I would probably trust your answer now a lot more than I would if I were to ask you again a few months from now when this sandwich was over.
Gabe Howard: I like it.
Aidan Smyth: So, relationships are admittedly more complicated than sandwiches, but we know from a large body of research that when we’re in a relationship, we are prone to a number of biases that may lead us to view our relationships in that idealized manner rather than a more objective manner. Essentially, we’re motivated to see them as good, that we’ve got a great partner, we’ve got a great relationship, and therefore we’ll probably play up some of the positive aspects and downplay some of the more negative aspects. On the other hand, after a breakup, it’s possible that we’re motivated to do just the opposite. And we might want to believe that our former relationships were never really that great all along, because it probably isn’t exactly comforting to think that your past relationship, which ended for whatever reason, was absolutely fantastic and you’ll never find another one quite like it. So essentially, it seems as though we may be prone to biases on both sides of the breakup. And I think it remains an open question as to when we’re in the best position to evaluate them objectively.
Gabe Howard: What did you find in regards to people who stayed together? I mean, obviously you said 25% broke up,
Aidan Smyth: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: Which means 75% were still going strong.
Aidan Smyth: Mm-hmm, an interesting finding, so our research showed that people who stayed in the same relationships over the course of the study also showed some biases or inaccuracies in the way that they thought about their relationships. These people thought that at the end of this study, their relationships had significantly improved over the past few months, even though no improvement had actually taken place. They said that they were significantly happier in their relationships at the end of the study than they recalled being at the beginning, even though they had been just as happy at the start.
Gabe Howard: Why do you think that was? Why do you think people thought that the relationships improved when in actuality they just stayed stagnant? I don’t mean, I don’t mean stagnant in any bad way.
Aidan Smyth: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: Just as somebody who’s been married for almost a decade now, I’m fond of saying boring is healthy. There’s no drama. We know each other. It’s all fine. But I understand why young people are are like, man, I don’t, I don’t want to be that guy. I get it. But at the same time, that is what a healthy relationship looks like. There’s no gossip. It’s just there.
Aidan Smyth: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: Why do you think they’re seeing this when in actuality they’re, I guess, boring? Is that, is that the word to use?
Aidan Smyth: Well, I think this type of a bias could also sort of reflect that idea of seeing the relationship through rose colored glasses and that it may be helpful to think of the relationship as continuing to improve or get better over time. And by downplaying or derogating the past, we’re able to do this. This bias might sort of reflect a mechanism that allows people to maintain a positive view of their relationships as time goes on. And it also probably sort of helps to fend off some of those ideas that you just mentioned about stagnation or the possibility that your relationship is getting worse over time. This type of a bias would sort of help protect against that and probably be a little more appealing. I guess I’ll also note that other research has found that we do this on a personal level as well. So, for example, there’s a study that showed that college students recalled their past selves more negatively on a number of characteristics like self-confidence or their social skills compared to how they had actually rated themselves a few months earlier. So essentially downplaying the past basically seems to be one strategy that we use to make ourselves feel better about ourselves and our relationships in the present.
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Gabe Howard: We’re back with Aidan Smyth discussing his study about relationships and our feelings. What are some other biases that you found existed in romantic relationships?
Aidan Smyth: Sure, so there’s a large body of research, and I think even some of your former guests have probably spoken about these types of things as well. One of the biases that I’ve alluded to a couple of times here is the idea of seeing our partners through rose colored glasses or in an idealized manner. What I mean by that is there was a study that essentially found that people tended to describe their partners in a manner that more closely resembled their ideal partner rather than their partners’ actual attributes. So there’s some nice empirical evidence for the phrase love is blind, I suppose.
Gabe Howard: I understand from a research standpoint why facts matter. I get it. But romance is, it’s I know why we research and it’s fascinating. But what you just said there kind of appeals to me, this idea that I accentuate my wife’s positives and I push down and ignore her negatives and that just lets me love her so much more. I’m, of course, fond of believing that in order to sustain a healthy marriage with me, you have to do that. Like that’s yeah, you got to. But sincerely, I think anybody listening to this would think to themselves, why is science messing with this? You think the best of your romantic partner and you, you know, kind of give them a pass on the worst. It sounds like a bias is almost helpful, but I imagine it can go too far.
Aidan Smyth: So there’s a lot there and a lot of great things to think about, I think.
Gabe Howard: Isn’t it good to accentuate the positive and diminish the negative, the very first thing that I thought when you said that is, I was like, yeah, that’s like any 20-year-old that said, hey, I’m getting married. What advice do you have? And I’d be like celebrate her positives, ignore her negatives. Like, that’s, you know, if she snores? Yeah. Downplay that. She, you know, is always a half an hour late getting ready? Yeah. Downplay that. But if she’s cheating on you, you need to have like real facts. So where, when is it good to have the rose-colored glasses on and when is it important to take them off?
Aidan Smyth: So that’s a good question, and I think there is some truth to that idea, and I think that’s even reflected in some of this other research that shows that these biases can be helpful and are often associated with greater satisfaction in our relationships. Now, with that being said, I do sort of wonder about a similar question that you seem to be alluding to here, which is, is knowing about these biases helpful? For example, is it helpful to know that your relationship may not have actually improved over time, even though you thought that it did? Or is it helpful to know that your relationship may not necessarily be better than your friends’ relationships or less likely to result in a breakup? On the one hand, I’m sort of reminded of the phrase that ignorance is bliss. And on the other hand, I’m reminded of a Nietzsche quote that I think goes something like, you can measure the strength of a person’s spirit by how much truth they can tolerate. I like to believe that knowing about these biases can be helpful in the sense that perhaps it’ll allow people to recognize that their relationships aren’t perfect. And that’s OK. It’s OK that their relationships aren’t perfect. And another possible benefit is for people that are in the early stages of a relationship. This sort of research might prompt them to potentially pay attention to red flags that come up rather than sweeping them under the rug. Perhaps this could save them a lot of stress and heartache in the long run.
Gabe Howard: Humans are biased. We have biases everywhere we look and the more research that’s being done and the more we learn about our culture and society, we realize that we have biases that we’re completely unaware of. I don’t want that to go unsaid. But this show is specifically about romantic relationships. And one of the things that I think about is the bias we have when relationships are new. I call it new relationship energy. Whenever I am in a new relationship, whether it’s a friendship, a business relationship or a romantic relationship, everything is amazing and exciting and new. And I have this bias to essentially chase this dragon of awesome because it’s so exciting and it’s not boring. It’s unique. And I don’t know that I coined the term new relationship energy, but I think it’s a well understood concept that all romantic relationships are great for a week. Aren’t we ruining that? Because that week is awesome. When should you make sure that the bias is understood? I guess the thing, Aidan, that I keep thinking about and maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, maybe I’m middle aged, maybe I’ve watched one too many rom-coms, but I think about the excitement of new relationships and frankly, how ridiculous they are. I would hate to think that relationships are going to come down to scientific questionnaires. And why can’t it just be fun for a while? But I’m also aware that people get involved in relationships that are destructive and codependent and dangerous and they carry those out for long terms. Where’s the balance?
Aidan Smyth: A great question, I think that’s going to sort of boil down to the personal level, and I think it really would depend on the individual and how much of these sorts of uncomfortable truths they feel that they can tolerate, I guess, and.
Gabe Howard: Maybe don’t let people move in on day one, but also don’t run their credit?
Aidan Smyth: Yeah, I think those are two great pieces of advice.
Gabe Howard: There’s sort of a quote that’s bumping around in my mind that says Trust in God, but lock your car. And if we apply that over to romance, I think it’s OK to love love. It’s OK to get carried away. It’s OK to be excited. But maybe don’t give the person the key to your house on day one. Don’t do the Dharma and Greg and get married and, you know, fact check. Remember that there is a bias and sort of apply that as you move forward. Enjoy the moment, but don’t make any long-term decisions, is maybe the advice that comes to mind. What was it like for you personally doing this study? Because whenever love comes up, people have generally very strongly held beliefs that have little to do with science and a lot to do with their grandmothers and then their parents’ marriage and their grandparents’ marriage. As your study proved, the history of our romantic relationships plays a large role into how we feel about romantic relationships moving forward. What were the conversations in your group launching this study?
Aidan Smyth: So I guess one thing I would say is that I certainly was very surprised when I first learned about all these types of biases, because it can be sort of quite uncomfortable or almost threatening to think that you didn’t see a former partner or a current partner as accurately as you might have. Over time, though, I think learning that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and that people need to get up in arms about that provided me with a little bit of reassurance, I guess. But it certainly prompted me to reflect on past relationships and the way that I think about them now. And I try to sort of take the perspective of how I might have felt at the time, although these are difficult things to do.
Gabe Howard: Aidan, what’s the takeaway? What do you hope that society learns from your research?
Aidan Smyth: One thing I’ll point out right off the bat is I don’t think this is a green light for people to run out and get back together with their exes. That’s not what we’re trying to say with this research here. But I think it sort of gives us the chance to reflect on our past relationships and potentially see them in a new light as valuable experiences. And maybe over time, people can get to a place where they do actually recognize that they did enjoy their time with these people and that they probably did serve them in their lives moving forward.
Gabe Howard: Just for our listeners, please keep in mind that there was a final sample size of 184 participants. Roughly half of these participants were undergraduate students, the average age of the entire sample was about 27 years old, and 60% of the sample were female, 65% Caucasian. We just want to make sure that you have all the facts because research is limited and what conclusions can be applied to humanity as a whole.
Aidan Smyth: Absolutely.
Gabe Howard: All right, thank you so much, Aidan, for being here. We really, really appreciate it.
Aidan Smyth: Thanks for having me, Gabe.
Gabe Howard: You’re very, very welcome. Hey, everybody, my name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations. It’s available on Amazon. Or you can get signed copies for less money at my website, gabehoward.com. I’ll even throw in show stickers. We have a super secret Facebook page, PsychCentral.com/FBShow. Check it out. You can hang out with me. And if you really like the podcast, where ever you downloaded it, please subscribe, please rate, please rank and please review. Remember, you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counseling any time anywhere simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. We’ll see everyone next week.
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