Today’s post is the last of a five-part series on managing relationship conflict. Over the past few months, we have examined the research on healthy coping styles when it comes to managing breakups and divorce, comparing yourself to others, helping partners manage their own mental health, and communicating effectively.
In this final post, I’d like to discuss the research on relationship doubts.
I wanted to address this topic because relationship doubts are extremely common, and can be distressing, especially if they recur in different relationships. My hope is that this post will help you understand the psychology behind relationship doubts, and help you manage them adaptively.
Raise your hand if you have ever had any of the following relationship doubts whether involved or not involved in a relationship:
- My partner isn’t _____ enough. (Fill in the blank with: smart, successful, social, attractive, or other valued quality)
- I’m not sure if I should break up with my partner.
- I’m worried my partner is going to break up with me.
- I’m not sure if I can imagine a happy future with this person.
- If I’m looking/talking/flirting with other people, then I must not love my partner that much.
- I’m going to be devastated if I lose my partner.
- I’m going to be happier if I stay with my partner.
- I’m never going to find someone who is my best match.
- If I’m in a relationship that is less than perfect, then I’m betraying myself.
- I’m going to end up alone.
- My ex was the best person I’ve ever been with; I’m not going to be able to find someone better.
What do these relationship doubts mean and what should one do about them?
Take-Home #1: People are bad predictors.
There has been a lot of research done by Daniel Kahneman and Daniel Gilbert, who are well-known psychologists in the area of “affective forecasting.” They have shown that people’s judgments about their decisions are subject to many biases. One of these biases is called the impact bias, which refers to overestimating the impact of one’s emotional reactions to future events.
For example, people overestimate how unhappy they will be two months after the end of a romantic relationship (1). In addition, those who were more in love with their partners, who thought it was unlikely they would soon enter a new relationship, and who played less of a role initiating the breakup, made the MOST inaccurate predictions. So what this means is that you may be likely to mispredict how bad things will be if you lose the relationship, or you may also be likely to mispredict how good things will be if you stay in the relationship.
Related to this is the bias called focalism, in which people overestimate how much they will think about a particular event in the future, while underestimating the impact of other events on their thoughts and feelings (2). This is like moving to California to escape all of your problems in New York, only to realize that you overestimated the impact of the good weather at the exclusion of all other life problems.
People also tend to exhibit a regret bias, in which they mistakenly expect that losing something by a narrow margin (as opposed to wide margin) will worsen their experience of regret. One study showed that students overestimated their regret when they “nearly won” (compared to “clearly lost”) a contest, and subway riders overestimated their regret when they “nearly caught” (compared to “clearly missed”) their trains (3)--- so true!
Knowing about these biases is important because most people are unaware of how much their major life decisions are motivated by how “regret averse” they are and studies show that people are actually much less susceptible to regret than they think. This anticipation of regret may cause you to actually overpay in an emotional sense.
Take-Home #2: Scarcity causes short-term tunnel vision.
Research has shown that scarcity produces a short-sighted mindset that pushes you to acquire more of what you perceive you lack, at the expense of efficiency, productivity, and well-being in the long-term (3).
One of my favorite podcasts from NPR called Hidden Brain recently discussed this in an episode about a woman who lost her job and maxed out a credit card for household supplies that were scarce, at the expense of saving money for gas. Despite always being conscientious, this woman was subjected to the psychological phenomenon of scarcity, which inadvertently led to making things worse.
In the case of relationships, if you are worried about ending up alone and having doubts about ever being able to find someone to love you, then you may be psychologically falling into the "scarcity trap" by perceiving having a partner as a scarce resource. This could cause you to become so obsessed with getting a partner that you risk forgetting about other resources that are equally important but abundant-- such as your freedom, respect, and time. The moral of the story is to be conscious of the things in your life that are scarce, and make an effort to devote your time in a balanced way toward acquiring those needs that are actually lacking.
Take-Home #3: Examine the basis of your beliefs and obsessions.
Another way your mind can play tricks on you is through the development of beliefs that you’re not even aware that you hold. This is the fundamental premise underlying cognitive therapy, which is a form of therapy that has garnered extensive research support across psychological problems.
For example, if you are constantly obsessing about whether your partner is the right one for you, is it because...
...you hold deeper level beliefs that any hint of doubt or ambiguity in a relationship means that something is wrong and you’re not really in love (intolerance of uncertainty beliefs)?
...or that you must have 100% certainty or control in all aspects of your life (need to control beliefs)?
...or maybe your relationship doubts are based on beliefs that your self-worth is tied to how well things are going in your relationship, so if people perceive your partner in a negative way, then that also reflects poorly on you (relationship-oriented self-esteem beliefs)?
Another possibility is that you are having relationship doubts because you fundamentally believe your partner isn’t right for you if you’re not continuously thinking about your partner, or if you’re even having any negative thoughts about your partner at all (extreme love beliefs).
There is a developing literature on a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) called relationship OCD, in which people fall into these kinds of maladaptive thinking traps, and become a victim of their relationship obsessions (5). The way to overcome this is to look more closely at your relationship beliefs, and challenging whether they are valid or helpful beliefs.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this relationship series as much as I have enjoyed writing them! Feel free to submit any questions or future post ideas to the blog!
1. Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., Krishnamurti, T., & Loewenstein, G. (2008). Mispredicting distress following romantic breakup: Revealing the time course of the affective forecasting error. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 3, 800-807.
2. Schkade, D. A., & Kahneman, D. (1998). Does living in California make people happy? Psychological Science, 9, 340-346.
3. Gilbert, D. T., Morewedge, C. K., Risen, J. L., & Wilson, T. D. (2004). Looking forward to looking backward: the misprediction of regret. Psychological Science, 15(5), 346-350.
4. Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. New York: Time Books.
5. Doron, G., Derby, D., Szepsenwol, O., Nahaloni, E., & Moulding, R. (2016). Relationship obsessive compulsive disorder (ROCD): Interference, symptoms and maladaptive beliefs. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 7, 58.
By Angela Fang, Ph.D. - Expert Psychologist