Do you believe in destiny? Or growth? The rules that govern relationships

August 29, 2014

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Relationships are governed by 'rules' that determine how we act, and how we expect others to act towards us. These invisible rules form part of any relationship and to navigate them, we have to first understand them.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


Relationships are governed by 'rules' that determine how we act, and how we expect others to act towards us. These invisible rules form part of any relationship and to navigate them, we have to first understand them.

Psychologists call these rules 'schemas' and you create them yourself or learn them from the people around you. Schemas are unconsciously formed expectations about how the world works. They're scaffolds about the characteristics of things that allow us to predict the future and act accordingly. If I do this, the world responds thus. These schemas exist for objects, places and even events. In the latter context, they determine your emotions.

As you might predict, this system of inner oracles determines how you approach almost everything you do, including how you act toward other people. But perhaps more importantly, they also determine how you think people should act toward you.

In this article, we'll be concerning ourselves with these rich schemas; those we have regarding how people should act in relationships, what makes them work, and what makes them break down.

Rules in relationships: what a 'fling' looks like

Schemas that pertain to relationships are usually formed by and shared within our communities. For example, we all roughly know what a fling is, a one-night-stand, 'going steady' and what it means to be married. These schemas are dictated by the prototypical features of these relationship types; the most stereotypical, immediate and what psychologists would call 'salient' characteristics of a relationship. A fling, for instance, is short, intense and passionate. Often associated with overseas travel, or a holiday. When you hear 'fling' your schema for that is activated and you think immediately of the most relevant elements of that relationship 'type'.

“Experiences become expectations, which in turn become rules.”

This is helpful. This kind of stereotyping is super useful, and saves our brain from using up all of it's processing power on concepts that come up frequently. Yes, contrary to what you might have heard, stereotypes aren't all bad.

But schemas aren't always such a blessing. In the case of relationships, what tends to happen is that people's scaffolds for relational types diverge. Usually in a harmless way, but sometimes it is a source of immense friction. For example, our idea of a fling might be short, ending with no strings attached but our flingee might have slightly different ideas about what a summer love means. This kind of misunderstanding is a recipe for hurt, and a common presentation in the counselling office.

If there are rules, there can be violations

These schemas, you see, contain the 'rules' of relationships, both general (in all relationships) and local (in our relationship). For instance, some work conducted in the 80's by a research team at Oxford showed us that married couples often agreed that 'faithfulness', respecting privacy', 'secret keeping' and 'keeping partners informed of schedules' were all rules of a marriage.

The astute armchair psychologist may have identified that where rules exist, so too does the potential for a violation. Maybe we're not having as much sex as we think we should be, or we think our partner is overly-critical of us. Maybe someone is into polyamory. Whatever it is, if it violates our rules, or our expectations of a relationship, we might conclude our relationship is in trouble. Our rules act in the background to influence our current judgements.

These violations become particularly interesting when our relationship 'rules' cross over with relationship types. Most close relationships will draw on different relationship styles at different times. They might be based on communal principles generally, but will occasion cross into a trade relationship (I'll do the dishes if you cook), or one related to authority ranking (when parents tell children to do something). When these kinds of transitions are badly managed, they can become quite problematic. Ever try and tell your partner what to do? You might know what I mean.

Do you believe in destiny? Or do you believe in growth? They aren't the same.

Relationship rules aren't always super specific either. One of the more global schemas people create about romantic relationships was identified by close relationships expert Chip Knee in 1998. Do you believe in serendipity? Or do you believe that we have to work at it? Do we each have a soulmate, or is it our duty to work through the problems we might have? Knee calls these Destiny (soulmates) and Growth (battle through) schemas. We are all settled more in one camp than the other and the two theories or 'rules' have pretty significant impacts on our relationship longevity. People who are more inclined towards Destiny are far more likely to end troubled relationships than those who are more Growth-oriented. Relationship satisfaction differs too. Destiny people are far less satisfied in relationships with more conflict, and Growth people are far less fussed.

This then, comes down very much to culture. How do the inputs to people create their schemas about relationships? From their parents, no doubt. From the media they consume, absolutely. The 'destiny' trope absolutely predominates in our society: that we should not have to change for others, but rather there is someone out there that's perfect for us. Sadly, this is not so much how love works. Evidence suggests that love is a thing you do, before it's a thing you feel. And if you're doing the wrong things, then it doesn't seem likely that you'll get there.

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