Seven ways psychologists think about relationships that you can hack to better your own

by Dorian Minors

June 3, 2013

Analects  |  Newsletter


The psychology behind human relationships is a vast topic. Within that, there are a whole bunch of theories that psychologists love to argue over. In this article, we give you seven of the most supported theories so you can put them to work on your relationships.


This is an article from our predecessor, The Dirt Psychology.

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Psychologists are an argumentative bunch. A lot of ‘em love to settle into a particular theory, do some studies to support it, then say ‘this is it, everyone, we beat psychology, we should just keep studying this forever’. I imagine a bunch of you have done psych minors in college or uni, or maybe some intro stuff elsewhere and one of the first things you come across is the apparent ‘nature vs nurture’ debate. It’s like people still think it’s one or the other, when it’s very clearly both to varying extents. That’s a classic example of what I’m talking about. Well, the same is true of social psychology. So, going into this it’s important to note that each theory has it’s merit and a bunch of empirical support. However, they probably don’t account for everything and each needs to be considered in light of the others. That said, each of these seven theories can be used by you to master your social relationships. These are the ideas The Dirt Psychology explores in every article. 1. Evolution The first would be the evolutionary approach. The idea here is that humans are creatures primarily of instinct. These instincts have wide-ranging influences on our behaviour. In relationships this means that much of behaviour is driven by our need for social interaction; to find and hold onto a mate; to make babies; to negotiate for resources; and to create and maintain social groups with all the conflict management and power struggles that can entail. These drives are deep within us and hard to identify readily but often have a hand in everything we do. For example, Psychologists theorise that emotions evolved as motivating mechanisms. They push us to resolve issues at our most primal level. Loneliness makes us create groups and build social networks. Love motivates sex and baby making along with the requisite partner finding to support that act. It also motivates the raising of children. Jealousy signals a threatened relationship and makes us work harder to keep those we care about close. Guilt drives us to repair relationships that we’ve damaged, be it by lying or cheating, hurting or some other thing. And shame, well, shame tells us that we’re not acceptable to others and is supposed to motivate atonement, to get us back on track to where people expect us to be. Evolutionary approaches provide the background noise to our actions, the deepest level of our motivations. There is a catch though. While evolutionary theories provide a nice framework from which to consider why humans act the way they do based on our evolutionary history, it can only ever be theoretical. Hard to get Johnny Caveman in for a psychometric test battery, you see. 2. Attachment Attachment theory is something we talk about elsewhere, so we’ll keep it brief here, but basically it’s the idea that the love we’re shown as a child translates into our expectations of love as we grow up. If we’re given the support we need as a baby, we expect others to treat us right and treat others right as a result. If we aren’t given enough we can be too clingy, anxious that people don’t love us enough. Or the other extreme, completely cold and independent shunning others because they do more hurt than good. 3. Social Exchange Social exchange theories actually come to psychology from economists (so you can guess where this is going). It’s all about economic models of relationships; the rewards we get for the costs we put in. The behaviourist psychologists of the 1950s really liked this, telling us that babies and children only love their parents because parents give them things. Obviously this kind of thinking can be dangerous and there is much more to it, but we are motivated to some degree by what others can do for us (think Equality Matching or Market Pricing relationships). It’s a rational approach and it’s good in some cases. Think of the times we feel hard done by in a relationship; I’m always the designated driver, these guys never do stuff for me; I cleaned the whole house and they just sit on their ass. In 2000, two psychologists by the name of Cosmides and Toonby came up with the idea of the ‘cheater detection’ mechanism where we all come into the world with the ability to recognise our being exploited and our emotions go into overdrive motivating us to make a change (see how the theories start to tie together?). 4. Social Cognitive Social cognitive theories concentrate on how our experiences, memories and beliefs create mental models of how the world should work. You know that a library should be quiet and that’s where you get books. You know that a party means music and dancing (or maybe not, maybe it’s something else for you!). These are called schemas and is again, one of the most prevalent theories of the mind. Our schemas guide almost every single thing we do. Our expectations of the world drive our actions significantly and when our expectations are violated, all hell breaks loose. 5. Social Roles Role theories are newer, but still quite interesting. Almost an offshoot of social cognitive theories in that we build ideas of what roles people should have; women are mothers, wives, sisters, lawyers. These roles are often given to us by society  (either our experiences within or our culture) and come with their own expectations which drive us to achieve them. For example (while we’re stereotyping women) in 1999, a psychologist named Leslie Brody found that many western families expected women to do the ‘emotion work’, keep the family happy and mop up the tears, whereas the men were the power broker. Obviously this has probably changed, but certainly not in all families and we can see how society influences this kind of role theory. 6. Stages Stage theories describe typical ‘patterns’ of behaviour and thinking that move sequentially from one to the next. These theories make broad generalisations about what people do in the early stages, middle stages and the end of relationships. A good example would be the five stages of grief from denial to anger to bargaining then depression and acceptance (although the theorist responsible for that gem doesn’t like the way we use it). Basically stage theories are a step by step guide to how people act. The most important thing to note here is that often, people aren’t in step with one another and this can cause obvious problems (if one is in the ‘let’s get married’ stage and the other isn’t for example; or if someone thinks you’re friends, and you’re not quite so inclined). 7. Our wants vs their wants Dialectical theory is all about how people manage the pushes and pulls in a relationship. The easiest and most common example of one of these is the ‘connectedness’ conflict. We want to be with our partners, but we also want our freedom. We want to share and be involved in each others lives but we don’t want someone to hover over us. How the two people manage spending time together without smothering each other or pulling away too much is what this dialectical theory describes. Obviously the complications arise when two people have different expectations of what a relationship involves, the conflict can become hard to manage. This doesn’t cover all of them, but it covers the most prominent. And as you can see, relationships are pretty freekin’ complicated. Consider as well, that not only can we think about relationships in these seven ways, but with countless combinations of each. My advice to you? Stick around the website, ‘cause this is what I love. Disentangling these complicated permutations of scientific theory into little nuggets you can use in your day to day life. For more little hacks for your relationships, check out our tips on how to make fights in your relationship a win, or maybe you’d prefer to just never be mad againGiving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

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