It’s sometimes tricky to know what to do in dating and relationships. There are misunderstandings, uncertainties, discussions, disagreements, painful compromises and so on. You find yourself in a state of not-knowing and turn to Google for answers or worse, your friends and family. However well-meaning they are, they are not very often your best source of advice.
This blog though is about the other kind of advice, the so-called ‘professional’ relationship advice.
I am often asked questions about relationships in the media “how to tell whether someone is cheating on you?”, “what are the signs someone is in love with you?” ,“when should you leave your partner?”. They are relevant and good questions, but I answer them from a ‘generic’ point of view, which may be useful at a top level of understanding, but we must remember that each person is different and each circumstance is different, and so we professionals, cannot specifically advise what people should or shouldn’t do.
Social psychology vs. individual differences
Broadly speaking, there are two lines of enquiry in psychology: what makes us similar and what make us different from one another. Social psychology versus individual differences.
There are a myriad of research papers that have considered human similarity. For example, why we fall in love, fight or have a tendency to form groups and hate rejection. And on the other hand, tonnes of research on why we are different, for example, differences in personality characteristics; some people are shy, some are not, why is that? Some people save, others spend, some are party animals while others are homebodies etc.
“Treat them mean, keep them keen”
So when you come across relationship advice, you need to think about whether it’s coming from a similarity social psychology or individual differences perspective. For example, take the advice, ‘treat them mean to keep them keen’. It’s terrible advice in my opinion, but it makes a good example of my point.
This advice possibly refers to a dynamic that starts when our attachment system is activated. We all have an attachment system. It’s an internal system that functions as a warning sign when we are in danger and it gets activated if we feel our ‘secure base’, usually a close figure, such as a romantic partner, is somehow unavailable.
It can also get activated when our attachment ‘person’ acts in ways that make us feel insecure. When the attachment system is activated, we usually feel uncomfortable, panicked or overwhelmed and we seek out our secure base person. If you get emotionally close to someone, typically in a dating relationship or marriage, you are likely to trigger the attachment system in your partner and you become their secure base person.
If you then act in ways such as, being distanced (or ‘mean’) it will activate anxiety in the other person, and they will behave in ways that look ‘keen’. So from a social psychology perspective this makes sense, do things to activate the attachment system and then your relationship forms. The person has ‘attached themselves’ to you. Ideally you want to be each other’s attachment figures.
Consider individual differences
However, from an individual differences perspective, we have different attachment styles. Some people have a secure attachment style and others have an anxious or avoidant attachment style. If you then ‘treat them mean to keep them keen’ you risk disastrous outcomes, especially if you are treating someone with an anxious attachment style ‘mean’.
This often leads to unnecessary emotional escalations, drama, gas lighting and what we call hyper-activating strategies. My personal opinion on this piece of advice is, it’s not useful and can do more harm than good – don’t do it, or at the very least reframe ‘mean’ as ‘playful flirtations’.
However, it may work if you both have a secure attachment style. Given that around 60% of the population are considered to have a secure attachment style, that advice will not be relevant to the remaining 40%, which is still a significant proportion of people. And hence redundant for many.
This is just a little reminder to think about any relationship advice you come across. Apply a little critical thinking, and consider to what degree it applies to your specific situation.
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