For a strong mind, let your heart lead

It's wedding season. The perfume of fresh cut flowers scents the air, lingering as guests arrive to celebrate the highly anticipated event.  As the music plays softly, she floats down the aisle and lovingly exchanges vows with her beloved - revealing the positive impact each has had on the other. As an observer of the couple's courtship, you might silently concur how truly different each has become since falling in love, and wonder why. Only two years ago, the groom’s snarky comments and prickly attitude did not sit well with his friends. Now, his charming sympathetic attitude has earned him a promotion at work. How can love impact personality so profoundly?

In 2001, researchers reached an optimistic conclusion associated with romantic relationships: they are associated with “positive personality change and a decrease in neuroticism.” However, the psychological processes as to why one becomes positive whilst in the throws of a romantic entanglement remain obscured. This year however, a group in Germany parsed out these intriguing processes by following a group of couples over the course of nine months.

The researchers asked two innovative questions.

1.     What is the tendency to interpret ambitious partner and relationship scenarios in a negative way? (also known as the relationship-specific interpretation bias, RIB)

2.     What types of intrapersonal (on one’s own) and interpersonal (on the other’s) effects exist on personality development?

Question 1 Does your thought pattern change as a consequence of being in love?

Previous studies have argued “a romantic relationship places new role demands on the individual, experience strong affective and cognitive changes, thus catalyzing personality development.” In other words,

The new responsibility of being part of a couple, together with strong attachment feelings you have for this person causes a reshaping of who you are.

Since neuroticism (the tendency to see everything negatively) is a direct link to information processing, it was used as a way to gauge whether or not people in love fundamentally thought differently over time. This bias was assessed by giving participants ambiguous situations such as “Your partner has not told you he/she loved you for a while. What do you think about that?” and then asking them to rank three possible explanations from the most to least probable: “We know we love each other without saying it”; “He/She does not love me anymore or is in doubt”; “There has not been an occasion lately.” Notice the choices are positive, negative and neutral. The 245 couples were assessed at the beginning of the study, 3 months, 6 months and 9 months into the relationship.

Answer: YES.

Both men and women showed a significant change in these biased interpretations over the 9 months.  Further, participants who had big drops in their negative thoughts around 6 months also showed a pronounced decline in neuroticism at the end of the study.

Question 2. Does the individual change? Does the individual affect change on the other?

People who are in a negative mood want to be right about their negative opinion.  However, if they begin to be positive, they will search to be right about the positive opinion. This is called the “trait congruency hypothesis.”

Intrapersonal effects change: YES.

Positive interactions with one’s partner changes negative thought patterns by shifting the experience to a pleasant one.  The more positive interaction you receive, the more positive you begin thinking.

Interpersonal effects: NO.

“The development of neuroticism seemed to reflect an intra-individual process that remained unaffected by the partner’s disposition.” In other words, a highly neurotic individual did not benefit from an emotionally stable partner nor did a partner with high neuroticism impair the development.

The change came from within.

The study concludes that neuroticism can be altered, but it takes time. Indeed, since prior relationships had no effect on the change in neuroticism it can be assumed that neuroticism is a trait that continues to decline with experience.

In honor of all those in successful romantic relationships, I raise my proverbial glass to the ability of the brain to use love as a conduit for change. Bravo, love. 

Finn C. & Franz J. Neyer (2014). Recent Decreases in Specific Interpretation Biases Predict Decreases in Neuroticism: Evidence From a Longitudinal Study With Young Adult Couples, Journal of Personality, n/a-n/a. DOI: Finn C, Mitte K, & Neyer FJ (2014). Recent Decreases in Specific Interpretation Biases Predict Decreases in Neuroticism. Evidence From a Longitudinal Study With Young Adult Couples. Journal of personality PMID: 24730422