Happily-Ever-After According to Science

Why do some marriages work and others don’t? Why do some people stay in a bad marriage, while others will leave a relatively good marriage?

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I hated Romeo and Juliet anyway.

Some will say love. Romance. Soul mates. On the more mundane and practical side, people will say shared interests, beliefs and goals.

As a romance writer and reader, you often see the story end at the point where the characters are married and are now expected to live happily-ever-after. Or, maybe this particular trope is one where they’re forced to marry because of plot reasons, but by the end of the story, they confess their love for each other and then live happily-ever-after.

Either way, we end with the characters in love and ready for their happily-ever-after ending.

In the real world, more marriage will end in divorce than be successful. At least in America they will.

Yeah, not very romance-writer of me to mention that, I know. But, if I want to give my characters a believable happily-ever-after, I need to understand what leads to that happily-ever-after. What makes some marriages work?

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No, no, no, no, no!

 

Well, science has an explanation on why some marriages work and some don’t. It’s called Interdependence Theory.

Interdependence Theory states the following.

Rewards – there are rewards from marriage (or any social interaction). These can range from companionship to physical intimacy. Interdependence theory has defined them as the following:

  • Emotional – Positive and negative feelings in a relationship. These are especially important in a close relationship. Ah, here we’re getting to where love comes into play. See, you knew I was a romance writer!
  • Social – Or how you appear to others. Does being seen with a super model make you feel better about yourself? What about with a stripper? What other social repercussions are there from the relationship? Perhaps you have to attend a lot of operas, and you love opera. But what if you hate opera?
  • Instrumental – These rewards are achieved when a partner is proficient at handling tasks. Like mowing the lawn, building the kids a tree fort, or doing the laundry without anyone getting stuck with pink socks (true story).

Costs – there are costs to a relationship as well. Basically, for all of the different types of rewards (emotional, social or instrumental), there is a corresponding cost. So, just like there are emotional, social and instrumental rewards, there are emotional, social, and instrumental costs. Makes sense.

So, DH putting up with my annoying habit of leaving my shoes by the sofa where I kick them off every night would be an example of an instrumental cost my husband has to pay regardless of how many times I’ve promised I’d be better about it. Or going to the annual corporate party for my employer would be a social cost. Sorry honey!

Rewards Minus Costs  Should Be Positive – Yeah, not very romantic, is it? Sounds more like I’m building a profit and loss statement than writing a romance novel.

Yes, I’m sure I’m a romance writer. But science is seldom romantic.

However unpleasant it may sound, research has shown that humans keep a record, whether consciously or not, of the net value of a relationship to us. So, you’re in a “profitable” relationship if the rewards outweigh the costs. But, this still isn’t enough to keep people in a relationship. They have to be making “enough” profit. Kind of like when you invest in your 401(k) account. You only have so much money, so you want to select the investments that will net you the most profit for the time you have them invested.

Comparison / Opportunity Cost – Once someone has tallied up their total relationship rewards and costs, they will either consciously or subconsciously review their other options. Even if they are net positive, in their account isn’t earning as much as they think it should, they are more likely to end the relationship and look for another. This may explain all of the Hollywood break-ups.

 

Okay, so now that we know this, how can we apply the science to making a romance novel earn its happily-ever-after?

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Not the response I’m looking for, though I may have said it about a romance novel or three.

 

I want my happily-ever-afters to be believable. So, here are a couple of ways I can use the Interdependence Theory to make it believable:

1.No Alpha-Holes – A strong male lead could provide a lot of rewards on the instrumental level. He gets stuff done. But even if a heroine loves him, the emotional and social costs of dealing with him are going to be extremely high. Toning him back so he’s still an alpha without being a jerk would help a lot.

2. No Porcelain Dolls – Both characters in the romance have to be active. If either can basically be put on the shelf while the other does all the heavy lifting, you’re going to have a relationship with very high instrumental costs. No matter how much you love someone, if they can’t figure out how to open the refrigerator and get themselves a soda, you’re going to get pretty ticked at them after a while.

3. Opposites Might Not Attract – The whole wallflower with a super outgoing character trope might not end well. If the wallflower really doesn’t like much social interaction, but the extrovert loves it, there is going to be a high social cost to the relationship. Unless, of course, one or the other is the way they are to mask their true personality. The extrovert who actually hates all the parties etc.

 

What do you think? Does interdependence theory hold water in your book? Think it’s bunk? If so why or why not? Any other way that it could be used in writing to give believable happily-ever-afters?

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3 thoughts on “Happily-Ever-After According to Science

  1. Interesting post. I have often thought about why my wife has stayed with me for over 43 years. I refuse to let science spoil the mystery. Looking to 43 more.

    However, you make excellent points for a writer to explore in a romantic novel. The very, very few I have read had characters I could believe.

    Perhaps I am cynical but when the lead lady stubs her toe and the he-man rubs it for her and love blossoms. Ick. But when the lady warrior slays the dragon and saves the world and takes her shield carrier for ever. Then I rejoice.

    I like to think your ladies will be warriors and the shield carriers key to her slaying the story’s dragons, whatever they may be. Let love blossom!

    1. I like to think so! I try hard to make them very active participants. To be directly involved in slaying a thousand-year-old vampire or unmasking the man trying to assassinate the king.

      I just hope I do it well enough, make the romance believable, but most of all, give my readers an enjoyable read.

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