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Why We Want What We Can’t Have
Forbidden relationships can take many forms; parents may forbid their children from engaging with certain friends or significant others, friends or family members may disapprove of same sex or interracial relationships, or we may fall in love with a coworker, supervisor, or someone who is already committed to a serious relationship. The obstacles to these relationships may be explicit or implied, but these obstacles may actually serve to strengthen our forbidden relationships.
When we were in high school my friend Jayda* met her boyfriend Ty at work. He was more than ten years older than she was and her parents immediately forbid Jayda from seeing him further. Jayda (of course) continued to see him secretly, and fell in love with him. Soon they got married; eventually they also divorced. By forbidding their relationship Jayda’s parents may have unintentionally caused Jayda’s feelings to deepen and their banned relationship to progress. How does forbidding relationships make those relationships stronger?
Cognitive Dissonance Theory and Effort
Before Jayda’s parents prevented her from seeing Ty, it was easy for them to get together. They would go out after Jayda got out of school or after they finished working together. After her parents forbid them to see one another, they had to work harder to get together. They fabricated excuses for her parents and met at distant destinations where they wouldn’t be caught. Their time together was restricted and so they valued it more. Cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957) predicts that exerting more effort to achieve a goal will lead to valuing the achievement of that goal more so than if very little effort were necessary to achieve it (see Aronson and Mills, 1959). Because Jayda had to work harder to see Ty, she began to perceive that their relationship was worth the extra effort, more so than she may have if her parents had never prevented her from seeing him.
As members of a very individualistic society, Americans do not like to be told what to do or how to feel. When others try to influence our behaviors or opinions, we often respond with “psychological reactance” or the tendency to “react against treats to their freedom by asserting themselves” (Kassin et al., 2011, p. 233). This tendency is so strong that when someone explicitly tries to influence our opinions in one direction, we will even change our attitudes in a direction opposite to our original feelings (Heller et al., 1973). When Jayda’s parents forbid her from seeing Ty, she was forced to defend her feelings for him and her commitment to their relationship, and through this defense, her feelings for him actually became stronger. Similarly, when parents prohibit friendships, adolescents actually spend more time with those forbidden friends and may engage in more delinquent behaviors as well (Keijsers et al., 2011).
Secrecy Increases Intimacy
Prohibiting friendships or relationships often forces us to keep those relationships a secret in order to continue them. Research shows that sharing secrets increases intimacy and feelings of liking, even among strangers (Aron et al., 1997). Sharing secrets can also enhance one’s commitment to a relationships and facilitate the development of a couple’s sense of “we” or “us” (Richardson, 1988). Also, because forbidden relationships take place out of view of most friends and family, they are not “socially tested” (p. 217) and therefore may be idealized.
What to Do if You Witness an Inappropriate Relationship
Although forbidden relationships may be strengthened over the short term, over the long term relationships which are supported by friends and family members are happier and more likely to endure (Sinclair et al., 2014). Researchers recommend explaining the reasons for opposition to a relationship in a supportive way and allowing individuals to retain their autonomy by not forcing them to give up their relationships (Keijsers et al., 2011). Having supportive family and friends who express their concerns about a bad relationship may help individuals who are interested in ending their relationships to accomplish that difficult task (Copp et al., 2015).
*All names have been changed.
Portions of this post were taken from The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships. Copyright 2015 Madeleine A. Fugère.
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