Love Games: How We Sabotage Relationships

A new study used simulated relationships to offer new insight into real romance—showing how certain personality traits can sabotage healthy bonds.

By Sarah Kliff


Updated: 4:15 p.m. CT Aug 15, 2007

Aug. 15, 2007 - Your boyfriend’s cell phone starts ringing and the name of his ex flashes on the screen. As he heads to the other room to take the call, do you get angry, deciding that your boyfriend is fanning old flames? Or hardly blink, assuming that the call indicates that he ends relationships without burning bridges? Do you hold a grudge for the next few days or move on?

Your attitude toward situations like these—whether you tend to get jealous or stay cool—largely determines how you make decisions in a romantic context and how well you’re able to bond with a partner, according to a study published recently in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Amanda Vicary, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Illinois, had 559 participants engage in a simulated relationship online, repeatedly interacting with a virtual love interest. She found that it’s not as much the romantic cards you’re dealt that matter but how you play them. Those with personalities that were prone to anxiety or intimacy avoidance were more likely to push the liaison in a negative direction, and they wound up less satisfied overall.

Previous studies looked at individual situations in a relationship, such as whether a participant would get anxious if his girlfriend did not call all day. While these studies delved into how different personalities react in specific romantic scenarios, they were not good representations of how a relationship works over time, where each interaction has an impact on the next, according to Vicary. When study participants engage in a single scenario, they don’t need to consider how their actions will play out in the future. Vicary wanted to develop a study that was a better model, where each interaction is part of an ongoing sequence of events that has the potential to alter the relationship’s course. “If you knew there was more to come, we thought that it would change how you act,” says Vicary. “It would be more like a real relationship.”

To better simulate real-life romantic situations, Vicary employed an unconventional study tool: “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, a young-adult series that allows readers to make critical plot decisions—will the main character fight off the zombies on her own, for example, or run for help? Vicary adapted the book’s interactive formula to create a “Choose Your Own Relationship” narrative, where study participants could make decisions about how to interact with their partner—would they break off the relationship when it starts getting serious or sit down and talk about it? Support the boyfriend when his family’s dog dies, or expect him to man up and quit whining?

Vicary found that answers to those questions largely depended on the personality traits of the individual making them. Before participants began “dating” their virtual partner, she had them complete a questionnaire designed to measure their levels of avoidance and anxiety. Avoidant individuals are less likely to form close relationships or disclose their emotions, making it difficult for their partners to know what they’re thinking or feeling. Those who score highly on the anxiety dimension tend to have difficulty trusting their partners and become jealous easily, which can often drive the person they’re trying to get close to further away.

She found that those who ranked highly on those two traits were more likely to make the “wrong” relationship decisions—to start snooping through their boyfriend’s text messages, for example, or assume that their girlfriend’s late phone call means she’s been seeing someone else. “The people who made worse choices ended up less satisfied when reacting to the exact same situations [than those who made the right decisions],” says Vicary. “It indicates that they’re getting something wrong in the relationship.”

The results of this study are part of a larger body of research on attachment theory, a psychological model of how individuals create and sustain affectionate relationships. “All the way through life, when we’re frightened, the natural tendency is to seek support and help from some attachment figure,” says Phil Shaver, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. Psychologists first used attachment theory to study how infants interact with adult caregivers. In the 1980s, they began to see that the same tendencies are amplified in romantic relations where, says Shaver, “you’re getting closer to the person’s vulnerabilities.”

Attachment theory postulates that an individual’s anxiety and avoidance levels largely depend on the outcomes of previous social interactions. “Most of the variance [in those levels] is due to how we’ve been treated,” says Shaver. “All of us are carrying around thousands of interactions. Either we could count on the people close to us and as a result are stable and open, or we’re carrying around various kinds of injuries from interactions that were not supportive.”

How much can a virtual simulation of romance really tell us about the real thing? This research gets closer to modeling a relationship by encouraging participants to think about future interactions with their partner. But it’s not exactly true love. “Reading a scenario is not the same as standing next to your partner at a party,” says Vicary. For those who want to give simulated romance a whirl, the study is still online at



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