The principle of least interest and what it means for your relationship.
Recently I encountered a relationship situation that brought to mind the principle of least interest and what it telegraphs about relationships where one partner is far more interested than the other. It’s an old theory, originating in 1938 with a sociologist named Waller. He noted that when one relationship partner is more emotionally invested in the relationship than the other, the less involved partner has more power in the relationship.
Of course, sometimes a relationship starts with one partner being more interested in the relationship than the other (at the beginning, partners often move at different paces in their emotional involvement with one another). More problematic is that situation where one person is really not all that interested in a romantic relationship with the other (or has lost interest), and deep down knows this is unlikely to change. This person is the least interested (LI), and they have the power to define the relationship on their terms. The LI sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally, exploits the most interested (MI), who accepts higher relationship costs to keep the LI from walking away. For example, I once knew a MI person who desired a monogamous relationship. As a condition of staying, their LI partner required they accept a polyamorous relationship. Mongeau and his colleagues (2013) found that in many cases “friends with benefits” relationships often involved a MI partner that accepted the arrangement in the hopes it would become more serious.
The imbalanced MI/LI relationship can last for a while. The LI often doesn’t want to give up the many benefits delivered by the MI. The LI rationalizes by emphasizing that they’ve been honest with the MI and the MI has chosen to accept their relationship terms. Sometimes the LI is truly ambivalent and doesn’t want to cut the MI loose in case they change their mind. Because the LI stays, and there are occasional hints of romance, the MI remains hopeful. They give, sacrifice and compromise themselves. But this is also the MI’s power: Their willingness to take what they can get, when they can get it, and their generosity towards the LI, make it harder for the LI to cut them lose.
Waller (1938) argued that in the long run, relationships like these are usually unhealthy. I agree. The MI eventually feels resentful about being taken for granted and taken advantage of, and hurt that they have to sacrifice and compromise themselves to keep the LI. The LI may feel angry or resentful about being manipulated into staying. They may feel guilty about receiving more relationship benefits than the MI, and about how their lessened interest hurts the MI. Sprecher and her colleagues (2006) found partners in these unequal relationships were less satisfied than couples where both partners were equally invested, and that MI/LI relationships were more likely to end.
I’ve been on both sides of this dynamic and I suppose if I were to offer some tough advice it might be that if you’re the LI, and your lack of interest or ambivalence persists, the right thing to do is to end the relationship so that the most interested can recover and go on to find a more satisfactory relationship. Yes, you can rationalize that it’s the MI’s choice to accept the relationship as you define it. But at some level you probably recognize that perhaps you’re taking advantage because you like the adoration, the “treats,” and having a relationship in your back pocket in case you decide you want it later.
If you’re the MI, you should recognize that your dignity and self-respect are high prices to pay to get the LI to be in a relationship with you; that’s not what healthy relationships are made of. Holding on also keeps you from finding a healthier relationship, where you don’t have to compromise yourself. You might also think about whether it’s unfair of you to make it so hard for the LI to leave and whether you’re manipulating to get them to stay. When it’s increasingly obvious that the odds of it turning into what you want it to be aren’t in your favor, it’s really best to cut your losses and move on. Then of course, there’s always therapy. If you seem to have a pattern of being the MI in your relationships, you may need to explore why you end up in relationships with reluctant or unavailable partners and are prone to this type of imbalanced relationship.
Stop Waiting For Love To Find You – Go Out And Find It For Yourself
You shouldn’t be listening to those people who keep on telling you to “stay single until you meet a guy who is like this” or “never settle for a partner who can’t love you in this manner.”
That’s terrible advice and you should never follow it.
The thing about dating in this modern age is that you’re always taught to have a lot of boundaries. You are always encouraged to follow a very specific set of rules. You are told to stop going out and dating people because you shouldn’t be settling for the wrong people anyway. You’re told that you should just give up on the people who you feel like you’re only settling for.
And yes, it’s true when they say that you should never really settle for someone you’re truly not meant to be with. However, you shouldn’t be so deluded to think that “the one” is out there and is just going to fall into your lap someday. That’s definitely not how love works. And that’s definitely how you’re going to find happiness in love with a person.
Admittedly, there is some beauty behind the concept of saving yourself for the one person who you know you’re going to be spending the rest of your life with. There’s something so romantic about just waiting and being patient until the one that you’re meant to be with comes along and sweeps you off your feet. But it’s also such a nonsensical way to go about finding love in your life. It’s very constraining, limiting, and shackling.
How do you expect to find the right person for you unless you actually go around and date different people? How do you expect to know how to go about love unless you experience it for yourself and learn from your mistakes? How do you expect to know what it is you’re looking for in love unless you go out and find out what you don’t like in relationships?
There is no possible way for you to figure out what you want out of relationships unless you go out and experience real relationships for yourself. You have to understand how you would work in a relationship and that requires on-hand experience. Sometimes, you need to walk, stumble, and fall a few times before you can actually get the hang of things.
A relationship isn’t something that you just fall into and you expect to know how to do everything properly right away. You aren’t always going to know what to do. In fact, a lot of the time, you’re always going to have to figure things out as you go along. It’s always a learning process. And how can you expect to learn how to make relationships last if you just keep on “staying single” until you meet the one? How do you know what “the one” is going to look like unless you know what all the wrong ones look like?
Never be afraid to fail in a relationship. Failure is not something that should cripple you and keep you down. Just because you are afraid of failing in a relationship doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be getting in relationships altogether. You shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes because these can all be taken as learning experiences. You shouldn’t be afraid of screwing up in a relationship because these have valuable lessons that you can use for yourself in any future relationships.
Love is not a perfect sensation. And it doesn’t require perfection from you either. Love’s imperfection is also what makes it so beautiful. Love’s imperfection is what makes it feel more real.
Falling in love doesn’t mean that you are going to be destined for a smooth walk in the park in a life of perpetual happiness. Even in a relationship with true love, it’s going to be filled with a lot of potholes, broken paths, and broken hearts. You aren’t always going to have an easy sail. But it’s still important that you learn the value of fighting on. It’s still important that you understand the value of endurance, persistence, and resilience in the midst of adversity.
And these are all things that you can learn if you are brave enough to go out and date. You have to stop waiting for love to just fall into your lap. You have to go out and take it for yourself. You have to make sure that when it’s time for you to fall in love, you are ready to do so.
Sometimes, Being In Love Is Two People Being Weird Together
As you make your way through life, you are going to encounter a lot of different kinds of people. There are going to be some individuals who will cause you pain and make you cry. You’re going to meet people who will make you so happy that you would be smiling from ear to ear whenever the two of you are together. There are going to be sure people who will make you laugh until your insides split. But even though you meet so many different kinds of people, you would rarely find someone who truly understands you.
As human beings, we all have this innate feeling to be accepted and desired by the people around us. We always want to be loved and adored. It’s as if we have this natural desire just to gain the good favor of the people we meet every day. But on a more fundamental level, we are always looking to be understood. We still want to make sure that people get why we exist and why we do what we do. Somehow, feeling understood almost feels like your existence is being validated. And feeling appreciated is a huge aspect of being loved by someone.
Most of the people that you’re going to encounter in your everyday life aren’t going to understand just what it is you’re looking for. A lot of the individuals that you consistently interact with aren’t going to get what you want out of life and what inspires you. Very few people are going to truly empathize with you whenever you’re going through the struggles and trials that you go through. The person who best understands you is going to be yourself. And it can feel lonely and overwhelming for a lot of people.
To make matters worse, a lot of people that you’re going to meet might even tell you that certain aspects of your life need to change. A lot of people are going to make you feel bad for liking a particular thing or being a certain way. You’re going to encounter plenty of individuals who will criticize and make fun of you. There are plenty of people who are looking to bring you down even though you only have the best and purest intentions. That’s just a fact of life. In your world wherein you are the protagonist, you are going to have specific antagonists who will look to contradict your every move.
And sometimes, it can get exhausting having to deal with these people. You know that you can’t just act on your own accord without regard for those around you. You understand that you have an individual responsibility to society. For you to be a functional member of the world, you need to adhere to certain social norms and expectations. That’s why you long for acceptance. You want to be liked because you think that the more people who are on your side, the better. You don’t want to be looking back on your life and see what you’ve been alone every step of the way. However, it can also be tiring having to subject yourself to the standards and expectations of other people.
This is where falling in love comes in. Because once you find that one particular person who is going to be able to bring a sense of joy, happiness, fulfillment, and excitement into your life on a level that no one else can, it’s going to be different. Sure, you might be having a hard time having to subject yourself to the corrupt and negative energy of others. You might be feeling overwhelmed. But with the person you love, you should always feel welcome to be your true and authentic self.
Moreover, you are always made to feel like you can be your “weird” and “off-putting” self because you know that you are never going to be judged. In love, there is no judgment. In love, there is no harsh criticism. There is always going to be understanding and patience.
When you fall in love with someone, you don’t have to put on a mask. You don’t have to hide behind any curtains or facades. You aren’t afraid of being judged or being called weird. When you fall in love, you know that there is someone who is always going to make you feel accepted no matter what you do or what you say. When you have someone who loves you, it’s going to be like nothing else you could have ever imagined. It will be like having an extended version of yourself just giving you the affirmation and validation that you crave from everyone else. Somehow, being in love makes your existence feel more valid.
Soulmate Decisions: Dealing with Love and Hate
Rather than a pros and cons checklist, feelings can resolve relationship issues.
When making a decision about love, despite the value of a pros and cons checklist, and even the weighted average, feelings can often be the deciding factor. However, in the world of love, the person whom you think is your soulmate — because he or she appears to meet all criteria on your “must have” list –there may be a downside. If the perfect person happens to be married, that person should immediately move into the negative category.
Those playing with “married already” fire, probably anticipated negative consequences, but tended to bury them. However, if you were caught unaware, you risk being consumed by hate, which can impact your ability to love again.
“The results showed that people who shared similar values and interests with the target persons were more likely to experience stronger love. Additionally, stronger feelings of love were associated with greater hate after the relationship was broken. . . . . If one loves someone deeply and sometimes hates that person, the feeling of love may still be dominant in the context of betrayal. However, if one does not love that person, hate will be a much stronger feeling than love.”
What does this mean in terms of your own relationship? If you are feeling stressed, anxious or unsure of your relationship, the most important question to ask yourself is this: In my heart of hearts, do I believe that he or she is the one for me? To evaluate the answers try these exercises:
- Write out the five qualities about the other person that helped you to fall in love. Was it kindness, empathy, the ability to listen, generosity of spirit, honesty?
- Write down, and describe in detail, at least two experiences that brought the two of you joy.
- Write out your concerns from simple annoyances to self-destructive tendencies. If your partner annoys you because of sloppiness, that’s a workable issue. If you’re concerned about your partner’s alcohol or drug habit — that could push you over the edge. However, if you sense betrayal, that could be the deal-breaker.
After giving some thought to your answers, ask yourself if this person is “the one” or just the one for now? If your answer is “I’m not sure,” then be careful about promises or commitments. However, I often think of the words of the late Dr. Leo Buscaglia, author of Love. He said that if we are waiting for the one and only, we will wait forever.
“There is no right person. We become the right person!” Leo Buscaglia Quotes
Perhaps the two of you are going through a rough patch. As such, review what you love about the other person in your life. Make time to talk honestly about your differences or the stressors that are troubling you. Ask yourself what it is that is making you doubt the relationship. If the issues are relatively simple to fix, taking time together and talking honestly and calmly can bring about a thoughtful resolution.
The politics problem: Many relationships are hitting roadblocks today because of politics. Here are some tips on how to handle the situation from Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D., Help — I’m in Love with a Trump Supporter in PsychologyToday.com. Gillihan is a clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania.
A therapy solution: However, if you are in a stuck place, it can be wise to see a therapist who can work with you on issues leading to a resolution of differences or peaceful ending of the relationship. A clean break with no recriminations can help clear the path to love again. Leaving when filled with anger or hate will deter you from finding a new love. A better option might be to make a sincere effort to find your way back to the day when you and your partner believed that you were both touched by the same star.