Does parental disapproval lead to love or dissolution? The Romeo and Juliet effect vs. the social network effect

In this post, I assert that two opposing theories about how opinions friends and family hold affect one’s romantic relationship (Romeo and Juliet effect vs. social network effect) can actually coexist. Though there is little empirical support for the Romeo and Juliet effect, current research demonstrates that this effect may exist in certain circumstances.

Parents and children often disagree on what kind of romantic partner the child should have. This scenario is seen in movies. Two young people fall in love, despite their families’ disapproval, and defeat the odds to live happily ever after. Love conquers all, and the audience sympathizes with the young couple due to their overbearing parents, whose disapproval only brings the couple together in the end. However, is this seen in real-life relationships? Or does disapproval end up tearing the couple apart? This leads to two psychological theories addressing these opposite ideas:

The Romeo and Juliet effect has found that parental interference in one’s romantic relationship can lead to increases in love (Driscoll, Davis, & Lipetz, 1972). Driscoll and colleagues (1972) conducted a longitudinal survey of dating/married couples over 6-10 months and discovered that increases in perceived parental interference from Time 1 to Time 2 predicted increases in love of one’s romantic partner.

The social network effect indicates that approval from family and friends leads to positive relationship outcomes, whereas disapproval leads to negative relationship outcomes. In general, research has found that social network approval keeps couples together and leads to positive outcomes, such as increases in intimacy, love, commitment, and relationship quality (see Felmlee, 2001; Sprecher & Felmlee, 1992, for an example). In contrast, social network disapproval is linked to negative relationship outcomes, such as decreased satisfaction and increased risk of infidelity, divorce, and break-up (see Felmlee, 2001; Sprecher & Felmlee, 1992).

Research supports the social network effect. The Romeo and Juliet effect has rarely been replicated since the original study was published. Felmlee (2001) found evidence in her longitudinal study of sating couples that parental disapproval made couples less likely to break-up. Also, Parks, Stan, and Eggert (1983) found that slight to moderate lack of approval from one's social network was linked to higher reported love than neutral opinions or strong disapproval. 

However, even in studies showing slight support for the Romeo and Juliet effect, there is evidence of the negative impact of disapproval. Parks and colleagues (1983) found that social support was positively associated with love and “romantic involvement.” Felmlee (2001) found that many of her participants believed that disapproval, particularly from friends, was a factor in their relationship dissolution. Therefore, it seems that the social network effect wins, and the Romeo and Juliet effect is mostly a myth. Case closed, right?

Not quite. Recent research has found that the Romeo and Juliet effect and the social network effect may coexist in certain circumstances (Sinclair & Ellithorpe, in press). The original story of Romeo and Juliet asserts that these star-crossed lovers defied their families’ disapproval because they were destined to be together. Current research examines whether defiance, disapproval, and destiny are really what brought this couple together (Sinclair & Ellithorpe, in press).

Is Romeo and Juliet effect really about disapproval, defiance, and destiny?

Disapproval: Sinclair and Ellithorpe (in press) conducted a correlational study of daters examining the association between social network opinions, love, and relationship satisfaction. Another study was conducted with single participants in a virtual dating game scenario measuring liking of confederates before and after opinions believed to be from participants’ social networks were given.

The study found that when social network opinions are mixed (e.g., friends approve/family disapproves), the results were similar to when both friends and family approve. The relationship outcomes of love, liking, and satisfaction only became negative when both friends and family disapproved. This suggests that familial disapproval did not bring Romeo and Juliet together, but approval from friends (nanny/friar), helped them stay together.

Defiance: Sinclair and Ellithorpe (in press) found that certain variables, such as reactance, can lessen the impact of social network opinions, particularly disapproval. A correlational study of daters was conducted to examine the association between social network opinions, love, and reactance. Another study was conducted with single participants who read vignettes manipulating social network opinions and then completed scales measuring reactance and commitment.

Independent reactance, rather than defiant reactance, was found to be important in acting as a buffer to social network opinions. The couple’s desire to be independent of social network influence ( independent reactance), rather than doing the opposite of what their parents wanted them to do (defiance), kept them together. Romeo and Juliet were able to disregard the negative opinions of their families in an effort to be independent, rather than rebel and defy their families’ wishes.

Destiny: Sinclair and Ellithorpe (in press) examined how implicit theories of relationships (Knee, 1998) affect how people respond to social network opinions. People high in destiny/low in growth are constantly evaluating their relationship and looking for signs to see if it is meant to be. People high in growth/low in destiny see their relationship as something that takes work to maintain, with problems being avenues for improvement. The study involved daters given a survey measuring social network opinion, implicit theories of relationships, commitment, and investment.

The study found that both types of people have higher commitment/investment when their social network approves. However, when their social network disapproves, those high in growth beliefs, rather than destiny beliefs, are able to maintain their romantic relationship. If Romeo and Juliet were truly star-crossed and high in destiny, they would have ended their relationship and taken their families’ disapproval as a sign that they should not be together.

Based on this research, I believe that both the effects exist, depending on the circumstances. Therefore, the movies may hold some truth, but they are incorrect about why these couples stay together. Often, these couples stay together because of friend approval, a strong desire to make their own choices in life, and a willingness to overcome obstacles. 


Driscoll, R., Davis, K. E., & Lipetz, M. E. (1972). Parental interference and romantic love: The Romeo and Juliet effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology24, 1-10.

Felmlee, D. (2001). No couple is an island. A social network perspective on dyadic stability. Social Forces79, 1259-1287.

Knee, C. R. (1998). Implicit theories of relationships: Assessment and prediction of romantic relationship initiation, coping, and longevity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology74, 360–370.

Parks, M.R., Stan, C.M., & Eggert, L.L. (1983). Romantic involvement and social network involvement. Social Psychology Quarterly46, 116-131.

Sinclair, H. C. & Ellithorpe, C. N. (in press). The new story of Romeo and Juliet. In C. R. Agnew (Ed.) Social Influences on Close Relationships: Beyond the Dyad. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. (Part of the Advances in Personal Relationships series.)

Sprecher, S., & Felmlee, D. (1992). The influence of parents and friends on the quality and stability of romantic relationships: A three-wave longitudinal investigation. Journal of Marriage and the Family54, 888-900.