How your parents affect your romantic future

In the modern West, most of us don't put a lot of stock in the idea that our parents should have a significant role in determining our romantic prospects. Our decisions are our own, and although "meeting the parents" is a semi-formal rite of passage for most relationships, we like to think we're pretty independent and able to make our own free choices about love and marriage.

But is the science on our side?

Divorce and the desire for parental approval

One of the most significant ways our parents can influence our romantic relationships, whether for good or ill, is by the pattern of their own.

We know that the children of divorced or single parents are generally more cautious about marriage, and less likely to expect to get married (although if they do marry, they're likely to do so at younger ages, which is – or at least used to be – associated with lower educational prospects that are linked to parental divorce). Sons of divorced parents are less likely overall to get married, and lots of studies have found that children of divorce are more likely to end up getting divorced themselves, although there's good reason to think that it's not parental divorce but rather parental conflict that drives this.

Whilst marriage is hardly the only kind of long-term relationship, there's a lot of research suggesting our parents' own romantic connections have a significant impact on ours. This is pretty intuitive: our parents' relationship is typically the first model we have for romantic partnerships, and we learn from them how to conduct ourselves in love. All of which is to say: we are a little less free than we think.

But there's more. Even for those of us whose parents are happy and together, it turns out that their thoughts on our own romantic choices are pretty influential. Parental approval of a romantic relationship is correlated with lower levels of distress in that relationship – that is, if our parents (and our partners' parents) are happy with our choice, we're likely to be happier with it too.

This doesn't mean that parental disapproval is a death knell for romance: sometimes, relationships can strengthen in the face of adversity. We can't even say with certainty that parental dis/approval is the causal factor here: one alternative explanation is that our parents are more likely to disapprove of relationships that seem to make us unhappy, and in this case our partner would be the factor causing our relationship distress.

Nonetheless, choosing a partner who's likely to get on with our parents (and indeed our friends) is almost certainly a good thing for long-term relationship success, especially if you're a woman: the stronger and more supportive your network of close family and friends, the happier you're likely to be.

Arranged marriage

So would you trust your parents to choose a match for you? What about the rest of the world, in which parental or community matchmaking is standard practice? 

To start with, we know that parents think about their own romantic prospects and their children's romantic prospects very differently. For themselves, they're likely to choose partners they think are good-looking. For their children, they're likely to choose partners who have a similar family and religious background. Romance and sexual attraction are, it seems, a privilege reserved for those who pick their own mates – yet we know that sexual attraction is very important in establishing romantic compatibility.

Despite that, in India (where 90% of marriages are arranged), there is virtually no divorce. Unfortunately, we can't disentangle these statistics from each other: the social pressures that make couples agree to arranged marriages are the same social pressures that keep them together, so low rates of divorce are to be expected. A much better guide is marital satisfaction: are people in arranged marriages, in which their parents and relatives select their partner, more or less happy than those in 'love marriages'? 

The research is surprisingly equivocal. One 1988 study found that Indian arranged marriages were happier than both Indian love marriages and American companionate (friendship and love-based) marriages, but a similar study in China found the complete opposite – that women in love marriages were consistently happier than those in arranged ones, even controlling for factors like cultural background.

So whilst the jury's out on just how involved your parents should be in your relationship for maximum happiness, one thing is clear: they have a powerful effect, whether you're conscious of it or not.