Is There A Romeo & Juliet Effect? The Link Between Parental Interference And Relationship Quality

"Deny thy father and refuse thy name"

"Deny thy father and refuse thy name"

In 1972, a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology announced scientific support for the so-called “Romeo and Juliet effect." The basic idea was that the more parents try to interfere in a couple’s relationship, the stronger that relationship becomes--just like in Shakespeare's classic story. Given both the sexy name and intuitive appeal of this idea, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that this effect has been cited hundreds of times in academic journals and textbooks. In recent years, however, several scientists (myself included) have grown skeptical of this idea because it just doesn’t seem to fit with what the broader literature on social approval and relationships has reported.

For instance, I conducted a series of three studies published over the last decade showing that when one’s family and friends do not accept or approve of one’s relationship, the health of the partners and the quality of the relationship tend to suffer. Specifically, when people perceive that their romantic relationship is marginalized, not only do they report worse physical and psychological health [1] and less commitment to their relationship [2], but they also have an increased likelihood of breaking up in the next year [3] (see here for a more detailed summary of some of this research). In light of these results, one might reasonably predict the opposite of the Romeo and Juliet effect: when parents don’t approve of a relationship and try to interfere, that relationship is more likely to deteriorate than flourish.

But if this is the case, how do we explain the findings of the 1972 study? Was it just a fluke? A new study just published in the journal Social Psychology attempted a direct replication of the original study in an attempt to see if the findings hold up (Sinclair, Hood & Wright, 2014). As it turns out, since the Romeo and Juliet effect was first reported, no one has studied this idea using the exact same set of measures as the original researchers. In this replication attempt, a sample of 396 adults who were currently involved in a romantic relationship (half married, half dating) completed two surveys about 4 months apart. At Time 1, participants were asked to report on the degree to which their parents approved of and interfered in their relationship (note: parental approval was not included in the original study, but was added here to determine whether it functions the same as parental interference). At Time 2, participants were asked about the quality of their relationship (i.e., how much love and commitment they felt).

What did the replicators find? The more parental approval reported at Time 1, the more love and commitment reported at Time 2. This was true for both dating and married couples. In addition, the more parental interference at Time 1, the less love and commitment reported at Time 2. However, this effect only held for married couples—for dating couples, parental interference was unrelated to future relationship quality.

As you can see, the so-called “Romeo and Juliet effect” did not hold up in a direct replication attempt. In fact, researchers found exactly the opposite of what this effect would predict! In light of this and a growing body of studies finding that parental disapproval is linked to breakup and other poor relationship outcomes, it seems increasingly likely that the original report of the Romeo and Juliet effect may have been a statistical fluke.

This is an excellent reminder that replication is one of the hallmarks of good science and that it is wise not to get too excited about any single finding (no matter how catchy the name or how intuitive it seems) until it has been verified. To learn more about what other recent replication attempts of classic psychological findings have revealed, check out the latest issue of Social Psychology here.

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[1] Lehmiller, J. J. (2012). Perceived marginalization and its association with physical and psychological health. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29, 451-469.

[2] Lehmiller, J. J., & Agnew, C. R. (2006). Marginalized relationships: The impact of social disapproval on romantic relationship commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 40-51.

[3] Lehmiller, J. J., & Agnew, C. R. (2007). Perceived marginalization and the prediction of romantic relationship stability. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 1036-1049.

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