Psychology has much to say on relationships and we (I speak for Americans primarily here) are obsessed with it. Is it hard science? Nope. When it comes to romantic love the heart wants what it wants when it wants it. In other words, love will fuck you up, and it can be a very good or very bad thing depending on luck. 

But is it really luck? How does the heart make decisions without the brain’s input? Put simply, it doesn’t work that way. Your heart is actually the primitive part of your brain responding to ancient biological desires to mate and more modern cognitive needs to belong. It’s a dangerous cocktail that doesn’t seem to work on the same logic as say, planning a budget or plotting how to build a grocery list. So today we’ll tackle just how this cocktail works to reach out to others, and what factors can predict successful relationships as well as those bad ones we all have at some point.

I will talk basics here, not get into abusive relationships heavily. In short an abusive partners (male or female) works the same way a cult or gang leader recruits someone: they romance, command, isolate their intended, and then totally control. All you need to know is that it can happen to anyone, even you, and most of the abused parties do not want to leave because they know the single most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when the victim leaves.

However psychology does have a good explanation to the outside observer why the good girl goes for the biker asshole (not abuse, just the age old “why do girls like the jerks?”). In short: sex. Assholes are great in bed. The same way “crazt” girls are better in bed than nerds (guys, you know the phrase “crazy in the head, crazy in bed,” admit it). But the psychology of relationships goes further than that, because remember half of seeking a relationship is sex-based, the other half is that mental need to belong. 

Psychology can explain why a temperamental relationship with your father can leave you depressed, and why you can get along with a sibling as an adult even if you spent you entire childhood trying to kill one another. As disgusting as it sounds these familiar relationships are the templates we use in romantic relationships and so are deeply involved.

So what can we extract from psychology about relationships? If I had to pick one thing, it is the post-Maslowian concept of the “Belief Attitude and Value Triangle.” You ain’t gonna find that on the web, try looking. It’s one of the few things a very expensive education in psychology teaches you the Internet has yet to appropriate for free distribution.

In short the main things we subconsciously want to analyze in other people are their beliefs, attitudes, and values. How do they compare with ours? The more they match up the more we like someone, and vice versa.

Let’s take an example with John. John’s central beliefs are humanity is good, god is benevolent, religion is false, knowledge is power, and will overcomes luck. His attitudes are optimism, benevolence, giving others a fair shot (but no second chances). His values are family, work, fitting into society (but remaining an individual).

Now if John shares the majority of all three categories with Mary who is of a similar age, you can bet any amount of money Mary is his sister. You will almost never find someone who matches you as well as your sibling. So try to be nice to them.

This is one reason only children tend to be more outgoing. They do not have that built-in buddy connection of a contemporary with a high BAV congruence and so they are more likely to seek out the BAV systems in others. So, for example, if John has a brother he has a template for a close relationship with contemporaries and is more likely to have a few close friends. If John is an only child he is more likely to have lots of friends of varying closeness. This is not 100% true, but factor in how close John is to mom and dad and it becomes almost set in stone. If John is close to a brother, father mother, he will have few friends but very close ones. If he is an only child and not close to his parents, he will be the life of the party. The size of his social circle varies according to how many close primary familiar relationships he has.

Now if John meets Jim and they hare most of two categories, say beliefs and values, they can be friends. The more two categories overlap for each the better friends they are. If Jim and John share 90% of the beliefs and values, they are likely to become best friends even if Jim is a pessimist while John is a realist. If Jim was Jane and John was attracted to Jane (and she he), they would likely have a serious relationship. 

If John and Alan share many points of only their values, they will likely get along as peers in school, associates at work, or in a loose social group as adults. For example Alan could be an atheist, a very serious one, but if they both value hard work and fitting in they will get along as coworkers.

The congruence of matching BAVs determines the closeness in both friendships and dating. This is why we often seek out opposites when we truly want casual sex. A true opposite in the BAV triangle cannot become a healthy relationship. But if someone has casual sex with someone who matches high in the BAV triangle this is how some people can go from fuck-buddies to married.

In your own life feel free to make a list of your own beliefs, attitudes, and values. When you want to get serious about someone romantically have them do the same, see how they line up. I’ll be honest here: a 60% congruence is great, marriage material. Don’t expect to ever find 70% from a non-relative, that’s just how life works.

Back to family, the higher the matching with your siblings, the better you get along. If competitiveness is a major attitude from one of you it does tend to peter off as you grow. But if family is not a high value for a competitive person, that’s the jerk sibling you don’t like, and probably feel is mom or dad’s favorite. Still, if you are both close to your parents you’re usually raised with pretty much the same BAV triangle and so can be friends well throughout adulthood.

Now into writing, the BAV triangle is useful for authors particularly of romances. For example, one eternal question never answered in the Twilight shitsfest is “Why the fuck does Edward Love Bella? She has NO personality!” Edward in reality has no reason to love Bella because she has veritably no beliefs, attitudes, or values. Without knowing the BAV triangle a mature reader subconsciously recognizes that and panned the book. I find it dismaying that so many 40 something “Twi-Moms” got into it, but I guess that helps explain the divorce rate, these women have no clue how love actually works.

So if you’re writing a romantic plot, try to jot down the BAVs for your lovers. If they’re soul mates, go for 70-75% (because things can happen in fiction that do not happen in real life). If it’s a solid love but not true love, go for 65-70%, for an average married couple do 55-65% and if you’re writing the next When Harry Met Sally feel free to go for 50%.

Does the BAV triangle work for non-romantic relationships in fiction? Sometimes, if the familial or friend relationship or vital to the story. Unless you’re writing the next Tuesdays with Morrie you might be wasting your time by overthinking.

The BAV triangle is not a complete personality inventory but a snapshot of the things that make us who we are that are what, and are the things we measure in others (subconsciously most often).

This is a valuable tool primarily for authors of romances and coming-of-age, but really any story where any kind of relationship is presented at the forefront can benefit from a BAV analysis. However, this will help you in your own life. Frankly, try not to seriously date anyone without at least a 50% BAV congruence, it’s just going to end badly. Best of luck!