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Is behaviour contagious? Can couples “catch” cutey-pie, or conversely “spread” sarcasm, the way they might catch and spread a cold?
In short, yes. Behaviour is viral. Scientists have long studied a phenomenon called mass psychogenic illness: you get sick by watching someone else be sick. While created at an entirely unconscious level, the symptoms are, nonetheless, very real.
Your emotions and behaviours are similarly susceptible to contagion. Here’s how it breaks down:
What we feel affects others. One researcher described humans as “walking mood conductors.” In fact, we have the power to spread sunshine, or rain, without saying a single word. Indeed, a study conducted at the University of Hawaii found that mood was most effectively communicated non-verbally. Our emotions are energized—both positively and negatively—and they can spark similar feelings in others.
We are anatomically wired to mimic the actions of others. Nothing you can do about it. It’s in your DNA. What’s at work is something called physiologic mimickry. If you are watching Venus Williams swing her arm in an awesome forehand, the neurons in your arm will fire in sympathy.
Yup, there’s a whole lot of monkey-see monkey-do happening up there in that grey matter. Don’t believe me? Watch facial expressions as people interact. We mirror what we see in others’ faces.
So what does all this mean for your relationship?
Well, you don’t have a lot of control over what’s happening to you, and your partner, biologically, but you do have control over whom you allow to infect you. It’s really an issue of infection selection (as one astute medical writer put it).
Read on for tips on how to prevent negative friends from influencing a romantic relationship >
So how can you prevent negative friends from "infecting" your romantic relationship?
Choose your friends wisely. I know, it’s tough to find couple friends—a pair that you like as much together as apart. But try to cultivate friendships with couples you could see yourself emulating. Seek out role models, or at the very least social simpatico.
Divide and conquer. If you don’t like the way he disparages her, or she dismisses him, see them separately. Relating to this duo as individuals, rather than as a couple, may be better for the health of your own relationship.
And if you can’t avoid contact with a toxic couple (there’s no getting around the neighbourhood block party or the holidays with your black-sheep brother and his paramour-du-jour)?
Take some extra vitamin C. Avoid adopting their moods and actions by fortifying your own dynamic. How? Be aware. Keep checking your emotional and behavioural pulse. And if you find yourself, or your partner, mimicking an unwanted behaviour, stop it in its tracks with a secret word, or wink.
Join relationship columnist Liza Finlay each week as she dishes on ways to keep you and your partner close through the rocky terrain that is marriage with kids.
Do you have an issue you'd like Liza to explore in a future column? Drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave your comment below.