Wobbly Balance, Shaky Love Life?

In the growing field of embodied cognition, we’re finally understanding the link between our physical and mental states. (Photo: Getty Images)

We like to think that the way we feel about our relationships is based on how well we interact with our significant others. When you’re loving, supportive, and respectful of each other, you typically feel good about your relationship.

But new research has found there may be another, somewhat bizarre factor in the way you view your relationship: Your physical stability.

A new series of studies published in the journal Psychological Science found that when people were placed in physically unstable situations, they were more likely to view their relationships as unstable. The findings are part of a growing body of research known as embodied cognition, which finds links between our physiology and our feelings.

For the research, scientists conducted a series of studies with a total of 350 participants. The first split volunteers into two groups — one that sat at workstations that had slightly wobbly chairs and desks, and the other that sat at stable workstations. All were asked to complete questionnaires about their love lives and how satisfied they felt about them.

Researchers discovered that participants who were seated at the wobbly workstations were more likely to view their relationships as wobbly as well.

For the next study, researchers asked volunteers to answer questions about their relationships in front of a computer screen, and half were asked to do it while standing on one leg. They were also asked to write a note to their significant others, describing how they felt about them at that moment.

The group standing on one leg overwhelmingly rated their relationships as more unstable and less likely to last — and wrote notes that focused more on negative factors in their relationship.

The final study had some participants sit on an inflatable seat cushion that hid a wobbly balancing disk while answering questions about their relationship and sending an e-card. Those that were on the wobbly seat reported feeling more unstable about their relationship.

“Our physical experiences have the potential to impact our thoughts and feelings about our close relationships,” lead study author Amanda Forest, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, explains to Yahoo Health. “Even though physical instability seems unrelated, it may impact us.”

Forest says the correlation between physical instability and how we view relationships likely begins to develop when we’re young. For example, being held or swaddled as a child may have given you feelings of relationship security, while being rough-handled by a caregiver may have made you feel insecure. “Over time, a relationship can occur between the physical and emotional state,” Forest explains. And that’s the crux of embodied cognition. 

While Forest’s research found a link between physical instability and unstable feelings, the reverse has also been found to be true. One study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2013 discovered that people felt warmer toward other people when they held warm objects.

But embodied cognition doesn’t just apply to relationships.

“There are lots of different angles that people are taking with embodied cognition,” Lawrence Shapiro, PhD, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied embodied cognition, tells Yahoo Health.

He points to research in the field that has found that smiling can give you a brighter outlook on the world, while frowning can make you feel gloomier. People carrying heavier backpackers have also been found to view hills as steeper than when they carried lighter backpacks.

These physical-mental associations have the ability to impact even our work lives.

A series of studies published in the journal American Psychological Associationdiscovered that right- and left-handed people tend to form more positive associations with the side of their dominant hand. In one study, right-handed participants were more likely to rate job candidates who were listed in a right column more favorably than those who were listed in a left column — even though they all had similar qualifications. The reverse was true for left-handers.

Shapiro says it’s important to know that we have these biases that we’re not aware of: “Once we learn about these biases, it’s easier to step back and reflect back on why we might be perceiving a situation in a way that we are.”

So, if you’re suddenly feeling uncertain about your relationship, take a moment to view your surroundings. If you’re sitting on a wobbly chair, it might be time to move…and reach for a warm mug of coffee.

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