Why Impulsive Couples Tend to Be Happy

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There’s a certain type of frequently stereotyped couple that’s, well, a little crazy. They’re the ones who will pack up on a whim and move to a different city, who will adopt a pet on a moment’s notice, and who seem to always be planning a zany vacation.

Such couples tend to have members with high levels of impulsiveness — which, yes, is a psychological construct that can be measured. And as a new paper from University at Buffalo researchers published in the Journal of Research in Personality explains, there are some provocative questions surrounding couples with high levels of impulsivity. Perhaps most important: If both members of the pair are impulsive, is that likely to lead to a good relationship or a bad one?

There’s mixed evidence on this, explains the team led by Dr. Jaye L. Derrick (now a professor at the University of Houston). On the one hand, when both partners are impulsive, one would think that would make things more volatile — more fights, more rash actions, more blowing up over nothing. On the other hand, “previous research has shown that greater compatibility is associated with greater correspondence of goals and preferences, minimizing the risks inherent in relationships” — that is, the benefits of being compatible might wash out the downsides.

To simplify some complicated number-crunching, the researchers took a big data set and crunched the numbers to see what effects impulsivity in one or both partners had on overall relationships status. As they write (emphasis theirs), “We tested three competing hypotheses regarding the effects of being concordant on impulsivity. According to the Volatility Hypothesis, the negative effects seen in couples with only one impulsive partner should be exacerbated, decreasing relationship quality. Conversely, the Compatibility Hypothesis suggests that the more similar partners are in terms of impulsivity [high or low], the better their relationship quality. Similarly, the Incompatibility Hypothesis suggests that the more dissimilar partners are in terms of impulsivity, the worse their relationship quality.”

“[The researchers] found strong evidence in favor of the Compatibility and Incompatibility Hypotheses when considering disinhibition. In other words, whether partners ‘matched’ on low or high disinhibition, they were better off than if they were ‘mismatched.’”

We still need more research to better understand all of this, of course, but it suggests that the vision of two impulsive partners’ worst tendencies leading to something volatile might be a bit off. Rather, it might be the case that even if impulsive couples fight more or are more likely to overreact to minor slights, their shared impulsivity may also lead them to appreciate things in the same way and to adopt shared goals and values — and, perhaps, to blow a couple thousand bucks on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Disneyland.