TEST AUDIENCES WATCH MOVIES BEFORE RELEASE AND TELL THE STUDIO WHAT THEY THINK.
That's how Pretty Woman ended up with a feel-good ending and why Fatal Attraction wasn't even darker than it was. Not to compare your girlfriend to a hooker or a bunny boiler, but your relationship has a test panel too—buddies, brothers, coworkers. And their opinions can shape your romantic destiny, says H. Colleen Sinclair, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Mississippi State University. "If you have the support of your friends and family, your relationship is more likely to survive." So do you take their advice, or stick to your original screenplay? Let's listen in.
THE BENEFIT:Straight talk
Psychologists use the phrase "positive illusions." Poets say love is blind. Your pals may wonder what you see in her but say nothing at first. According to Benjamin Le, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Haverford College, research suggests that friends tend to be accurate judges of relationships. When you're in a relationship, you tend to view it and your mate in a positive light. Friends measure it with an objective yardstick: your happiness. If they think she makes you happy, they'll approve, says Le, cofounder of ScienceofRelationships.com. So if your bud rips on your girl, ask him why. He might reveal something that's obvious to everyone but you.
THE RISK: He's jealous
When a pal goes negative on your girlfriend, maybe he's just jealous that you've traded poker nights for poke-her nights. One way to check: Compare the reactions of guys who are cheerfully committed with those of single men. A happily married friend isn't vying for your time. "If all friends, regardless of their relationship status, give similar negative evaluations, then it's not likely to be due to jealousy," Le says. But if single friends are more negative, it could be jealousy. In that case, feel free to ignore them—and see if they come around after your next weekend hangout.
THE BENEFIT:Priceless intel
Your girl's closest friends are fortune-tellers. They'll see the souring of a romance before she does, or before you or any of your pals do. "This may be because they have more influence in the relationship or because they are especially tuned in and insightful," Le says. If her female friends are also your friends, you can ask them for advice—as long as it's a question you wouldn't hide from your girlfriend. Ask them how you can be a better boyfriend, for example. So if they blab about the conversation, she'll see it as sweet, not behind-the-back.
THE RISK: Sabotage
Her pals' opinions can become self-fulfilling prophecies. "The friends may end up doing things that facilitate the relationship's demise," says Sinclair. For example, they may use every mistake you've ever made as fuel to encourage her to dump you. How can you tell if your girlfriend's friend is on your side? Listen. If you announce that the two of you are moving in together, will the friend say, "Well, you guys will certainly save money!" instead of "I'm so happy you two are in love"? Not too romantic.
THE BENEFIT:Good sense
Ever since prom, your parents have inspected your love interests in detail. "The people who are most dependent on us are often the most cautious about our relationships," says Jacob Vigil, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico. "For most men, that's family." It's evolution: We're wired to pass on our genes. So your folks are subconsciously assessing your gal as a suitable mother to their grandkids, Vigil says. They can help you take off the blinders of lust and home in on a mate with long-term potential.
THE RISK:Lofty expectations
Family members have a tendency to be too picky. "This can be especially true for mothers, who often hold high standards about who is good enough for their children," Sinclair says. Their doubts can trigger second thoughts on your part. If you're sure about your relationship but your parents are still skeptical, ask them to explain their concerns so you can address them head-on, says Scot Allgood, Ph.D., director of the marriage and family therapy program at Utah State University. Often their misgivings will center on potential incompatibilities between you and your mate. "Keep that in mind as you evaluate each of their concerns and ask yourself, Is this something I need to worry about, or is it something my partner and I have already worked through?'"
THE BENEFIT:Experienced observers
Your office holds a precious resource—a group of colleagues, many of whom have been coupled up longer than you have. "Research suggests that people don't recognize they have a strong marriage until they're 20 or 25 years in," says Allgood. By then they've had plenty of experience with struggles and setbacks. So solid relationship advice probably won't come from your fantasy-football buddy—it'll come from the 50-something guy down the hall who's been married for 30 years, Allgood says. He'll offer perspective, stories—and good advice.
THE RISK: Biased observers
Unless you commit a grave crime of the heart, like cheating, your coworkers will favor your side in a relationship struggle. "That's the side they know," Sinclair says. That's great when you need emotional support, but not if you really deserve some tough love. If you've done something wrong, they're not likely to point it out. That's especially true for colleagues who work closely with you on team projects, since they're already primed to have your back, Sinclair says.
JIMMY THE BARTENDER
Sometimes you want advice from someone who doesn't have a stake in your relationship. A stranger's take should never be a final verdict, but it can be a good place to start. The mere act of spilling your guts to an impartial party can be therapeutic, Allgood says. Just expressing the problem out loud and knowing that someone's listening without becoming emotionally invested can help you think more clearly. Plus, it's easier to admit your failings to someone who won't judge you.
THE RISK: Superficiality
Your bartender may assess your girlfriend based on her drink choice. "Acquaintances tend to be most impressed by someone who seems as if they offer a lot of capacity—money, good looks, and so forth," Vigil says. A casual acquaintance doesn't have an emotional investment in you. So his or her glowing evaluation may be based on, say, her stunning body, not the deeper character traits that determine a truly good mate. "That can give us a false sense of validation and worth," says Gerry Heisler, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in Columbia, Missouri. So listen, but not too closely. And tell Jimmy to stop staring.