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Can a Plane Crash Make You Fall in Love?

by Andrew Willis Garcés.

If you have seen an action movie in the last two decades (SpeedMission: ImpossibleJurassic World, Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, any James Bond film) then you know that if two conventionally attractive strangers live through a life-or-death experience together, they are incredibly likely to develop a romance. That’s also the premise of the new Idris Elba and Kate Winslet film, The Mountain Between Us, in which the two Hollywood stars are stranded in a remote wilderness following a plane crash. It’s also the premise of the film’s promotional campaign, which has included commissioning articles quoting psychologists on the various reasons this kind of action movie romance is totally plausible. These films are occasionally echoed by real-life examples of post-disaster romance, as with the “Miracle on the Hudson” Flight 1549 survivors who met after the crash and soon married.

Apparent expert quotes notwithstanding, the scientific literature is actually less clear about whether surviving a potentially traumatic stressor is often a catalyst for romantic relationships. In fact, there does not appear to be a single peer-reviewed article or dissertation ever published about this phenomena, which I’ll call Romance After Near-Death Experience (RANDE). 

But there is substantial research documenting the impact of potentially traumatic stressors on existing relationships, and on later life relationship quality. Spoiler alert for the characters played by Idris & Kate: It all depends on how they interpret their time on the mountain. 

For example, Iraq veterans who largely had negative interpretations of life-altering events pre-deployment, were more likely to develop PTSD symptoms and to experience diminished post-deployment relationship quality.1 But most people don’t develop PTSD after a plane crash or a similar stressor. They bounce back, and their relationships don’t appear to suffer, by and large.

Survivors who demonstrate a greater appreciation for life - who interpret the potentially-traumatic event favorably - are also more likely to demonstrate improved relationship outcomes. Trauma researchers call this “post-traumatic growth”.3 (In the film, the main characters’ response to a life-threatening event is to develop a romance, which is probably a sign they are responding to the event with more openness and responsiveness, rather than demonstrating overwhelm and anxiety typical of PTSD symptoms). For example, several studies have examined the romantic relationships of couples who survived severe flooding, and although the precise conclusions vary, a few suggest couples often demonstrate increased responsiveness towards each other, and if one partner demonstrates enhanced responsiveness, the other will as well.4 Researchers who followed hurricane survivors in Florida found a similar virtuous circle in effect.5 One study reported that among natural disaster survivors in particular, partners reported more frequent positive exchanges after the stressful event, as compared to survivors of other stressful or violent events.

For partners who aren’t able to “bounce back” from the event, the research is consistent regarding the impact of PTSD symptoms on their relationships. Studies of veterans, prisoners of war and survivors of natural disasters have found that people who develop PTSD symptoms after a stressor experience diminished relationship quality, including greater conflict between partners and difficulty maintaining positive affect, among the many examples of romantic relationship deterioration.7 This is especially true when both partners experience PTSD.

So as long as Kate's and Idris’ characters continue to demonstrate “post-traumatic growth”, and don’t have anxious or avoidant attachment styles, they should continue to feel RANDE. A much more imminent risk to their relationship is probably the reality that, in the film, Kate’s character is flying to New York to marry her longtime fiancé - not Idris. 

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