Meet, Catch, and Keep

A scientific look at the complexities of romantic relationships

Is Your Relationship Resilient?

These 5 research-driven habits can help you get stronger.

How resilient is your relationship? Resilient relationships persevere, even in times of adversity. Life can offer couples all sorts of challenges—distance, conflict, infidelity, child or parent-related hardships, sickness—an unimaginable number of possibilities, not to mention all the other everyday bumps in the road and normal stressors that can wear down a relationship.

How can we foster resilience in our relationships? 

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New evidence shows that during acute stress, people tend to have trouble engaging in the kind of behaviors that promote relationship stability, like ignoring alternative partners and reassuring one’s own partner (Lewandowski, Mattingly, & Pedreiro, 2014). Healthy habits that become part of how a relationship operates may be useful buttresses against the effects of stress, or may help you persist through trying times.

Consider the following questions to help gauge your own relationship’s resilience:

  1. Is destiny the anchor to your relationship? It may seem romantic to think that destiny brought you together and that it will keep you together, but such beliefs may be obstacles to relationship resilience. When negative events happen in their relationships, people with strong destiny beliefs disengage more, withholding ways to support the relationship (Knee, 1998). Better to foster growth beliefs—the idea that relationships grow by working through tough times together. Growth beliefs predict active coping, planning, positivity, and focus during difficult times (Knee, 1998).
  2. Do you give your partner the benefit of the doubt? No relationship or person is perfect, but if you can come to see your partner’s quirky imperfections as positives, you may have the stuff that makes for a resilient relationship. Couples who view each other in idealized ways are happier and tend to have less conflict and more relationship stability (Murray and Holmes, 1997).
  3. How much self-control do you have? When your partner does something that really annoys you, can you resist an impulsive response, or do you fly off the handle? Self-control is the ability to regulate one’s own reactions in these types of situations, forgoing the backlash in favor of a pro-relationship response. People who have high self-control are better able to resist impulsivity and constructively respond to potentially destructive partner behavior (Finkel and Campbell, 2001).
  4. Are you grateful for the little things? In resilient relationships, partners are oriented towards each other, appreciating each others’ efforts to be responsive and doing their best to be responsive themselves. This creates a wonderfully positive cycle of behaviors that help maintain a relationship (e.g., positivity, reassurance), and partner gratitude, which then encourages those behaviors that help relationships thrive (Kubacka, Finkenauer, Rusbult, and Keijsers, 2011).
  5. Do you work continuously to maintain your relationship? Research focusing on everyday stressors has found that resilient couples are flexible: They work to accommodate change by engaging in behaviors that help sustain the relationship (Carney, Stafford, & Semic, 2002). For example, resilient couples share tasks, offer positivity, and reassure their partners. Such behaviors are not one-time acts, but a pattern of work that can pay off with a healthy partnership.

Resilience in times of serious difficulty can come in many forms. The above questions highlight an important but limited set of individual traits such as self-control and growth beliefs, and partner dynamics such as gratitude that foster resilience. Commitment, investment, and on-going work promote relationship health, but no one recipe works for all couples, especially given the many diverse types and severities of stressors that we can encounter.

 

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References

Canary, D. J., Stafford, L., & Semic, B. A. (2002). A panel study of the associations between maintenance strategies and relational characteristics. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, 395-406.

Finkel, E. J., & Campbell, W. K. (2001). Self-control and accommodation in close relationships: an interdependence analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(2), 263-277.

Knee, C. R. (1998). Implicit theories of relationships: Assessment and prediction of romantic relationship initiation, coping, and longevity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 360-370.

Kubacka, K. E., Finkenauer, C., Rusbult, C. E., & Keijsers, L. (2011). Maintaining Close Relationships Gratitude as a Motivator and a Detector of Maintenance Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1362-1375.

Lewandowski Jr, G. W., Mattingly, B. A., & Pedreiro, A. (2014). Under Pressure: The Effects of Stress on Positive and Negative Relationship Behaviors. The Journal of Social Psychology, (just-accepted).

Murray, S. L., & Holmes, J. G. (1997). A leap of faith? Positive illusions in romantic relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 586-604.

Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland.

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