The Interpersonal Explorer

Seeking to understand our most important relationships

The Secret to Finding Your "Perfect" Mate

Know Thyself

Anyone who has ever been involved in a long-term romantic relationship knows that relationships go through periods of ups and downs.  That's the reality of relational life, and it's unrealistic to expect that a relationship will always provide high levels of satisfaction.  So what is it that enables some couples to navigate the down times in such a way that they are able to create a long-lasting, mutually gratifying relationship?  Of course, there is no simple answer to this question, but the answer may lie in part in using what you know about yourself when selecting a mate.

In 1958, William Schutz1  identified three basic interpersonal needs: inclusion, affection, and control.  These represent universal human needs, however, there are significant differences in the extent to which individuals experience these needs.  For example, individuals may be high or low in their need for inclusion, or somewhere in between.  An individual high in the need for inclusion would likely emphasize interdependence (i.e., we-ness, togetherness) over autonomy in close relationships, whereas someone with a low need for inclusion would likely emphasize autonomy over interdependence.  Individuals also differ by degrees in their need to give and receive affection, as well as in their need to exert control or influence in close relationships.  Interpersonal needs may vary as a function of culture, gender, family of origin, personality, etc.  Regardless, they shape preferences for and expectations about the needs that close relationships should satisfy, and for that reason, they provide important information about mate selection.

Just as individuals differ in their need for inclusion, affection, and control, researchers have discovered that marriages differ in significant and systematic ways.  In fact, several researchers have independently identified distinctly different types of marriages, and the distinctions often reflect manifestations of differences in interpersonal needs.  For example, Fitzpatrick2  identified three basic dimensions of relationship life: ideology (conventional-unconventional), interdependence-autonomy, and conflict engagement-avoidance, and discovered distinct but systematic differences in the ways individuals define marriage.  Based on these differences, she derived marital types, and identified three, each representing a different combination of the three dimensions.  This research reveals that there are multiple ways to define marriage, and that marital partners may not always hold similar definitions of relationship life.  John Gottman's3  research provides compelling evidence in support of these conclusions, while also adding to our understanding of the systematic ways in which marriages differ and how that may impact satisfaction.

Gottman's research demonstrates systematic differences between couples in terms of level of emotional expression and conflict management.  Like Fitzpatrick, he identified three types, ranging from highly emotionally expressive and conflict engaging to emotionally muted and conflict avoidant, with a moderate type in between.  What all the types have in common is the ability to maintain positivity during interactions, and thus marital satisfaction.  Gottman refers to this as the "magic relationship ratio" - five positive behaviors to every one negative behavior, and it's something he's found to be consistent across the three couple types, despite other significant differences.  Conversely, he's found that unsatisfied couples are those whose relationships are marked by extreme negativity (i.e., 0.8:1), reflecting a failure to create a stable adaptation of positive to negative behaviors (i.e., 5:1) over time.  Gottman has conjectured that the inability of some couples to achieve the magic relationship ratio may be a function of fundamental differences in interaction style between partners.  Given that communication is the primary means through which needs are met, it also likely reflects an incompatibility in interpersonal needs.

Like many things in life, marriage is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, and as the above-cited research makes clear, there are multiple paths to achieving a mutually satisfying, long-term partnership.  What works for one couple, however, may not work for another, thus the importance of knowing thyself in the process of mate selection.  Maintaining satisfaction in long-term romantic relationships requires that partners adapt, adjust, and accommodate to one another, all of which is facilitated by compatibility in interpersonal needs.  Yes, love is grand, but it's not enough to sustain a relationship over the course of decades.  What that requires is a shared vision of relational life, which is facilitated considerably by compatibility in interpersonal needs.

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1Schutz, W. C. (1958). FIRO: A three dimensional theory of interpersonal behavior.  Oxford, England: Reinhart.

2Fitzpatrick, M. A. (1988). Between husbands and wives. Newbury Park: Sage.

3Gottman, J. M. (1994).  What predicts divorce?: The relationship between marital processes and    marital outcomes.  Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

 

Michelle Givertz is an assistant professor in the Communication Studies Program at California State University, Chico. Her research focuses on communication in close relationships.

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