Predicting which couples will last is the $64 million question in relationship research. Such knowledge would have also have immeasurable benefits for couples contemplating a long-term commitment. But the reason we don't have the answers yet is that this research is incredibly difficult to conduct. Not only are there countless demographic factors to consider—age, gender, class, ethnicity, and religion, to name just a few—but the dynamics of relationships vary all over the place. The glue that keeps one couple together may be exactly the wedge that drives another apart.
Some new progress in the search for relationship longevity's predictor comes from a study published by Norwegian Institute of Public Health researcher Gun-Mette B. Røsand and a team of mental-health epidemiologists (2014). The team looked at more than 18,000 heterosexual people in committed relationships among a sample known to be at risk for marital problems—namely couples who were expecting the birth of a child. Although the transition to parenthood is always stressful for couples, each new member's entry into the family presents its own set of challenges.
The couples in the Norwegian study completed their first questionnaires about 17 and 30 weeks into the pregnancy and then 6, 18, and 36 months after the birth of their child. The majority were living together, and half were married. The mothers had an average age of 29 at the start of the study and the fathers, 32. The key outcome measure was simply whether or not the couple ended their relationship. Additionally, for couples that broke up, the women were asked to rate how difficult the split was for them personally.
After all the statistical analysis, these were the "final four" factors that, independent of each other, were left standing as the strongest predictors of relationship breakups. (I also suggest ways that you can address reducing your risk of letting any of these concerns end your relationship.)
1. Relationship Dissatisfaction—But Only the Woman's
Of all the factors researchers believe can lead to a breakup, it's no surprise that relationship dissatisfaction is Number One. But the more interesting question is whether the woman’s or man’s dissatisfaction is a stronger predictor. Now we know: The Røsand, et al. study showed, convincingly, that it is the woman’s assessment of a relationship that predicts whether or not it will end. The risk of a relationship’s dissolution was elevated by a factor of 3 for the approximately 20 percent of women in the sample who expressed the lowest relationship satisfaction.
This finding differs from investigations in the U.S. from the 1980s and 1990s that gave more weight to men's dissatisfaction. The Norwegian team believes that their new findings reflect the greater independence, economic and social, that women experience in their country (compared to the U.S. and elsewhere), especially compared to 20 or 30 years ago. The Norwegian women, the team believes, felt they could survive on their own and did not need to remain in a relationship that was no longer emotionally rewarding. The writing may be on the wall for the U.S., eventually, as women increasingly take on the role as economic head of the household.
2. Emotional Distress
Feeling anxious, depressed, and worried about the future were part of an emotional distress syndrome that Røsand and her fellow researchers found played an important role in predicting whose relationship would come to an end by the time the close of the study. It is possible that these relationships were already in trouble, which is why emotional distress became so important. When your relationship is not going well, you will understandably feel sad and preoccupied. But another way to look at the finding is to see that distress in yourself or your partner can put the relationship’s future at risk.
Considering distress as a risk factor means it’s important to be tuned into your personal feelings, not just the emotional climate of your relationship. When you’re overwhelmed with your own feelings of sadness or worry, you find it more difficult to focus on the needs of your partner. As you become psychologically less available, your partner may in turn feel neglected, and the gap between you widen.
Finding ways to reduce your emotional distress is of paramount importance when your relationship is on the line. As a first step, you can seek ways to relax through simple changes in your lifestyle. Exercise, meditation, and creative expression are ways to provide yourself more positive experiences on a daily basis. These don’t have to be huge time drains—even cooking can be a source of creativity and self-expression. Even better, finding ways to relax as a couple would not only help you improve your mood but give you and your partner positive shared experiences. Seeking social support from friends, including those outside the relationship, is another way to help yourself feel better.
If these don’t work, consider seeking therapy or counseling from a professional, especially if you can’t identify a specific source of your or your partner's unhappiness or worry. Some people are reluctant to spend the time, energy, or money to seek professional help. But it’s worth it if it helps you save a relationship you value and want to see continue.
3. Long-Term Strains
Which do you think has a more significant impact on a relationship: A negative life event—like a house fire, robbery, or the death of a close family member—or longer-term financial worries or conflicts with other family members? In the Røsand study, long-standing, chronic pressures contributed more to the ending of a relationship than any major life events.
Couples going through any kind of transition—becoming parents, moving, or changing jobs—are likely to experience a degree of stress. Major life events of any kind can take a toll on your mental health, even positive ones, such as getting a new job or moving into a nicer home. Minor events can create stress as well—again, even “positive" ones such as going on vacation or celebrating a major holiday. Often, it’s often not the event itself, but the effects it has on the rest of your life that can affect your overall relationship health. Day after day, couples at risk of breakup struggle to pay bills, settle arguments with family members, or manage hassles at work.
The questions that Røsand and her colleagues asked to assess strain were simple enough that you could ask them of yourself without needing any particular expertise in the area. For example: Did you have, in the past 12 months, either problems at work or where you study; financial problems; or problems or conflicts with family, friends, or neighbors? Gender again made a difference: For women, saying yes to even one of these increased the risk of their relationship’s ending. For men, however, the risks existed only for those who acknowledged problems in all three realms.
Ask yourself if these are areas that significantly impact you on a day-to-day basis. If so, think about what spillover effects such strains have on your relationship. It’s possible that, like many couples, you and your partner gain strength by facing adversity together. However, the type of adversity that typically has that impact is of the acute nature. Families bond together in times of crisis, but keeping your relationship resistant to more persistent forms of stress takes a different kind of melding, in which you individually and jointly bolster each other’s coping resources.
Adopting your partner’s problems as your own; avoiding destructive conflict resolution methods; and seeking alternate sources of social support are just three strategies you can employ in the face of chronic stress. Professional help in the form of couples counseling is another step you could consider. The first order of business, regardless of what approach you take, is to make an honest assessment of the extent to which you’re experiencing the kind of strain that can erode your relationship.
4. Low Levels of Education
Paralleling other studies on physical and mental health, couples with lower levels of education in the Røsand et al. study were generally at greater risk for relationship breakup. Specifically, for both men and women, people with less than a 4-year college education were more likely to see their relationship end over the course of the study.
If you don’t have a college education, knowing that a high-school or lower level of education means that your relationship might be more likely to end isn’t going to provide much help. You can’t run out tomorrow and grab a diploma. However, you might consider what it is about that college education that helped the higher-educated people in the Røsand study. Perhaps they’re more ready to consider seeking counseling; have better communication skills; or are able to take more vacations. Again, if you don’t have the resources, this knowledge may not be of much help, but you could benefit from gaining a greater understanding of the productive ways in which couples who do remain together handle conflicts.
Identifying through research the factors that can cause relationships to end may seem like an insurmountable task. Not only do couples vary in almost every characteristic imaginable, but people stay together for months or even years past their relationship's “sell-by” date. But the Røsand study gives you some concrete suggestions you can begin to implement right now to help yours persist and, more important, thrive.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Reference: Røsand, G.-M. B., Slinning, K., Røysamb, E., & Tambs, K. (2014). Relationship dissatisfaction and other risk factors for future relationship dissolution: A population-based study of 18,523 couples. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 49, 109-119. doi: 10.1007/s00127-013-0681-3