wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

When it comes to forming—and keeping—healthy relationships, what are the key ingredients? Almost everyone would like to know, including relationship scientists. A new study provides a highly credible answer, as it replicates previous research. It was also based on big data—a samples of adults from all over the world.

One way to look at the keys to a good relationship is to examine the qualities of the relationship itself. But according to University of the South Pacific (Fiji)’s Robert Epstein and colleagues (2016), it is perhaps even more informative to look at the skill set of each partner. You can, in this view, have strong relationship skills even if you’re not partnered at the moment, but it’s also more likely you will have a partner if those skills are solid.

Epstein’s model of relationship skills defines the seven basic skills as follows (with sample items in parentheses):

  1. Communication. Knowing how to listen, share your thoughts, and avoid being critical. (“I often ask for feedback from my partner.”)
     
  2. Conflict resolution. Staying focused on the topic and on the present; being willing to forgive or apologize as necessary. (“I’m always ready to forgive when my partner apologizes.”)
     
  3. Knowledge of partner. Knowing how to have fun with your partner, knowing your partner’s preferences, and caring about your partner's wishes. (“I always remember my partner’s birthday and other special days.”)
     
  4. Life skills. Being able to manage finances, stay fit and healthy, and keep a job. (“I’m always prepared for possible hard times.”)
     
  5. Self-management. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses, striving to overcome your weaknesses, and identifying and reaching your goals. (“I regularly take time to reflect on my dreams and obstacles.")
     
  6. Sex and romance. Asking about and caring for your partner’s sexual satisfaction, setting aside time for intimacy, and staying attractive for your partner. (“I always make time for sexual intimacy with my partner.”)
     
  7. Stress management. Being able to use various methods to cope with stress, such as imagery, relaxation, planning, and organizing. (“I have no trouble prioritizing.")

After reading this list, and considering how you would rate yourself, which skills do you believe to be most important for finding, and maintaining, good relationships? With all the focus in the media on maintaining a healthy and satisfying sex life shouldn’t Sex and Romance count the most? What about Conflict Resolution? Wouldn’t it seem helpful to be able to get through disagreements with as little damage to the relationship as possible?

As part of the 2013 study, clinical professionals were asked to provide their ratings of the importance of each of these seven factors, and Knowledge of Partner, Self-Management, and Sex and Romance received the highest ratings. The question remained, though: Would these would be the factors statistically shown to relate to relationship satisfaction among actual participants?

In 2013, Epstein and his collaborators tested the value of all seven relationship skills to predict relationship success, as reflected in people’s self-ratings of their satisfaction with their partner. The test of the seven skills is called the Epstein Love Competencies Inventory (ELCI). When the previous sample of slightly over 2,000 adults was tested on the ELCI and measures of relationship satisfaction, the two highest predictors were Communication and Knowledge of Partner. (The professionals got it half right.)

The sample in the 2013 study was relatively small, however, and skewed by the fact that participants were obtained from a website geared toward helping couples in their relationships. In the 2016 replication, Epstein culled responses from more than 25,000 individuals around the world. Most were from the U.S. or Canada, but respondents from 56 other countries were also represented. Only 23 percent (vs. 38 percent in the original study) had previous training in relationship skills. Unlike the previous participants, they were not referred to the site by a relationship professional, but found it on their own. (Indeed, you could take the test now.)

Based on the mean scores as reported in Epstein et al., the participants were strongest in the areas of Communication and Knowledge of Partner, but there were variations according to sex, age, and experience of prior training in relationship skills. Women outscored men on Communication, Knowledge of Partner, and Sex and Romance; men scored higher than women on the remaining factors. Those older than 35 received higher scores on Conflict Resolution, Life Skills, and Self-management. Younger adults had higher skills in the areas of Communication and Sex and Romance.

The key question in the replication was whether the two analyses would yield identical results. Comparing the data collected prior to 2011 with that collected in 2016, there were no differences at all in the prediction of relationship satisfaction. Thus, communication remains an important predictor of relationship satisfaction, but you also need to know what your partner wants and needs out of life. Fortunately, this is a skill that Epstein believes is easy to obtain. As the authors note, “Its predictive power is probably related to its simplicity” (p. 352). If you forget your partner’s birthday or an anniversary, “such gaffes can be devastating ... interpreted as signs that your partner does not care about you” (p. 353). All you have to do to gain this skill is to learn and remember basic facts about your partner. You don’t need to become an expert in conflict resolution or even that great at romance.

Fulfillment in relationships may not be that far out of your reach, even if you feel that you’re lacking on some of the subtleties of getting along with a long-term partner. Communication still remains Number One, but it’s relatively easy to acquire that Number Two skill which will help provide that fulfillment over time.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this post.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017

References

Epstein, R., Robertson, R. E., Smith, R., Vasconcellos, T., & Lao, M. (2016). Which relationship skills count most? A large-scale replication. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 15(4), 341-356. doi:10.1080/15332691.2016.1141136

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