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Source: VGstockstudio/Shutterstock

Do you and your partner feel your relationship comes before your needs as an individual? If so, you are on a path toward a long and fulfilling relationship, as suggested by new research on the role of shared goals and relationship success. Contrasting the role of four key relationship qualities, this research suggests the one that plays the strongest role in helping a relationship last.

In the early stages of a relationship, there's a kind of excitement and tumult that makes it exhilarating, if stressful at times. In these emotionally charged early phases, you can go from the highest mountain to the deepest valley without much warning. One day, you’re sure the relationship is heading in the right direction, only to experience profound insecurity the next day when your new love interest fails to come through with a promised phone call. You rack your brain trying to imagine what you could’ve done wrong. Worse, you may torture yourself with images of your new partner-to-be with someone else. It’s not just that the person is too busy to call you, but that the person may have lost interest in you altogether. You just don't feel that you're on the same page in terms of how important this relationship actually is.

As relationships become more established, these early emotional roller coasters eventually settle down, and you and your partner become more secure in the knowledge that you truly care about and support each other. However, the evolution of a relationship from turmoil to stability becomes more probable the older and more experienced you become. Young people in their first or second romantic relationships are perhaps more likely to follow the Romeo and Juliet model in which impetuosity is the rule of the day, and they tend to make poor decisions that ultimately doom the relationship’s fate. Even if they don’t follow the star-crossed lovers pattern, teenagers have failed to develop some of the emotional coping tools that can keep a relationship on a steady course.

According to a brand-new publication by University of Denver’s Ann Lantagne and Wyndol Furman (2017), both age and relationship length jointly influence the ways partners form strong and resilient bonds. Most prior research had been unable to tease these factors apart, but the Denver team figured out a way to look at them in a more controlled manner.

Using a longitudinal design to follow couples over time, Lantagne and Furman examined the intersection of partner age and relationship length as influences on what they regarded as the four most important relationship qualities. The researchers used “behavioral systems theory” as their underlying perspective, a model which proposes that “as youth grow older, romantic partners become the central figure in the affiliative and sexual behavior systems, and ultimately, the attachment and caregiving systems” (p. 1738). In other words, by the time teenagers move into early adulthood, they’ve replaced many of their friends and peer group members with romantic partners. They become less focused on their own needs, and more oriented toward maximizing the rewards that they experience with their partner.

The four basic relationship qualities included:

  1. positive qualities, like support;
  2. negative qualities, as shown in negative interactions such as arguments;
  3. power and status, as shown in trying to control the partner; and
  4. comparisons with other relationships, as shown in jealousy.

Think about your closest relationship and imagine how you would rate it based on these dimensions: Do you feel that you and your partner support each other and value the relationship? Is this enough to offset the negative qualities of conflict, control, and jealousy? How has the balance of positive to negative shifted over time?

Lantagne and Furman believed that they could separately investigate age and relationship length, given that some young people are childhood sweethearts who've been together for years, and some older individuals have just entered a committed relationship. Getting older should give individuals the emotional benefit of having more experience on which to draw against a backdrop of greater maturity in general. Longer relationships, regardless of the age of the partners, should increase in positive qualities, but may also increase in some of the negative qualities, such as conflict, control, and jealousy.

Using a longitudinal study in which age and relationship length were investigated both separately and in interaction, the Denver researchers investigated individuals first studied in their teens who were then followed continuously through early adulthood, or until about age 24. For ease of analysis, relationships divided into the 3 categories — 4 months, 9 months, or 22 months long. 

The findings over the 10 years of the study showed that as teens matured into early adulthood, they were more likely to enter into supportive relationships, even if those relationships were relatively new. The young adults, compared to the teenagers, were also better able to manage the negative qualities that seep into close relationships, including conflict, jealousy, and feelings of control. The interaction of age and relationship length, however, also turned out to be important. Younger individuals in longer relationships were still less supportive and more involved in higher levels of conflict than were their older counterparts. This finding led the authors to conclude that “with age, romantic relationships appear to become easier to handle” (p. 1745).

However, longer relationships, even among the young adult participants, also became more marked by “conflict, control, and feelings of jealousy," feelings that "appear to be inherent as individuals become increasingly invested in the relationship, and as the relationship increases in interdependence” (pp. 1745-6).

These findings therefore explain the Romeo and Juliet effect, showing that young lovers are too egocentric and unsure of how to behave in a relationship to be able to manage the complex feelings associated with being part of a couple. If those star-crossed lovers had been just 10 years older, their new relationship may have been less turbulent and had a happier ending. Longer relationships, even among older individuals, eventually start to develop problems, due to the inherent conflicts that intimacy can bring with it. For people who are older, those problems should prove less detrimental to the ultimate health of the relationship, because of their greater maturity and perspective.

The findings boiled down to one main conclusion, which is that most crucial to the relationship's ability to succeed is the commitment of the partners to putting the gains they can experience as a couple above the needs that either partner alone feels. The willingness to put “mutual relationship gains” (p. 1747) first will allow the relationship's positive qualities to outweigh whatever strife evolves over the course of time.

If your relationships, new or old, are to flourish, it’s this focus on working together for the good of the couple that seems to be key. If you and your partner can keep your eyes on the prize of what’s truly important, your relationship will continue to be fulfilling, regardless of your age.

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 posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017

References

Lantagne, A., & Furman, W. (2017). Romantic relationship development: The interplay between age and relationship length. Developmental Psychology, 53(9), 1738-1749. doi:10.1037/dev0000363

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