Can a New Relationship Solve Your Old Problems?
New study shows the old baggage people may carry into their new relationships.
Posted Aug 22, 2020
You’re finding yourself bored in your current relationship or worse, miserable with your partner. The strains of living through COVID19 have accentuated the previous cracks in your relationship. It’s much harder to distract yourself from the problems you have in getting along with your partner which you used to solve by going out with your friends or just a movie date night. You can't even escape that easily for some retail therapy. Now you face your partner perhaps on a 24/7 basis and the uninterrupted togetherness is getting to you. Little arguments pop up all the time, and you find yourself preoccupied and just plain unhappy.
With all of this on your mind, you find yourself fantasizing about how much better your life would be if you weren’t stuck in this relationship. You’ve met someone on one of your socially distant outings, possibly on your daily walk in the nearby park or at a playground with your children. Casual nods of your facemasked heads are turning into greetings and, ultimately, light conversation (all behind the mask, of course!). This person, unlike your partner, seems interesting if not intriguing. Well-dressed, funny, and cheerful, this person might be able to provide the answer to your current stay-at-home misery.
According to a new study by University of Alberta’s Matthew Johnson and colleagues (2020), previous research suggests that whatever relationship problems you're experiencing now won't go away all that easily. There is, the authors note, “remarkable stability in partners and partnership dynamics,” ranging from the way you interact with your partner to your overall satisfaction. Previous research suggests that a new relationship may involve more sexual contact, but not necessarily more sexual satisfaction. The question the Canadian researchers wished to investigate was whether, beyond this overall stability, people’s levels of subjective well-being improve when they change partners.
Informing the Johnson et al. study are the adaptation and set point approaches to understanding how people adjust to life events. These approaches suggest that you have a usual (“set point”) level of well-being that sticks with you on a day-to-day basis. It may temporarily go up or down in response to a new life event but, over time, you’ll return to whatever that set-point was. It’s a general human tendency, the authors claim. In their words: “The literature is replete with evidence that humans exhibit remarkable adaptation to a variety of life events” (p. 2). It’s not that people don’t change in response to these events, but that they find ways to adapt even to the most disruptive of circumstances.
With this background, Johnson and his colleagues were able to draw from an impressive data set involving 4 waves of testing from a German sample of 12,402 adults across an 8-year period. From within the larger sample, the Canadian authors narrowed their study to the 554 participants who reported being in more than one partnership across the period. The sample members were on average 24 years old at the start of the study (62% female), and originally most (63%) were in cohabiting relationships that had lasted about 3 years. They took a relationship break for about 2 years before entering the second partnership.
Examining their levels of subjective well-being in terms of life satisfaction and depression, Johnson et al. compared those who found new partners to those who remained in a continuous relationship. As it turned out, this analysis provided the first indication that switching partners may not provide the emotional relief that people are seeking. The participants who stayed with their original partners indeed showed higher levels of well-being on both measures than those who left theirs behind and found someone new.
Tracking changes over time in these two key indicators plus a third measure of self-esteem, the authors next were able to test the set point adaptation model by determining what happened to the relationship switchers one year into their new partnership. After applying sophisticated statistical change models to the data, Johnson et al. found that, indeed, people seemed to return to their prior levels of well-being even with their newer, and presumably better, partner. Prior to their breakup, participants reported a dip in their well-being. After entering the new relationship, they showed a temporary bump, only to return to the pre-breakup levels of their old relationship.
There was an added wrinkle to the findings in that the ups and downs of well-being appeared to affect women more than men. The authors attribute this to the possibility that “men experience more stability in subjective well-being across unions than women” (p. 5). Thus, for women, the search for happiness in new relationships may prove particularly futile and possibly have deleterious effects on well-being.
Age also played a role in adaptation across old to new relationships. Those who were beyond their 20s were more likely to be married, making the transition from Partner A to B that much more difficult. For people who have to end a legal union, there are far more entanglements that can complicate the adaptation process, making people’s set points less relevant to their ability to adjust to endings and beginnings.
Now that it's clear that new partners don't make old problems go away, the question remains as to why. One possibility, raised by the authors, is that you do carry your old emotional baggage into your new relationship. Sure, that shiny new stranger seems like someone who could make you eternally happy. However, were you to act on your fantasies, would your relationship behaviors really change that much? Isn’t it possible you’ll become just as bored? And if it’s hard to extricate yourself from your current relationship, how much more agony will that add to the process?
Think now about the relationship dynamics that typically evolve over the course of the months or years with your own partners. Do you have trouble communicating your feelings? Do you tend to get involved in petty arguments? Does it bother you when your partner pays attention to other people? After answering these questions honestly, does it seem that, indeed, it may not matter who the partner is. You’ve done this before and will most likely continue to do so with whoever becomes your next romantic focus. These are the issues that the Johnson et al. study suggest you might wish to address the next time you feel like it's time for someone new.
To sum up, substituting one partner for another may not provide you with the emotional relief you think it will. Before you make the decision to end your current relationship, use your feelings of dissatisfaction as the basis for examining what it is you’re looking for in someone else. It may not be the partner, but an understanding of your own emotions that can help provide you with the long-term relationship fulfillment you seek.
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Johnson, M. D., Neyer, F. J., & Finn, C. (2020, August 13). Subjective Well-Being Across Partnerships. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/fam0000793