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Relationships

How Important Is It for Couples to Be in Agreement?

New research on the value of perceiving a common fate.

Key points

  • Agreement between long-term relationship partners may be an idea you take for granted, but the question becomes how you define agreement.
  • A new study challenges what researchers thought they knew about relationship agreement and its importance in satisfaction.
  • By thinking about agreement in terms of the common fate you share with your partner, you can gain new and important insights.

When it comes to fundamental aspects of your relationship, it may seem obvious that the more you and your partner agree, the better. Consider how you and your partner navigate decisions about basic household tasks such as how to plan your week’s meals. Although you love pasta, your partner maintains that it’s unhealthy and refuses to put it on the table. For the most part, though, both of you like the same foods so it’s not that difficult to work around the pasta issue. Fortunately, it’s even more fixable of a problem when you go to a restaurant or order takeout.

At a deeper level, consider the role of agreement with your partner in such areas as values and approaches to life. Do political or religious issues tend to divide you or bring you closer together? Are you both relatively optimistic or do you share a more cynical outlook on the world?

As key as these issues of agreement may seem to you, much of the existing research on couple satisfaction controls statistically for the degree to which partners share similar views on themselves, each other, and various aspects of daily life, values, and personality. How, then, can you trust what you’ve learned from this research as you contemplate ways to enhance your own relationship satisfaction?

The Common Fate Model of Couple Satisfaction

As noted in new research by University of Utah’s Timothy Smith and colleagues (2022), the so-called “actor-partner-interdependence model (APIM)” predominates in the literature as a way to rule out any overlap between partners in their ratings of relationship-relevant factors. Referred to in statistical terms as “the perils of partialing,” this means that eliminating the shared views of the partners in a relationship can shift “the meaning of variables” away from concordance to qualities unique to each partner. Putting this concretely, you may rate your partner as very supportive and your partner may rate you as very supportive too. Rather than pull apart each of your ratings, though, might it not make more sense to see how they converge? Indeed, can’t your own supportiveness have influenced your partner’s so that, over time, both of you improve in how well you show your concern for each other?

In the “common fate model (CFM)” proposed by the authors, it is precisely this convergence that researchers should measure. It’s fine to take individual ratings into account, but the level of statistical agreement shouldn’t be dismissed as in the APIM.

Even within APIM-based research, investigators have wondered whether “dependency… between partners’ scores represents simply a threat to statistical conclusions or instead reflects converging indicators of the same construct.” In the case of perceptions of emotional intimacy, for example, the degree of agreement can serve on its own as a “description of shared relationship experiences.”

You may not have realized that relationship research took out rather than accounted for the extent to which partners agree, so the identification of this problem may come as a surprise. The question now becomes whether anything new and different can be learned from the CFM approach.

Testing the Common Fate Model

As Smith et al. point out, the key indicators that the CFM should address include true “couple-level constructs” such as adjustment, the degree of hostile behavior in a relationship, sharing of power, commitment, accommodation, and interdependence. Indeed, you might be able to relate to the importance of these factors when you think about what constitutes the core of your feelings about your partner.

To test the value of the CFM vs. the APIM with these core relationship factors, the research team recruited 300 older and middle-aged married mixed-sex couples married for at least five years from the Salt Lake City area to complete measures of relationship adjustment, quality of relationships in terms of perceived support and conflict, and a scale assessing optimism derived from a life orientation measure. The couples completed these measures using what now might be considered the old-school paper-and-pencil format which they were instructed to complete independently of their partners.

One of the more intriguing measures used in the study, called the “Impact Message Inventory (IMI),” seemed particularly appropriate for this study testing couple concordance and its relationship to overall relationship satisfaction. This very behavioral questionnaire asks partners to rate each other on specific types of interactions such as (for wives): “he makes me feel bossed around” (testing dominance), and “he makes me feel appreciated by him” (testing warmth).

These items fit into what the authors describe as the “circumplex (IPC)” model, depicting all points along the two dimensions of affiliation and control. Warmth is at the positive end of the affiliation scale and hostility at the opposite. Along the perpendicular dimension of control are dominance and its opposite, submissiveness. Think about where you and your partner would fall along these dimensions. Is your partner warm but dominant (which may seem patronizing) or hostile and submissive (passive-aggressive)? Just as importantly, from the CFM, how much do each of your perceptions of each other overlap, and how much does that overlap relate to how satisfied you are in the relationship?

From a statistical standpoint, the authors pitted the APIM and CFM models against each other by comparing the fit of their data to the raw intercorrelations, the correlations with partner scores partialed out, and the joint scores of couples on the adjustment, conflict, and support scales. These relationships were tested against the points along the affiliation and control dimensions to see how closely partner ratings of each other could be predicted.

In each analysis, the APIM approach produced lower estimates of ratings on the IPC circumplex than did the CFM-based models. As Smith et al. concluded, “Overall, the shared variance discarded in APIM analyses had clear conceptual meaning, as removing it reduced associations with IPC dimensions.” For example, ratings along the IPC were less closely associated with marital satisfaction, support, and conflict when the APIM method was used. Interestingly, and actually consistent with prediction, optimism scores seemed to play a very minimal role in either of the two models.

Another way to think about these findings from a practical perspective is that your ratings of your relationship’s quality, the extent of conflict, and the degree of support are not easily disentangled from those of your partner and, according to the CFM, nor should they be. Again, thinking practically, how feasible or even valid is it for you to think about your relationship in other than, from a CFM perspective, relationship terms? Can you honestly come up with a “partner-pure” estimate of how well your relationship is going, and should you?

Agreement Revisited

We now know that the mutual perceptions you share with your partner are both conceptually and statistically difficult to separate from each other. Over the long term, partners create a joint reality that colors their ongoing interactions with each other as well as the way they imagine their partners along key relationship dimensions. Indeed, considering that the couples in the study were in relationships that remained intact (which these had for from 5 to 53 years) suggests that a shared reality provides an important psychological bond.

Do the findings mean that you and your partner have to agree on everything, though? Is it bad that you like pasta and your partner doesn’t? Does it also mean that you have to share similar views on life and if you don’t, that your relationship is doomed?

Rather than think of agreement concretely in terms of specific areas of likes and dislikes, the Smith et al. study suggests that the form of agreement that counts is the one that reflects your mutual perceptions of each other. Given that some of the qualities on the IPC aren’t all that desirable (e.g. hostile dominance), this doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to be sitting on a bed of roses. Instead, if you both are aware of your strengths and weaknesses as individuals and as a couple, you will have a more solid basis from which to operate than if you’re on completely different spheres of understanding.

To sum up, this study served as an important alert to researchers in this field about the value of keeping rather than throwing out scores based on couple concordance, and future research will undoubtedly reflect this shift. From the vantage point of what will benefit your relationship, the findings suggest the value of working on your shared perceptions as the path to long-term fulfillment.

Facebook image: FotoDuets/Shutterstock

References

Smith, T. W., Carlson, S. E., Uchino, B. N., & Baucom, B. R. W. (2022). To put asunder: Are there perils of partialing in actor–partner interdependence models? Journal of Family Psychology, 36(8), 1462–1472. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0001011

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