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When “For Better or for Worse” Gets Real

New research on the strengths of distressed versus satisfied couples

“It's really easy to have a nice philosophy about openness, but moving the world in that direction is a different thing. It requires both understanding where you want to go and being pragmatic about getting there.” —Mark Zuckerberg

Athletes require more than skill for peak performance. In addition to a combination of innate talent, extreme physical fitness, and a great deal of practice, athletes must have one other key factor in order to do their best: They must believe they are capable and competent (Freeman & Rees, 2009).

This is true on a personal level, and it is true for couples as well (Riggio et al., 2013). When a couple trusts in their ability to overcome obstacles together, when they experience a greater sense of self-efficacy — or belief in themselves as a pair — they enjoy greater relationship satisfaction and commitment. Moreover, actual relationship outcomes improve with greater relationship self-efficacy, all other factors being equal.

Couples can improve their shared self-efficacy by providing support for one another. In particular, partners can help each other perform better via a specific form of support called esteem support. Esteem support is different from other forms of support — even emotional support — in that one partner specifically encourages the other’s sense of self-efficacy and confidence. Reward success and encourage those most loved by you to question self-criticism. Providing esteem support is easier when couples have positive feelings toward each other, and their relationship is secure and satisfying. When relationships are not going smoothly, it is harder to muster up warm, optimistic initiatives to support one another. It can become a challenge for couples to maintain resilience and to sustain the feeling that they can face life’s challenges together no matter what.

The Study

Drawing upon “Intimacy Theory" — which states that intimacy develops gradually over time through numerous everyday interactions that either build trust and safety or lead to distance and caution — Gray and colleagues (2018) noted that couples that sustain closeness are more open with one another, more able to be vulnerable, and have a greater tendency to grow more intimate and satisfied together over time than those that lack that closeness. In partnerships where there is no room for vulnerability, couples tend to bypass growth opportunities, suppressing warmer feelings, hiding important needs, and generally avoiding emotionally challenging conversations and activities.

ROR — Relationship on the Rocks

The end result is that they ultimately become distressed. According to Gray and fellow study authors, such couples are more likely to take “the path of least resistance” when faced with adversity. Distressed couples will be more likely to rely on concrete strengths — such as the ability to co-parent effectively — rather than on a sense of sharing a meaningful emotional bond.

So in what ways do satisfied and distressed couples differ when the chips are down? What strengths do we drawn upon when intimacy is strong in our relationships, and what strengths do we draw upon when we are more distant and unable to be vulnerable with one another?

In order to look closely at these questions, Gray and colleagues conducted a study of 119 heterosexual, married, and predominantly white participants to see how their view of their relationship strengths correlated with how distressed their relationships were. Using the Marital Satisfaction Inventory (which estimates overall relationship distress) and the Marriage Checkup Assessment Questionnaire (which looks at multiple areas of strength and liability), researchers honed in on how couples approached challenges together — essentially, when “for better or for worse” becomes a reality.

The researchers were interested in two basic ways that partners related to one another and got things done within their couples: intimate/affectionate and parallel support, representing fundamentally different degrees of emotional intimacy — essentially close and distant, respectively. Intimate/affectionate survey items captured more tenderness and warmth — for example, “We laugh and smile together,” and “We’re good friends,” while parallel support items included “We’re a good team when it comes to parenting,” and “We actively support each other in the things we find most important as individuals." These statements are cooler in tone and, while positive, more detached.

The study authors specify that parallel support, while generally positive, does not necessarily require a high level of togetherness, because partners in a couple can coordinate very well without actually having to be emotionally close. Both types of relatedness coexist to varying degrees in every couple, however: 1) Some couples are characterized by more of one than the other, and 2) Study subjects may be more likely to highlight one set of behaviors over the other, regardless of how frequently they are actually used in their relationship.

The Results

The researchers found that a significantly higher percentage of satisfied women identified relationship strengths from the intimate/affectionate category, and a significantly higher percentage of distressed women reported parallel support characteristics. However, while distressed men reported a significantly greater parallel support perspective, satisfied men did not endorse a statistically significant difference between parallel support and intimate/affectionate items.

While studies like this need to be repeated in more diverse groups of couples, the current study suggests that distressed couples do indeed veer away from intimacy and at least consciously identify pragmatic cooperation as the foundation of their marriage, versus intimacy and friendship with one another. Is that sad?

Regardless, it’s not possible to sort out the chicken and the egg in this correlational study. Distressed couples may have started out with lower levels of intimacy — perhaps even marrying for realistic reasons — and this divide may persist and become more entrenched over time. Alternately, they may have started out satisfied and intimate and grown to rely on practical strengths to shore up the sturdiness of the marriage.

The picture is different for satisfied couples, because — at least in this study — there is a significant gender difference. Satisfied wives were biased. They selected "intimate/affectionate" over "parallel support." Even when parallel support elements were quite strong, intimate/affectionate aspects were more important to women in this sample. Satisfied men, on the other hand, valued intimate/affectionate and parallel support strengths similarly. Is this a reflection of baseline gender differences (with men being stereotypically less emotional than women and more oriented toward pragmatics), an idiosyncrasy of this study population, or something else?

Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Shifting From Distressed to Satisfied

The take-home message here is not about research, although it is important to look more deeply at how satisfied versus distressed couples navigate adversity so we can learn how to improve relationship efficacy and quality for couples seeking help. The take-home message is about our own relationships and how we think about intimacy and shared strengths: Do we feel effective together or not? From what sources do we draw strength? If both partners draw strength from pragmatic support, where is the intimacy?

For couples working on improving the quality of their relationship, it is helpful to look at the different sources of strength — whether it comes from intimacy and affection, or from pragmatic teamwork. Over-reliance on pragmatic approaches suggests the need for a deeper look at a relationship’s quality, prospects for future growth, and whether change is needed or desired.

Please send questions, topics or themes you'd like me to try and address in future blogs, via my PT bio page.


Freeman, P., & Rees, T. (2009). How does perceived support lead to better performance? An examination of potential mechanisms.

Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 21, 429–441.

Gray TD, Cordova JV, Hawrilenko M, Dovala T & Sollenberger JW. The Path of Emotional Least Resistance: Developing Theory Based on the Self-Reported Strengths of Happy and Distressed Couples in the Marriage Checkup, Journal of Relationships Research, Volume 9, e5, 1–9.

Jayamaha SD & Overall NC. (2018). The Dyadic Nature of Self-Evaluations: Self-Esteem and Efficacy Shape and Are Shaped by Support Processes in Relationships. Social Psychological and Personality Science 1-13. Published online first

Riggio, H.R., Weiser, D.A., Valenzuela, A.M., Lui, P.P., Montes, R., & Heuer, J. (2013). Self-efficacy in romantic relationships:

Prediction of relationship attitudes and outcomes. The Journal of Social Psychology, 153, 629–650.