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What’s So Special About Romantic Relationships?

What we still don’t know about romantic relationships after 74,000 publications.

Source: MinDof/Shutterstock

If you read a lot of psychology — even just headlines — you probably think you know a lot about romantic relationships. Social scientists who study romantic relationships think they know a lot, too. And they should know a lot, considering all the research they do. But I think we all know far less than we think we do.

According to the database PsycINFO, there are now 9,485 scholarly articles, books, book chapters, and other peer-reviewed writings about romantic relationships. There are 65,269 on marriage. The study of romantic relationships and marriage is an entire industry of scholarly journals, conferences, grants, research, textbooks, courses, degree programs, faculty positions, and money-making enterprises. The beginnings of this matrimania can be traced back at least 160 years.

Most of what you have heard about the results of all this research — particularly about the benefits to your health and well-being of getting married or becoming romantically involved — is grossly exaggerated or just plain false. I’ve discussed that many times before, so here I’ll just give that my one-paragraph kiss-off, then move on to the new point I want to make:

Even if the studies were a lot more sophisticated and really did show that people who get married or involved in romantic relationships are better off than they were before, that still doesn’t tell us that there is anything special about romantic relationships, relative to any other relationships.

Kiss-Off: Studies Claiming That Marriage Makes You Happier or Healthier

The claim you have probably heard most often is that getting married (or becoming romantically involved) makes you happier and healthier. Most of the studies purporting to show such things are massively flawed and could not possibly support such conclusions. Now that researchers are getting around to doing more sophisticated research, the answers are even clearer. Getting married does not result in lasting improvements to happiness or health. With regard to heath, there are even indications that the implications are sometimes negative — that is, that people are in some ways worse off after they marry than they were before.

Examples of Other Findings From the Vast Collection of Studies of Romantic Relationships

Time magazine, a publication that has been peddling matrimania for years, described some of the findings from a big review of research on romantic relationships. Among the conclusions are that romantic relationships are likely to fare better when people:

  • Give their romantic partners the benefit of the doubt.
  • Are kind in how they interpret their partner’s motives; that is, they try to attribute positive motives instead of negative ones.
  • Are generous to their partners.
  • Feel grateful and let their partner know it.
  • Use humor to defuse conflicts.
  • Do fun things with their partner.

Other writings on romantic relationships describe psychological processes. For example: Couples who spend more time together are more likely to fulfill each other’s needs, and they end up more satisfied with their relationship as a result.

What These Studies Do Not Tell Us, and What They Obscure

When you hear about the findings from studies of people’s romantic relationships, do you think you’ve learned something specifically about romantic relationships?

Maybe you haven’t.

In the studies, romantic relationships are the only relationships the researchers examined. So how do we know whether the results are telling us something special about romantic relationships, instead of, say, revealing something more general about all close or meaningful relationships?

Consider the findings listed above. Do you think it is true only in romantic relationships, or is it also true in friendships and other non-romantic relationships that the relationships are likely to fare better when people:

  • Give the other person (for example, their friend) the benefit of the doubt.
  • Are kind in how they interpret the other person’s motives.
  • Are generous to the other person.
  • Feel grateful and let the other person know it.
  • Use humor to defuse conflicts.
  • Do fun things with the other person.

Do you think it is also likely to be true, in friendships and other non-romantic relationships, that when people in these relationships spend more time together, they are more likely to fulfill each other’s needs, and they end up more satisfied with their relationship as a result?

Now consider the perennial favorite, the claim that getting married or getting into romantic relationships makes people happier and healthier. It doesn’t, but let’s pretend. Suppose the most sophisticated research really did show that getting married makes people happier and healthier. (Just to repeat, it doesn’t.) Do you now think that if you want to get happier or healthier, you should get married or become involved in a romantic relationship?

Again, what is missing is any consideration of any other kind of relationship. When scholars only study romantic relationships, we have no idea whether they have taught us something specifically about romantic relationships, or whether what they learned was something about relationships more generally, and they just don’t realize it, because their studies are so narrow.

Here’s what those kinds of studies do not answer:

Would you get the same happiness and health benefits or maybe even more such benefits if you invested your relationship capital into relationships with friends or family or anyone else who might matter to you?

It is true that romantic relationships differ from other relationships, such as friendships or relationships with parents, in ways that could matter. For example, you may be having sex with your spouse, but you are probably not having sex with your mother. Does that mean that a relationship with a romantic partner is more important to your health and happiness than a relationship with your mother or with a platonic friend? Or is it instead more fraught? Without good research, we are just guessing.

Here’s another way that romantic relationships are different from relationships such as friendships, at least in the U.S.: They are valued more. Other people express interest in them, make a fuss about them, and write books and movies and TV shows and song lyrics about them. Your spouse is automatically included as a plus-one in invitations to social events. The government rewards and protects marital relationships, and only marital relationships, in more than a thousand ways, from greater access to Social Security benefits and tax breaks to protections at work and in the health care system.

All that suggests another question: What could we get out of friendships and other non-romantic relationships if those relationships were just as valued, respected, celebrated, and supported as marriage and romantic relationships are?

Why It Matters

When research focuses overwhelmingly on romantic relationships, and we keep reading blog posts and tweets and books and articles in the media about the latest findings about romantic relationships, what we are being told goes beyond the particular findings. The lesson is that romantic relationships are special. They matter more than any other kind of relationship. You may have profoundly important friendships that have outlasted most marriages, but social scientists aren’t paying much attention to that. And because they are not doing much new and significant research on enduring friendships, the press isn’t going to write about the findings that don’t exist, and no one else is, either. The cycle of fawning over romantic relationships and neglecting all the other significant adult relationships goes on and on.

The endless cycle makes it seem self-evident that romantic relationships should have a more exalted place in our lives than any other kind of relationship. It is as if science has demonstrated the superiority of romantic relationships over all other relationships. Only it hasn’t.