Scott M. Stanley Ph.D.

Sliding vs. Deciding

Massive New Study on Predictors of Relationship Satisfaction

A trailblazing study on 43 data sets reveals keys to relationship satisfaction

Posted Aug 13, 2020

What factors are most strongly associated with relationship satisfaction? A study by Samantha Joel and Paul Eastwick used 43 data sets to answer this question based on longitudinal data from 11,196 couples.

Joel and Eastwick gained the collaboration of 84 other researchers (including me and my colleague Galena Rhoades) who contributed their data sets for use in the project. They used a procedure called Random Forests that relies on machine learning and massive amounts of computing time to test the strength of each predictor and then builds thousands of decision trees (a forest) that reveal how much each of the predictors could explain in relationship satisfaction. This particular method is believed to produce information without the researchers putting their thumbs on the scales for a specific theory or finding. (In contrast, some studies are all thumbs.) Joel and Eastwick then used meta-analytic procedures on findings from each of the 43 data sets to determine which characteristics were most strongly associated with satisfaction.

“It’s Not Who You’re With, but the Dynamic You Have with Them.”

That’s the primary takeaway as often stated by Joel and Eastwick. Of course, how a relationship goes will be very much related to who you choose; not any random partner will make you happy, but the experience of the relationship is what matters most for satisfaction.

Joel and Eastwick examined a huge number of variables, classifying them into three groups:

  • Partner 1’s perceptions of the relationship.
  • Partner 2’s perceptions of the relationship.
  • Partner 1’s and partner 2’s individual characteristics.

The first two categories include measures of things such as affection, appreciation, conflict, empathy, aggression, sexual satisfaction, supportiveness, along with characteristics like living together, marriage, duration of the relationship, and so much more. The third category was comprised of characteristics of the individuals, including personality factors, anxiety, attachment, alcohol use, family history, and demographic characteristics.

The wide range of constructs in this field is shown in Figure 1 from the paper below. It also depicts one way all of these things are believed to fit together to influence relationship quality, and how, in turn, that influence many other aspects of life. Of course, many directions and pathways are possible between these factors.

 Samantha Joel & Paul Eastwick
Figure 1 from: Joel, S. et al., (2020). Machine learning uncovers the most robust self-report predictors of relationship quality across 43 longitudinal couples studies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Advance Online Publication. doi:
Source: Samantha Joel & Paul Eastwick

Joel and Eastwick found that Partner 1’s ratings of satisfaction were mostly explained by their own ratings on all these other dimensions. That’s not too surprising. What was more startling is how little information partner 2’s information added to explaining partner 1’s satisfaction, and that neither partner’s individual characteristics added much information beyond those two types of information. In Joel’s words, from her university’s press release:

Relationships-specific variables were about two to three times as predictive as individual differences, which I think would fit many people’s intuitions. But the surprising part is that once you have all the relationship-specific data in hand, the individual differences fade into the background.

Suppose you are using an online dating service, looking at a lot of profiles (and pictures) of potential partners. These findings suggest you are not going to know much about who you would be happy with by knowing a lot of basic details about a potential date. As Joel has argued so well, you are going to learn the most about a possible fit between you and another person by what you actually experience with that person.

By the way, personality characteristics explained very little about relationship satisfaction. Many people think what they need is to find is a good match on personality, but that’s just not true. One of the best explanations I have read of how this really works came from Marcel Zentner, who suggested that similarity does not matter nearly as much as being with a person who has a type of personality that you enjoy being around. For some people, the last thing they want is to be with someone a lot like them; others want exactly that.

Joel and Eastwick did find that some individual characteristics were more strongly associated with relationship satisfaction than others. Three that stand out are life satisfaction, depression, and issues related to comfort with attachment to others.

What Mattered Most?

Across everything studied, the top five variables that explained the most variance for both present and future relationship satisfaction were:

  • Perceived partner commitment
  • Appreciation
  • Sexual satisfaction
  • Perceived partner satisfaction
  • Conflict
Top Predictors of Relationship Satisfaction
Source: From the release by Western University

Is Relationship Satisfaction All in Your Head?

The short answer? Of course it is—at least, mostly. But a large part of the story of relationship satisfaction is explained by how satisfied or committed (and a host of other things) you believe your partner to be. As Joel and Eastwick say in their paper, “These results are consistent with the idea that people project their own relationship perceptions and behaviors onto their partners.”

That is a mind-altering idea. Another possibility is that we evaluate our own relationship in large measure based on how we think our partner experiences it. In other words, it is possible that a big part of our own relationship satisfaction might be based on how happy we believe our partner is being with us.

And about that perceived commitment finding: Galena Rhoades and I showed in our data set that, in the time points leading up to people marrying, ever perceiving one’s partner to be less committed than oneself—even a little bit—was one of the best predictors of unhappiness in marriage. Of course, that overlaps with all the work we have done over many years in examining asymmetrical commitment. I believe it may be particularly important for a person searching for a mate to carefully consider what truly signifies commitment. You do not want that to be all in your head.

Searching or Already Found Someone? Some Quick Thoughts

If you are searching for a partner in life, pay attention to how you experience the relationship. As noted earlier, Samantha Joel has been arguing this point for some time. You might be thinking, “duh, Scott,” but too many people likely end up with someone who they believe “looks right on paper” or who checks off all the right boxes—all while not paying enough attention to more important things. Who you choose is going to matter a lot, but what you should pay the most attention to is how it feels to spend time with that person. 

For those who have a commitment to someone already, say, in marriage, the advice I have based on this new research is a bit different: Do not spend a lot of time wishing your partner was different on things like personality or education or political views. Focus, instead, on what you can do to make the dynamic between the two of you as good as it can be. That is going to mean looking for levers you can pull to make a difference (such as listening more to your partner, planning to do something you both enjoy, and being more emotionally supportive)—not waiting around for your partner to change.

A version of this article first appeared on the blog for the Institute of Family Studies.

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