How Luck Shapes Your Relationship, Part 2
Does success or failure of relationships depend more on luck than compatibility?
Posted March 29, 2018
We like to believe that our relationships are based on something meaningful—we start a relationship because we found someone we are uniquely compatible with, and we end a relationship because we discover that, despite our best efforts, we are not uniquely compatible. But what if it is all more random than we realize? In my prior post, I described some recent research highlighting the role of random chance in personal success. The researchers simulated the roles of talent and opportunity over 40-years and found that while talent played some role (people had to be able to make the most of the opportunities given to them), those who were most successful over the (simulated) forty years were ultimately the ones who had the best luck. People who caught a lot of good breaks succeeded, and frequent bad luck could hurt even the most talented individuals. Reading these results made me wonder the role of random chance in relationships. What if relationships end not because people are incompatible, but because they were exposed to a lot of bad luck? What if the relationships that succeed are not those with partners who are perfectly compatible, but simply those couples who got lucky? As with personal success, talent and hard work must matter too—some people have better interpersonal communication skills than others, some couples are more willing to put in the hard work to weather the difficult times, and sometimes you really aren’t as compatible as you thought. But just as with the research on personal success, relationships researchers have yet to find the perfect algorithm to predict who stays together and who breaks up. A lot of it is still, frustratingly, unexplained. Is the explanation simply that, in the end, some people just have better luck?
We already know about a host of random factors that contribute to the success of relationships—age at marriage, financial status, where you met your spouse (such as at school or in a bar), whether your parents divorced. Of course these are not completely random—there might even be a genetic component to divorce. But I am calling these factors random because they are not intrinsic to the relationship and often people have little to no control over them. Consider the example of financial status—some couples experience more financial strain than others, and that financial strain puts stress on the relationship. People may have some control over their financial status and sometimes financial problems are due to incompatible approaches to finances. But imagine if a couple who was constantly worrying about money was given a windfall very early in their relationship. Without changing anything about the couple, do you think their relationship might have a better chance of succeeding if their money stress was suddenly taken away?
The randomness I just described is already pretty well modeled and accounted for in the research. But we still have a lot of unexplained variance in relationship success. And so I wonder, is it even more random than we’ve realized? Imagine two couples who are nearly identical, including being equally happy in their marriages—both become first-time parents, but for one couple the transition is much less smooth. For this couple, their child comes early, spends two weeks in the NICU, and then requires even more around-the-clock care than the usual infant for the first several months of life. The couple doesn’t have family nearby and over the first six months of parenthood, they experience a level of exhaustion they did not know was possible. The second couple has their baby right on time, brings their child home quickly, and with the support of nearby grandparents they settle relatively easily into this new transition. Their infant wakes them up at night at the beginning, but by six weeks is “sleeping through the night.” Once a week the grandparents come over to babysit so the couple can have a night out together. One year later we check back in with these couples and find that one couple is incredibly unhappy with their marriage. This couple believes that becoming parents brought out unseen cracks in their relationship. Both partners feel unsupported as they struggle to juggle work and family life. They have a difficult time making big decisions together and weeks go by where they barely speak to each other or spend quality time together. Their marriage feels like a low priority and both partners confide that some days they wonder whether they wouldn’t be better off divorcing. The other couple is very happy, reporting that becoming parents brought them closer together in ways they couldn’t have imagined. They feel like a real team and love watching each other be a parent to their child. They make sure to take time at the end of each day to sit and talk about the events of their day, no matter how mundane. Although they are both busy with work, they try to support each other in whatever ways they can. I bet it doesn’t take a second guess to figure out which couple is the unhappy one.
Two marriages that started out so similarly are now in vastly different places just one year later. Is it because of those unseen cracks in the first couple’s relationship? Did they have poorer communication skills? Did they not love each other as much? Or, did they just get unlucky? If their child hadn’t been born prematurely, if their child had slept through the night by six weeks, if they had had familial support nearby, would they report that becoming parents strengthened their relationship?
Random chance isn’t everything—lots of couples face stressful events and not all of them end up unhappy. Couples have preemie babies and lost sleep and don’t divorce. But accounting for personality, relationship characteristics, and other controllable factors just doesn’t account for everything. Even the most loving, communicative couples are going to have a hard time when they get one unlucky break after another. When you are in survival mode, as you might be with a full-time job, an infant who needs special care, broken sleep every night, and no outside support, there isn’t much extra energy left to be supportive of your spouse. And so neither partner feels supported, and a vicious downward spiral begins. Years later as the couple contemplates divorce, it might seem that the relationship was doomed to fail and becoming parents just revealed inevitable cracks in the foundation. But was it? This is the question I am asking myself after reading the article on the role of random chance in success. Was that relationship doomed to fail, or was that couple just one of the unlucky ones? If circumstances had been different, if they had caught even one lucky break, might that couple have stayed happily married?
Bad breaks don’t have to be as sudden or clear of a transition as becoming parents. There are a lot of lucky and unlucky breaks that happen in relationships. Just in our day-to-day life, how we respond to the same relationship event depends on so many factors outside of our control. Imagine your partner says they are making dinner but when you get home from work they haven’t even started cooking. Do you respond positively, assume something happened that prevented them from doing it and work together to make dinner? Or do you get irritated, think of all the other times they've let you down, and accuse them of never doing what they say they'll do? Your response depends on your personality, your communication skills, and how satisfied you are with your relationship, but it also depends on how well you slept last night, whether you had a stressful day at work, how hungry you are, and maybe even the weather (an unexpected warm, blue day at the beginning of Spring? Maybe you’ll give your partner a break!).
One fight about dinner because you were stressed at work isn’t going to end your relationship the next day, but these moments have the power to build on each other, especially if you there are a lot of things that aren't currently going your way. You get mad at your partner for the late for the late dinner. Your partner gets defensive, goes to bed angry, and gets irritable the next day when you forget to pick up milk on the way home. You feel the irritation is completely unwarranted and end up spending your evening in stony silence since you are both too tired and stressed to have a productive conversation. Without time, energy, or motivation to override this silence, it continues for days. And what started from one small event determined by chance turns into a serious relationship issue.
So what do you do? You can’t prevent bad breaks, but in my next post I’ll describe a few evidence-based ways for you to minimize their impact. In the meantime, try to identify the random factors (good and bad) that influence your relationship.