Are You in This Relationship for the Long Term?
Find out which factors help to determine whether your relationship will last.
Posted Apr 24, 2019
When beginning a new romantic relationship, you may want to ensure that you and your partner are invested in the relationship for the long term rather than the short term. However, recent research shows that at the beginning of a relationship, it is very difficult to tell which path your partnership will follow. In new relationships, both those which will eventually develop into long-term relationships and those which will end in the short term look similar, with romantic interest rising (Eastwick et al., 2018). According to the authors, the two relationship types don’t begin to diverge until couples have experienced about 15 events together (e.g., flirting, attending a party together, sharing a first kiss). After these shared experiences, romantic interest within the pair will either reach a plateau and then decline (thus leading to a shorter relationship) or continue to grow (leading to a longer relationship). However, there do seem to be some processes which are more important to long-term relationship success than short-term involvement.
Self-Enhancement vs. Self-Verification
Social psychologists make the distinction between self-enhancement (desiring that others will see you positively) and self-verification (desiring that others will see you as you truly are). Although intuitively we might expect that most of us desire to be seen positively, in our long-term relationships, we want our partners to see us as we truly are (Kwang and Swann, 2010). Swann et al. (1994) found that although dating partners are more likely to self-enhance, married partners are more likely to self-verify, and this tendency to self-verify in married partners is also associated with greater intimacy. These authors speculate that the shift from self-enhancement to self-verification in long-term relationships may occur slowly and may reflect couples’ comfort with the stability of their relationship. In fact, research exploring the accuracy and positivity of partners’ perceptions of one another shows that newlywed couples are most satisfied with their relationships when their partners perceive them accurately, whereas the positivity of couples’ evaluations is not related to their marital satisfaction (Luo and Snider, 2009). Interestingly, this same research shows that newlyweds are also more satisfied with their relationships when they overestimate how similar they are to one another.
A perceived similarity is an important precursor to romantic relationships. We tend to be attracted to others who are similar to us in terms of attitudes, personality, and demographic characteristics (see Fugère et al., 2015). Classic research shows that similarity may be more important to the maintenance of long-term rather than short-term relationships. For example, Byrne and Blaylock (1963) found that spouses are more similar to one another in their political attitudes, and that spouses perceive more similarity in their attitudes than actually exists (similar to Luo and Snider’s research discussed above). Furthermore, Keller and Young (1996) found that married couples were more similar to one another on characteristics such as imagination and intelligence than dating couples. Correspondingly, Clarkwest (2007) found that African-American couples who were less similar to one another in education and important attitudes were also at an increased risk for divorce. Although attitude similarity is more common in romantic couples than personality similarity, personality similarity may also be important to the maintenance of our long-term relationships. Importantly, couples do not necessarily match one another on individual traits (one partner may be more conscientious than the other), but they tend to match one another across traits. For example, if both you and your partner are relatively more extroverted and agreeable, and less neurotic and open to new experiences, your personality patterns across traits are likely more similar than your levels on any one particular trait. This “profile-based similarity” is strongly associated with romantic satisfaction in long-term couples (Luo and Klohnen, 2005).
Implicit attitudes are defined as “spontaneous affective reactions” (Eastwick et al., 2011). These automatic “gut” reactions to our partners are unconscious and therefore occur without our awareness. However, these unconscious attitudes can have a significant impact on our relationship outcomes. For example, a more positive implicit attitude toward a romantic partner is associated with a more secure attachment style in that relationship (Zayas and Shoda, 2005). Our implicit attitudes may also impact relationship satisfaction over time. McNulty and colleagues (2013) measured implicit attitudes by requiring couples to quickly categorize positive and negative words following photographs of their partner (responding more quickly to positive words indicates positive implicit attitudes toward a partner). Spouses’ implicit attitudes were positively associated with their marital satisfaction over a four-year period. Spouses who had more positive implicit attitudes toward one another also reported fewer relationship problems over time. Similar research also shows that nonverbal behaviors, such as smiles, eye contact, and a warm tone of voice, are related to couples’ positive implicit attitudes towards one another (Faure et al., 2018). These authors suggest that "micro-expressions and emotions [couples] spontaneously exhibit toward their partners" strongly impact the couples' relationship quality.
If you are hoping to discern whether your relationship will last over the long term, sharing who you really are with your partner, being similar to one another on important attitudes, and spontaneously evaluating one another positively suggest you are on the path to a long-term relationship.
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