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How to Break a Relationship Out of a Rut

New research points to a way to revive romance and connect more deeply,

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

It’s natural for even the best relationship to feel a little routine sometimes. The constant drumbeat of responsibilities at work and home, along with your other roles and obligations can set you and your partner adrift in a sea of sameness. It may seem beyond your economic reach—or even your ability—to get away from everything, but a vacation may be the antidote you need. Texas A&M University’s Angela Durko and James Petrick (2016) propose that people who decide to vacation together experience greater commitment to their relationship because they increase how satisfied they are with each other, and are less involved in other, competing, people and activities.

Think about what happens when you're on vacation traveling with your partner: At a far-off destination, your partner might be the only person you know. And when you're relieved of the pressures of daily life—cleaning the house, cooking meals, grocery shopping, maintaining the yard—you can look at each other across the breakfast table, for example, and focus on each other. It's now possible to have all the conversations you saved for a “quiet time." Because you’re in a pleasant spot and being spoiled at least a little, you might even feel pretty good about life. What better backdrop is there for rediscovering your partner’s many attractive qualities?

We all know that with the hassles of travel, not everything goes smoothly, so the picture may not always be quite that picturesque. Even so, when you're united against travel’s travails, from flight delays to traffic jams, you can offer each other comfort. In fact, it might be argued that the less perfect the trip, the better you discover each other’s hidden strengths.

One model of relationship commitment, known as the "Investment Model," proposes that our relationship commitment reflects not just satisfaction, but also the size of our "investment" into the relationship. The types of investments people make into their relationships include those that are extrinsic or tangible (e.g., shared friends, material possessions, finances, family) and intrinsic or intangible (e.g., time, memories, emotions). One way to think of investment is in terms of what would happen if your relationship ended. The stronger the sense of loss you feel at the thought of losing your partner, the greater the investment.

Through an online survey of 472 adults, 74 percent of whom were currently married and living together, the researchers investigated relationship satisfaction, satisfaction with the most recent vacation, investment in the relationship, attractiveness of alternatives to the relationship, and commitment. The analysis examined the directions of relationships in which vacation satisfaction would predict relationship satisfaction, which would in turn predict commitment. The roles of investment and attractiveness of alternatives were fed into the model as additional, possible predictors of commitment with the goal of comparing these sources of commitment to vacation satisfaction.

Here are examples from the questionnaires used in the study and what the researchers wanted to measure:

  • Extrinsic investment: “My relationship with my family and friends would be complicated if my partner and I were no longer together.”
  • Intrinsic involvement: "My sense of who I am is linked to my partner and our relationship.”
  • Vacation satisfaction: This was assessed with adjective pairs such as, “Terrible: Delighted” and “Frustrated: Contented.”
  • Commitment: Participants rated themselves on items such as, “I feel very attached to my partner."
  • Satisfaction: This was rated in terms of whether "Your partner meets your needs.”
  • Attraction to alternatives: “My needs for companionship and intimacy could easily be filled by another relationship."
  • Satisfaction with life: “So far, I have gotten the important things I want in life.”

The questionnaire measures were reasonably comprehensive, and each tapped a separate component of the overall model being tested. The primary question of interest was whether vacation satisfaction would predict relationship satisfaction which, in turn, would predict commitment. Investment size and quality of alternatives were the two remaining predictors of commitment. The findings showed that the best fit to the questionnaire scores indeed came in the direction of vacation satisfaction to relationship satisfaction and, in turn, to commitment. As the authors concluded, "Travel enhances relationships”:

“The travel industry could learn from the red wine and dark chocolate industries, which utilized knowledge of their products’ inherent benefits…once touted as a guilty pleasure (like red wine and chocolate), travel could possibly be promoted to include the benefits it has not only for an individual but for the couple’s relationship and their family.” (p. 913).

The kind of vacation that seems to have the most benefit is one that a couple actually enjoys. If a couple is to benefit from enduring that frustrating airplane ride or crowded highway, it should all lead to a place where both partners feel able to relax and have a good time. It’s also important, according to the authors, that the vacation be one that enhances how attracted the partners feel toward each other, rather than toward possible alternatives: “Vacations that present opportunities for individuals to fraternize with alternatives to their current significant other could likely decrease relationship commitment” (p. 914).

Surprisingly, investment in the relationship was not, in the final model, a significant contributor to overall commitment, either directly or indirectly, through relationship satisfaction. This doesn’t mean that investment doesn't have a role in influencing relationship commitment, but that in comparison to the stronger effect of vacation satisfaction, its role was minimized in the study.

We should keep in mind that couples weren’t being studied while on vacation, and that memory bias regarding past vacations may have softened the harsher edges of what might not have been a perfectly satisfactory trip. Indeed, cognitive dissonance suggests that people retroactively rate an expensive vacation as more satisfactory than it was in order to justify the time and cost. Regardless, what’s important isn’t what happened on a vacation, but how the vacation fit into the larger picture of a couple’s life together. A delayed flight might seem funny in retrospect—or you might even forget that it was delayed at all.

Taking time out of your schedule, even if it’s not for a high-end getaway, seems like a need, not a luxury, to keep your relationship as strong as possible. Fulfillment in your personal life can be enhanced by travel, and even more important, by travel with the person you care about most.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask questions about this post.

Reference

Durko, A. M., and Petrick, J. F. (2016). Travel as relationship therapy: Examining the effect of vacation satisfaction applied to the investment model. Journal of Travel Research, 55(7), 904-918. doi:10.1177/0047287515592970

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016

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