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The New Measure of Relationship Health

New research to help take your satisfaction with each other to a new level.

 Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock
Source: Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock

It may be psychological hair-splitting, but positive psychologists believe that there’s a difference between being satisfied and feeling that you are thriving and growing. Satisfaction, in the positive psychology literature, tends to imply that things are “OK.” Thriving and growing, what’s known as eudaimonia, implies that you are constantly moving upward in your levels of expressiveness and fulfillment. (Both stem from the related concept of happiness, which implies feeling good.)

Taking these concepts from the individual to the relationship, University of Miami researcher Blaine Fowers and colleagues (2016) developed the Relationship Flourishing Scale (RFS) to take the temperature of relationships in a new and perhaps more dynamic way than the measures currently available.

One key point that Fowers et al. make to justify the use of their scale is that the majority of relationship quality gauges available now don’t do a very good job of capturing the richness present in an enduring partnership. They note:

“[A]s couples live together over many years, the partners can mature together and shape one another’s identity and habits… creating a shared history and shared goals that often transcend individual satisfaction” (p. 997).

A measure of relationship flourishing would have greater richness and depth, providing a more realistic yardstick by which to gauge growth in relationships—both of the individuals and of their shared identity as a couple. As the authors state, it has the potential to contribute to “positive relationship science” (p. 1006).

Capturing relationship flourishing, the researchers argue, would have to take into account the following four components:

  • Meaning and purpose.
  • Personal growth.
  • Goal sharing.
  • Relational giving (prioritizing the partner more than oneself).

Harkening back to Aristotle, who proposed that “human beings are meaning-making, self-evaluating, and highly social creatures” (p. 999), Fowers and his colleagues thought that flourishing in relationships should not only reflect these four components, but also feed further into each individual’s ability to flourish.

The items on the RFS were arrived at through a whittling-down of a longer scale given to a sample of 408 married individuals who had been through nationwide sampling. The participants were an average of 43 years old, with an average length of marriage of 15 years. To validate the scale, the research team administered a set of standard relationship satisfaction questionnaires, including the readiness that the participants felt to initiate divorce. They also included some unconventional measures, including the extent to which participants felt they were “part of a couple,” how central the relationship was to them, and a Venn diagram measure of the inclusion of the other in the self. (Imaging intersection circles showing you and your partner with varying degrees of overlap. The greater the overlap, the more connected you feel—whether positively or negatively—to your partner.)

With this in mind, here at the 12 items that made it to the final form of the RFS. Try to answer each one about your own relationship using a scale of 1 to 5 (“strongly agree” or “always” is a 5):

  1. I have more success in my important goals because of my partner’s help.
  2. We look for activities that help us to grow as a couple.
  3. My partner has helped me to grow in ways that I could not have done on my own.
  4. It is worth it to share my most personal thoughts with my partner.
  5. When making important decisions, I think about whether it will be good for our relationship.
  6. It is natural and easy for me to do things that keep our relationship strong.
  7. Talking with my partner helps me to see things in new ways.
  8. I make it a point to celebrate my partner’s successes.
  9. I really work to improve our relationship.
  10. My partner shows interest in things that are important to me.
  11. We do things that are deeply meaningful to us as a couple.
  12. I make time when my partner needs to talk.

The items break down into the four categories of relationship flourishing as follows

  • Goal sharing—questions 1, 6, and 10
  • Personal growth—questions 2, 3, and 7
  • Meaning—questions 5, 9, and 11
  • Relational giving—questions 4, 8, and 12

For the most part, the RFS performed in practice as the authors had hoped: It provided additional explanatory value beyond a couple satisfaction measure and another scale assessing the ratio of positive to negative experiences in a relationship (i.e. “happiness”). However, this was a one-time correlational study, so disentangling flourishing from happiness or satisfaction becomes tricky. Further research is needed, as the authors note, to determine just how much additional explanatory value the RFS has beyond satisfaction and happiness, along with those other measures of couple identity and commitment.

But you can tell from your own scores just where your relationship’s strengths and weaknesses are: Do you and your partner score high on goal sharing but not on personal growth? When you answer honestly, would you say that one of you gives more than the other—and perhaps it’s your partner who’s the giver? Does your relationship, at times, seem shallower than you would like it to be? Can you talk about the groceries, but not about your feelings? The meaning scale provides some guidance as to areas that you might want to target for change.

The Fowers study shows that looking at your relationship in terms of behaviors can provide concrete suggestions for ways you can deepen and enrich your connection as you and your partner live out your years together. There may be days when you don’t feel all that happy, or even all that satisfied, but you know that in the long run, you feel fulfilled.

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 further questions about this post.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016


Fowers, B. J., Laurenceau, J., Penfield, R. D., Cohen, L. M., Lang, S. F., Owenz, M. B., & Pasipandoya, E. (2016). Enhancing relationship quality measurement: The development of the Relationship Flourishing Scale. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(8), 997-1007. doi:10.1037/fam0000263

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