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How Confident Are You That Your Relationship Can Work?

Research suggests how to test and improve your relationship confidence.

You’re constantly wondering whether you and your partner have a future together. Although you’ve made a commitment to each other to stay the course, there are days when you question if it’s possible to fulfill that commitment.

You and your partner have just had yet another a blow-up over a relatively minor issue, in this case, while both of you are grabbing breakfast. On top of similarly small but irritating blow-ups, you become convinced that this is the last straw. You’re on the verge of saying, “I hate you and I’m leaving,” but something stops you at the last minute, and you hold back from expressing your rage. By dinner time, you’ve calmed down. Glad you didn’t throw it all away, you and your partner actually have a nice, calm, evening together.

This belief that your relationship won’t last may come and go, with days that you’re sure it’s over and others when you can’t imagine life without your partner. Researchers refer to the feeling of certainty that you can indeed stick it out as “relationship confidence,” or the belief that your relationship will succeed and that you and your partner have the skills to be able to maintain it over time.

If you think that you and your partner have the skills to make it work, this means that you believe each of you can navigate conflict and figure out ways to overcome those inevitable little hiccups that occur in any interpersonal relationship, close or otherwise. This sense of expectation differentiates relationship confidence from relationship satisfaction. Judging your satisfaction involves gauging your levels of happiness by assessing how well you feel things are actually going.

In a recent study, University of Alberta’s Matthew Johnson and colleagues (2020) propose that relationship researchers have unfortunately neglected to look at relationship confidence and instead only focused on happiness and satisfaction. Johnson et al. believe that, in accordance with social psychologist Albert Bandura’s definition of self-efficacy, relationship confidence adds an important dimension to the understanding of why partners remain together.

Defining self-efficacy as “the belief in one’s ability to execute the actions needed to achieve a desired outcome in the course of one’s life," the authors maintain that self-efficacy with respect to relationships operates according to the principle of “reciprocal causation.” This means that relationship confidence represents the joint effects of your personal qualities, your behavior, and your environment. Your partner's relationship skills, in this sense, become part of that reciprocal causation.

Johnson et al. propose that the quality of relationship confidence should have the potential, perhaps even more than relationship satisfaction, to predict the long-term outcomes for couples over time. Furthermore, with its skill-based definition, relationship confidence should be subject to interventions if the relationship does get into trouble. Using a sample of nearly 1,300 young adults (ages 18 to 34) in a committed but unmarried relationship, the Canadian-led research team conducted 11 surveys over a 4-year period to investigate not only the course of their relationships, but the factors that influenced the trajectories of relationship confidence over time.

At the beginning of the investigation, the participants averaging 26 years of age (63% female, 75% White) and were all in committed relationships. Just over one-third were raising children in the home with 17% having a child with a prior partner. The items on the primary measure of interest, the Relationship Confidence Questionnaire, included the following items. Rate your level of agreement with each of these statements on a 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) scale.

  1. I feel good about our prospects to make this relationship work for a lifetime.
  2. I am very confident when I think of our future together.
  3. I believe we can handle whatever conflicts will arise in the future.
  4. We have the skills to make a marriage last.
  5. We can handle whatever comes our way.

As you can surmise from these items, the first two assessed general confidence and the remaining three tapped the skill-focused confidence. The scores on this measure for the Johnson et al. sample were relatively high (averaging between 5.5 and 6 out of 7 per item. If yours fall in the 4 or below range, this suggests that your relationship confidence may need a boost.

The predictors of relationship confidence over time used in the Johnson et al. study included a set of demographic questions related to the couple's relationship such as whether they lived together, how long they had been together, and whether there were children in the home. The psychological predictors of relationship confidence trajectories included self-reports about how well their own parents got along as well as items assessing their attachment style as anxious, avoidant, or secure.

Over the course of the study, participants reported whether their relationship status changed over time. The investigators also asked participants to report on the quality of their interactions over time, such as whether they have fun together. On the negative side, participants reported on items assessing “Communication Danger,” which assessed the ways in which they resolved problems with items such as “Little arguments escalate into ugly fights with accusations, name-calling, or bringing up past hurts." Participants also completed a single measure of relationship happiness.

With 11 data points over the course of the 4 years of the study, the researchers were able to provide detailed estimates of which factors played the largest role in predicting the confidence trajectories. The findings also showed that, over time, having more positive interactions, fewer negative interactions, and greater satisfaction were the main factors influencing how certain the couples were that they could stay together. There were variations between individuals in changes of relationship confidence over time; for example, people who scored high in avoidant attachment had lower levels of relationship confidence, and for women, having a child with a previous partner also predicted lower levels of confidence at the study’s outset.

As the authors concluded, “it is clear that the developmental course of relationship confidence is shaped by the dynamics of the relationship itself… these different aspects of relationship functioning prove mutually reinforcing."

Thinking about your own relationship, when you’re getting along with your partner and keeping those small problems from escalating, you’ll feel more optimistic about your own skills and those of your partner to be able to continue being on a positive trajectory. In turn, these beliefs increase your motivation to prevent cracks from developing in your long-term bonds. During tough times, keeping your eye on the prize and believing you’ll get through them can pave the way for better outcomes. Indeed, as Johnson et al. suggest, building relationship confidence could provide a valuable tool for therapists to use when working with couples.

As an interesting side note, the authors also observed that the high levels of relationship confidence expressed by the young adult participants counter claims that "millennials" are cynical about their own prospects for finding a long-term partner. Although it was true that about one-third of the sample participants broke up over the course of the study, the fact that they entered into long-term committed relationships with high hopes suggests that they believed in the idea that relationships can work, especially after meeting a person with whom they wanted to form a close bond.

To sum up, you may not be able to control all the outside factors that affect your beliefs about being able to make your relationship work. You might also have bad days once in a while. However, if you believe you and your partner have the skills to get through those bad days may be a controllable factor that will allow you to find fulfillment as those days turn to years.

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Johnson, M. D., Lavner, J. A., Barton, A. W., Stanley, S. M., & Rhoades, G. K. (2020). Trajectories of relationship confidence in intimate partnerships. Journal of Family Psychology, 34(1), 24–34. doi: 10.1037/fam0000575