Can you predict what the next five, ten, or twenty-five years of your romantic relationship might feel like? Will your relationship persist in its current state (be that blissful joy or annoying aggravation), get better in surprising ways, sour and become increasingly challenging, or might it end altogether?
To think about the time course of a relationship is to contemplate its trajectory. To be on a specific trajectory means that your relationship is likely headed in a particular direction. In other words, if you know a bit about where you've been, you might have information that can be useful in predicting your relationship's future.
The Bad News: Satisfaction Often Declines
If honeymoons feel particularly sweet, maybe that's because people report decreasing satisfaction in their relationships as the years go by. As dismal as it sounds, quite a body of research supports this idea (e.g., Umbersom et al., 2005). If you look at the data, on average, relationship happiness and satisfaction peak early and decline, somewhat linearly, over time.
These declines persist even in the face of pretty poor marriage stability, which at least in theory, would drop the low-satisfaction relationships out of the longer-term participant sample. Within 10 years of marriage, over a third of couples divorce (Bramlett & Mosher, 2001), removing them from the sample of long-standing relationships. Yet research still shows less satisfaction for couples who are together longer. This is consistent with the idea that those couples who stay together are not necessarily happy. By some accounts, a good third of seemingly stable marriages are distressed (Whisman, Beach, & Snyder, 2008).
The Good News: Satisfaction Declines Are Not Universal
A fascinating new line of research challenges the idea that all marriages experience satisfaction declines. Indeed, to assume they do may be markedly off-base (Lavner & Bradbury, 2010; 2019). Consider what an average score does: it collapses satisfaction scores across all varied relationships. By focusing only on averages, we might fail to see important variations in relationship trajectories.
Might couples be organized by meaningful differences in their trajectories? Using data from 232 newly married heterosexual couples followed over a 4 year period and 172 over a ten year period, they identified five different types of relationships with unique trajectories (Lavner & Bradbury, 2010). While overall satisfaction declined over time, this was not universal, as suggested by the data they collected separately from husbands and wives in their sample.
Which Trajectory Reflects Your Relationship?
- Stable: High Satisfaction. About 13% of husbands and 20% of wives enjoy a rare and special kind of romantic relationship, the kind that keeps on delivering high relationship satisfaction even as the years go by. These couples reported high relationship satisfaction at each measurement time point.
- Minimal Decline: Moderately High Satisfaction. More than a third of the sample (36% husbands, 34% wives) reported strong relationship satisfaction, with only slight declines over time.
- Minimal Decline: Moderate Satisfaction. Some couples start off decently happy and only drop off a bit from that initial starting point. Both husbands (32%) and wives (28%) in this category indicated moderate relationship satisfaction at the start, with only somewhat of a negative trajectory in satisfaction over time.
- Substantial Decline: Moderate. About 12% of husbands and wives reported moderate satisfaction, but this was fairly short-lived. Over the four years of the study, the decline in relationship satisfaction was steep and substantial.
- Substantial Decline: Low Satisfaction. Some relationships struggle right from the beginning. In this study, 6% of participants started off with low relationship satisfaction and reported rapid decline from there, ending with the lowest satisfaction across the different relationship groups.
What Differentiates These Trajectory Groups?
Trying to figure out where you might fall among these trajectories isn't easy. The evidence suggests these trajectories cannot be differentiated by demographic variables, like income bracket, race, or ethnicity, neither does co-habitation before marriage seem relevant. Positive affect tended to be higher for people in healthier trajectories, whereas those in stronger declining trajectories often reported more stress, more neuroticism, lower self-esteem, more aggressive tendencies, and more negative affect (Lavner & Bradbury, 2010). But whether these negative personality and life experiences (e.g., stress) are the chicken or the egg is hard to say.
What's most surprising about these trajectories is that, while they do a decent job predicting divorce, they're not perfect. For husbands in the first sample of participants, 4% of husbands in the stable-high group divorced; for wives, 3%. In the second sample over the ten year period, 9% of husbands and 13% of wives divorced. Consider this for a moment: Satisfaction alone is not predicting divorce. Still, no doubt, this is markedly different from the 36% of husbands and 54% of wives in the "substantial decline - low satisfaction" group who experienced a divorce over in the 4-year sample; and the 56% of husbands and 60% of wives in this same low satisfaction, steep decline group whose relationships dissolved over ten years.
While satisfaction is important, these data point to the fact that it isn't the only predictor relationship stability.
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Umberson, D., Williams, K., Powers, D. A., Chen, M. D., & Campbell, A. M. (2005). As good as it gets? A life course perspective on marital quality. Social Forces, 84, 493-511.
Lavner, J. A., & Bradbury, T. N. (2019). Trajectories and maintenance in marriage and long-term committed relationships. New Directions in the Psychology of Close Relationships, 28-44.
Lavner, J. A., & Bradbury, T. N. (2010). Patterns of change in marital satisfaction over the newlywed years. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(5), 1171-1187.
Bramlett, M. D., & Mosher, W. D. (2001). First marriage dissolution, divorce, and remarriage. In National Center for Health Statistics.
Whisman, M. A., Beach, S. R., & Snyder, D. K. (2008). Is marital discord taxonic and can taxonic status be assessed reliably? Results from a national, representative sample of married couples. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(5), 745-755.