Why do relationships end? Chronically low relationship satisfaction seems like a reasonable guess. After all, relationship satisfaction is a global judgment of how happy you are with your relationship (Li & Fung, 2011). If you're regularly unhappy or unsatisfied, that's the start of the end, right?
Not so fast. As you probably know, relationships have risks. Factors outside of satisfaction, like risk perception and reward perception, maybe the driving forces predicting relationship stability. Relationship satisfaction might be less of a core problem, and more of an outcome, than these risk/reward perceptions.
How risky is your relationship?
Risks are inherently a part of any relationship. To the extent that we put our happiness in someone else's hands, we are taking a gamble that they'll treat us well. In many ways, romantic relationships are a dynamic tug-of-war between self-protection goals and relationship-promotion goals (Murray, Holmes, & Collins, 2006). We like to protect ourselves from the risk of rejection, but we also know that to be close to people, we need to make ourselves vulnerable. The joys of a happy relationship are only accessible to those who take the leap.
Recently, scientists have expanded upon this risk-regulation idea by thinking about romantic relationships along two dimensions that are distinct from satisfaction: social reward and social threat. Social reward is conceptualized as the pull that keeps people approaching their relationships, and it includes feelings of intimacy, love, and connection. Social threat pushes people away from relationships; it includes evaluation concerns and worries about rejection.
Social rewards tell us about intimacy and love
Social reward is different from satisfaction. While you might be more satisfied with greater social rewards, these two judgments have different foundations. Social rewards include feelings of love, intimacy, and connection; global satisfaction judgments might be comparative ("this is better than anything else available to me") or grounded in goal achievement ("I'm able to go places and do things I couldn't otherwise because I'm with this person").
Do social rewards and/or social threats predict breakups?
In a well-powered longitudinal study, with over 4,000 participants, researchers evaluated the extent to which social rewards and social threats predicted romantic breakups (Park, Impell, Spielmann, Joel, & MacDonald, 2020). Over a period of 10-weeks, participants completed weekly surveys about their relationship and its stability; if they broke up, they had the option of participating in a 27-day daily-diary study, and 111 willing participants did so. One month later, a follow-up survey on post-relationship adjustment was sent out and completed by 76 of the daily-diary participants.
Are low social rewards a problem? Yes. Perceiving low intimacy, low love, and weak feelings of connection (all under the umbrella of social rewards) was associated with a greater likelihood of breaking up. Surprisingly, higher or lower perceived social threats made no impact on a relationship's likelihood of ending. It is low rewards, not high concerns, that undermine relationship health.
More surprising is that social rewards predicted breakups even when the researchers controlled for relationship satisfaction and attachment security. This means that social rewards may tell us more about a relationship's stability than global judgments of low satisfaction (or attachment insecurity).
The importance of social rewards
Social rewards, such as the feelings of meaningful connection and intimacy, are perhaps more important to relationship functioning than previously thought. They seem to be critical gains in relationships that outweigh general feelings of satisfaction. Perhaps this suggests an intervention point: could we help stabilize uncertain relationships by helping couples reap more rewards from their relationship experiences?
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Spielmann, S. S., MacDonald, G., & Tackett, J. L. (2012). Social threat, social reward, and regulation of investment in romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 19(4), 601-622.
Li, T., & Fung, H. H. (2011). The dynamic goal theory of marital satisfaction. Review of General Psychology, 15, 246-254.
Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Collins, N. L. (2006). Optimizing assurance: The risk regulation system in relationships. Psychological Bulletin, 132(5), 641-666.
Park, Y., Impett, E. A., Spielmann, S. S., Joel, S., & MacDonald, G. (2020). Lack of intimacy prospectively predicts breakup. Social Psychological and Personality Science, Advanced online publication.