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What Do We Look for in a Lasting Relationship?

Could this theory help explain successful pairings?

What should we look for when we look for love? Though love itself can be described by various theories and in different ways, many consider it a precursor to the "happily ever after"; a feeling which brings long-term joy and willing commitment. But, as the vast majority of all romantic relationships end, what is it that most of us get so wrong? Do relationships simply 'run their course'? In a way, the answer, at least according to one time-bound theory, is 'yes':

Stockpic/Pexels CC0
Source: Stockpic/Pexels CC0

According to Murstein's 'Stimulus-Value-Role Theory of Marital Choice', it all comes down to what we find important, and—more importantly—when.

As the theory posits, in the first stage of a relationship, when we first encounter someone, we find basic stimuli to be important. This 'stimuli' generally comprises what can be gathered upon first glance: Are we attracted to them? Based on visual cues, we can also determine things that we might consider important, which can further fuel the attraction like religion, level of education, income, and so on.

As intimacy grows, however, we enter the second stage, where what becomes important to both individuals in a relationship is exactly that—what they find important, or, in other words, what they value. It is of little use to have a partner who we believe looks perfect, if we value monogamy and they do not, or if we plan to have children, but our partner does not. Another example of this might be honesty: If one partner earnestly values being truthful at all costs, while the other believes that white lies might be beneficial, it would be difficult to sustain a long-term relationship without worry, trust issues, and, potentially, a lack of respect. Nevertheless, if a couple has similar values and attitudes, which tends to be determined on our second to seventh encounter of that person, then we are likely to continue on with the relationship.

As intimacy further increases, we enter the third stage of a relationship, which occurs during our eighth encounter and beyond, where the role each person plays within the relationship becomes most important. In day-to-day life, what is paramount for a joyful relationship becomes the role that each partner plays for each other and, later in life, in one's family.

Although not all couples follow this pattern, and some can progress through the stages at different times and at different rates, when it comes to successful relationships, attraction, having similar values, and being compatible in our daily lives leads to success.


Murstein, B. I. (1970). Stimulus. Value. Role: A theory of marital choice. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 465-481.