We’ve all seen good and bad romantic relationships. Perhaps some of us have experienced both kinds.
But what is the magical combination of factors that makes a relationship flourish? A team of scientists led by Samantha Joel of Western University in Canada has an answer. Analyzing data from 11,196 romantic couples recruited by approximately 30 research laboratories, Joel and her team found that people who held a steadfast belief that their partner was committed to the relationship were most likely to report being in a flourishing relationship. Commitment mattered more to the quality of a relationship than trust, passion, support, affection, and sexual frequency.
According to the researchers, “The most reliable (top five) relationship variables were perceived partner commitment (‘My partner wants our relationship to last forever’). Appreciation (‘I feel very lucky to have my partner in my life’). Sexual satisfaction (‘How satisfied are you with the quality of your sex life?’) Perceived partner satisfaction (‘Our relationship makes my partner very happy’.) And conflict (‘How often do you have fights with your partner?’)."
These results are consistent with prior research, which has also shown commitment, appreciation, sexual satisfaction, perceived partner satisfaction, and conflict to be important components of what psychologists call ‘relationship quality,’ or the perception that a romantic relationship is either good or bad.
To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers used a machine-learning algorithm to rank the factors most important to a relationship’s success or failure. They found that people’s impressions of their relationship were more accurate in predicting relationship quality than individual difference measures such as gender, age, personality traits, or religious persuasion. To be precise, subjective impressions explained approximately 45 percent of people’s relationship satisfaction while individual difference measures explained only about 20 percent.
Among the most important individual difference measures were life satisfaction (‘The conditions of my life are excellent’). Negative emotion (‘feeling distressed,’ ‘feeling irritable’). Depression (‘feeling hopeless’). Attachment anxiety (‘I worry about a lot about my relationships with others’). And attachment avoidance (‘I prefer not to be too close to romantic partners’). It is unlikely that someone who is struggling with deep-seated personal/attachment issues will be able to sustain a healthy relationship.
As impressive as all of this might seem, the researchers were equally struck by the model’s limitations. Even with all that data (over a million data points in total), the team was unable to predict people’s current relationship quality with a high degree of precision. They were also unable to reliably predict changes in relationship satisfaction over time.
“Relationship-quality change (that is, increases or decreases in relationship quality over the course of a study) was largely unpredictable from any combination of self-report variables,” say the researchers. “These results are consistent with another recent large collaboration showing that life trajectories are generally difficult to predict, even with complex machine-learning methods.”
Perhaps the most noteworthy conclusion, however, was that a partner’s evaluation of the relationship did nothing to increase the model’s ability to predict relationship quality beyond the information already given by one partner. The authors state, “Our results suggest that if Amir and Alex each complete many questionnaires about themselves and their relationship, all of the predictable variances in their relationship quality will be explained solely by their own perceptions of that relationship.” Relationships, it seems, are very much in the eye of the beholder.
The implications of this research are far-reaching. For one, this work gives mental health clinicians a new roadmap to use in their relationship counseling. For instance, focusing on improving partner commitment above other aspects of relationship quality might prove more efficacious than other modes of treatment. Moreover, improving romantic relationships is not just a matter of personal importance, it is important to public health as well. According to research, people in positive relationships tend to be happier, healthier, and more productive. They also tend to raise more well-adjusted children. Society, as a whole, benefits from a better understanding of the forces that promote relationship satisfaction.
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Joel, S., Eastwick, P. W., Allison, C. J., Arriaga, X. B., Baker, Z. G., Bar-Kalifa, E., ... & Carmichael, C. L. (2020). Machine learning uncovers the most robust self-report predictors of relationship quality across 43 longitudinal couples studies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(32), 19061-19071.