Will Your Relationship Have a Short Shelf-life? How to Tell

Some key indicators indicate what relationships will end while others endure.

Posted May 26, 2018

Cultura Motion/Shutterstock
Source: Cultura Motion/Shutterstock

Whether you’re hoping to heal conflict in your relationship or, if things are going well, maintain your good connection into the future, you know that doing either is complicated. To establish and sustain a romantic and sexual relationship is a challenge in many ways — understanding each other on a deep, intimate level; fostering honest communication; and growing your intimacy are all difficult, especially amid multiple external demands and everyday stress and responsibilities. Paradoxically, the most unlikely-seeming relationships often prove to be the most sustaining. And those that appear made in heaven often dissolve, to the consternation of friends and family. Why is this?

What can help you clear these muddy waters is learning what knowledge we have about relationships that succeed or fail, that result in a short shelf-life or continued growth. Some of the most useful information reflects academic, empirical research that validates what we know and observe clinically from people’s real-life, everyday situations and experiences — that is, when academic research data and clinical findings go hand-in-hand.

The problem is that they often don’t, and that creates confusion and misleading information. Recently I came across two different studies that illustrate the downside of that kind of academic research. It usually consists of tests of situations that the researchers think mimic “real life," and then flawed conclusions are drawn from the results.

Let’s look at the studies: Their conclusions don’t help clarify when a relationship might be in danger, or when it might last. But that very failure points to what you need to know that can be helpful:

The first study, of 151 heterosexual men and women, concluded that those who are most attracted to “bling” — material wealth, flashy possessions, and the like — will prefer short-term relationships. Participants were asked to look at pictures of potential partners and rate them according to whether they would prefer a short-term or long-term relationship with each one. Then they were shown images of material wealth, such as fast cars, jewelry, and mansions. Afterward, they were asked to rate the pictures of potential partners once again. This time, both the men and women selected significantly more partners for a short-term relationship than they did previously.

From the study, conducted by Swansea University in Wales, the researchers concluded, "Not all people prefer long-term committed relationships,” adding that perhaps people who see available resources prefer a short-term relationship. The researchers emphasized the importance of visual cues. For example, “When the participants were given cues that the environment contained young children, they were more likely to select individuals for a long-term relationship. Dangerous environments seemed to cause both men and women to choose more long-term partners, though some women chose more short-term partners instead." The study was described here and published in Evolution and Human Behavior.

This is interesting data, derived from an experimental, controlled study. Its shortcoming is that it doesn’t reflect what plays out in people’s real-life situations over time — that is, why might some people who are more materialistic also seek out a short-term fling, while others don’t? What enables acquiring self-awareness about what, in fact, they seek from a relationship, and how that relates to their interest in material wealth? Perhaps security, to mask deep feelings of inadequacy? Self-aggrandizement, via “possessing” then discarding one short-term relationship after another? Or is there any connection at all between their enjoyment of material possessions and the kinds of relationships they seek? These questions reflect complex psychological issues, such as shaping influences in the person’s development, their life experiences, and the values they’ve acquired.

The second study, from the University of California at Davis, found that long-term and short-term relationships look the same initially, but "long-term and short-term trajectories typically pull apart after you've known someone for weeks or months," said lead author Paul Eastwick. "In the beginning, there is no strong evidence that people can tell whether a given relationship will be long-term and serious or short-term and casual."

That sounds true enough. But then the study found that romantic interest tends to plateau and decline in short-term relationships, while in long-term relationships, it continues to ascend and reaches a higher peak. The divergence occurs when the relationship starts to become sexual. (This study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.)

These findings strike me as confused regarding the actual role of sexual interest upon long- versus short-term relationships. Again, it sounds like a simplified and theoretical explanation that doesn’t mesh with what people actually experience and what drives what they do in their relationship. For example, in contrast to the above finding about “divergence," there are situations in which partners experience a high level of sexual attraction and compatibility from the beginning — which sustains even when the relationship doesn’t last. These are partners who end their relationship for a variety of reasons, and yet continue to feel sexually engaged (and even active) with each other post-breakup or post-divorce.

Then, there are those who report a relatively low level of sexual attraction at the beginning of a relationship, but then it continues to grow, and the relationship becomes a long-term commitment. Clinically, some such couples experience a steady growth in sexual enjoyment over time, as their overall relationship deepens and grows stronger. In short, the sense of being on the same “wavelength” can enhance and raise the sexual connection as a byproduct of a deepening, connected relationship. 

The upshot, in my view: Some research studies can add confirming data to what we learn clinically from what people actually do in relationships that leads to a dead-end or long-term intimacy. But it’s far more multidimensional than the findings of some of the academic studies.

Among those key multidimensions are the following:

Identify your values.

The things that are truly important to you become the drivers in your choice of romantic partners or anything else. That requires honest self-examination and self-awareness about your larger vision of life — what you’re seeking, and what your current values lead to, good or bad, over the long term.

Play the long game.

Awareness of what you’re aiming for in a sexual/romantic/spiritual partnership is key. Accept that it takes time to recognize what emerges over time in your relationship and what that tells you. Your sexual relationship is interwoven with the depth and authenticity of your overall connection, and will rise or fall with it. What goes on in the bedroom reflects the state of intimacy and connection in the entire relationship.

Build alignment.

The sustaining, growing relationship, in contrast to the one with a short-shelf life, reflects synchronicity between you and your partner’s vision of life — separately and as a couple. These suggestions can help clarify that:

  • Open up with each other about how you view the state of your relationship at this moment. Identify the strengths, and the areas that are not as desirable.
  • Reflect on why the two of you came together in the first place: How have you both changed since you’ve been together? How do you experience the changes in each other?
  • What do you want a relationship to look and feel like as you go forward? Compare and discuss where you are aligned, and, where you aren’t, ask what qualities each of you would like to see in your partner. What are you willing to “grow” within yourself in response to the feedback your partner gives you?