Three (Non-Physical) Ingredients for a Great Relationship
Want a satisfying relationship? Here are three ways to fan the flame.
Posted Mar 30, 2018
What makes a great relationship? Off the top of our heads, we might say “attraction,” “chemistry,” “communication,” or “understanding.” Sure, those factors enhance relationships. But they may not be sufficient to sustain them.
Attraction sparks interaction — initially, anyway. Moving from the superficial to the durable, however, long-term relationships demand a deeper connection and require other factors to fan the flame.
Similarly, chemistry often fuels short-term compatibility. Yet lasting commitment requires additional components for our interest to mature into investment.
Communication is a double-edged sword, considering the proclivity many partners have to speak clearly — out of anger or resentment. Many couples have no trouble engaging in negative, toxic communication, sometimes bordering on verbal abuse. And with respect to understanding, many unhappy couples completely understand that they are struggling with serious relationship issues, yet lack the resources (or desire) to move forward.
Happy couples, on the other hand, might not be able to articulate the secret of their success. Unable to offer a quick prescription of the magic pills that make their bond succeed, they might explain that their relationship “just works.”
Thankfully, there is more to the story: Research reveals there are traits in common that strengthen and solidify strong relationships, and fuel relational satisfaction and commitment. Here are three:
1. The Allure of Appreciation
Everyone has experienced the disappointment of feeling taken for granted. As we might expect, individuals in successful relationships take steps to ensure their partners are spared such discontent.
Gordon et al. (2016) explored the link between gratitude and relational maintenance.[i] In an article entitled “To Have and to Hold,” they demonstrated that partners who feel more appreciated appreciate their partners more. In turn, appreciating our partner makes us more responsive to our partner's needs and strengthens relational commitment.
They found evidence validating their prediction that people feel most appreciated by partners who engage in relationship-maintenance behaviors. Such behaviors include being responsive — one of the ways that romantic partners communicate appreciation. Interestingly, they found that people felt more appreciated by partners whom outside observers also rated as being more committed and responsive during laboratory interactions than less responsive/committed counterparts.
They also found a link between appreciation and relationship duration. Specifically, as compared to those who felt less appreciative, participants who felt more appreciative of their partners were more likely to still be in the relationship nine months later.
2. The Attraction of Humility
We live in a world of self-promotion, in which showcasing assets and accomplishments is standard practice, both personally and professionally. After parties and networking events, you come home with a handful of other people's business cards — many with barely enough space to contain all of the degrees and letters after their names. Online, many social media sites are clogged with users boasting, bragging, and tagging.
Yet when it comes to relational satisfaction, research shows that humility is golden: If your partner is humble, you may feel more committed, satisfied, and willing to forgive.
Farrell et al., in “Humility and Relationship Outcomes in Couples” (2015), examined the impact of a partner's perceived humility on relationship satisfaction, level of commitment, and forgiveness.[ii] They found that perceptions of partner humility were positively linked to relationship outcomes such as forgiveness and relational satisfaction, and this link was partially mediated by the level of commitment.
Note that authenticity is important here as well. Humility cannot be faked; indeed, the moment you try to prove that you are humble, you have just demonstrated that you are not.
3. Dependence Promotes Commitment
Research by Wieselquist et al. (1999), aptly entitled “Commitment, Pro-Relationship Behavior, and Trust in Close Relationships,” examined the interrelationships between exactly those factors.[iii]
They found that dependence promotes commitment, which in turn promotes pro-relationship behavior. Pro-relationship acts in turn increase a partner's trust, which increases his or her willingness to become relationship dependent. They quote Elizabeth von Arnim in The Enchanted April describing an example of such a self-fulfilling prophecy as a virtuous, rather than vicious, circle.
Many partners who correctly identify trust as one of the ingredients of a successful relationship regularly engage in (and reap the benefits of) this type of virtuous dynamic without even realizing it.
Relational Investment Yields Results
The good news is that moving from the physical to the emotional, as relationships develop over time, involves factors and behaviors within our control. As time passes, physical beauty fades, but emotional security grows. Authentic relational investment will create a solid pairing that will stand the test of time.
[i] Amie M. Gordon, Christopher Oveis, Emily A. Impett, Aleksandr Kogan, and Dacher Keltner, ”To Have and to Hold: Gratitude Promotes Relationship Maintenance in Intimate Bonds,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103, no. 2 (2012): 257-274.
[ii] Jennifer E. Farrell, Joshua N. Hook, Marciana Ramos, Daryl R. Van Tongeren, Don E. Davis, and John M. Ruiz, ”Humility and Relationship Outcomes in Couples: The Mediating Role of Commitment,” Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice 4, no. 1 (2015): 14-26.
[iii] Jennifer Wieselquist, Caryl E. Rusbult, Craig A. Foster, and Christopher R. Agnew, “Commitment, Pro-Relationship Behavior, and Trust in Close Relationships,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77, no. 5 (1999): 942-966.