How Steady Can You Expect Relationship Satisfaction to Be?
New findings on context, identity, and stability.
Posted July 21, 2022 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- Individual differences in relationship satisfaction are highly stable over time.
- Stability of individual differences is strongest in older adults and in long-term couples.
- A couple's relationship context and relationship identity may explain the increasing stability.
We want to be happy in our romantic relationships, but evidence shows that satisfaction with the romantic relationship declines over time. These changes, however, reflect changes in a large sample of individuals and they do not inform about the stability of individual differences in relationship satisfaction (Roberts & DelVecchio, 2000; Roberts et al., 2006). The latter would indicate that a person’s ranking in relationship satisfaction at one point (relative to others) can inform about that person’s ranking in relationship satisfaction at a later point.
For example, let’s consider the three friends Max, Emma, and Alex. Relative to Max and Emma, Alex has the highest relationship satisfaction at one point. All three friends will decline in their relationship satisfaction over time, but if the stability of individual differences in relationship satisfaction is high, then Alex will still have the highest relationship satisfaction at the later point. But how stable are individual differences in relationship satisfaction? A recent meta-analysis that I conducted with my colleague Ulrich Orth provides some answers (Bühler & Orth, in press).
Data from more than 150,000 people
Synthesizing the available longitudinal data on rank-order stability, recent findings show that the average stability of individual differences in relationship satisfaction is high (r = .76). This estimate is based on data from more than 150,000 people from 148 samples. But what does it mean? It means that, from the three example friends, Alex (who had the highest relationship satisfaction at one point) would also have the highest relationship satisfaction at the later point. So, our current relationship satisfaction is indeed a good predictor of our future relationship satisfaction.
How do age and relationship duration matter?
The findings also showed that the stability of individual differences in relationship satisfaction developed differently across the life span. How? Stability increased from age 19 to age 71 with the strongest increase from age 20 to 30. Stability also increased from three months after beginning the relationship to 46 years with the strongest increase during the first 10 years of a relationship. Hence, the older couple members are and the longer they have been in their relationship, the more stable their individual differences in relationship satisfaction are. Interestingly, relationship duration, compared to age, tended to be the more dominant time metric. But what are potential reasons for this increasing stability over the course of the relationship?
There are at least two mechanisms that could explain the increasing stability of individual differences in relationship satisfaction in relationships of longer duration. The first mechanism concerns the context of the couple. Long-term couples often have established more stable and more consistent relationship contexts (such as living together and having similar daily habits), and stable contexts contribute to stable individual differences in relationship satisfaction (Fraley & Roberts, 2005). Moreover, more satisfied individuals embedded in more stable contexts likely invest in their relationship (such as communicating effectively), which reinforces their level of relationship satisfaction and contributes to stable individual differences. The second mechanism concerns the identity of the relationship. Individuals who have a strong relationship identity tend to make decisions that are in line with their relationship identity, such as seeing a couple therapists when problems arise, which again strengthens their level of satisfaction.
Together, this might explain why Alex — and all others — tend to be stable in their individual differences in relationship satisfaction. So, our current relationship satisfaction is a good predictor of our relationship satisfaction in one year, in five years, and in 10 years. Especially, when we are older and in long-term relationships.
Bühler, J. L. & Orth, U. (in press). Rank-order stability of relationship satisfaction: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. See link.
Fraley, R. C., & Roberts, B. W. (2005). Patterns of continuity: A dynamic model for conceptualizing the stability of individual differences in psychological constructs across the life course. Psychological Review, 112(1), 60–74. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295x.112.1.60
Roberts, B. W., & DelVecchio, W. F. (2000). The rank-order consistency of personality traits from childhood to old age: A quantitative review of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin, 126(1), 3–25. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.126.1.3
Roberts, B. W., Walton, K. E., & Viechtbauer, W. (2006). Patterns of mean-level change in personality traits across the life course: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin, 132(1), 1–25. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.132.1.1