New research shows the unexpected predictors of your relationship’s stability.

By Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.
Courtesy of Psychology Today

Everyone would undoubtedly love to be able to peer into the relationship crystal ball to know whether they will remain with their partners, and for how long. Researchers who study the course of long-term relationships are often faced with the limitations of the one-shot or cross-sectional method, in which marital or other committed partners rate their satisfaction along with other key measures of interest, such as degree of conflict. Long-term, or longitudinal, studies have the advantage of being able to follow relationships over time to determine whether the characteristics of the couple at Time 1 have an impact on those same characteristics at Time 2. To be maximally useful, the study should also be able to follow the couples who don’t stay together, as they present the true test of the ability of the researchers to predict what the secrets are to couples remaining together.

You may believe you don’t need research to provide you with the keys to predicting a relationship’s length. Perhaps you know a couple that always seem to be arguing about even the slightest possible aspect of their lives together. They can’t agree on what to cook for dinner, where to send the kids to school, or even what to watch on television. Although you’ve certainly seen them get along quite amicably as well, that constant bickering should lead, in your estimation, to the imminent demise of their union. New research on conflict and perceptions of relationship quality among long-term partners suggests that your assumptions may be completely wrong.

University of Alberta’s Matthew D. Johnson and colleagues (2018) recently took advantage of a unique longitudinal approach to studying the long-term outcomes of relationships among 3,405 couple pairs identified by random sampling from over 12,000 Germans ranging in age from 25 to 37 years old (teen couples were included in the study, but not in the present data analysis). On average, the German couples, 62 percent of whom were married, had been together for 8.8 years; about one-third were not raising children. The study began in 2008, and it will extend to 2022, at which point there will have been 14 yearly follow-ups. Five waves of data collection were included in the Johnson et al. paper.

Johnson et al’s study design, as the authors note, was “informed by a life course perspective,” meaning that it is based on the assumption that people change over time in multiple areas of their relationships. The four relationships areas investigated all relate to the broad life course themes of intimate relationships and stability, fertility (i.e., having children), dynamics between parents and children, and the ties among multiple generations within families. This report’s main questions concerned predictors of relationship longevity, from measures of conflict frequency, types of behaviors experienced during times of conflict, satisfaction with the relationship, and whether partners believed their relationships would last or not.

The authors perhaps sacrificed depth of relationship measures for brevity in order to ensure that their participants remained available for the yearly questionnaires. Two items assess conflict frequency (number of arguments and extent to which they became annoyed with each other), constructive conflict resolution (clearly listening and speaking to the partner), conflict withdrawal (remaining silent or refusing to talk), and overall satisfaction on a 1 to 10 scale. To assess relationship stability, the authors asked each partner to state whether they thought their relationship was in trouble, and whether either partner had ever thought of separation or divorce.

Over the course of the five years reported on in the Johnson et al. paper, slightly less than half (48 percent) remained in the study, a similar percent (47 percent) withdrew, and the remainder (5 percent) ended their relationship. As you might expect, at the earlier testing points compared to those remaining in the study and even those who dropped out, those who ended their relationship were more likely to argue, to use poor conflict resolution methods, to be less satisfied, and to perceive greater relationship instability. Using the relationship’s ending as an additional predictor variable, the authors were able to incorporate this important piece of data into their overall analytic strategy.

Using a complex model relating conflict reports by each partner to relationship satisfaction and perceived instability, the Canadian-led research team drew pathways over time that they labeled “conflict-driven pathway,” “satisfaction-driven pathway,” and “instability-driven pathway” allowing them to tease apart cause and effect over the five-year period of the study. Importantly, the authors also separated the perceptions of men and women. Sifting through the resulting 10 models for men and women, the authors first noted the perhaps obvious fact that couples who reported arguing more and using poorer conflict resolution methods were less satisfied and believed their relationship would not stand the test of time.

Less expected were findings regarding the relationship between satisfaction and subsequent conflict. Men who were more satisfied with their relationships were actually more likely to report conflict one year later. Even more surprising, when both partners believed their relationship was headed for trouble, their levels of conflict actually decreased. To explain these findings, the authors suggest that the more heavily men are invested in their relationship, the more opportunities there are for conflict to arise. The more satisfied men, therefore, may want to talk about potentially problematic areas that they think will ultimately benefit the couple. The example that Johnson et al. provide is that the man suggests, “It’s time we finally talk about your mother,” which leads to a conflict when the woman responds, “YOU THINK WHAT ABOUT MY MOTHER?” (caps in original quote). This interpretation makes sense when you consider that partners who believe their relationship is on the demise won’t invest the same level of emotional resources into settling disagreements.

Another major finding concerned the relationship between satisfaction and engagement in constructive conflict resolution; in the words of the authors, “It may also be that happy couples become complacent and stop actively working to build a healthy relationship.” This neglect may ultimately backfire, though, because the partners fail to work through conflicts that could later develop into larger issues. For women, a slightly different scenario developed in that perceptions of relationship instability in men was related to a decrease in conflict withdrawal from their female partners. That men started to consider breaking up could, as the authors noted, “serve as a proverbial wakeup call for their partners.”

To sum up, the predictors of long-term relationship outcomes include the intuitive and the counter-intuitive. The German study’s findings show most importantly that complacency is perhaps the most significant trap to avoid. Work to avoid falling into that same-old same-old routine, and your relationship can be vital and fulfilling for years to come.