While some couples manage to maintain their happiness in a long-term relationship, in others, the relationship falls apart. Why is that?
A team of German-Canadian psychologists found answers to this question using a long-term study.
Christine Finn, co-author of the study, says: The research results can be used to predict which couples will stay together – and which will not.
“It’s certainly possible to predict whether a relationship will work in the long run,” says Christine Finn. No, Finn is not a fortune teller, but a psychologist at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena. Together with a team of psychologists from Jena and from the University of Alberta, Canada, she examined what differentiates couples in stable, long-term relationships from those who eventually break up as part of the comprehensive long-term “Pairfam” study.
“For decades, one of the big questions in relationship research has been who stays together and why?” says Finn. In psychology, she explains, there are two basic models that should help answer this question.
The first model states that stable and unstable couples differ in their characteristics – and these differences always remain the same, they do not change over the course of the relationship. This means that a couple who argues a lot in the first year of their relationship will argue just as much in the third year. Not more often, not less often. If there have been a lot of conflicts from the start, it increases the likelihood that the relationship will break up. If there are only a few arguments, the couple has a good chance of a long-term happy relationship.
Model number two assumes that all couples are happy at the beginning of their relationship, as if through some sort of “honeymoon effect”. According to this second theory, conflicts only develop as the relationship progresses — eventually becoming so great that they lead to divorce.
For Christine Finn and her study co-authors, the truth lies in a hybrid of both models. Their findings show that, as model one suggests, there are differences in how many couples argue from the start. But these differences will become more important over time – as model two assumes.
“Our assumption, which has also been confirmed, was that the couples who get divorced have a lot of conflict from the start, but this gets worse over time.” In plain language, those who start out unhappy in a relationship tend to get even more unhappy as the relationship progresses.
Before coming to her conclusions, Finn interviewed nearly 2,000 heterosexual couples over a seven-year period, ie 4,000 individuals. She was particularly interested in five characteristics that she asked all participants about: satisfaction, frequency of conflict, closeness, independence, and involvement. The latter means the will of both relationship partners to actually stay together in the long term.
Similarity is important in couples
Only 16 percent of the couples Christine Finn analyzed broke up within seven years. But where did they fail, or rather, what made the other 84 percent successful? “Concordance is very important, especially when it comes to basic needs like proximity or independence,” Finn says. However, the couples who broke up over the course of the study did not resemble each other in these respects, but had very different needs for closeness or autonomy from the start. And: These differences got bigger and bigger over the next seven years. That’s a problem because, “If I want a lot of closeness, but it’s not that important to the other person, it will lead to conflict — and increase the risk of a breakup,” says Christine Finn.
On the other hand, those who have stayed together have become even more similar over time. The individual partners wanted about the same degree of closeness or independence. They were also about equally satisfied with their relationship – and to the same degree dedicatedie willing to maintain long-term cooperation. All of these similarities grew even bigger over the course of the seven years. So the couples that stayed together grew closer. “It seems that whoever stays together grows together,” says the psychologist.
A lot of people don’t know what they want from a relationship
Finn’s research is good news for dating sites that make their money by bringing people together based on similarity-based personality profiles. Psychologist Finn has a suggestion on how to further optimize this process: “I would argue that there should be explicit questions about basic needs, such as how much closeness or independence someone wants,” she says.
So it is good if both partners have the same needs. Actually, it makes sense that we should all know our own needs before we start looking. But that’s not the case for a lot of people, says Christine Finn: They don’t know what they really want from a relationship — and then end up in partnerships with people who don’t suit them.
For some, this is because they are under societal pressure to “finally find someone” and forget or ignore their own desires. Sometimes the reason for the lack of self-knowledge is simply age. “For example, a childhood relationship is usually just there to try yourself in this area,” says Christine Finn. “But the older you get, the more relationship experience you have, the more you have to use this experience to reflect: What do I really need?”
Hoping that the differences will disappear on their own? It does not work
If you know what you want and then you realize it’s different from what your partner wants — then you have to ask yourself together: how are we going to deal with this? “You can practice this communication. You can make compromises,” says Christine Finn. You wish you had more time together, but your partner attaches great importance to doing a lot of alone time? Then talk about it and make, for example, a weekly plan that takes both needs into account.
But you may also find out: it just doesn’t fit. The needs are too far apart. If constant negotiation is too exhausting for you, consider breaking up. “Either couples work through these differences effectively — or they have to come to terms with the fact that the relationship isn’t going to work,” says Christine Finn.
One strategy, she says, will certainly not work: “Just hope the differences disappear on their own. That is unrealistic.”