Research cracks open the mystery.
By: Theresa Didonato
How do we know if a romantic relationship is thriving and has lasting potential?
All relationships are different, but scientific research has shown that certain patterns tend to emerge in healthy, stable, successful partnerships.
- People in thriving relationships take on their partner’s habits, interests, and mannerisms.
Have you ever noticed how friends can change when they’re in a relationship? After dating for a little while, they pick up new goals and interests (You went hiking?); new and quirky turns of phrase (Did you really just say “awesome sauce”?); or new habits (When did you start drinking soy milk?). All of these changes, if they reflect habits of a new partner, are signs of self-other overlap, the process of integrating a romantic partner into the self (Aron & Aron, 1996). Self-other overlap is a sign of cognitive interdependence and predicts closeness, love, and relationship maintenance behaviors (Aron & Fraley, 1999), all characteristics of a thriving relationship.
- In thriving relationships, partners support each others’ opportunities for growth.
Fresh-off-the-press evidence suggests that people are more satisfied in their relationships when their partners actively support their efforts to expand their own horizons (Fivecoat, Tomlinson, Aron, & Caprariello, 2014).
It’s a wonderful feeling to grow by taking on a new challenge like training for a half marathon or learning digital photography.
These opportunities benefit the person experiencing self-growth, but also boost the relationship—that is, if the other partner is offering active affirming support—through comments like, “I bet you’ll be really good at that,” rather than passive remarks like, “Sounds alright”!! The differential effect of active and passive support is evident primarily in on-going long-term relationships rather than new relationships.
- Couples in thriving relationships share their emotions.
It’s not enough just to talk with a partner; couples in thriving relationships engage in emotional self-disclosure—the communication of thoughts and ideas with another person.
People might easily reveal facts about themselves to others, but sharing private thoughts, reactions, and feelings is a pathway to a deeper connection with a romantic partner, especially when that partner is an engaged listener.
Laurenceau and colleagues (1998) showed that emotional self-disclosure to a responsive partner generates intimacy, an important component of healthy relationships.
- Partners in thriving relationships engage in frequent non-sexual touch.
Physical touch can take many forms, but the importance of affectionate touch outside of sexual intimacy is often overlooked, despite its active role in supporting relationship health.
Couples who engage in frequent physical affection—hugging, kissing on the face, kissing on the lips, massage, or cuddling—tend to be happier and more satisfied with their relationship (Gulledge, Gulledge, & Stahmann, 2003). This research also showed that while affectionate touch didn’t predict the amount of conflict couples experience, people who offered and welcomed non-sexual physical affection reported having an easier time recovering from conflict.
- Individuals in thriving relationships pay less attention to other attractive people.
A fascinating study revealed that the kind of relationship commitment that appears in thriving relationships activates an implicit attentional block against the allure of attractive alternative partners (Maner, Gailliot, & Miller, 2009).
In a series of studies, Maner and colleagues primed heterosexual participants with a mating motive and then compared how single participants and participants in committed relationships performed on a computer task that measured their attention to attractive opposite-sex faces. Turns out that the participants in committed relationships paid less attention to the attractive alternatives.
Love, it seems, provides an automatic defense system that helps keep people attentive to their current romantic partner.
- In thriving relationships, couples see the positive sides of commitment.
New evidence shows that romantic commitment is multifaceted, reflecting positive, negative, and constraining elements, and how people view their commitment predicts the quality of their romantic relationship (Weigel, Davis, & Woodard, 2014).
This study revealed that individuals who tend to perceive their relationship as rich with positive commitment (joy, fulfillment, belonging) tend to perceive less negative commitment (worry, irritation, hurt) and less constraint commitment (feeling tied down, stuck, stifled)—and they tend to be much more satisfied in their relationships overall.
These people see their relationship as something they want to be in, not something they should or have to be in. Fostering positive views of commitment is a sure sign of a thriving relationship.
Relationships are complex, and their success is influenced by each individual, their interaction, and their social context.
These signs are suggestions that a relationship is on a healthy path, but they operate within the broader context of the relationship and should be considered alongside other markers of relationship health.