Relationships are unpredictable.
Whether you’re just friends, intimately involved, or somewhere in between, it’s hard to predict how things will work out in the long-run.
With the right evidence, however, we can make your relationships much easier to navigate.
In this podcast, you’re going to learn the three best predictors of relationship success and how to decide whether or not you and your partner will stay together in the long-term.
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**Armi Legge:** Relationships are unpredictable. Whether you’re just friends, intimately involved, or somewhere in between, it’s hard to predict how things will work out in the long run– well, at least if you don’t listen to this podcast. In today’s show, we’re going to take a small break from physiology, fat loss, and training to focus on your relationships.
This is a topic that the fitness industry largely glosses over, yet it’s far more important than most people realize, especially for fitness nuts. When you take time out of your day to train, eat well, and pursue your other interests Ike business, art, or entrepreneurship, it’s often easy to let your relationships dissolve. I’m guilty of this and you probably are, too.
Frankly, how you interact with others is a lot more important than how you dose caffeine, get extremely lean, or do just about anything else. This is also something I’ve neglected in the past and now that I’m better at research, I plan on using science to help you and me build and maintain better relationships with less work.
In this podcast, you’re going to learn about one of the largest relationship studies in recent history on what best predicts your chances of staying with your partner.
My name is Armi Legge, and you are listening to Evidence Radio, the podcast that gives you simple, science-based tips to improve your health, fitness, productivity, and now, relationships. If you like what you hear on today’s show, go to evidencemag.com. Enter your email address in the box on the right side of the page and click the little button below. After you do, you’ll get free updates from Evidence Magazine delivered to your email inbox when they’re published.
If you are a highly motivated person, you’ve probably let a few of your relationships fall apart. On the Freakonomics podcast, which if you don’t listen to, you should, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner talked about how highly successful people are usually not very popular, largely because they don’t spend much time on other people. Maybe you didn’t intend to stop being friends or break up, but you were so busy with your work and other commitments that you didn’t make time to worry about the other person. Maybe you did make time but you didn’t direct your actions to the things that matter most.
There is a lot of bad advice about relationships online and elsewhere, which is disappointing because there is a good amount of scientific data on this topic. While this isn’t going to turn into a relationship podcast, it is important for people who are really obsessed with their health and fitness to maximize their efforts.
Many people who claim to have good social skills don’t. In realty, they just get lucky because they’re willing to spend so much time focusing on other people. Basically, they’re like high school kids who yell out the answer enough times that if they get it right every now and then while being needy for attention, they feel good.
If you spend enough time focusing on relationships, you will probably get a few things right. That doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it. You will also probably hurt more people’s feelings that way. You don’t have time for that. Instead, you need to focus on exactly what does work so you can build the best possible relationships without giving up your other interests or hurting people.
In 2010, researchers conducted one of the largest studies yet to assess the best predictors of relationship success. Let’s take a look.
They examined just about every study between 1973 and 2000 that looked at the factors that predicted how likely it was for dating couples to stay together. They identified 137 research papers and 30 possible predictors of relationship success or failure that had been studied. They ended up looking at data from about 38,000 participants, or 19,000 couples.
Before you learn the results, keep in mind that this study was a meta-analysis. That means it can’t determine cause and effect. It’s a collection of lots of data from different studies, all of which use slightly different designs, which can make the results imperfect. However, it still gives us a good indication of your relative risk of breaking up or staying together.
This study was also only on dating success or failure, not marriage, friendships, or friends with benefits, but it’s likely much of the same information applies to those situations as well. And now, the three best predictors of whether or not you’re going to break up with your partner are, in this order:
1. Positive illusions
Let’s cover these variables in reverse order.
Love is defined as “an intense feeling of deep affection” or “to feel a deep, romantic or sexual attachment to someone.” Basically, it’s a very powerful, emotional, often romantic connection to someone. Seems pretty obvious love would make it into the top three.
Commitment is your long term orientation and attachment to someone else. Basically, if you see yourself sticking with the person in the long term, you are less likely to break up. In this study, commitment was the second most positive predictor of relationship success, which makes sense.
Positive illusions are the real surprise here. A positive illusion is when you choose to take a positive perspective about your partner’s behaviors. It’s a kind of cognitive bias that helps you view your partner’s actions in a more positive manner. If you really like someone, you’re more likely to overlook their potentially negative, rude, or antagonistic actions and substitute more positive attributes in their place. If you’re less attractive to someone, you’re more likely to do the opposite.
Let’s say you tell your partner about a really cool project you finished at work. You’re obviously excited, but they don’t respond. Maybe they offer a small congratulations and then talk about something else or ignore you completely.
If you really like that person, you’re more likely to assume that something else is probably going on. Maybe they had a hard day at work or they’re a little down. Maybe they’re really tired and just aren’t thinking straight. On the other hand, if you had a negative illusion, you might automatically assume they don’t care about you, they are not interested in your hard work, and they aren’t supportive of you and your interests and efforts.
Other data supports the idea that positive illusions are closely linked to long-term relationship success.
Close partners tend to rank their significant other as more attractive than they are and other research has shown that positive illusions are a key part of long and short-term commitment.
There is one big caveat to this, however. Researchers think that this positive bias is only good if your relationship is mostly healthy. Basically, positive illusions might enhance a strong relationship, making it even stronger, but they could also make a negative relationship worse in the long run. If you’re always pretending your partner is perfect and wonderful when they really aren’t, it might make things even harder and uglier when you finally have to split.
Here are a few other variables they assessed in this study.
Inclusion of other in self, or IOS, is another technique researchers use to gauge a couple’s closeness using different Venn diagrams. This was the fourth best predictor of relationship success. If you want to take a look at this little chart, I’ll include a link to the diagrams the researchers used to measure IOS in the show notes of this episode of evidencemag.com.
Network support, or how much you and your partner’s friends and family approve of your relationship, was also a fairly strong predictor of long-term relationship success. If your girlfriend’s parents, siblings, or friends don’t like you, your chances of staying with her are much smaller. On the other hand, if your girlfriend’s social network does like you, you’re more likely to stick together.
I would imagine that network support also tends to amplify other variables. For instance, if your friends always assume the negative about your partner, you might become more likely to do the same, which could cause a negative illusion against them.
Trust was another good predictor of relationship success as was self-disclosure, or sharing personal memories and experiences with others.
Closeness, which was defined using other criteria in this case, but means basically the same thing as inclusion of other in self.
Investments, or how much time, energy, and effort you put in a relationship, was also a good predictor.
Satisfaction, relationship quality, and relationship duration were all low predictors of how likely it was that you would stick with someone. These variables were still important but less so than positive illusions, commitment, and love.
Some of the other surprises from this study were the things that didn’t predict relationship success. Here are a few of them.
Satisfaction. People who were more satisfied with their relationships were not always likely to stay together. The researchers think this is because so many other things can happen that can affect the relationship, such as moving, changes your values (such as someone changing their religion), or finding another partner you like more. Basically, satisfaction matters a lot, but most studies probably aren’t great at measuring it.
Another surprise was that conflict was not associated with relationships ending. Basically, partners who fought the most weren’t much more likely to end their relationship than those who fought the least. In this case, the researchers thought that it is probably more about how you fight than how much you fight.
People who are able to resolve their conflicts peacefully and learn from them might get along better than those who fight less, but have messier, less productive encounters. There are also other researchers, such as John Gottman, who believe the most successful marriages generally have a positive to negative interaction ratio of 5:1. This means the couples who stay together the longest still fight, but they generally have five times more positive interactions than negative ones.
Personality and self-esteem are also not very well correlated with relationship success. If you didn’t have very well matched personalities, you weren’t much more likely to break up in the long run. If you aren’t very wild about yourself right now, your partner might still think you’re awesome, which is probably why self-esteem didn’t seem to matter that much.
Keep that in mind the next time someone says the reason you can’t maintain a relationship is because you lack self confidence. It certainly matters, but not as much as you’d think, at least in maintaining a successful relationship. It probably matters more in starting them.
Overall, the researchers found that if you’re dating, your chances of breaking up with your partner are lowest if you . . .
A. Have positive illusions about them (i.e., you tend to assume the best).
B. Are committed to staying with that person in the long term.
C. You love that person or feel an intense emotional attachment to them.
Keep in mind that the results tend to be less accurate if you have only been dating for a few weeks since many of the participants in this study had been dating for a few months on average. This study was also a meta-analysis, which means we have to be careful about which conclusions we draw.
Instead of telling you exactly what this data means, I recommend you ask yourself these questions:
1. When your partner says something you don’t like or acts in a way that hurts your feelings, what is your immediate reaction?
2. Does your partner know how their actions make you feel? If so, do you think they care?
3. How much time, money, and emotional energy are you willing to put into your relationship to make it succeed? Is your partner reciprocating?
4. How much happiness have your current investments in your relationship given you?
5. How do you feel when you think about your partner? How do you feel when they’re gone? Do you miss them?
If you aren’t happy with the answers to these questions, that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to break up. It means you have to figure out why you are unhappy and talk with your significant other about how to improve your situation and theirs. Or you can dump them and find someone better. That’s just an idea.
Based on this data, I think you and I are going to have a successful, long term relationship. You see, right now I am picturing you logging onto your computer. Since I have positive *illusions* toward you, I’m imagining you going straight to iTunes and leaving a nice, positive review for this podcast. On the same note, I’m also *committed* to making these podcasts and I’m sure you *love* them.
So, to help keep your relationship with this podcast strong, please leave a ranking and review on iTunes. I will talk to you next week, when we get back to discussing training, fat loss, statin drugs, and other fun stuff. If you liked this podcast, we’ll talk more about relationships, too.
1. LE B, Dove NL, Agnew CR, Korn MS, Mutso AA. Predicting nonmarital romantic relationship dissolution: A meta-analytic synthesis. Personal Relationships. 2010;17(3):377–390. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01285.x.