If only there was a way we could predict why some marriages succeed, and others fail!
The good news is, much behavioural research is being done, revealing some important information about successful and unsuccessful relationships. These studies typically focus on marriages, but the research also applies to close relationships, cohabiting individuals, heterosexual, and homosexual relationships.
The reality is that relationships are hard. The probability of a recent marriage in the Australian context, ending in divorce, is around 50%. The fact that more people are getting a divorce is not necessarily an indication that relationships are getting worse. It may be that it is easier to end relationships today than it was in the past. Moreover, the stigma associated with divorce is almost gone.
There are a number of differences between what makes a marriage successful, happy and satisfying,compared with relationships that are unsuccessful, stagnant and unsatisfying, but they tend to fall into general patterns. These patterns can be divided into two large categories – characteristics of each partner’s personality; and the actual features of the relationship. For the purposes of this article I shall focus exclusively on the latter; that is, the features of the relationship.
The Nature of the Relationship
When contemplating the success or failure of relationships it is common within our culture to consider only those factors that lead people to stay together.
In fact, many people stay together despite feeling miserable, unhappy and dissatisfied. So, the fact that a couple decides to “stay together” is not helpful for the purpose of distinguishing a successful marriage from a failed or miserable one.
Interestingly, research shows that the relational processes that characterise couples that attain “satisfaction” are qualitatively different from those processes that lead a couple to either stay together or separate. These differences will be more clearly articulated as the discussion unfolds.
We all enjoy the rewarding outcomes from our close romantic relationships, from companionship to physical intimacy.
However, at the risk of sounding cynical, for every reward there is always a price to pay. That is to say, in every close/intimate relationship there are both rewards and costs. Relationships are especially costly when, for example, one is abused by their partner, or if one’s partner is irresponsible and reckless with the family’s financial resources, or is an addict, etc. However, often the costs are less significant or dramatic as the aforementioned, ranging from annoying idiosyncrasies to bizarre bathroom habits.
Taken together then, all relationships are composed of rewards and benefits on the one hand, and costs on the other. Subtracting the costs of a relationship from the rewards received in a relationship yields an index of the overall outcomes of the relationship – like a ledger or bank account.
Although this model does not accentuate or celebrate the romantic dimension of relationships, research does indeed show that we keep a record of the relationship outcomes – evaluating the outcomes in terms of relationship profit or losses.
Historically it was assumed that people who had a profit, that is, people who had more rewards than costs from a relationship would be satisfied with that relationship. This turns out not to be the case. Just making a profit is not enough, people want to attain a certain level of “relational profit” as it were.
According to interdependence theory each of us use a criterion or standard, for evaluating and judging whether or not we are making enough of a profit. From the perspective of interdependence theory, this standard is called our comparison level which is the minimum value of the outcomes that we think we deserve from a relationship. Indeed, how we come to acquire this criterion or standard is interesting and also very important to understand. We will come back to this issue shortly.
What is our Comparison Level?
Our comparison level is the standard we use to evaluate our relationship outcomes. When our outcome exceeds our comparison level, we are getting more than the minimum payoff we expect from the relationship. We then feel satisfied. And the more the outcomes exceed our comparison levels the more satisfied we will be.
But when the outcomes fall below our comparison levels we will be dissatisfied, even if the rewards from the relationship exceed the costs. This is an important point; even if rewards exceed the costs there is no guarantee of relationship satisfaction. For relationship satisfaction to be attained, the outcomes from the relationship must fall above their comparison levels. Simply put, the dissatisfied partner is not making enough of a profit.
So what are these comparison levels? How do we acquire them and are they all the same?
Our respective comparison levels are idiosyncratic – unique to us and shaped by our previous attachment relationships. We have differing expectations of relationships. People’s standards for evaluating and judging relationship outcomes are grounded primarily in their previous relationships, including in their early attachment relationships. People who have had highly rewarding relationships, with secure attachment styles, typically have higher comparison levels as compared with those individuals with a history of difficult or abusive relationships, including disruptive attachment relationships.
To Stay or to Go?
People’s satisfaction in relationships is partly a function of whether their outcomes exceed their comparison levels. But whether an individual stays in a relationship or decides to leave is more complex than their level of satisfaction in the relationship. To be more precise, according to interdependence theory, people’s decision to stay or leave depends on a second standard: their comparison level for alternatives.
One’s comparison level for alternatives refers to the lowest level of outcome people think they can get by leaving their current relationship for the best alternative situation, whether that’s being with another partner or being out of a relationship altogether. Put another way, the comparison level for alternatives is the minimum level of outcome that people will tolerate in a relationship before deciding to leave.
So, what this all means is that in a happy and stable relationship, the individual’s outcome from the relationship exceeds both their comparison level and their comparison level for alternatives, which keeps them committed to their current relationship. In other words, not only are they satisfied – but they don’t think they can do better elsewhere.
But now imagine a relationship in which a person’s outcomes fall below their comparison level and above their comparison levels for alternatives. This person is not happy or satisfied because their outcomes are lower than their comparison level, yet they will likely stay in the marriage because the comparison for alternatives is even lower. There is no sense leaving because the alternatives are even worse. So, if you are wondering why some people don’t just leave bad or abusive relationships, it is likely because they don’t believe they can do any better.
What about people leaving happy relationships? Such a phenomena makes sense from the perspective of interdependence theory. These situations occur when their outcomes fall above their comparison level, so they are satisfied, but below their comparison level for alternatives, which makes the grass seem greener elsewhere – they believe that they can do better.
Although many people object to the analogy of comparing romantic relationships to the profit and loss model that characterises the corporate world, research shows that people do keep track of the balance between costs and rewards. It would not promote people’s personal wellbeing to not be attuned to what they put into a relationship and what they get out of a relationship. It’s adaptive to keep an eye on these matters.
Why Some Marriages Succeed and others Fail
Fundamentally, the answer to why some marriages succeed (and others fail), is that each partner gets sufficient rewards relative to their costs, so that their outcomes fall safely above their comparison level and their comparison level for alternatives.
Interestingly, researchers have found that the amount of rewards and benefits that a person received in the early stages of a relationship was not helpful in predicting which relationships would succeed and which one’s failed.
However, they could predict which relationships would fail by how many costs they reported at the beginning of a relationship. People who reported more annoyances, frustrations and resentment at the beginning of a relationship were more likely to have their relationship fall apart later – the signs of trouble were there from the beginning.
It seems that satisfaction with marriage also tends to decline with time. One reason for this is that people don’t make as much of an effort to be attentive, responsive and thoughtful, etc. Being thoughtful and caring requires effort; restraining oneself when angry is difficult and so on. Early in the relationship people put in the needed effort, but as time progresses, partners just don’t try as hard to be rewarding, and to constrain negative behaviours. And so, partner’s rewards decline and the costs increase.
Responsiveness: the Key to Making Relationships Work
All of this suggests that the most important key to making relationships work, is to be responsive and therefore rewarding.
There is substantial research supporting the idea that responsiveness leads to more successful marriages. Studies show that one of the best predictors of relationship satisfaction is whether the individual perceives their partner as sufficiently responsive to their needs and desires. Responsiveness can take the form of providing help, endorsing personal goals, paying attention, listening attentively and empathically, celebrating accomplishments, etc.
Responsiveness is important because it’s rewarding. This equation though is not as simple as it may seem – because responsiveness is relative to the person doing the perceiving and interpreting. If an individual does not interpret their partner’s actions as responsive, their overall feeling of satisfaction will decline.
Interestingly, research shows that it is common for gestures and acts of responsiveness to go unnoticed. However, the same research shows that responsiveness can be perceived even when the partner has not done anything particularly explicit or intentionally responsive. This distinctively illustrates just how ambiguous (open to interpretation) gestures of responsiveness can be.
The Problem of Ambivalence
Indeed, because of the ambiguous nature of responsiveness, the common phenomena of missing responsiveness and seeing it when it was not explicitly intended, can lead to what I call the problem of ambivalence.
Couples who are entangled in this “knot of ambivalence” often describe themselves as feeling “stuck”. This is because when people begin to perceive that their partner is not being responsive, they naturally begin to restrain their own efforts to be responsive. A concern with equity sets in (a sensitivity to equality develops) on the one hand; and on the other hand, a concern with self-protection is privileged. The partner who feels dissatisfied wants to protect themselves from being hurt or exploited, by not investing more into the relationship than their partner.
What happens next is that the partner invests just enough effort into sustaining rather than building the relationship, minimising their investment. In the meantime they are either keeping an eye out for attractive alternatives that may arise (comparison levels for alternatives) – or they withdraw and wait for their partner to make a “absolute” gesture of their commitment to the relationship.
Unfortunately, the strategy of waiting for one’s partner to make reassuring overtures (that they are committed and completely invested in the relationship) is particularly pernicious. This is because, the partner who is afraid of being hurt withdraws and starts to scrutinise and evaluate everything their partner says and does, will likely end up convinced that their partner does not care. The partner is unwittingly being recruited into playing this game they can never win – inevitably they will do or say something “ambiguous” that can be interpreted as evidence that they are either untrustworthy or that they don’t care.
In either case, whether the partner is keeping an eye out for more attractive alternatives or waiting indefinitely for evidence that never comes, a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle is set in motion.
If you are interested in finding out more about what makes marriages succeed or fail, or how you can improve your own relationship, I welcome you to make an appointment with me.
Author: Cobus Kleynhans, BA (Hons), MA (Clin Psych).
A Clinical Psychologist with over a dozen years’ experience in working with couples and individuals, Cobus Kleynhans has extra training in the techniques and practice of couples therapy. Cobus utilises mindfulness-based practices to help clients become aware of their attachment styles; to make visible and revise the way they typically relate to their partners, parents, children, colleagues and even their own experiences of themselves and the world, thereby creating new possibilities for connecting with others.
Please note: Cobus’ books are currently closed.
Note: This topic page is based, at least partly, on a lecture delivered by Prof M. Leary.