Article By: Gary W Lewandowski Jr, Chair/Professor of Psychology , Monmouth University
Is he or she the 1? You know… the 1 to introduce to my parents, the 1 to move in with, the 1 to start a family with, the 1 to marry? At some point in every dating relationship, you ask yourself some version of these questions. Of course you’re invested in predicting the fate of your own relationship.
Psychology researchers are interested as well. Are there recognizable signs that can foretell where a relationship is headed? Typically researchers have tried to puzzle out this question by measuring some aspect of a relationship at 1 moment in time & then seeing how that measurement coincides w/relationship outcomes months or years later. For example, 1 group found that greater boredom now predicts less relationship satisfaction 9 years later.
These types of 1-shot measurements are useful, but how you feel about any facet of your relationship fluctuates over time. Some researchers, including Ximena Arriaga at Purdue University, have suggested that the typical method of measuring a single moment in time may not fully capture the relationship experience; it might be more revealing to look at patterns of change as the relationship develops.
To know your relationship’s fate, the ups & downs may matter more than its quality at 1 specific moment. A newly published study examined this question by tracking how relationships progressed over time via people’s own changing senses of where things were headed.
Charting The Course Of Love, True Or Otherwise
Some days your relationship feels like it will be happily ever after, while other days it feels more like happily never after. Researchers call your sense of whether your relationship will eventually result in marriage your commitment to wed.
If you could chart the story of your relationship, what would it look like? Maybe a straight, ascending line showing steady progress? Or maybe a curvy line showing that you’ve hit some bumps along the way? It’s this trajectory that may influence how your story will end.
In the recent study, researcher Brian Ogolsky & colleagues hypothesized that how individuals’ commitment to wed fluctuated over time would predict future relationship outcomes. To test the idea, interviewers had 376 dating couples in their mid-20’s chart out graphs of how their sense of marriage likelihood (the vertical axis ranged from 0% to 100%) changed over time (time in months appeared on the horizontal axis). The interviewer plotted key dates, noting where the likelihood of marriage changed, for better or worse. For example, spending too much time w/friends, fighting or just being too different could nudge commitment to wed down. Conversely, meeting the partner’s family, spending a lot of time together, having a lot in common & receiving positive feedback from friends or family could make commitment to wed rise.
Participants updated their graphs via short interviews for each of the next 7 months, concluding with a final interview 9 months after the start of the study. Participants also provided information about changes in relationship status – such as transitioning from dating to broken up, from casual to serious dating, from serious dating to engaged, & so on.
Researchers analyzed the graphs for the number of turning points or changes in commitment to wed, particularly noting any downturns or times when chances of marriage decreased. They also examined the slope or degree of change during turning points to see if things were escalating quickly, slowly eroding or following any of the other trajectories a relationship can take.
Breaking Commitment Types Into 4 Groups
Using participants’ monthly feedback, the researchers identified 4 distinct commitment patterns.
(1) Dramatic (34% of the sample): This group had an “up & down” type of relationship, w/more downturns & steeper changes in commitment than other groups. These individuals spent more time apart & had lower opinions of the relationship, & their families & friends were less supportive of their relationship.
(2) Partner-focused (30% of the sample): This group had a “my partner is the center of my universe” approach to commitment & experienced very few downturns. Their changes in commitment hinged on how much time they could spend together.
(3) Socially involved (19% of the sample): This group experienced very little variability & fewer downturns than those in the dramatic & conflict-ridden groups. When changes occurred, they were largely determined by the amount of interaction w/their social network & what those friends & family thought of the relationship.
(4) Conflict-ridden (12% of the sample): This group includes the fighters. Like the dramatic group, this group had a large number of downturns. The sizes of the changes were not as steep, but they were disproportionately due to conflict in the relationship. Those in this cluster also reported fewer positive things to say about the relationship than those in the partner-focused group, & less support from family & friends than the socially involved group.
Much like boiling your entire personality down into a color or series of letters, fitting your relationship into 1 of 4 tidy categories has intuitive appeal. Yet classification is simplification. Our relationships & psychological experiences are complex in a way that defies basic categories or groups; every relationship cannot fit neatly w/in these 4 categories. However, they provide 1 framework for understanding how relationships progress.
So Is My Relationship Doomed?
Importantly, knowing how commitment to wed changed over time was a better predictor of relationship outcomes than the basic measure of relationship quality at the 1st interview.
Individuals in the dramatic group were more than twice as likely to break up than any of the other 3 groups. Those in the partner-focused group were more likely to have their relationship progress (for instance, advancing from casual to serious dating) than those in the dramatic group, while the conflict-ridden group was more likely to keep their relationship status stable compared to the dramatic group.
Taken together, these results suggest it is good to be partner-focused, but not dramatic. In other words, those who frequently experience substantial fluctuations in their commitment should have concerns about the relationship’s long-term sustainability. The dramatic group may be particularly susceptible to breakup bc they maintain so much contact w/their social network. Some of these pals may serve as “backburner” relationships in which the person maintains contact for the possibility of starting a later relationship.
Relationships move at difference paces & in different patterns. Whether your relationship is moving quickly or slowly, smoothly or has been a bit rocky, this research demonstrates how your relationship’s past trajectory can offer a glimpse into its future.