Why do some relationships end in marriage while others unravel? It seems like a complicated question — and it is, except maybe not quite as complicated as you might think.
As it turns out, relationships that fit a dramatic pattern — meaning there are lots of ups and downs — are most likely to result in a breakup.
For the study, researchers looked at nearly 400 heterosexual dating couples between ages 19 and 35. Over the course of nine months, the researchers conducted a number of interviews, during which they asked participants to indicate how likely it was that they thought they would marry their partners.
If the participants were either more or less sure that they would marry their partner than they were during the previous interview, the researchers asked them to indicate why.
Using the feedback from the interviews, the researchers generated four commitment patterns. Here’s how they broke it down:
1. Dramatic commitments
- 34% of relationships in this particular study fell into this category, making them the biggest group.
- They were characterised by a lot of changes — especially downturns — in their level of commitment.
- People in these relationships had the most interaction with their separate groups of friends.
- These relationships were about twice as likely to break up over the course of the study than relationships in any other group.
The researchers write: “Dramatic commitments appear to have a relatively turbulent progression toward commitment that is riddled with negative views of the relationship.”
2. Conflict-ridden commitments
- 12% of relationships fell into this category.
- When participants gave reasons for changes in their likelihood of getting married, they were mostly related to conflict.
- While there were also downturns in these relationships, they didn’t happen as often and weren’t as pronounced as in dramatic commitments.
- These relationships were most likely to stay at the same stage (like casually dating or seriously dating), as opposed to advancing or regressing.
This finding supports other research suggesting that relationships with a lot of conflict aren’t especially prone to breakups. (Instead it may be more about how you fight.)
3. Socially-involved commitments
Flickr/celynekPartner-focused couples spend a lot of time together.
19% of relationships fell into this category.
- These participants’ reasons for changes in their likelihood of getting married usually concerned social involvement — for example, “My mum loved/hated him.”
- They had relatively few downturns in their level of commitment.
4. Partner-focused commitments
- 30% of relationships fell into this category.
- These participants’ reasons for changes in their likelihood of getting married usually had to do with positive developments in the relationship.
- Importantly, people in this group had especially positive views of their partner and their relationship.
- These relationships were the most likely to progress to a more serious stage and were unlikely to end in a breakup.
People in partner-focused relationships tended to spend a lot of their time together, as opposed to with their separate groups of friends. (In fact, research suggests that trying new things together may be one of the keys to a successful relationship.)
These findings suggest that the trajectory of your relationship may be more important than the average level of commitment.
For scientists, that means it might be wiser to measure these changes over time instead of taking a “snapshot” on one day in the lab. As for the rest of us, that gives us one more data point to use when assessing the strength of our relationships.
If you have an “off” day — or for that matter, a really great day — that doesn’t say a lot about the future of your relationship. Instead, think about how your thoughts and feelings about the relationship have changed since you first started dating, and why.
It’s hardly the only predictor of whether you’ll break up or get married, but it’s probably a good one.
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