Wondering whether your relationship will go the distance?
Ask a friend.
That may sound counterintuitive. After all, you presumably have more information about your own romantic relationship than your college roommate, say. But you are also terribly biased.
Research has shown that each of us has a rosy view of our own relationship. Your friends, on the other hand, may be better able to see it for what it is.
A friend’s perceptions of your romantic union, at least one study has found, are actually better than yours at predicting the fate of your relationship.
A Beautiful Illusion
Most of us harbour positive illusions about the people closest to us, especially those central to our own identities — like a romantic partner. In many ways, this isn’t a bad thing: In fact, people who idealize their partners tend to have longer-lasting relationships.
But such a rosy view might also “cloud their judgement and influence their perceptions,” a team of psychologists from Purdue University and Southern Methodist University wrote in 2001. The result? People in love “predict that their relationship will last longer than it actually does.”
For better or for worse, however, your friends are generally less invested in your relationship than you are, and therefore less likely to be biased in how they see it. Fortunately, you can use their expertise to your advantage.
In that 2001 study, Christopher Agnew, Timothy Loving, and Stephen Drigotas acknowledged that people are not so great at predicting how their own relationships turn out, and designed an experiment to find out whether people’s “social networks” — at the time just an old-fashioned term for friends and acquaintances — could act as more reliable soothsayers.
The researchers focused on 74 couples who had been dating for a median of one year and asked them to list their individual friends and joint friends. (The small, non-diverse group of mostly college-aged participants means that the study’s results are intriguing, but by no means the final say on all human relationships.)
They interviewed the couples about their relationships, and then they sent questionnaires to hundreds of their friends, asking them to share what they really thought about their friends’ pairings.
Six months later, 15 of the 70 couples the researchers could still contact had broken up.
A Crystal Ball
In general, the study suggests, your friends are not as psyched about your relationship as you are — at least if you’re a 20-year-old college student. At the beginning of the experiment, the people in relationships said they were more committed and happy than their friends seemed to think they were.
“Given the amount of effort individuals put into their romantic endeavours, [they] are likely motivated to view their relationships in a positive light,” wrote Loving, in a later analysis. “Otherwise, why would they be in them?”
However much your friends want you to be happy, it’s not personal for them the way it is for you — and that distance turns out to be crucial.
While “friends’ perceptions [were] somewhat aligned” with what the couples themselves reported, “joint friends, her friends, and his friends all [perceived] relationship state as significantly more negative than the couple members themselves did,” the researchers explained in the paper.
As it turned out, these glass-half-empty perceptions of the couples were “powerfully predictive” of the fate of the relationships. And the more couples blabbed to their friends about their relationships, the more accurate their friends’ perceptions were. Meanwhile, the friends of the women in the pairings — most of whom were women themselves — seemed to be more in tune with their friends’ relationships than both the couples themselves and their friends as a whole.
These findings, the researchers write, “are especially remarkable” since outsiders’ impressions of relationships are based on secondhand knowledge and “considerably less information” than the couples have themselves. Of course, the authors note, couples have a “tremendous personal stake in the romance that clouds [their] judgement regarding it.”
No Such Thing As A Sure Thing
Notably, the 2001 researchers did not actually ask participants whether they thought their friends’ relationships would last. They simply asked participants for their impressions of each relationship, and then measured whether those impressions were predictive of the way the relationships turned out. (They were.)
In an earlier, smaller study, though, Canadian researchers found slightly different results: Students’ roommates and parents were asked directly whether the student-couple would still be together after one year, and those confidantes were also able to make more accurate predictions than the students themselves.
That result seems to confirm that “ask a friend” may indeed be one good way to see into your relationship’s future. But the couples in the Canadian study provided more accurate assessments of their own relationship’s quality than did their parents and roommates, suggesting over-optimism even when they were cognisant of their relationships’ realities.
Had the Canadian researchers simply looked at the outsiders’ impressions of their roommates’ relationships instead of asking for direct predictions, their findings would be in direct conflict with what the 2001 researchers found later; instead, it’s a bit more muddled.
In 2006, Timothy Loving tried to make sense of some of this muddle with a larger follow-up study that looked at similar questions. He found that while the friends of female daters made accurate predictions about the future of their friends’ relationships, “male daters’ friends appear to have few unique insights” into their friends’ romances. Perhaps, he suggests, women just disclose more to their friends, giving the male friends too little information to go on.
One of his key points though, is that there are too many variables to expect consistency, even among small samples that are roughly the same age. “Roommates” are not the same as “social network members” or “close friends,” and it’s reasonable to think that friends’ predictive powers will vary depending on closeness. But Loving does suggest a question future researchers can ask the people in a relationship, to try to find the outsiders who will be most accurate and perceptive in their predictions: “Who knows you and your relationship best?”
If you’re wondering what the future has in store for you and your plus one, it would be wise to set aside your rosy view and ask yourself that very question. Then, if you dare, ask that person what she really thinks about your relationship — and whether it will last.
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