2 Aug 2020

Landmark research shows what makes a successful relationship

From Sunday Morning, 9:50 am on 2 August 2020

The secret to a successful relationship doesn't come down to who you're with, or your partner's personality traits, but the dynamic you build with them, according to new research.

A wide-ranging study out of Western University in Canada has found that the dynamics of a relationship are much more important than personality, sex or any other individual factor as an indicator of longevity.

Holding hands.

Photo: 123RF

Professor Samantha Joel tells Jim Mora researchers came to their conclusions using 'machine learning' to analyse the relationships of 12,000 couples. 

Machine learning is an application of artificial intelligence, providing systems with the ability to automatically learn and improve from experience without being explicitly programmed. 

“It allows you to look at many, many variables at once. With traditional statistical techniques you can usually test a handful of predictors at a time. You can look at how communication predicts your relationship quality or sexual satisfaction, or conflict. With machine learning you can put hundreds of predictors with the same model,” she says.

The results point to the internal dynamics of the relationship as central to a couple's continued compatibility.

“It seems to be about the relationship dynamic itself, the relationship that you build. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. The relationship is its own thing more than the two people who make it,” Joel says.

She isn't so sure that personality determines the type of relationship built and how that couple will enjoy being with each other.

“It’s an open question now. The traits aren’t adding anything predictive above and beyond your perception of the relationship. If you think that this is a satisfying relationship then you’re going to score highly. And if what you are looking for in the relationship is a pragmatic partnership then you should rate yourself as satisfied.”

The research may reassure many couples and help them be satisfied with what they have, and assert that the more they invest in their relationship the more they will get back, she says.

“It’s got this ‘the grass is greener where you water it’ sort of message to it. It suggests that the effort you put in and the dynamic you’re creating, rather than trying to fix your partner or choose a better partner… it’s about what you’re getting out of the relationship and that’s something that we personally have a lot of control over.”

She says because you will always be half of any relationship, the importance of working on yourself as an emotionally mature integrated person is paramount. But having problems such as depression or something to your own detriment does not necessarily mean it will translate into a problem for the relationship.

Conversely, people stay in unsatisfying relationships for several reasons, particular because of the notion that too much time has been invested in it to pull out.

Surveying the alternatives can also play a part in keeping people from becoming single and the idea of how they would fare on the dating scene. Pain was a big factor and this is not always way to view what direction you should take when deciding whether to stay and go your own way.

“The reason I found that was new to the literature was social concerns – you don’t want to hurt your partner,” she says.

“You aren’t just ending it for you, you’re also ending it for them. And if you think your partner doesn’t want to relationship to end, you are sort of inflicting pain on them and it’s difficult to do that. So, that can dissuade people from ending the relationship too.”