What makes a satisfying relationship? A recent study sought to answer this question.
The researchers, who took data from 11,196 couples, found that the following five factors mattered most for both present and future relationship satisfaction:
- Perceived partner commitment
- Sexual satisfaction
- Perceived partner satisfaction
Interestingly, the study found that personality characteristics explain little about relationship satisfaction. In fact, what matters most in a relationship is your perception of your partner’s behaviour towards you — in particular how much you think they are committed to the relationship.
This suggests there is a correlation between commitment and satisfaction: the more you perceive your partner to be committed to you, the more satisfied you will be.
So what exactly is a 'committed' relationship? Predominantly, these relationships tend to take two forms in today’s society: cohabitation and marriage.
The inevitable question then must be: which form of relationship leads to a higher perception of commitment in your partner, and, therefore, more satisfaction?
The impact of asymmetrical commitment
One major factor that leads to dissatisfaction in relationships is what is known as ‘asymmetrical commitment’: when one individual is substantially more committed to the relationship than the other, or at least is perceived to be so. This causes ambiguity in the relationship — a lack of clarity regarding mutual commitment and relationship status.
Dr. Scott Stanley, Research Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, has studied this extensively.
In general, he argues, asymmetrical commitment is more common in cohabitation. In cohabiting relationships, a sense of ambiguity is more likely to be present and can lead to one partner misinterpreting the behaviour of the other:
Ambiguity leads to relationship breakdown and disatisfaction
The impact of this ambiguity ultimately leads to relationship breakdown. This is apparent in the data: cohabiting couples are less likely to remain together than married couples, particularly after having children. Even couples who cohabit before marriage are more likely to get divorced.
Cohabitation also leads to less satisfaction in marriage. In the same study, respondents who cohabited with their eventual spouse, before having a mutual and clear commitment to marry, reported lower levels of marital quality than couples who waited until marriage before moving in together.
One reason for this is that decision making is less clear in cohabiting relationships, and creates false constraints (such as renting a flat together, sharing furniture or a dog) that keep people in a relationship when they otherwise would end it.
According to one study, living together ‘creates a kind of inertia that makes it difficult to change course’, which is compounded by the fact that people ‘slide’ into living together, rather than making an active decision to do so.
As Harry Benson of the Marriage Foundation argues, avoiding intentional decision making about the future is a red flag:
Some might argue that couples that cohabit long term have demonstrated the same commitment to each other as any married couple. But this does not bear out in the data. In fact, as Benson discovered in his research, in cohabiting relationships the chances of staying together do not improve with longevity:
In contrast, married couples are much less likely to have asymmetrical commitment. In a relationship where marriage is the ultimate intention, leading towards marriage forces a couple into decision making about their relationship. There is no sense of just 'sliding' into marriage. The clarity of a marriage partnership, both culturally and legally, dispels ambiguity.
What signifies a committed relationship?
Dr. Stanley argues that cohabitation is also not a good way of signifying commitment, even though it is popular on the dating scene.
In fact, he argues, it is often only marriage that signifies a committed relationship to others:
Marriage is the best demonstration of commitment
Our culture has moved towards a trend where cohabitation is the first (and often last) form of union a couple forms. Yet this research leads to the ultimate conclusion that marriage provides a much better context for a satisfying relationship: marriage demonstrates your partner's commitment to you, and therefore you are more satisfied.
It is unsurprising, then, that around 80 percent of today’s young adults say that marriage is an ‘important part of their life plans.’
Marriage is ultimately the best way to avoid ambiguity and commit equally to one another — it is an act that signifies your full intention to remain committed to your spouse in all circumstances, until the end of your life.
Marriage is also one of the most important signifiers of commitment, and remains culturally and legally significant.
Yet, increasingly, cohabitation before, or instead, of marriage has become the norm. As Dr Stanley comments, the tragedy of this is that “most people want lasting love in life, and most people still intend to accomplish that in marriage. However, the ways cohabitation has changed in the past three decades make it less likely that people who have that goal will succeed in it."
Perhaps it's time to rethink what we think will bring us the most satisfaction in a relationship.
Marriage isn't just a piece of paper. If our innate desire for a satisfying relationship is bound up in our desire for commitment in our partner, what better way to guarantee that then to declare in front of your family and friends that you are committing to one another ‘as long as you both shall live’?