What Science Says Makes a Happy Relationship

With relationships being such a complex thing, it’s not surprising that there are so many factors which make a happy relationship. By no means have I covered absolutely everything here. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of practical information which you can easily apply! A lot of what I’m going to talk about touches on conflict resolution, sex, children and more. Each of these will have their own posts but this is a good starting point for them all. I hope the information I present is useful to you.

I’ll start off with sex. This is often cited as a major complaint in some relationships, one study shows that 86% of the men and 78% of the women sampled were fully satisfied with the sex they were having. You’re probably wondering what the perfect level of sex is and there’s really no answer for that. People desire different levels of sex, some people desiring none at all which is referred to as asexuality. Ask your partner(s) open-ended questions regarding sex to find out what their needs are. Along with reading this, talk to your partner(s) about what they desire and you’ll really be doing your relationship a favour. Research findings vary on what the ideal average for sex is, some finding that more sex makes a happier relationship and others finding that sex once a week is the “happiness ceiling” that sex can provide. It really is going to be about communicating with your partner(s) to figure out what is ideal for both of you. Sending nude images is something that 85% of sexters use to initiate sex and with 49% of young adults sending and 57% receiving them, it’s pretty common. People who sext, with both partners wanting to, had higher sexual satisfaction and a stronger relationship but if only one person really wanted to take part, satisfaction dropped. If you are going to sext, be aware of the risks that come along with it such as accidental sends, cybersecurity and the person you’re sending it to. You can never be really sure if someone won’t show a nude image of you to others but it does happen, 17% of recipients have admitted to it. Also, don’t pressure someone into sending you nudes and ask before sending them. Respect their autonomy and don’t get sour if someone says no, you’re not entitled to another’s body. Ever.

One pretty obvious consequence of sex, more likely due to unprotected sex, is children. There’s plenty of research which points out that having children causes drops in happiness and relationship satisfaction. One study showing that 67% of couples had a drop in marital satisfaction after having children with 33% being just as satisfied. The satisfaction does eventually reach its old level, as soon as the eldest child grows up. So as you can see, it can get better but it’s more probable that it will get worse. I will address all of this research in another post because I want to provide an argument against having children because the idea of parenthood is so romanticised which leaves a lot of people unprepared. I want to provide people with more information so they can make a more balanced decision about a life-changing situation. Parental regret is a thing.

Parenting-style clashes are a major source for conflict but even if you don’t have kids, there’s going to be conflict in your relationship. Some research from the Gottman Institute found that 69% of conflicts never get resolved because they are perpetual problems due to personality differences between those in the relationship. One obvious, yet difficult, thing to do here is to change your personality. If that doesn’t sound like something you can do, really get to know someone before getting romantically involved with them. If you’re experiencing a conflict which you probably can solve, it’s best to give it a rest before you talk it out. Research shows that couples that took a 20-minute break to do another task changed how the discussion around the conflict unfolded. They regained their sense of humour and affection, things vital for improving conflict. Feeling like you and your partner(s) are both taking each other’s perspective can lead to more satisfaction following conflict, always try to put yourself in your partner’s position. If they don’t feel good about something you did, you can’t dispute that. If it is a misunderstanding, then clear it up and make sure to soothe any anxieties which may have cropped up from it. No matter what your conflict is about, some people will react to it a lot worse than others. Research shows a person with a shorter allele of a gene responsible for serotonin transportation will experience a larger drop in positive emotion and a higher increase in negative emotion than one with a longer allele. This doesn’t mean that those with different alleles are incompatible, it means that those with the shorter allele fare worse in negative emotional environments. If your partner(s) is feeling worse about something than you are, the important thing is to be compassionate towards them and be there while they work through the negative emotions. Conflict is important because the frequency of it and the way in which conflict is carried out influences relationship satisfaction and ultimately, the probability of the relationship ending.

I mentioned the Gottman Institute in the last paragraph; they’re a team of scientists dedicated to improving relationships (goals) and I’m going to discuss some of their findings. One of the ideas I’ve heard most about is emotional bids, these are when we or our partner(s) look for support or acknowledgement in some way. These come under bids for attention, affection,  emotional support etc. At their core, it is our partner(s) looking for us to engage with them in some way. How you react to these bids determines how your partner(s) feels about you and, as our decisions are usually driven by emotion, if the relationship is successful. Happy relationships are ones in which emotional bids are accepted more than they are rejected. The Gottman Institute was able to use a method concerning emotional bids to determine which couples would break-up in one study with 94% accuracy. React to your partner’s emotional bids if you want a happier and ultimately, more successful relationship. Research from the Institute has also found that building a culture of appreciation, in which you look for good things that your partner(s) does and praising them for it, and intentionally creating positive emotions through playfulness and adventure can increase happiness.

There’s a few other things I found and want to tell you about. Valuing the friendship in your relationship turns out to be very important. The more people valued it, the higher the romantic commitment, love and sexual need fulfillment in their relationship. Friendship is often overlooked in romantic relationships, maybe start treating your partner(s) as a non-platonic friend instead. Something which is incredibly obvious but often forgotten is saying nice things about your partner(s), don’t be afraid to compliment them! Another tip, compliment them on something they have chosen or a personality trait, it will probably mean more to them the more specific it is. If your partner(s) tells you about a positive event in their life such as a goal they’ve been working hard to achieve, react positively and enthusiastically, it’ll make them feel even better about what they’ve done and you. It also turns out that this is more important for relationship satisfaction than providing support during negative events. Still provide support though. If you want more to make your relationship happier, you can reminisce about times in which laughter was involved. Immediately after couples did this in an experiment, they reported higher relationship satisfaction compared to controls.

Most research focuses on cohabiting couples or couples that have frequent contact. There’s no doubt you can apply some of what I’ve spoken about to long-distance relationships to increase happiness. Despite what most might think, long-distance relationships can be just as good, if not better, than relationships that are closer. Research has found these relationships have higher levels of mental intimacy and a deeper bond due to improved communication but there are some downsides such as loneliness which can impact on your own happiness. This loneliness usually arises from the lack of physical intimacy experienced in long-distance relationships. Other things which can make you feel worse, as well as your relationship, includes feeling like you can do better. Research found that participants whose partners fulfilled partner-preferences less than romantic alternatives had lower relationship satisfaction. Good news if you think your partner(s) is of higher mate-value than you though, you’re going to have higher relationship satisfaction. The ideal situation here is if all of those involved in your relationship think the other(s) is of higher value.

There you go, an introduction into what makes a happy relationship! I say introduction because there’s more to come, mainly focused on maintaining the strong feelings in the beginning often referred to as the honeymoon period. I have my own problems with this idea which I will discuss and my dissertation is also about this topic so I will have a lot to talk about. For now, take what’s above and apply it to your relationship, I hope that you become happier!

Sources

http://repositorio.uchile.cl/bitstream/handle/2250/121976/On%20the%20benefits%20of.pdf?sequence=1 – importance of valuing friendship

http://spr.sagepub.com/content/15/6/755.full.pdf – perspective-taking, game-playing

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0092623X.2011.560531 – desired frequency of sex

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4067734/ – genes and size of emotional reaction

https://www.gottman.com/blog/an-introduction-to-emotional-bids-and-trust/ – emotional bids intro

http://www.northwestladybug.com/2010/02/gottmans-7-principles-of-making.html – Gottman’s principles

https://www.gottman.com/about/research/ – overview of Gottman Institute research

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-love/201209/when-it-comes-relationships-the-little-things-count – types of bids

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YP4n9G0qtQ) – regular sex and cuddling, saying nice things to your partner

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhMXI31xf0U) – sexting statistics, link to relationship satisfaction

http://www.happify.com/hd/the-science-behind-a-happy-relationship/ – positive interactions, new experience, no children

http://www.sas.rochester.edu/psy/people/reis_harry/assets/pdf/GableReisImpettAsher_2004.pdf – positive events

http://libres.uncg.edu/ir/asu/f/bazzini_doris_2007_the_effect_of_reminiscing.pdf – reminiscing and laughter

https://danconroybeamdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/what-predicts-romantic-relationship-satisfaction.pdf – mate preferences, mate value

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24274061 – long-distance relationships

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