It’s not who you’re with, but the dynamic you have with them.
That’s the big takeaway from a landmark study that explores what makes relationships successful, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Whether you’re finding a potential partner by swiping right on an app, or thumbing through stacks of biodata a la Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking,” there may be some wisdom for you in the researchers’ findings.
Scientists have sought to understand what makes for a good relationship for decades. But most of those studies only measured a few variables at a time, Samantha Joel, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at Western University in London Ontario, told CNN.
Joel and her colleagues analyzed information on more than 11,000 couples, drawn from 43 data sets that tracked those partnerships for an average of a year, to determine the extent to which they could predict the quality of relationships and what measures would best predict that.
What they found is that your own judgment of your relationship – meaning, how satisfied you feel your partner is or how appreciative you are of your partner – says more about the quality of your relationship than either of your personalities.
“When it comes to a satisfying relationship, the partnership you build is more important than the partner you pick,” Joel wrote in an email to CNN.
In other words, don’t focus so much on whether a person fits your type or whether they check all your boxes. Instead, think about how you’re engaging with each other and whether your relationship leaves you feeling satisfied.
What makes for a good relationship
And as it turns out, some measures can more reliably predict the quality of a relationship than others.
The researchers assessed relationship quality by looking at individual characteristics, including age, gender, income, and personality traits, and characteristics of the relationship itself, meaning affection, conflict, support, etc.
A person’s own perception of their relationship accounted for about 45% of their current satisfaction with their relationship at the onset of a study, and about 18% by the end of the study.
Specifically, the relationship characteristics that best predicted a person’s satisfaction were:
- Perceived partner commitment
- Sexual satisfaction
- Perceived partner satisfaction
A person’s individual characteristics, meanwhile, explained about 21% of their satisfaction with their relationship at the start of the study, and about 12% by the end.
The individual characteristics that best predicted a person’s relationship satisfaction were:
- Life satisfaction
- Negative affect
- Attachment avoidance
- Attachment anxiety
Interestingly, their partner’s personality or their partner’s perception of the relationship seemed to matter relatively little, Joel said.
And while factors such as your personality or whether or not you experience depression or anxiety could very well affect the quality of your relationship, building a relationship that you feel satisfied and secure in could outweigh those things, the study’s authors wrote.
“The fact that individual characteristics predicted relationship quality but did not provide any unique predictive power beyond relationship factors suggests that individual characteristics do matter, but their effects on relationship quality are largely attributable to their effects on relationship dynamics,” Justin Lavner, a psychologist at the University of Georgia who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email to CNN.
What the researchers weren’t able to determine, however, was how the quality of a relationship might change over time.
The study also relied on self-reporting from participants to reach those conclusions, and Joel said future research should explore whether the results would be different if those characteristics were measured through observational or physiological studies, as well as whether the findings apply to couples outside of the West.
Lavner added that it would be useful to know how much outside factors, such as financial strain or external stress, affect the quality of a relationship.
What this means for your dating life
There’s a few takeaways here to apply to your own life, experts said.
For one, pay attention to the dynamics of your relationship.
“It seems to me that the relationship is more than the sum of its parts,” Joel said. “It’s that relationship dynamic itself, rather than the individuals who make up the relationship, that seems to be most important for relationship quality.”
It’s also worth paying attention to your current feelings about the relationship.
“Another takeaway message is that although these perceptions were most predictive of relationship quality measured at the same point in time, the same pattern was found at follow-up,” Lavner said, “suggesting that how you feel now can be somewhat diagnostic of how you’ll feel later on.”