Keepin' The Lovin' Feelin'

Almost all of you reading this will have had an experience of having been in a romantic relationship that got less happy as time went on.

What goes wrong?

“When marriages fail, it is not increasing conflict that is the cause. It is decreasing affection and emotional responsiveness, according to a landmark study by Ted Huston of the University of Texas. Indeed the lack of emotional responsiveness, rather than the level of conflict, is the best predictor of how solid a marriage will be 5 years into it. The demise of marriages begins with a growing absence of responsive intimate interactions. The conflict comes later.” This quote comes from the book Hold Me Tight by Professor Sue Johnson, who co-created one of the most successful forms of couple’s therapy.

There’s a study I particularly like that provides further insight into how to keep the lovin’ feeling.

The researchers studied “approach” and “avoidance” motivations in couples.

Approach motivations were measured using questions like:

Over the course of the next semester

– “I will be trying to deepen my relationship with my
romantic partner”
– “I will be trying to move toward growth and
development in my romantic relationship”.

Avoidance motivations were measured by questions like

– “I will be trying to avoid disagreements
and conflicts with my romantic partner”
– “I will be trying to make sure that nothing bad happens in my romantic

Questions were asked using 7-point scales ranging from 1 strongly disagree to 7 strongly agree.

The reseachers found that relationship quality improved over time when both partners were high in approach motivations, but people got less happy over time if they were in a relationship with a partner who was mostly motivated by avoidance goals.

Not only were approach goals associated with higher relationship satisfaction, they were also associated with the people in the relationship experiencing more positive emotions, and greater relationship responsiveness (understanding, validating, and caring). It wasn’t just the people in the relationship that rated their relationship better. The resarchers also had couples come into the lab and have a videotaped discussion, and had independent observers code how satisfied and responsive the couple behaved. Couples in which the partners had approach goals were rated by these outsiders as more satisfied and responsive.

Take Home Message

When you have interactions with your partner, even if you’re talking about a difficult conversation topic, focus on “approach goals” like trying to deepen your relationship with your partner or trying to move toward growth and development in your romantic relationship, rather than your main motivation being trying to avoid disagreement.