Relationship science: How can couples keep moving forward

September 11, 2017
Credit: Anna Langova/public domain

For some couples in romantic relationships, just staying together is good enough. But others want to see their relationship move forward—to get better and better—and are willing to put in the effort to get there.

Family studies researchers at the University of Illinois who study the science behind maintaining romantic relationships focus their work on the central organizing unit—the —rather than on the individual. Through their work, they hope to find out what works and, maybe, what doesn't in keeping a relationship moving forward.

"We know relationships are key," says Brian Ogolsky, associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at U of I. "We spend all of our time in these relationships. Whether we are at home, with our siblings, our parents, or our colleagues, these are all extremely important. And consequently we spend very little time alone with our thoughts. So it's critical that we carefully and methodically understand what's going on in relationships and what is unique that two individuals bring that you can't get from studying person 'x' and person 'y' separately."

In a recent study published in the Journal of Family Theory and Review, Ogolsky and his research team discuss romantic and the two primary motives behind a couple's attempts at staying together: mitigation and relationship enhancement.

Ogolsky calls these "macro-motives," or the main reasons people maintain their relationships. In their study, the researchers provide a visual framework of how relationships may be maintained by staving off threats or moved forward by relationship enhancement strategies, which involve putting effort into the relationship for the pleasure of it. For the most part, relationships include a combination of both.

"Threats to the relationship come from all kinds of different places," he explains. "Generally, there are many threats early in relationships that can cause problems, but that is not to say that these disappear later. We know couples cheat in the long-term, people end up in new work places and in new situations where possible alternative partners show up, conflicts arise, or a lack of willingness to sacrifice time for your partner emerges."

Some threat mitigation tactics can actually become enhancement strategies over time, Ogolsky says, but adds that the reverse is not usually true. "We get to a place where we are pouring energy into the relationship simply because we want to keep the relationship moving forward rather than just mitigating threats."

In their integrative model of relationship maintenance, the researchers also illustrate individual versus interactive components of maintenance. "This question of 'is this an individual thing or is this a couple-level thing' often goes unanswered. But as we were doing this review, we started noticing that there are ways to maintain the relationship that we can characterize as 'more or less in our own heads.' We are doing something to convince ourselves that this is a good relationship and therefore it's good for our relationship," Ogolsky explains. "Things like positive illusions, the idea that we can believe our relationship is better than it is or that our partner is better than he or she is. We can do that without our partner."

Mitigating conflict, however, is something that partners must do together. "Good conflict management or forgiving our partner for doing something wrong is an interactive process. When a threat comes in, we can do one of two things: we can ditch our or forgive them over time."

The same is true of enhancement strategies: partners can do things individually or interactively. "Individually, even the act of thinking about our relationship can be enhancing. Whereas engaging in leisure activities together, talking about the state of our relationship, these are all interactive," Ogolsky says.

But why study relationship maintenance as a science?

While Ogolsky rarely offers direct interventions to couples, he explains that he tends to study the positive side of relationships because of what can be learned from people who are going through what, he says, is inherently a very turbulent thing.

"Relationships have ups and downs. I never go into my work saying people should stay together or they should break up. Relationships are individualized, a unique pairing of people that comes with a unique history. What we are talking about here are processes that exist across different kinds of couples, some of which work very well for some people, some of which may not work for some people. I am interested in understanding processes that keep relationships moving."

For the review, Ogolsky and his team searched for previous research, regardless of discipline, dealing with relationship maintenance. They eventually discussed about 250 studies in the paper (reviewing more than 1,100) that deal with romantic relationships and that met their criteria. Ogolsky hopes the review will bring together relationship scholars from across many disciplines.

The paper, "Relationship Maintenance: A review of research of ," is published in the Journal of Family Theory and Review.

Explore further: In a negative emotional climate, romantic partners may miss attempts to warm things up

More information: Brian G. Ogolsky et al, Relationship Maintenance: A Review of Research on Romantic Relationships, Journal of Family Theory & Review (2017). DOI: 10.1111/jftr.12205

Related Stories

In a negative emotional climate, romantic partners may miss attempts to warm things up

October 13, 2015
A new University of Illinois study reports that when conflict occurs in romantic relationships, the negative emotional climate that results hinders a person's ability to recognize their partner's attempts to reach out to ...

Expert suggests tried-and-true strategies to strengthen your relationship

January 9, 2013
What are you doing to keep your relationship alive? A University of Illinois study highlights the importance of five relationship maintenance strategies that couples can use to preserve or improve the quality of an intimate ...

Daters move toward (or away from) marriage in four different ways—where do you fit?

February 10, 2016
A University of Illinois researcher has identified four distinct approaches that dating couples use to develop deeper commitment.

Is your relationship moving toward marriage? If it isn't, you probably can't admit it

November 10, 2014
Dating couples who have moved toward marriage over the course of their relationship remember accurately what was going on at each stage of their deepening commitment. But couples whose commitment to each other has stagnated ...

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Recommended for you

How the shape and size of your face relates to your sexuality

September 19, 2017
Men and women with shorter, wider faces tend to be more sexually motivated and to have a stronger sex drive than those with faces of other dimensions. These are the findings from a study led by Steven Arnocky of Nipissing ...

Behavioral therapy increases connectivity in brains of people with OCD

September 19, 2017
UCLA researchers report that people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, when treated with a special form of talk therapy, demonstrate distinct changes in their brains as well as improvement in their symptoms.

People with schizophrenia have threefold risk of dying

September 18, 2017
People with schizophrenia are three times more likely to die, and die younger, than the general population, indicating a need for solutions to narrow this gap, according to research published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association ...

Cognitive scientists find that people can more easily communicate warmer colors than cool ones

September 18, 2017
The human eye can perceive millions of different colors, but the number of categories human languages use to group those colors is much smaller. Some languages use as few as three color categories (words corresponding to ...

Why bad sleep doesn't always lead to depression

September 18, 2017
Poor sleep is both a risk factor, and a common symptom, of depression. But not everyone who tosses and turns at night becomes depressed.

Happiness is not determined by childhood biomarkers

September 18, 2017
Happiness is not determined by childhood biological markers such as height or body fat, according to a team of European researchers involving UCL.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.