Long-term and short-term relationships initially indistinguishable: study

May 14, 2018 by Karen Nikos-Rose, UC Davis
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Long-term and short-term relationships are obviously different from each other. Some people are the type you'd want to marry; others are good primarily for the sex.

At least, that's how conventional wisdom goes. But new research out of the University of California, Davis, suggests that—at first—long-term and short-term relationships may look more or less identical.

When you survey the complete time course of a short-term and long-term relationship—from the moment you meet someone until the moment the relationship is over for good—it takes a while for the differences in short-term and long-term relationships to emerge.

"Long-term and short-term trajectories typically pull apart after you've known someone for weeks or months," said Paul Eastwick, an associate professor of psychology at UC Davis who is the lead author on a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

"In the beginning, there is no strong evidence that people can tell whether a given relationship will be long-term and serious or short-term and casual."

More than 800 people surveyed

Eastwick and his co-authors surveyed more than 800 people from a wide range of ages. They used a state-of-the-art "relationship reconstruction" survey in which people reproduce the events and experiences they had in their prior real-life short-term and long-term relationships.

Importantly, Eastwick and his colleagues asked the participants to reconstruct these relationships from the very beginning. This procedure differs from the standard "relationship science" approach, which starts studying people once they are already in a dating relationship.

"Some of the most interesting moments in these relationships happen after you meet the person face-to-face, but before anything sexual has happened," Eastwick added. "You wonder 'is this going somewhere?' or 'How much am I into this person?' It is somewhere around this point that short-term and long-term relationships start to diverge, and historically, we have very little data on this particular period of time."

The researchers found that romantic interest rises at the same rate in both short-term and long-term relationships. But at some point, romantic interest tends to plateau and decline in short-term relationships, while in long-term relationships, it continues to ascend and reaches a higher peak.

What is the moment when the two trajectories start to diverge? On average, it happens at about the time that the starts to become sexual.

"People would hook up with some partners for the first time and think 'wow, this is pretty good.' People tried to turn those experiences into long-term relationships," said Eastwick. "Others sparked more of a 'meh' reaction. Those were the short-term ones."

The study offers a new twist on the distinction between the stable, long-term partner and the exciting, short-term partner. In real life, may end up in short-term relationships when they are "just a little" attracted to the other person—enough to keep having sex, but maybe not for very long. Long-term relationships may be the ones that start especially exciting and sexy and grow into something stable and lasting.

Explore further: Study: Women perceive men who extrovertly display their wealth as unsuitable partners for long-term relationships

More information: Paul W. Eastwick et al. What do short-term and long-term relationships look like? Building the relationship coordination and strategic timing (ReCAST) model., Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (2018). DOI: 10.1037/xge0000428

Related Stories

Study: Women perceive men who extrovertly display their wealth as unsuitable partners for long-term relationships

May 7, 2018
When a man throws money around on flashy cars, people intuitively interpret this behavior as a sign that he is more interested in short-term sexual relationships than in romantic commitment. This is according to Daniel Kruger ...

Narcissists don't hunt for partners who are already taken—but it doesn't stop them

March 27, 2018
Narcissists aren't necessarily on the hunt for partners who are already in a relationship - but that doesn't appear to stand in their way, either, new research suggests.

People's romantic choices share characteristics, but for different reasons

March 22, 2017
Ever wondered what your exes have in common, and how they differ from people you never dated?

Predictors for infidelity and divorce highlighted in new research

February 12, 2018
As Valentine's Day approaches, it's reassuring to know many of us are equipped with the basic psychological instincts to have a successful intimate relationship that lasts.

Recommended for you

Even toddlers weigh risks, rewards when making choices

September 21, 2018
Every day, adults conduct cost-benefit analyses in some form for decisions large and small, economic and personal: Bring a lunch or go out? Buy or rent? Remain single or start a family? All are balances of risk and reward.

Early warning sign of psychosis detected

September 21, 2018
Brains of people at risk of psychosis exhibit a pattern that can help predict whether they will go on to develop full-fledged schizophrenia, a new Yale-led study shows. The findings could help doctors begin early intervention ...

Quitting junk food produces similar withdrawal-type symptoms as drug addiction

September 20, 2018
If you plan to try and quit junk food, expect to suffer similar withdrawal-type symptoms—at least during the initial week—like addicts experience when they attempt to quit using drugs.

In depression the brain region for stress control is larger

September 20, 2018
Although depression is one of the leading psychiatric disorders in Germany, its cause remains unclear. A recent study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig, Germany, found ...

American girls read and write better than boys

September 20, 2018
As early as the fourth grade, girls perform better than boys on standardized tests in reading and writing, and as they get older that achievement gap widens even more, according to research published by the American Psychological ...

Mindfulness meditation: 10 minutes a day improves cognitive function

September 19, 2018
Practising mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes a day improves concentration and the ability to keep information active in one's mind, a function known as "working memory". The brain achieves this by becoming more efficient, ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet May 14, 2018
Answer me this: were told that the 2 most dangerous things in the workplace are personal relationships and guns, but on Agents of Shield everybody falls in love with their co-workers, even the bad guys.

And everybody carries guns.

So who's really causing the problems in this country?

Shield or Hydra?
https://youtu.be/sjfa4EosJqU

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.