3 Ways To Make Sure Your Relationship Will Last

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
By Dr. Benjamin Le 

When it comes to understanding the fate of any given relationship, knowing something about a couple’s commitment level — a.k.a. the partners' attachment to each other and their long-term perspectives on the relationship — is critical (see our previous article on predicting breakups here). Commitment is associated with all sorts of positive relationship outcomes. But, how is commitment built in a relationship? More than 30 years of research on this topic has identified three pillars that form the foundation of commitment in romantic relationships, regardless of gender or sexual orientation
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Pillar 1: Satisfaction 
This one isn’t particularly surprising — individuals who are happy in their relationship and feel positively about their partner (i.e., those with high satisfaction) are more likely to be in a relationship for the long haul. Satisfaction stems from the benefits vs. costs of being in a relationship. A satisfying relationship has many benefits, such as intimacy, emotional support, sexual fulfillment, security, and companionship. But, even the best relationships have some costs. The benefits and costs together form a global sense of “outcomes” — are the outcomes in your relationship positive? Are the benefits greater than the costs?  
Related: The Absolute Worst Way To Say "I Love You"

The second piece contributing to your satisfaction is the outcome you expect to receive in your relationship. Do you have really high expectations? If so, your outcomes need to be similarly high in order for you to be satisfied. However, if your expectations are low, it won't take much to make you happy. For example, imagine that Sam and Alex are in a relationship and give each other one back rub per month. Sam has pretty low expectations, only expects to get a back rub once per year, and thus is very satisfied with the current relationship, which wildly exceeds those expectations. Alex, on the other hand, expects to get a back rub once per week, and therefore finds the once-per-month back rub — and the relationship — disappointing. (Of course, basing one’s relationship expectations on frequency of back rubs is overly simplistic, but substitute whatever outcomes you value in your relationship, and it works just the same.)

The bottom line is that relationships that meet and exceed your expectations will be satisfying, while not getting what you want (and believe you should get) from a partner is a recipe for dissatisfaction.  

Pillar 2: (Low) Alternatives 
Satisfaction is an outcome of what you get from your current partner. But, what about alternative partners — those people whom you could date if you weren’t with your current partner? Perhaps there is someone out there who could be more satisfying; if you suspect that you could do better elsewhere, then your commitment to your partner is probably low. Why would you stay in your relationship if you could be with someone who could better meet your needs for intimacy, emotional support, sexual fulfillment, security, companionship, etc.? (More on this in the third pillar.)  

Often, when you think about alternatives, there may a particular someone you imagine you could be with — if you weren’t with your current partner, that is. Maybe it's a hot coworker, a server at your local coffee shop, or a neighbor who likes to stop and chat when you run into each other while walking your dogs. But, alternatives don’t necessarily have to be specific romantic-partner possibilities. Maybe you could get more satisfaction from spending more time with your friends or focusing on your career more intently. Having no relationship at all is a great alternative to being in an unsatisfying or unhealthy relationship.  

Related: How To Stay Friends After Breaking Up


Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Pillar 3: Investments 
Some days are better than others in relationships, and attractive alternatives may come and go. As a result, satisfaction and alternatives both fluctuate. But, when satisfaction is low (e.g., you just had an argument with your partner) and alternatives are high (e.g., you just found out that your ex wants you back), why do people stay in their relationships rather than breaking up? It comes down to the investments.

Investments represent the things you’d lose if your relationship were to end; they are the stabilizing factors that keep things afloat during the rough patches. They may be tangible items (such as a house you and your spouse purchased together) or intangible ones (such as the work and effort you put into your relationship over the years). Investments can be from the past (such as all of the memories you have with your partner), or they may relate to the future (the vacation you planned together for next summer). Social networks are another sort of investment; if you were to break up with your partner, who would “get to keep” the friends you both have in common? In short, investments are the things that you value in your relationship that would be lost if you broke up. And, they make it harder for you to part ways with that person.

Numerous studies show that these three pillars (satisfaction, alternatives, and investments) pull the majority of the weight when it comes to relationship commitment. This isn’t to say that other things don’t contribute; it's just that these three are essential for understanding how commitment is built — in any kind of romantic relationship.
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