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What Makes Couples Stick

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Happy couple on the ocean

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It all comes down to two key efforts: conflict management and avoiding external threats.

Why do some relationships go the distances, and others flame out? You could listen to 1,000 songs written on heartbreak and love—one of my current faves is Chris Stapleton’s “Nobody to Blame,” where he sings, “I know right where I went wrong…” But if you want to get more scientific, check out a recent study that appeared in the Journal of Family Theory and Review. Family-studies researchers from the University of Illinois looked at what works—and what doesn’t—in keeping a relationship moving forward.

The research team reviewed 1,100 studies on relationship maintenance and eventually discussed about 250 of those in their actual study. They found that successful relationships rely two key factors: threat mitigation and mitigating conflict.

Threat Mitigation

“Threats to the relationship come from all kinds of different places,” writes Brian Ogolsky, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois. “We know couples cheat in the long-term, people end up in new workplaces and in new situations where possible alternative partners show up, conflicts arise, or a lack of willingness to sacrifice time for your partner emerges.” How well people are able to manage these threats—and interestingly, this is sometimes things we do as individuals, not always with our partner—can become an enhancement strategy for a relationship.

Conflict Management

Unlike threats, conflict happens within the relationship and has to be dealt with as a twosome. “Good conflict management or forgiving our partner for doing something wrong is an interactive process,” Ogolsky writes.

The Takeaway

All relationships have ups and downs—you don’t need a scientist to confirm that—but what Ogolsky and his team are highlighting are processes that can exist across many different kinds of couples and be used to improve the prospects of romance surviving. His team suggests enhancement strategies, too, such as spending time on leisure activities together and talking about the state of the relationship to check in with each other.


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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