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Should I Stay or Should I Go? Five Predictors (and Five Not So Good Predictors) of Relationship Success 

Last week we posted a quiz to see how much our readers knew regarding the predictors of relationship stability (or success). Overall, it looks like we've got some work to do; the average score on the quiz was 48% (remember, random guessing should average 50%). The questions in the quiz were inspired by some of my work on understanding what factors influence relationship outcomes. One of my main research areas is the role of commitment in predicting the “success” of dating relationships (using the term loosely; i.e., staying together vs. breaking-up).1 However, there are certainly other factors that predict relationship success, so we did a study to look at all of the factors that may be associated with breakup over time.2

We used a technique known as a “meta-analysis,” which is a statistical procedure that combines the results of every published (and non-published, when possible) study on a particular topic. Longitudinal data were analyzed, meaning we identified studies that measured characteristics at one point in time (like commitment, satisfaction, personality, etc.) and then followed-up with the participants months (or even years) later to see if their relationships had survived. In total, the results I summarize below are based on 137 studies including nearly 38,000 participants. With this many participants, you can see why meta-analysis is such a powerful research tool.

Based on the results of the meta-analysis, here are five good markers of relationship success:

1. Commitment, or one’s long-term orientation and attachment3 to one’s partner is a very good predictor. It’s not surprising that those intending to stay in their relationships are less likely to break up. 

2. Positive illusions – We’ve written about it before, but viewing your relationship as better than it really is can be beneficial for its success.

3. IOS – The “Inclusion of Other in the Self” Scale, developed by Dr. Art Aron and colleagues,4 is a really ingenious way of assessing relationship closeness using a series of overlapping circles (i.e., Venn diagrams).

4. Love is especially interesting because of the diversity in how love is defined across different studies. It’s conceptualized and measured in many different ways, but what the various definitions of love have in common is their utility in predicting relationship stability.

5. Network support – Although this technically wasn’t in the Top 5, I want to highlight it because it was a surprisingly good predictor of breakup. Having friends and family approve of and support relationships is associated with their long-term success. As a social psychologist, I shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that external influences are important in relationships, but I admittedly didn’t anticipate the strength of this finding.

Five Not-So Great Predictors of Relationship Success

Maybe just as interesting as the best predictors of stability are the things that don’t predict well; here are five (maybe surprising) weak/non-predictors:

1. Satisfaction – Admittedly, satisfaction wasn’t a poor predictor of stability, it just wasn’t as powerful as commitment, love, positive illusions etc. In fact, its predictive power was about the same as network support, which was mentioned above. Essentially, what this means is that a researcher can get the same information about the fate of your relationship by asking you if you’re satisfied or asking your friends and family if they support your relationship. There are probably plenty of reasons why previously satisfying relationships end, including an unexpected infidelity, major life change (like moving for school or new job), or emergence of an even more attractive potential partner. If Natalie Portman or the recently single George Clooney asked you out, would you really say no? (read more about alternatives here)

2. Conflict – The amount of conflict in a dating relationship was a very weak predictor of breaking-up; couples that fight more aren’t more likely to end their relationships. Instead, it’s probably more important how they fight and resolve their conflicts. This result is also inconsistent with findings showing that conflict predicts divorce; this difference could be a function of the differing types of conflict that daters have compared to married partners.

3. Personality – You might be familiar with the “Big 5” dimensions of personality (e.g., extraversion, openness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and agreeableness); none of these traits are associated with staying together when measured on an individual-level. Maybe they matter when looking at matching of partners’ personalities, but that’s another story.

4. Attachment styles – We’ve written a lot about adult attachment. Although attachment dimensions are important in many aspects of relationships (like emotions, intimacy, closeness, the experience of jealousy, etc.), they aren’t particularly good at predicting who will stay together versus break up.

5. Self-esteem, or if a person sees him/herself positively, doesn’t seem to matter in predicting relationship success. So don’t fret if you don’t like yourself; your partner may still like you and want to stay with you. Likewise, just because you think you’re great doesn’t necessarily mean your partner will stick it out with you.

In summary, it’s nice to know that your personality or attachment style isn’t associated with your likelihood of breaking-up. Instead, it’s characteristics of your relationship like love, commitment, and closeness that are especially important. And don’t forget about your friends and family; their support is indicative of relationship success too!

Read about risk factors associated with divorce here.

Click to super-size the infographic.

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1Le, B., & Agnew, C. R. (2003). Commitment and its theorized determinants: A meta-analysis of the Investment Model. Personal Relationships, 10, 37-57.

2Le, B., Dove, N. L., Agnew, C. R., Korn, M. S., & Mutso, A. A. (2010). Predicting non-marital romantic relationship dissolution: A meta-analytic synthesis. Personal Relationships, 17, 377-390.

3Arriaga, X. B., & Agnew, C. R. (2001). Being committed: Affective, cognitive, and conative components of relationship commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 1190-1203.

4Aron, A., Aron E. N., & Smollan, D. (1992). Inclusion of other in the self scale and the structure of interpersonal closeness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 596-612.

Dr. Benjamin Le - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le's research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.

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Reader Comments (4)

Super-interesting post. Thanks!

I can easily imagine that more closeness leads to less breakup. But those very high levels of closeness (almost completely overlapping circles) intuitively don't look like "healthy relationship" (whatever that means...) to me. Any info on how much inclusion is beneficial for the individuals in the relationship (by some definition of beneficial or other)? Does the absolute value on the inclusion scale matter? Does it matter whether both partners are in agreement, i.e. rate the inclusion of partner in self in the same way?

And: Why did you choose "relationship success" (success implying a sort of positive value judgement) as a term for what you measured? "relationship stability", "relationship longevity", "lasting of relationship" could have been alternative and more neutral terms. Sure, some relationships are great, when they last, but some better be over soon, and some maybe weren't really intended to last in the first place (such as when started even though one knows that one will move far away soon, or similar situations).

Defining a relationship's success as its longevity is certainly a handy everyday definition, and I think it's common in western cultures. It reflects that our cultures seem to value coupledom over singlehood and long relationships over short ones. Which is alright in everyday vocabulary, I guess, but I wish that science would abstain from such implied judgements.

September 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLena

Thanks for your comments; let me tackle the second part first. You are 100% correct about the term "relationship success." We struggled in drafts of this article on whether we should use "stability" or "persistence" instead but thought that was too much jargon. I certainly don't mean "success" to equal "good." Instead, "success" here is in terms of the relationship as an entity; i.e., in that if something lives on it is successful at survival. But this is not the same thing as being good for the individual members of the dyad (e.g., see my post about commitment to abusive relationships). Breakup can certainly be a good thing sometimes too!

Regarding the overlapping circles, Dr. Debra Mashek (a contributor to SofR) has a book chapter on this idea (in The Handbook of Closeness and Intimacy), and she and I have a new paper coming on the idea of "wanting less closeness." She also authored a section in the soon-to-be-released SofR book on this very idea. Individuals may have different levels of comfort with closeness, so the same relationship might be fine for one partner but smothering for the other. It's also likely related to avoidant and anxious attachment orientations.

September 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterDr. Benjamin Le

Thanks for your answer! I think I should go and order that book - your reply here being just one additional reason to do it ;-).

The email notification does not seem to work, though? I was notified of my own reply to the article, but not of your reply to my reply.

September 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLena

"Different levels of comfort with closeness" very interesting. I am seeing a libra who seems to be uncomfortable with too much intimacy or happiness for that matter. Everytime i, my self am feeling satisfied a nd loved in the relationship and things are going smooth, he throws a wrench in it and looks for reasons to fight . What is this??

February 10, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterwiliah
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