Have you ever had to admit on a first date that, among your many compelling and marvelous qualities, you are also a relationship counselor? I have. While this announcement can provoke a range of interesting responses, one I have often remembered was:
“Really! How interesting. Does that make you any better at your own relationships?”
This particular guy wasn’t asking sarcastically; he was actually curious. I chuckled and stalled for time. On a gut level, I wanted to say yes…but was that true? I mean, wasn’t I on this date in the first place because my previous relationships had, well, ended? His question got me thinking: Is one person really any “better” at relationships than the next? Or, is it some natural dynamic or chemistry between two specific people that creates relationship success instead?
Various researchers have considered both frameworks, which are often called relationship aptitude and relationship compatibility.1 The aptitude perspective asks: How well do your individual qualities predict your future relationship outcomes regardless of which partner you choose? The compatibility perspective asks: How powerfully does the idiosyncratic match-up between your qualities and your partner’s impact the outcome of your relationship?
In my last article (“Does Romantic Compatibility Actually Matter?”), I discussed the surprisingly minimal impact of relationship compatibility. How does the relationship aptitude perspective stack up in comparison?
A little bit better, according to Finkel and colleagues1 (also see here). This research team evaluated research looking at individual traits, such as neuroticism, attachment style, and depression (or other mental health problems), as well as individual experiences, such as parental divorce/unhappy marriage or a history of childhood abuse. Interestingly, their analysis suggested that these aspects of personality and history do have some power to predict the outcome of your long-term relationships no matter who your partner is. In fact, they felt that “an enormous body of evidence supports this [relationship aptitude] view.”
One study from the late 1980s2 found that the neuroticism (emotional instability or the tendency to experience negative emotions) of husbands and wives, “Not only predicted their marital outcomes over forty-five years later, but this effect swamped the effects of almost all other individual characteristics that they had measured.” Two other studies from the 1990s3,4 found that going through a parental divorce doubled one’s risk for relationship difficulties. Further research links a secure attachment style to positive relationship outcomes.
After synthesizing related studies from the past three decades, Finkel and colleagues1 conclude with this advice: “With respect to [romantic] matching [based] on personality…finding a partner with a personality conducive to relationships is more likely to promote successful outcomes than finding a partner with a personality similar to one’s own.”
To put it another way, they are suggesting that certain combinations of traits create people who are likely to be “relationship smart.” Whether you give them a challenging friend, boss, neighbor, or romantic partner, a “relationship smart” person is likely to find a way to get along. This quality of relationship aptitude appears to be relatively stable, cutting across the person’s various dating relationships.
When you think about it, this relationship aptitude perspective makes an intriguing claim: finding someone with a sunny disposition, happily married parents, and an abuse-free past might make a lot of difference in whether your bond is fulfilling over the long-term. Just in case you or your spouse or partner lack this ideal “relationship aptitude” package, though, don’t sweat it—you’re not doomed. While these individual qualities do matter, their impact is small, accounting for less than 5-10% of ultimate relationship outcomes. Personality and history are not destiny—and thank goodness for that.
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1Finkel, E. J., Eastwick, P. W., Karney, B. R., Reis, H. T., & Sprecher, S. (2012). Online dating: A critical analysis from the perspective of psychological science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(1), 3–66.
2Kelly E. L., & Conley J. J. (1987). Personality and compatibility: A prospective analysis of marital stability and marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 27–40.
3McLanahan S., & Sandefur G. (1994). Growing up with a single parent: What hurts, what helps? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
4Simons R. L. (1996). Understanding differences between divorced and intact families: Stress, interaction, and child outcomes. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Melissa Schneider - Science Of Relationships articles | Website
Melissa is a couples counselor and writer interested in the dynamics of romantic relationships. She covers dating trends on her blog “Where Is This Going?” and is currently working on a collection of true stories about love and marriage in modern China. Follow her on Twitter @WhereIsThsGoing.