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What Really Matters for Relationship Satisfaction (Hint: It’s Not What You Think)

Sometime back, I did a study with a graduate student of mine, Michael Barnes, on the role of ideals in relationships.

Ideals are what you would like your relationship to be, if it were “perfect” – your dream relationship with a partner.

Although we expected ideals to be important, we had no idea how important they would prove to be.

In the study, we brought couples into my laboratory at Yale University. The partners in each couple were asked to fill out some questionnaires.

One example question was “I feel very close to my partner.” We asked not only how they felt about their partner, but also how they ideally would like to feel about their partner, how they believed their partner felt about them, and how they ideally would like their partner to feel about them.

Now, it might sound like almost everyone would give the statement about feeling very close to their partner the top rating—everyone would really want to feel that way.

But that was not the case.  Some people like a lot of closeness, but others don’t.  Indeed, some people seem always to be striving for more closeness, whereas others always seem to be striving for more distance—they are uncomfortable when things get too close.

What are the Most Important Elements that Create Happy Relationships?

Our goal in this study was to predict the couples’ happiness and satisfaction. We found that three factors were particularly important:

1. The difference between what partners thought they had and what they ideally wanted.

This difference was even more important than what people directly experienced in their relationship. For example, what matters more than how close someone feels toward their partner is the difference between how close they feel and how close they ideally want to feel. If they are too far from their ideal, they’re not likely to be happy, no matter what they’ve got in their relationship! So, ask yourself not just what you feel, but what you ideally would like to feel, and how close or far away you are from that ideal.

2. The difference between what they wanted their partner to feel and what they believed their partner felt.

There was a second finding that was even more stunning. The best predictor of a person’s happiness in their relationship was not about how the person felt at all!  The best predictor was the difference between what they wanted their partner to feel and what they believed their partner felt.  In other words, if you want your partner to love you with all their heart and soul, but believe they love you less (or more!) than you hope for, you are likely to be unhappy. Most important is what you want from your partner versus what you think you are getting.

3. Your Partner's True Feelings Do Not Influence Your Relationship Satisfaction, Independent of Your Perception of Them.

Would you have guessed that? How your partner actually felt about you (remember, we measured it) didn’t matter at all!!!  Your partner’s feelings had essentially no bearing on your happiness and satisfaction in the relationship.    What mattered was not how your partner felt, but rather, how you perceived your partner to feel.  If you were inaccurate in your perceptions, it didn’t matter: Your happiness still was determined by your perceptions rather than by reality.

The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that we can never know a thing in itself—not at all.  We only know our perception of it.  So, for example, I may perceive my shirt as red.  But I only know my perception, not the reality.  For all I know, what I perceive as red, you perceive as what I call blue, even though we both call it “red.”  And as we know, in fact, the color does not actually reside in the shirt, but rather in the interaction of light waves with the shirt.  The color is not, per se, “in the shirt.”

It’s the same with people.  We only know what we perceive about our own and other people’s feelings. Even if we are dead wrong, those perceptions are what determines how happy and satisfied we are in a relationship.

What Does That Mean for Your Own Relationship?

First, open and sincere communication in a relationship is really important.  If you do not communicate well and fully, the difference between what you feel and what your partner thinks you feel will become greater.  Lack of communication potentially leads to illusions. What people don’t know, they fill in, even if it is inaccurate or dead wrong.

Second, in thinking about your happiness and satisfaction, don’t just focus on your feelings.  Focus most on whether what you are getting from your partner is close enough to your ideal for what you want or need.

Third, your dreams and ideals really matter a lot.  Ask yourself not only about how you feel toward your partner, but also about how you ideally would like to feel. That difference will make a huge difference to your happiness and satisfaction!

If you’re interested in learning more about where your relationship stands and whether your dreams match your reality, take a look at our Love Profile which provides you with an extensive analysis of your relationship.

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