Happily ever after

 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)

Many people aspire to a successful partnership. But is this success determined by destiny, or does it result from working on the relationship? Researchers from the University of Basel have investigated the role of people’s inner convictions on how they approach a relationship and how satisfaction develops over time.

Butterflies in your stomach, a smile on your face and a feeling of immense happiness - falling in love can be such a beautiful thing. Unfortunately, this stage of a relationship doesn’t last forever. Research shows that the "honeymoon phase" lasts about a year. Indeed, relationship satisfaction declines over time.

Researchers at the University of Basel’s Faculty of Psychology have studied the extent to which a person’s attitude to a relationship is connected with expected and actual relationship satisfaction. They surveyed over 900 couples in German-speaking countries who had been together for five years on average, and published their findings in the European Journal of Personality.

"It’s one of the few longer-term studies to survey both partners in a romantic relationship," says Dr. Fabian Gander, lead author of the study. Two years elapsed between the first and last surveys.

Destined to be together - or not

"In general, relationship satisfaction decreased in most couples over the course of the study, regardless of their fundamental attitude," says Gander.

In this context, two attitudes can be distinguished: there are people who take the view that a relationship is either meant to be or not (destiny beliefs), whereas others believe that relationships develop and can grow over time if you work on them (growth beliefs).

Invest or leave?

Whereas "destiny believers" begin with a higher level of satisfaction, the level of satisfaction decreases more slowly in people with growth beliefs. "These people therefore seem to be more resistant to the typical gradual creep of dissatisfaction," says Gander.

"The advantage of destiny beliefs is that people perceive the relationship to be less at risk from external influences because, after all, you are destined to be together," adds the psychologist. In the event of a relationship crisis, however, the question is: Do I invest in the relationship so that it gets better again? Or do I break up with my partner because they clearly aren’t the right person for me? "However, our data doesn’t allow us to say whether some couples are more likely to break up than others," says Gander.

A mindset can be changed

"Destiny beliefs are quite widespread," says Maximiliane Uhlich, co-author of the study, who suspects that the movie industry nurtures this idea: the plot always ends up with two people coming together and being happy against all’odds because they are destined for one another. In fairytales, the prince and princess also "live happily ever after." Incidentally, the researchers did not find a difference in beliefs between the sexes. Both partners tended to have the similar mindsets.

"In the long run, however, working on a relationship pays off," says Uhlich, who has also worked with couples in therapy. "Many people are unaware that a relationship is hard work, and not everyone has the willingness to work on a relationship." The decrease in relationship satisfaction can be buffered by shared new experiences.

Uhlich draws a comparison with the concept of talent: "The idea that success is primarily driven by talent is now an outdated one. Rather, it’s assumed that intensive practice is the key to success. If you put the hours into learning a skill, you’ll ultimately master it better than someone who believes they’re talented and perhaps rests on their laurels."

This growth mindset, then, is something that can be learned and may have practical applications within a relationship.

Original publication

Fabian Gander et al.
The role of relationship beliefs in predicting levels and changes of relationship satisfaction
European Journal of Personality (2024), doi: 10.1177/08902070241240029