Seven Signs of Relationship (Dis)Satisfaction

Unlike ‘love’ and ‘commitment’, the words ‘relationship satisfaction’ are unlikely to strike fear into the heart of the unreconstructed man.


[Photo by Michael Sarver]

Unlike ‘love’ and ‘commitment’, the words ‘relationship satisfaction’ are unlikely to strike fear into the heart of the unreconstructed man (or reconstructed woman). But once a relationship has become long-term, although we still talk about love and commitment, in some ways it’s satisfaction that comes to the forefront. Indeed, low satisfaction is an important predictor of relationship breakdown. So, what factors have psychologists found are important in how satisfied we are with our relationships?

Relationship satisfaction has been measured at both cognitive and behavioural levels (Fincham & Beach, 2006). Here are the main behaviours important in satisfaction:

1. Support behaviour. The giving and receiving of supportive behaviour has not only been found to affect relationship satisfaction but also general health levels.

2. The negative loop. One of the signatures of a dissatisfied couple is the negative loop. This is where you start off commenting on the lack of milk in the fridge and end up trading full-scale character assassinations.

3. Demand-withdrawal pattern. Another signature of the dissatisfied couple is the demand-withdrawal pattern: you wonder out-loud about a visit to the in-laws, they turn the TV up. The stereotype is that women demand and men withdraw, but who wants to be stereotyped?

And here are some of the main cognitions (thoughts) that are important:

4. Unrealistic beliefs. She’s not stubborn. She’s determined and principled. He’s not lazy. He’s laidback, chilled out. It may seem strange to say that ‘cognitive distortions’ and ‘unrealistic beliefs’ are associated with relationship satisfaction. But, as long as your reinterpretations of what others might consider flaws are positive, then unrealistic beliefs can be very good for your relationship.

5. Attribution patterns. Was she late from work ‘just this once’ for reasons beyond her control? Or, is this sort of thing always happening and she could just as easily make it home if she tried? Attributions are the reasons we attach to our own and other’s behaviour, what we see as its cause. Patterns of attributions which paint partners in a good light are associated with relationship satisfaction.

6. Partner and ideal standards discrepancies. Guaranteed dissatisfaction: I want Angelina Jolie. I will accept no substitute.

7. Memory. Satisfaction is associated with feeling your relationship has improved in recent times.

Satisfied: yes or no?
Intuitively it seems obvious that relationship satisfaction should be a sliding scale, say, from 1 to 10. But, what some of the evidence suggests is that it might be just yes or no. Many of the processes important for relationship satisfaction tend to operate in self-reinforcing loops. So that if you start to become dissatisfied, for example, by a change in attributional patterns, things rapidly go from bad to worse.

Whether or not relationships can really be put into two categories, it certainly makes for an entertaining game while you’re out people watching: them? No, not satisfied. Those two? Yes, satisfied.

Before you rush off to practice your attributional processes or work on your demand-withdrawal patterns, it’s useful to know some limitations of this research:

  • Most of these findings are based on research carried out in the US meaning it might not generalise to the rest of the world.
  • Most studies are based on self-report data. Psychologists are acutely aware of the fact that people don’t always tell the truth, or even know what’s going on in their own heads, but sometimes there’s no alternative. Flawed understanding is better than ignorance (just).
  • One glaring omission is any mention of emotion in relationship satisfaction. While emotion is clearly important, Fincham & Beach report the research on emotion has been contradictory.

» This post is part of a series on the psychology of relationships.

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Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004.

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