New Romantic Relationships May End Up Following The Same Patterns As Previous Ones

Sad couple having a conflict

By Matthew Warren

Entering into a new intimate relationship can feel exciting and full of possibility. And for many, it may seem to offer the chance to escape the patterns of our previous relationships: perhaps there will be less arguing, or maybe the new relationship will provide a greater sense of satisfaction. But a recent study suggests that once the initial honeymoon period is over, the dynamics of a new relationship may end up being pretty similar to the last one.

To examine the kinds of changes that occur when people move from one partner to the next, Matthew Johnson from the University of Alberta and Franz Neyer from Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena examined data from the German Family Panel, a longitudinal study that has been following more than 12,000 people since 2008. Each year, participants complete a survey that includes rating their relationship and sexual satisfaction, frequency of sex, relationship stability, and how much they quarrel with their partner or receive admiration from them.

In their new paper, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, the team analysed the responses of 554 participants who had had two intimate relationships which had both lasted long enough to be recorded in two surveys. This provided the team with data from the second-to-last and final year of one relationship, and the first and second year of the subsequent relationship. By comparing the levels of satisfaction, instability and so on at these different stages, they could see how dynamics changed across relationships.

The pair found that at the end of the first relationship, all of the measures deteriorated: people became less satisfied, argued more and so on. Unsurprisingly, these measures then all improved when they began seeing their next partner. A year later, however, they dropped again — the “honeymoon” period had worn off.

But when the researchers compared the first survey of the first relationship and the second survey of the second relationship — that is, the most stable phases in the partnerships — the responses were pretty similar. There were no significant differences in sexual or relationship satisfaction, in the amount of conflict, or in perceptions of stability. Only two measures differed: overall, participants had more sex and received more admiration from their partner in the second relationship.

The authors conclude that our intimate partnerships end up quite similar to the ones that came before them. We may feel like a new partnership is different or better, the researchers say, because the conflict and negative feelings that characterise the end of a previous relationship “cast a long shadow over the memory of that union”.

However, a lack of evidence for differences between relationships doesn’t necessarily mean that such changes don’t occur. Of particular concern is that the study used very basic survey measures: most involved just one or two questions (e.g. “All in all, how satisfied are you with your relationship?”), so may not have been sensitive to more subtle changes in dynamics.

And, as the researchers point out, even if on average people don’t see many differences between their relationships, there might be certain individual characteristics that make changes more or less likely. For instance, the team found that participants’ level of neuroticism and relationship length both influenced the pattern of results. “Changes did occur for some people,” they conclude, “but despite the presence of a new partner, change is not inevitable.”

 (Eventual) stability and change across partnerships.

Matthew Warren (@MattbWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest