Most of us have those moments where we think we’d be happier if our partner was tidier, or kinder, or more attentive. If only my loved one was more like Prince Charming, I’d be the happiest guy or gal in the world.
Well, ideals be damned, because new data suggests that’s not how relationship satisfaction works. Happiness in a relationship depends not on how well a person’s mate meets some ideal preference, but on how that mate compares to what else is out there, according to a recent study in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.
“Our relationship happiness is not as straightforward or obvious as we think it is,” says study author Daniel Conroy-Beam, a psychology graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin. “We should probably not put so much weight upon our ideals.”
Past relationship studies have examined how our preferences affect the way we pick a partner, but few have gone a step further to examine how those preferences affect our happiness once we’re in a relationship. Is a person satisfied if he or she got the partner they always wanted?
Conroy-Beam and his colleagues asked 259 adults in long-standing, monogamous relationships to rate how much they value certain traits — confident, intelligent, muscular, kind, etc. — in an ideal long-term partner. Then, the same people were asked to rate the extent to which they felt these traits described their current mate, and to answer a series of questions on relationship satisfaction.
By comparing individual responses to group averages, the researchers saw a clear pattern. Individuals were satisfied with their partners under one of two conditions: if their mate was more desirable than them based on the listed relationship traits — suggesting it would be hard to find a replacement of equal or better quality — or if their mate was more desirable than most other people.
In other words — and yes, I realize how cold-hearted this sounds — we’re happiest in a relationship if there aren’t better fish in the sea that we could get our hooks into.
In a second survey of 300 adults designed to test the results of the first survey, the researchers added a few questions asking participants how hard they worked to keep their mate, such as by purchasing gifts or making themselves extra attractive. Unsurprisingly, the more irreplaceable a person’s partner was, the more effort the person devoted to the relationship.
The study did not assess what happens during break-ups or when a person switches partners. It also did not take into account other key relationship feelings, such as love and anger. But Conroy-Beam hopes to look at such measures in future studies.
For now, though we may each occasionally wish our partner was a little more “perfect,” the data suggests that “happiness does not work that way,” says Conroy-Beam.