It’s safe to say that everyone who enters into a relationship hopes that it will last. Although some people enjoy being able to explore options with multiple partners, the idea of a “relationship” is typically connected to a sense of continuity. You can probably remember some times in your life when you preferred to maintain your independence, but once you decided to commit to another person, you switched gears to develop more lasting bonds. The question becomes, then, once you’ve chosen this person to commit to, how sure are you that your relationship will actually succeed over the long haul?
According to a new study by University of Alberta (Canada)’s Matthew Johnson and colleagues (2019), the idea that you’re in a relationship that can last itself can influence the quality and outcome of that relationship. “Relationship confidence,” as the authors define it, “is the belief that one’s relationship will be successful into the future and that the couple has the requisite skills to achieve lasting love” (p. 1). In other words, when you believe that you can successfully navigate your relationship, despite what might come your way, this can generate its own momentum that will allow this belief to become fulfilled.
Relationship confidence, then, is a specific version of self-efficacy, or the belief that you can be successful in accomplishing a particular task. A strong sense of relationship confidence can help you approach the problems that, perhaps inevitably, will come up between you and your partner. As much as you may be in love with your partner, there will be times when you disagree whether about relatively small issues (such as how much to spend on a new living room rug) or ones that have deeper implications (such as whether to have children). The sense that you can make things work out will guide you partway through this conflict. On top of that, as Johnson et al. point out, the outcome will be determined by whether you think you have the skills to help you get to that point.
The answer to the eternal question of whether lasting love is possible may be shifting, according to research cited by the authors, among Millennials, who are exposed to a more general current climate of pessimism about committed relationships. However, just as with other stereotypes about Millennials, the authors wonder whether or not this is true. Perhaps current young adults actually are no different from any other generation, believing that they will themselves find partners to whom they can become committed in their own lives. Such a more hopeful perspective could, according to the idea of relationship confidence, vary from person to person and couple to couple rather than being tied to generational influences. By studying the trajectories of committed relationships in people who have begun to embark on a long-term connection with a partner, the Canadian-led author team hypothesized that they could determine the impact of this key psychological quality on actual outcomes over time in current young adults.
In addition to the quality of relationship confidence, Johnson and his collaborators believe that the ability to commit to a partner and maintain that commitment will be influenced by the quality of an individual’s parental relationship. Think about your own parents. Did they actually get married before or while you were growing up? Once married, did they divorce? Whether married or not, how much conflict did you witness between them? Thus, if your parents had a troubled relationship, you may feel your own relationship is doomed as well.
Various background factors can also influence relationship outcome including, as the authors propose, whether you’ve already started to make the commitment to your partner by deciding to live together. People who are already in a cohabiting relationship have a “more extensive relationship biography”… that “may bear testament to the couple’s ability to navigate challenges in their partnership.” Whether your partner had a child with a previous partner, furthermore, can also influence the evolution of your relationship. In general, when couples have a child, their relationship becomes more complicated, even if both truly wanted to become parents. When the child in the home was the product of a previous relationship, “the couple must also negotiate child rearing with the other parent,” the authors note (p. 2). Finally, the role of gender must also be taken into account when assessing the impact of relationship confidence on outcomes. Previous research cited by the authors shows differing relationship trajectories for newlywed heterosexual couples, with husbands exhibiting a U-shaped curve over time where they were more confident, became less so, and then gained back their confidence over time. Wives, by contrast, were initially more confident but then lost that sense of self-efficacy. Adding to these demographic factors, an individual’s attachment style may also impact relationship confidence, and hence quality, over time. People high in anxious attachment worry that their partners don’t love them, and those high in avoidant attachment prefer not to get too close to a partner.
To test the combination of background factors with relationship confidence, the authors conducted a follow-up study in which they collected data from 1,294 young adults (ages 18 to 34) 11 times over a 4-year period. All participants had been in nonmarital heterosexual relationships for at least 2 months prior to the beginning of the study. In addition to measuring relationship confidence, the authors also asked participants to rate the quality of their interactions with their partner at the time of the assessment. This allowed the research team to follow relationship evolution in real time at the level of how well the partners reported actually getting along. Additionally, the authors tracked relationship history and whether the partners broke up, remained together, or got married in that 11 months.
You can test yourself with the 5 questions the authors used to measure relationship confidence. Use a 1 to 7 scale of strongly disagree to strongly agree regarding your current relationship or, if you’re not in one, the last one that you considered serious:
1. I feel good about our prospects to make this relationship work for a lifetime
2. I am very confident when I think of our future together
3. I believe we can handle whatever conflicts will arise in the future
4. We have the skills a couple needs to make a marriage last
5. We can handle anything that comes our way
The two subscales of this measure were global confidence (items 1 and 2) and skill-focused confidence (items 3-5). On average, the couples in this study seemed reasonably confident their relationships would last, with an average of 5.5 out of 7; a sizable percent (13-22%) scored at the top of the scale. However, there was room for variation, and the data presented by the study authors at the time of initial testing suggest that an average of 4 or lower means that you are scoring well below that study average. Across the time period of the study, however, the average score went up considerably, reaching slightly over 6 by the time nearly a year had gone by. Interestingly, although relationship confidence was strongly correlated with relationship satisfaction across the study as a whole, the scores when assessed over time within individuals revealed that variations in confidence were only moderately related to variations in satisfaction. Despite the fact that the two constructs are linked, then, they are not tapping into identical components of long-term relationships.
The generally high levels of confidence within the sample led Johnson et al. to conclude that, contrary to the idea that Millennials have a jaded view of relationships, those in the present study showed high confidence that theirs would work last. Indeed, although about 1/3 of the sample ended their relationship across the study period, their relationship confidence remained high. Of course, as the authors note, those who are pessimistic about relationships stay away from commitment altogether, leading to the sample showing self-selection bias. Even so, the developmental process may play out, as the authors note, such that “confidence in the idea of a long-term union may be low until one enters a committed relationship where the story becomes quite different when thinking about one’s actual partner” (p. 8). In other words, if you’re high in relationship confidence, attitudes toward commitment won’t penetrate your own personal optimism.
Looking now at those background factors, and how they could affect your relationship confidence, it appeared that men were more likely to become more confident over time, while the opposite occurred for women but these trajectories were not studied at the level of couples, so the men involved were not in relationships with the women. People with lower levels of avoidant attachment, as predicted, had higher relationship confidence, as did those in longer-term relationships who reported positive interactions with their partner. For women, having a partner with a child from a previous relationship predicted lower initial confidence and larger decreases over time.
Now that you understand the dimensions of relationship confidence, you can use those 5 items to assess your own sense of self-efficacy about whether you can stick it out over the long term with your partner. Give the same scale to your partner, and use the opportunity to evaluate where you differ both in level of confidence and in global vs. skill-based relationship self-efficacy.
To sum up, having confidence your relationship can last may help promote the outcome of being in a relationship that you find personally fulfilling. Knowing where to pinpoint your sense of strengths and weaknesses may provide the first step toward building that confidence and, ultimately, your ability to derive satisfaction over the long term.