What predicts how satisfied you will be with your relationship partner? This was the question tackled by Joel et al in a 2020 meta analysis of 43 longitudinal couples studies over an average of 14 months. Spoiler alert – it turns out that none of the (self-reported) indicators tracked in these studies were predictive of whether relationship quality would increase of decrease over that time period. However, the study did provide some insight into indicators that were correlated with current relational satisfaction.

The dependent variable in the analysis was relationship quality (i.e., a person’s self-reported, subjective perception that their relationship is relatively good vs. bad). The other self-reported measures in the studies were classified as being either individual difference variables (judgments about the self, such as traits and characteristics) or relationship-specific variables (judgments about the relationship or the partner). For each of the variables, they could be either actor-reported (Sam’s assessment of Sam’s commitment to the relationship) or partner-reported (Nicole’s assessment of Sam’s commitment to the relationship)

Results revealed that variables capturing one’s own perceptions of the relationship (e.g., conflict, affection) predicted up to 45% of the variance in relationship quality at the beginning of each study. The top five relationship variables were the following:

  1. Perceived partner commitment (e.g., “My partner wants our relationship to last forever”)
  2. Appreciation (e.g., “I feel very lucky to have my partner in my life”)
  3. Sexual satisfaction (e.g., “How satisfied are you with the quality of your sex life?”)
  4. Perceived partner satisfaction (e.g., “Our relationship makes my partner very happy”)
  5. Conflict (e.g., “How often do you have fights with your partner?”)

Notably, objective relationship variables (e.g., cohabiting status, dating versus married relationship status, having children) generally mattered little on top of the above variables, with the exception of relationship length.

Individual differences—variables capturing features of the self, such as neuroticism, age, or gender—predicted a smaller but still meaningful amount of variance: up to 21% at the beginning of each study, when used without relationship-specific variables. The mose reliable individual difference variables were the following:

  1. Satisfaction with life (e.g., “The conditions of my life are excellent”)
  2. Negative affect (e.g., “distressed,” “irritable”)
  3. Depression (e.g., “feelings of hopelessness”)
  4. Attachment anxiety (e.g., “I worry a lot about my relationships with others”)
  5. Attachment avoidance (e.g., “I prefer not to be too close to romantic partners”).

Demographic variables, such as sex/gender, race/ethnicity, and education mattered little.

The paper further notes that “individual differences did not predict relationship quality above relationship-specific predictors alone, partner-reports did not predict relationship quality beyond actor-reports alone, and relationship-quality change was largely unpredictable.” That is, the results suggest that if Sam and Nicole each complete many questionnaires about themselves and their relationship, all of the predictable variances in their relationship quality will be explained solely by their own perceptions of that relationship. Sam’s reports about his own traits and other characteristics, Nicole’s reports about her characteristics, and Nicole’s perceptions of the relationship will not explain any additional variance in Sam’s relationship quality. Furthermore, changes in Sam’s relationship quality over subsequent months or years are unlikely to be predictable by any of these self-report measures.

What are the takeaways for your relationship? Aside from the “obvious” benefits of having a great sex life and fighting less, this study highlights the benefits of being vocal and demonstrative about how committed, happy, and lucky you feel to be with your partner. Conversely, we can infer the danger of the “one foot in, one foot out” mentality – keeping your options open or being emotionally guarded in case the relationship fails can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. So whether it is with a daily shared moment of appreciation, writing each other small notes expressing love and affection, or scanning the environment to catch what your partner’s doing right, we can all learn to be more assiduous about expressing these sentiments to our significant others.