The early stages of a relationship are marked by a kind of excitement and tumultuousness that makes it exhilarating, if not at times stressful. In these emotionally-charged early phases, you can go from the highest mountains to the deepest valleys without much warning. One day, you’re sure that this relationship is heading in the right direction, only to experience profound insecurity the next day when your new love interest fails to come through with that promised phone call. You rack your brain trying to imagine what you could’ve done wrong. Even worse, you torture yourself with images of your new partner-to-be with someone else. It’s not just that the person is too busy to call you, but that the person has lost interest in you altogether.
As relationships become more established, these early emotional roller coasters eventually settle down, and you and your partner are secure in the knowledge that you truly care about and support each other. However, the evolution of a relationship from turmoil to stability becomes more probable the older and more experienced you become. Young people in their first or second romantic relationship perhaps are more likely to follow the Romeo-Juliet model in which impetuosity is the rule of the day, and they tend to make poor decisions that ultimately doom the fate of the relationship’s viability. Even if they don’t follow the exact star-crossed lover pattern, teenagers have failed to develop some of the emotional coping tools that can help keep the relationship on a steady course. According to a brand new publication by University of Denver’s Ann Lantagne and Wyndol Furman (2017), both age and relationship length jointly influence the ways in which partners form strong and resilient bonds. Most prior research is unable to tease these factors apart, but the Denver team figured out a way to look at them in a more controlled manner.
Using a longitudinal design to follow couples over time, Lantagne and Furman examined the intersection of partner age and relationship length as influences on what they regarded as the four most important relationship qualities. The researchers used “behavioral systems theory” as their underlying perspective, a model which proposes that “as youth grow older, romantic partners become the central figure in the affiliative and sexual behavior systems, and ultimately, the attachment and caregiving systems” (p. 1738). In other words, by the time teenagers move into early adulthood, they’re replaced many of their friends and peer group members with romantic partners. They become less focused on their own needs, and more oriented toward maximizing the rewards that they experience with their partner.
The four basic relationship qualities included (1) positive qualities, including support; (2) negative qualities, as shown in negative interactions such as arguments; (3) power and status, as shown in trying to control the partner; and (4)
comparisons with other relationships, as shown in jealousy. Think about your closest relationship and imagine how you would rate it on these dimensions. Do you feel that you and your partner support each other and value your relationship? Is this enough to offset the negative qualities of conflict, control, and jealousy? How has the balance of positive to negative shifted over time?
Lantagne and Furman believed that they could separately investigate age and relationship length, given that some young people are childhood sweethearts who’ve been together for years, and that some older individuals have just entered a committed relationship. Getting older should give individuals the emotional benefit of having more experience on which to draw against a backdrop of greater maturity in general. Longer relationships, regardless of the age of the partners, should increase in positive qualities, but may also increase in some of the negative qualities such as conflict, control, and jealousy.
Using a longitudinal study in which age and relationship length were investigated both separately and in interaction, the Denver researchers investigated individuals first studied in their teens who were then followed continuously through early adulthood, or until about age 24. For ease of analysis, relationships divided into the 3 categories of 4 months, 9 months, or 22 months long.
The findings over the 10 years of the study showed that as teens matured into early adulthood, they were more likely to enter into supportive relationships, even if those relationships were relatively new. The young adults, compared to the teenagers, were also better able to manage the negative qualities that seep into close relationships, including conflict, jealousy, and feelings of control. The interaction of age and relationship length, however, also turned out to be important. Younger individuals in longer relationships were still less supportive and more involved in higher levels of conflict than were their older counterparts. This finding led the authors to conclude that “with age, romantic relationships appear to become easier to handle” (p. 1745).
However, longer relationships, even among the young adult participants, also became more marked by “conflict, control, and feelings of jealousy,” feelings that “appear to be inherent as individuals become increasingly invested in the relationship, and as the relationship increases in interdependence” (pp. 1745-6).
These findings therefore explain the Romeo and Juliet effect, showing that young lovers are too egocentric and unsure of how to behave in a relationship to be able to manage the complex feelings associated with being part of a couple. If those star-crossed lovers had been just 10 years older, their new relationship may have been less turbulent and had a happier ending. Longer relationships, even among older individuals, eventually start to develop problems due to the inherent conflicts that intimacy can bring with it. For people who are older, those problems should prove less detrimental to the ultimate health of the relationship because of their greater maturity and perspective.
The findings boiled down to one main conclusion, which is that most crucial to the relationship’s ability to succeed is the commitment of the partners to putting the gains they can experience as a couple above the needs that either partner alone feels. The willingness to put “mutual relationship gains” (p. 1747) first will allow the relationship’s positive qualities to outweigh whatever strife evolves over the course of time.
If your relationships, new or old, are to flourish, it’s this focus on working together for the good of the couple that seems to be key. If you and your partner can keep your eye on the prize of what’s truly important, your relationship will continue to be fulfilling, regardless of your age.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017