A New Way to Test Your Relationship’s Health

When you think about your relationship satisfaction, what elements come to mind? Researchers often use relationship satisfaction scales designed to capture the positives and negatives in how couples behave with each other. These statements typically attempt to capture the nuances of the many ways in which people get along, or don’t get along, with the person to whom they’re committed. The scores you get on these tests represent a single continuum from unhappy to happy. The assumption behind these measures is that either you’re very satisfied, or you’re not. However, as you undoubtedly know from your own closest ties, you can be simultaneously happy and unhappy with your partner, not just from day-to-day, but from one area to another within your relationship. Sometimes it’s hard to put those feelings into words.

Based on the idea that couples can have these decidedly mixed feelings about each other, University of Rochester’s Ronald Rogge and colleagues (2017) take the approach of asking couples to provide dual assessments of their relationship’s perceived strengths and weaknesses. They maintain that “constraining the assessment of relationship quality to a single dimension could be obscuring important phenomena and oversimplifying theories” (p. 1029). The Rogge et al. measure, the Positive and Negative Relationship Quality Scale (PN-RQ), includes 8 positive and 8 negative adjectives (a shorter version uses 4 of each). Participants use one set of single adjectives to rate from “not at all true” to “completely true when thinking about the positive aspects of their relationship and rate another set when they are thinking about the negative.

What makes this approach particularly interesting is that rather than using specifically worded questions such as “my partner makes me happy,” or “my partner does his/her share of household chores,” researchers use only single-word prompts. The single-term adjective rating approach is the opposite of the “behaviorally” oriented rating questionnaires in which investigators attempt to pinpoint specific qualities of marital interactions. When you’re rating your relationship on the single-word qualities, the theory is that your responses represent your immediate and perhaps almost unconscious reactions that you have to your partner. You’re not pondering each time your partner did or did not stroke your back, nor are you trying to decide just how happy you are. The single terms force you to cut to the core of how you perceive your relationship at its best of times and at its worst.

Let’s take a look now at the PN-RQ and see how you would rate each term according to the instructions (the authors permit the scale’s reproduction). The ratings should be along the 6 points of from not at all true to completely true.

Considering only the positive qualities of your relationship and ignoring the negative ones, please rate your relationship on the following:

My relationship is:

  1. Enjoyable
  2. Pleasant
  3. Strong
  4. Alive
  5. Fun
  6. Full
  7. Energizing
  8. Exciting

Considering only the negative qualities of your relationship and ignoring the positive ones, please rate your relationship on the following:

My relationship is:

  1. Miserable
  2. Bad
  3. Empty
  4. Lifeless
  5. Unpleasant
  6. Dull
  7. Weak
  8. Discouraging

Note that the instructions are to rate your relationship, not your partner.  To shorten the scale, you could answer only the first 4 in each category; the authors report that both versions have high reliability and validity based on the samples they studied in this publication. Using the full 16-item version, scores can range from 0 to 48.  In the online sample of adults (average age 32 years), the 8 item positive subscale mean was 39; if you’re keeping track of your own responses, scores from 31 to 47 were within that normal range. For the negative subscale, the average of 7.4 was far lower, and most people in this particular sample scored between 0 and 10.  As you might expect, people scoring high on the positive items also scored low on the negative ones, but the correlations were not perfect. The finding that positive and negative scales didn’t overlap completely supports the Rochester team’s proposal that you can hold separate views about the pro’s and con’s of your relationship as you weigh its best and worst features.

The PN-RQ also held up favorably when compared to other relationship quality measures. Most telling was its sensitivity to change over time in couples who went through a brief form of couples counseling. This was a novel intervention known as the PAIR, a method developed by Rogge to use resources readily available for partners to do at home rather than in an office or lab.

PAIR asks participants to watch 5 popular movies portraying relationships over the course of a month and then to have discussions about whether their own relationship dynamics were similar to or different from those portrayed in the film (the participants received a list of 113 possible titles to watch). On average, the 74 participants in this study watched 3.5 films over the course of the month. Compared to other relationship measures, which increased at the end of the month, the PN-RQ scores were more sensitive to detecting why PAIR seemed to work. Participants remained rather stable on the positive scales, but showed the impact of the intervention by decreasing their negative scale scores. It wasn’t just that people felt better about their relationship, but they felt less worse.

To sum up, using the PN-RQ can help you pinpoint where your relationship could stand to benefit if both you and your partner complete it separately and then focus on where you agree and disagree in your ratings. You can also take the “chick flick” approach (as it was referred to in the New York Times) and take the temperature of your relationship before and after you’ve seen and discussed romantic movies with your partner.

Fulfillment in relationships involves maximizing the positive but, as the Rogge et al. study showed, also finding ways to decrease the negative.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, “Fulfillment at Any Age,” to discuss today’s blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017



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