Bob, in his early 40s, has been with his partner, Jane, about two years. That’s the longest of his past relationships, following a brief marriage in his early twenties. He says he’s pretty sure he loves Jane, but that he always feels he needs to keep a foot out the door. Sometimes, that’s because he questions if she’s the “right one” for him, after all. But mostly, he thinks Jane might decide to leave him. When asked why, he says that she makes critical comments and judgments about him, and he recoils, rather than engage her about what she’s seeing or responding to. That’s when he starts thinking that she’s giving him a prelude to dumping him.
Aside from the question of whether Bob and Jane are truly “right” for each other for a sustaining, loving relationship, Bob’s constant questioning about leaving or being left does appear to illustrate “insecure attachment,” one of the forms of relationship connection that originate in early development. And that is something he would be wise to work on in psychotherapy.
But regardless of whether Bob’s relationship uncertainty is rooted in insecure attachment or other experiences, here’s the irony: His very fear of its ending, in itself, makes that outcome more likely. We see that play out clinically, in many couples’ lives: One or the other partner — or both — think he or she will leave or be left. And that, in fact, is more likely to happen, unless they deal with what each of them is doing in the relationship that could be improved. Now, some empirical research has demonstrated that ironic outcome. The research was conducted in Italy with 104 couples who were in a romantic relationship, and described in this summary.
Although I think the study is flawed, as I explain below, it’s useful in showing that the expectations you bring into a relationship, from personal experience or outside information, influence how you behave towards your partner – for better or for worse. Moreover, the study highlights the need for more focus on what builds and supports long-term, sustaining vitality in intimate relationships.
The research began with obtaining information from the couples about the current state of their relationships; their feelings towards their partners. Then, the experiment fed information to the participants about the likelihood their relationship would survive. The information included both statistics and false information. The researchers looked at how different kinds of information would affect the participants’ perceptions about the likelihood of breaking up or staying together. To assess that, the participants were then asked again about their feelings and expectations about their relationship.
Those who had been given information indicating little likelihood their relationship would end showed increased commitment and intimate feelings towards their partners. But those who were given information suggesting that relationships were likely to end over time were found, subsequently, to show diminished feelings of commitment and intimacy towards their partners. The study was published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.
The flaw is that studies based on experimental, situational manipulation of attitudes often fail to correspond to real life situations. For example, one of the researchers, Simona Sciara, concluded that “…when faced with a ‘too high’ risk of ending the relationship, participants clearly reduced the intensity of their positive feelings towards the romantic partner.” And, “Reduced relationship commitment…leads to actual relationship breakup.”
Well, yes. True. But the question is what raises a sense of high risk in a relationship to a level that results in its ending? It’s not likely to be based on information or a survey one reads about. Rather, on what happens over time. For example, awareness of what brings the partners together to begin with – such as their shared values; outlook on life goals and sense of purpose; their ability or desire to be transparent with each other; and efforts to strengthen a mutually pleasurable sexual/physical relationship – these are among the factors that underlie a relationship that endures and grows over time, or one that fades and dissolves.
The best way to deal with the feeling that your relationship might not last is to examine what your relationship history tells you; what the real basis of your current relationship is; and engage with your partner an honest appraisal about the state of your relationship and its possible future.