S. Joel and others
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Aug 2020, 117 (32) 19061-19071
Given the powerful implications of relationship quality for health and well-being, a central mission of relationship science is explaining why some romantic relationships thrive more than others. This large-scale project used machine learning (i.e., Random Forests) to 1) quantify the extent to which relationship quality is predictable and 2) identify which constructs reliably predict relationship quality. Across 43 dyadic longitudinal datasets from 29 laboratories, the top relationship-specific predictors of relationship quality were perceived-partner commitment, appreciation, sexual satisfaction, perceived-partner satisfaction, and conflict. The top individual-difference predictors were life satisfaction, negative affect, depression, attachment avoidance, and attachment anxiety. Overall, relationship-specific variables predicted up to 45% of variance at baseline, and up to 18% of variance at the end of each study. Individual differences also performed well (21% and 12%, respectively). Actor-reported variables (i.e., own relationship-specific and individual-difference variables) predicted two to four times more variance than partner-reported variables (i.e., the partner’s ratings on those variables). Importantly, individual differences and partner reports had no predictive effects beyond actor-reported relationship-specific variables alone. These findings imply that the sum of all individual differences and partner experiences exert their influence on relationship quality via a person’s own relationship-specific experiences, and effects due to moderation by individual differences and moderation by partner-reports may be quite small. Finally, relationship-quality change (i.e., increases or decreases in relationship quality over the course of a study) was largely unpredictable from any combination of self-report variables. This collective effort should guide future models of relationships.
What predicts how happy people are with their romantic relationships? Relationship science—an interdisciplinary field spanning psychology, sociology, economics, family studies, and communication—has identified hundreds of variables that purportedly shape romantic relationship quality. The current project used machine learning to directly quantify and compare the predictive power of many such variables among 11,196 romantic couples. People’s own judgments about the relationship itself—such as how satisfied and committed they perceived their partners to be, and how appreciative they felt toward their partners—explained approximately 45% of their current satisfaction. The partner’s judgments did not add information, nor did either person’s personalities or traits. Furthermore, none of these variables could predict whose relationship quality would increase versus decrease over time.