Will You Be Happier With a New Partner?
Romantic relationships are not stagnant but develop over time.
A recent meta-analysis by our lab (Bühler et al., 2021; see this post) showed that relationship satisfaction tends to reach a low point around the age of 40 and after the first decade of a relationship.
At these points, people tend to be least satisfied, with 77 percent of their maximum possible relationship satisfaction.
However, most of these people likely remain in their relationships, and relationship trajectories might be different for people who will eventually separate.
Indeed, findings on young adults (Johnson & Neyer, 2019; Robins et al., 2022) and recent findings from an age-heterogenous sample (Bühler & Orth, in press) found that relationship satisfaction changes differently depending on the eventual outcome of the relationship—that is, whether the relationship lasted or whether it was dissolved.
If you had to guess, how would you imagine the trajectories differ?
Stronger Decline in Dissolving Relationships
People who are in dissolving relationships tend to show stronger declines in relationship satisfaction than people who are in continuing relationships. Interestingly, they have not only lower satisfaction at the end of their dissolving relationship but at the beginning.
This means that relationships that will be dissolved may already show warning signs early on, likely because of the personality characteristics and the interaction patterns of both partners.
To give an example: Tom and Lisa, who both have low self-esteem, interact more insecurely with each other and avoid conflicts, even though they have relationship issues to discuss. Their tendency to not talk openly is already manifest in their early time as a couple and pushes them apart, contributing to their eventual dissolution.
Max and Tina, on the other hand, both have high self-esteem and discuss relationship issues openly and frequently, even when these issues are uncomfortable to talk about. Through these interactions, they get to know each other better and learn how to grow with each other.
Potential for Relationship Growth
We see that certain relationships, then, have a higher chance of growing, while others have a higher risk of dissolving, and that these differences tend to become stronger over time. But importantly, nothing is pre-determined in relationships—meaning that even risky relationships can grow, if both partners learn to grow with each other.
Interestingly, our findings also showed that there is a certain threshold of relationship satisfaction at which couples are at risk of separating. This threshold occurs at 65 percent of the maximum possible relationship satisfaction, which is below the low point that we saw in continuing relationships (77 percent).
These two numbers illustrate two things—that romantic relationships develop, and that relationship satisfaction can move up and down. The downs do matter—at least, according to our data, when they are below 65 percent of the maximum.
But these numbers can also encourage us to relax and recognize that we don’t always need to be at peak satisfaction in order to be in a relationship. Low points are normal in relationships—as long as they are not too low.
But what happens when partners decide to separate and initiate a new relationship? Are they more satisfied then?
A Temporary Up in the New Relationship
The answer appears to be “yes.” People who begin a new relationship after separation tend to be more satisfied in the new relationship than they were in their previous relationship. However, relationship satisfaction still tends to decrease, regardless of whether it is a previous or a new relationship.
Thus, although we might anticipate being more satisfied in a new relationship—and although this is often true at the beginning of this new relationship—each relationship comes with a decline in satisfaction. This, in turn, suggests that it might be better to focus on relationship work, rather than jumping from one relationship to another.
However, as noted above, if relationship satisfaction falls below a certain threshold, we might be better off dissolving the relationship and giving both partners the chance to be in a relationship that is in the upper third of our maximum possible relationship happiness.