Researchers suggest that both what we think and how we communicate with our partners can make or break a relationship.
Maintaining and improving relationships - especially romantic relationships - may sometimes feel like rocket science. If finding a partner can be a daunting process, keeping that partner and making sure the relationship stays happy and healthy can be even more difficult.
Yet this maintenance effort is something that many of us make throughout our lives. With similar considerations in mind, Dr. Brian Ogolsky and his colleagues from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign decided to study the complex mechanisms behind relationship maintenance.
Together, they reviewed 1,149 studies focusing on how and why people "work on" their romantic relationships.
"We know relationships are key. We spend all of our time in these relationships. [...] So it's critical that we carefully and methodically understand what's going on in relationships and what is unique that two individuals bring that you can't get from studying person 'x' and person 'y' separately," says Dr. Ogolsky.
The researchers discuss around 250 studies in their paper on relationship management, which has been published in the Journal of Family Theory and Review.
Removing threats and 'leveling up'
In the study paper, the team develops "a conceptual model of relationship maintenance based on key findings" about how couples preserve and enhance their romantic partnerships.
Mainly, there are two broad ways of maintaining a healthy and happy relationship: threat mitigation and relationship enhancement.
Threat mitigation refers to deflecting potential threats to the relationship, which can be of either an external or an internal nature.
"Threats to the relationship come from all kinds of different places. [...] We know couples cheat in the long-term, people end up in new work places and in new situations where possible alternative partners show up, conflicts arise, or a lack of willingness to sacrifice time for your partner emerges," says Dr. Ogolsky.
Relationship enhancement, on the other hand, focuses on finding ways of moving the partnership forward and improving its quality, rather than trying to keep it in a never-shifting "bubble."
Dr. Ogolsky suggests that some strategies for threat mitigation may, in fact, eventually turn into actions targeting relationship enhancement.
"We get to a place where we are pouring energy into the relationship simply because we want to keep the relationship moving forward rather than just mitigating threats," he says.
Dr. Ogolsky explains that while some couples may appear to rely more on threat mitigation than relationship enhancement, or vice versa, they all tend to engage in both to some extent.
'Telling ourselves it's a good relationship'
The researchers also noted that both threat mitigation and relationship enhancement techniques are of two kinds: individual (concerning the mindset of an individual partner) and interactive (necessitating the collaboration of both partners).
"As we were doing this review, we started noticing that there are ways to maintain the relationship that we can characterize as 'more or less in our own heads.' We are doing something to convince ourselves that this is a good relationship and therefore [this conviction is] good for our relationship."
Dr. Brian Ogolsky
Both staving off threats and enhancing the relationship's quality can take place in our own minds, to some degree. For instance, building a positive mental image of our own partner can be an effective threat mitigation technique.
Individual threat mitigation techniques include derogation of alternatives - that is, putting down people whom we perceive as potential threats to our relationship - idealizing our partners, and coming up with excuses for behaviors that we dislike in our partners.
What we think to ourselves about our relationships can also function as an enhancement strategy. "Things like positive illusions, the idea that we can believe our relationship is better than it is or that our partner is better than he or she is" can work toward strengthening a relationship, suggests Dr. Ogolsky.
Some individual relationship-enhancing strategies are thinking about our relationship, feeling grateful, and being generous.
Communication is also key
That being said, much also depends on communication. Conflict resolution, for example, can only happen if the people in the couple talk to each other, understand the problem at hand, and take steps to solve it.
"Good conflict management or forgiving our partner for doing something wrong is an interactive process. When a threat comes in, we can do one of two things: we can ditch our partner or forgive them over time," explains Dr. Ogolsky.
At the same time, there are a number of activities - such as spending free time together and doing things that both partners enjoy - that equally require interaction and good communication.
Other relationship-enhancing activities include offering and soliciting support, talking about the relationship, and mutual entertainment.
Dr. Ogolsky and his team explain that their study aims to lay the groundwork for achieving a better understanding and awareness of romantic relationships - particularly what can be done to manage them and take them to the next level.
"What we are talking about here are processes that exist across different kinds of couples, some of which work very well for some people, some of which may not work for some people. I am interested in understanding processes that keep relationships moving," he concludes.