Researchers warn that even when we start a new romantic relationship, we have a tendency to return to the same patterns that we established in previous relationships. But is this good or bad? A bit of both, the researchers suggest.
When we end a romantic relationship that did not go as we had hoped and eventually enter a new relationship, we like to think that going forward, we will forge new relationship dynamics.
Is that really what happens, though? Not according to a new study from the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena in Germany and the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.
"Although some relationship dynamics may change, you are still the same person, so you likely recreate many of the same patterns with the next partner. New love is great, but relationships continue past that point," says lead author Matthew Johnson.
Johnson and colleague Franz Neyer filtered the data of 12,402 participants in the German Family Panel, a longitudinal study looking at partnership and family dynamics among the German population.
In the end, Johnson and Neyer were able to analyze the information provided by 554 individuals who had been in more than one intimate partnership over the study period.
The researchers report their findings in a study paper that appears in the Journal of Family Psychology.
Many dynamics persist across relationships
Johnson and Neyer were able to look at information covering four key points in the participants' relationships: a year before their first romantic relationship had ended, during the final year of their first intimate relationship, within the first year of their new relationship, and in the second year of the new relationship.
The two investigators looked at seven different features of romantic relationships: relationship satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, frequency of sexual intercourse, openness of communication between partners, how often participants expressed appreciation for their partners, level of confidence that the relationship would last, and frequency of conflict between the partners.
The researchers found that the patterns relating to most of these features remained vastly unchanged across past and present romantic unions. The only two exceptions to this rule were the frequency of sex and the expression of admiration toward a romantic partner, both of which tended to increase in new relationships.
"These [two] aspects are directly dependent on a partner's behavior, so we are more likely to see changes in these areas," explains Johnson.
Yet, despite the fact that sex frequency appeared to increase in present relationships compared with former ones, sexual satisfaction stayed the same.
The researchers suggest that the fact that certain dynamics and patterns carry across to new relationships is not surprising. People may feel that new relationships stand at sharp contrast to old relationships during the "honeymoon phase," the beginning of new liaisons when everything feels exciting and different.
Yet, once this phase is over, and the partners have to share more responsibilities again, they naturally tend to fall into the same dynamics that they relied on before, the researchers note.
"Things get worse as a relationship ends, and when we start a new one, everything is wonderful at first because we're not involving our partner in everyday life like housework and child care," says Johnson. "The relationship exists outside of those things," he continues.
"There's a lot of change in between [relationships], but more broadly, we do have stability in how we are in relationships."
This stability, Johnson explains, has both negative and positive aspects. "It's good in a sense that we as individuals can bring ourselves and our experiences into relationships; we aren't totally trying to change who we are, and that continuity shows we stay true to ourselves," says the lead author.
At the same time, however, this consistency can be counterproductive if it means that a person is unable to learn from what went wrong in a previous relationship and to change their behavior and way of relating accordingly, so as to ensure more positive outcomes in the future.
"Just starting a new partnership doesn't mean things are going to be different," Johnson warns. "This research shows that chances are, you are going to fall into the same patterns in many aspects of the relationship. Even if things are different, they're not guaranteed to be better," he says.
Finally, the authors note that personality may also have a bearing on how dynamics evolve — or stagnate — between romantic relationships.
They also found that people who are more prone to negative emotions tend to have a worse experience in their second relationship than in their first one, scoring lower on sexual satisfaction, frequency of sexual intercourse, and expression of admiration toward a partner. They also scored higher on level of conflict.
"Who you are matters, and addressing personal issues is going to be very impactful on whether you'll be successful in your relationship or not," says Johnson.
"Because of how badly a relationship ends, that colors our view of the whole thing. But having a more balanced view of the negatives and positives gives us realistic expectations for the new relationship," he advises.