The Science of Having Wildly High Standards for Your Relationship

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock

Are you demanding too much from your relationship? This is the intriguing question that opens a new investigation into the science of relationships, published Wednesday by the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The gist is this: In recent years, Americans have begun expecting a lot from their relationships. Whereas in the earliest years of the country’s history, your partner was in many ways quite literally your partner — a necessary extra pair of hands to help with the harvest or prepare the home for winter — couples today have the relative luxury of being concerned with loftier goals, like self-esteem, self-expression, and self-actualization. Does this person really get me? Is this relationship helping me become a better me?

As a result, American marriages have the potential to be at once much better and much worse than ever before. So the question becomes: Is it better to have high standards, risking disappointment if the relationship can’t live up to them? Or is it better to lower your standards and not expect quite so much of your partner?

In one of the first studies to test these questions, James McNulty at Florida State University recruited 135 newlyweds in Tennessee. Most were white and in their mid-20s; their average combined annual income was less than $40,000. At the start of the study, all of the participants answered questionnaires about their set of standards for their relationships: Were they concerned about whether their partner was meeting their needs for self-esteem, self-actualization, and the like? They also answered surveys about how satisfied they were with their relationship. Every six months for the following four years, the couples filled out those relationship-satisfaction surveys so McNulty could trace the trajectory of their happiness together over time.

In a way, the results were obvious: For the solid relationships — as in, couples who reported less serious problems or who interacted in more positive ways with each other — high standards were correlated with happier relationships as the years went by. For the less solid relationships, on the other hand, the opposite was true.

But perhaps the most illuminating part of the study were the two ten-minute recorded discussions the couple had, in which they talked about issues one or both of them had identified as most troubling in their relationship: money, sex, kids, the usual things. After watching all of these sessions, McNulty identified one thing in particular that appears to be a relationship-killer — passive aggression. The couples who directly addressed problems tended to have happier relationships, even if that confrontation was sometimes tinged with anger.

But those who indirectly addressed the issues facing their relationship — say, with sarcastic remarks — tended to be less satisfied in their marriages over the years. “Directly communicating, that is very different,” McNulty said when presenting his research at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology earlier this year. “If I say ‘Look, I’m very upset and here’s why’ — that’s different from ‘You’re being ridiculous’ or ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

So the bottom line here is kind of a muddled one. High standards are great — if you and your partner can meet them, and if you can refrain from being passive-aggressive jerks to each other. If not, you’re better off lowering your expectations.