Is Your Relationship Running on Autopilot?

Is Your Relationship Running on Autopilot?

You may value the stability in your relationship, especially if you haven’t always had the luxury of a partner who you could count on being there for you. However, as time goes by, perhaps you’re feeling that things are just a bit too steady and predictable. On a day-to-day basis, your schedule always follows the same basic pattern, often determined by work and family commitments, Over the course of a year, or several years, you and your partner rarely show any variations in where you go, what you do, and when you do it.

If you’re starting to feel a bit itchy for change, new research suggests that there may be a way to tinker with it while still holding onto its shape and size. By taking stock of some of life’s fundamentals, you and your partner may discover ways to enhance your feelings about your relationship, and each other.

According to Northwestern University’s Gabrielle Pfund and Washington University in St. Louis’s Patrick Hill (2022), people who feel that their lives have a purpose also report being more satisfied with their relationship and more committed to their partner. They are also more likely to “invest” time and energy into that relationship to make sure it keeps working. The so-called “purposeful partners” are better able to get over obstacles that may arise in their relationship, particularly the conflicts that inevitably can arise.

It's also true, the authors note, that relationships can infuse a sense of purpose into an individual’s life, giving people a reason to go on from day to day. You may be able to identify with this idea. Perhaps your partner (and all those predictable schedules) helps to structure your life and imagining your days without that person in your life fills you with a sense of emptiness.

Because purpose in life and relationships can each influence each other, Pfund and Hill suggest that studying the connection between the two requires a “transactional” or lagged approach This allows researchers to see if Factor 1 at Time 1 (e.g. purpose in life) is more predictive of Factor 2 at Time 2 (e.g. relationship satisfaction) than vice versa. By doing so, they avoid the “correlation does not equal causation” problem of research that uses only a single time point of testing.

Now that you understand the general framework of the Pfund-Hill collaboration, it’s time to turn to the study itself. Using online samples of adults ranging from 18 to 91 years old (average age 55), the researchers followed their participants over a period of about 3 months in 2019 with 1200 individuals completing both data collection points. As this was not a long period of time, this is somewhat of a limitation on the transactional model analysis, but on the plus side, their completion rate was about 50%. The sample included people who were and who were not in a committed relationship at both test occasions, with 874 qualifying as the “committed continuers” who remained with their partners throughout.

To measure sense of purpose, the authors used a standard 6-item measure which contains the following self-rating scales (on a 1-5 disagree-agree scale):

If you rated yourself on these items, how did you come out? How do you think your partner would score?

Participants also rated their relationship along the dimensions of satisfaction, commitment, perceived quality of alternatives, trust in their partner, intimacy, and “investment.” For this latter dimension, whose meaning may not seem all that obvious, sample questions included “I have put a great deal into our relationship that I would lose if the relationship were to end,” and “Many aspects of my life have become linked to my partner (recreational activities, etc.) and I would lose all of this if we were to break up.”

The design’s setup allowed the researchers to examine both sets of lagged correlations (purpose at Time 1 predicting relationship quality at Time 2 and vice versa). However, they could also examine how strongly changes in each component of their model correlated with changes in the other. As it turned out, it was the pattern of correlated changes that proved to be the most impressive. The more that an individual’s sense of purpose increased, the greater the improvement in relationship quality. The result is consistent with findings from other studies, suggesting that “sense of purpose is a primary promoter of health and well-being across the lifespan."

It remains possible that people in better relationships also find themselves better able to feel a sense of purpose, as there was evidence to support this direction of the model as well. Furthermore, people with a higher sense of purpose were generally more likely to be in a committed relationship. As a result, it’s not possible to rule out these alternative pathways that connect relationship quality with sense of purpose. People can also, as the authors point out, derive satisfaction from other than their romantic relationships which, in turn, could further enhance their feelings that their lives have purpose.

The complexities of the Pfund-Hill study reflect in large part the reality of conducting research that attempts to tease out causal relationships from correlational data, and the authors acknowledge this fact. However, from a practical standpoint, it may not matter which causes which. If your relationship is indeed one that you perceive to be committed but stale, why not try working on your own sense of purpose?

Your first step is to look back at those questions on the Purpose in Life Scale and see how you answered them. Do you feel that you’re wasting your time on activities that have no meaning? Has that day-to-day routine drained you of whatever it was that used to enthuse you about your life?

The solution to a stale relationship, then, may be to look at your own life and see where it has become static. Even though it may not seem possible to find the time you need to reconnect with your previous interests and passions, it will be worth it in terms of not just your relationship satisfaction, but also your overall well-being. It might be fun, but not absolutely necessary, to share these activities with your partner.

To sum up, an individual’s own sense of purpose remains an important predictor, as the study by Pfund and Hill suggests, of personal well-being. Delving into the qualities that inspire and motivate you may just be the way to add both variety and fulfillment to your relationship.

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