What makes us happy in a romantic relationship? The question might seem too complex to answer, too varied couple to couple. But a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences attempts to answer just that – using machine learning.
Previous studies on romantic satisfaction were limited in size. By using machine learning, however, researchers were able to analyze a massive amount of data, which included over 11,000 different couples from 43 data sets. Individual studies are many times limited – it is difficult and expensive to recruit couples for the studies. It’s also exhausting for the participants. Using machine learning to analyze a large amount of data from pre-existing studies bypasses these problems.
The researchers looked at variables that could predict happiness within a relationship. Some of these, such as neuroticism, political orientation, conscientiousness or family history were qualities of the individuals involved. Others, such as appreciation, affection and perceived partner commitment were qualities of the relationship.
Of these, qualities of the relationship, rather than the individuals involved, contributed more to overall satisfaction. The five most important were how much they believed their partner was committed to the relationship, how much they appreciated their partner, sexual satisfaction, how much they believed their partner was happy in the relationship, and not fighting often.
Qualities of the individuals contribute too – but not as much. In fact, 45% of the variability in a relationship is due to the qualities of the relationship. 21% were due to the individuals themselves. In addition, once qualities of the relationship were taken into account, the differences due to the individuals were not as important.
“Experiencing negative affect, depression, or insecure attachment are surely relationship risk factors. But if people nevertheless manage to establish a relationship characterized by appreciation, sexual satisfaction, and a lack of conflict—and they perceive their partner to be committed and responsive—those individual risk factors may matter little,” say the authors.
In other words, for a happy relationship, it’s more important who you are together than who you are apart.