COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Heart-shaped boxes of candy are ubiquitous this time of year, and with Valentine’s Day falling on a Friday, it’s likely restaurants will be mobbed more than usual.
But chocolates and a nice dinner out don’t necessarily make a relationship strong, said Carmen Irving, the Healthy Relationships Program specialist with Ohio State University Extension’s Family and Consumer Sciences program.
“There is a difference between what people fantasize is the perfect romantic relationship versus the actual qualities that go into making a long-lasting, committed relationship,” Irving said.
Research dating back to the early 1990s from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Duke Medical Center indicates that young adults have different notions of what would make an ideal relationship, she said.
Some dream of a relationship with a strong intimate dimension -- an intertwining of their emotional lives. Some long for a relationship full of romanticized activities, such as walking on the beach, sitting in front of the fireplace, or dressing up and going out. Others take a more traditional view, hoping for a relationship that will lead to cohabitation or marriage, possibly children, and living happily ever after. Still others get wrapped up in the view that all a relationship really needs is love -- as Irving puts it, “As long as we have each other, we can do anything.”
But other research commonly discussed in textbooks on interpersonal relations points to elements in a relationship that predict whether it will be a strong one, she said. They include:
- Shared activities. “This has emerged in the research as being a fundamental piece to keeping relationships going,” Irving said. “It’s more than going about your day-to-day routine together. It’s really connecting and taking an interest in new activities and exploring things together as a couple. Where you really see an impact in relationships is in exciting shared activities -- walking, hiking, dancing -- doing something new for both of you, so you’re learning and sharing it together and breaking the routine. These things matter. Doing them increases commitment.”
- Social support. Committed couples offer social support to each other, “like no other support you receive, through good times and bad,” she said. But also, being a part of a relationship helps you build other social supports through family and friends, who offer positive reinforcement of your relationship.
- Forgiveness. “This is an important part of the process,” Irving said. “Over the course of time, there are going to be things that happen, and you have to figure out how to negotiate these things so you’re not carrying them through the relationship.” It’s important to note, though, that this doesn’t mean couples have to tolerate everything, particularly abusive or other behaviors in an unhealthy relationship.
- Sex and physical intimacy. “This actually makes an impact,” Irving said. “But there has to be a desire for it. Couples who don’t want to engage in physical intimacy but do so because they think it will save their relationship -- in most cases, it doesn’t work.”
- Communication. “Healthy communication between partners leads to a lasting commitment,” Irving said. “That’s almost a given.” Yet it doesn’t trump the other factors, Irving said. In fact, “Couples who report having a hard time with communication but have a healthy sex life, they still report having a satisfying, committed relationship.”
There are things couples can do to invest in their relationship, Irving said. “We know that relationship investment leads to increased commitment in a romantic relationship,” she said. “These can be really simple things to do.” Examples include:
- Spending free time together. “It’s making a choice to be with your partner versus engaging in other activities or hanging out with other friends.”
- Buying gifts, dinner or other forms of entertainment. “By no means does this equate into buying into commercial ideas, but if you think of those gifts as an investment in your relationship, it does increase commitment.”
- Sharing intimate feelings. “This is a big one,” Irving said. “If you’re making that investment in sharing yourself, your ideas, your beliefs and sometimes even your problems, that does increase commitment in couples.”
- Find some activities in common. “Develop interest in activities that you can do together and that will boost your commitment to each other.”
- Doing favors for one another. “We need to take time and think about our partner. Sometimes it’s as simple as picking up a gallon of milk, and sometimes it’s the really big things, like changing your career plans or relocating to continue your investment into the relationship.”
Irving said it’s important to remember that building a strong relationship is a two-way street.
“You can practice forgiveness, you can practice intimacy, you can practice shared activities, but if there isn’t someone reciprocating, in the end that relationship is going to devolve. You can’t do a committed relationship alone.”
One way to think about healthy, romantic relationships is based on a common research-based model, the “Triangular Theory of Love” by psychologist Robert Sternberg, Irving said.
The model focuses on three key elements, she said.
"One side of the triangle would be intimacy, which is the trust and caring, sharing and vulnerability that occurs in a committed relationship. Another side of that triangle is passion, which is that physical desire and physical intimacy that occurs. And the bottom part of the triangle is commitment, thinking about this relationship lasting through good times and bad.
“In making a romantic relationship last over time, it’s really that blend of all three sides of the triangle that makes a long-lasting and healthy relationship,” Irving said.
For Valentine’s Day, couples should keep these things in mind, she said.
“The candlelight dinner is great -- go for it,” she said. “But on the other hand, we know from research that to continue that commitment, to continue that fireworks kind of feeling, we have to continue to grow as individuals and grow as a couple."
She suggests that couples focus on those meaningful shared activities.
“The cliché candlelight dinner may not be what we’re looking for," Irving said. "You might want to take Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to go out walking and talking together. I don’t think we have to buy into media stereotypes. We know that spending time together is what makes a difference. And we know that this is a process, it’s not a one-time shot on Valentine’s Day that fosters long-lasting relationships.”
Editor: For a video that accompanies this news release, see http://youtu.be/z7cnUCkt9Kg.