People who yearn for a spouse or a committed romantic partner probably want the acclaim that comes with that status. In our matrimaniacal culture, romantically involved people are respected, admired, and celebrated. But they likely expect more than that. They anticipate that the time they spend with their spouse or partner will be special – more fulfilling and less stressful than what it is like when that person is not around.
A new study tested whether that is what happens. The participants included 307 people from Michigan who were married or in committed romantic relationships. They ranged in age from 19 to 92. On at least two occasions, they indicated the various activities they participated in the day before, who was present during each activity, and how they felt. Specifically, they reported the extent of their positive feelings (happy, satisfied), their sense of meaning, and their negative feelings (frustrated, worried, sad, and angry).
Participants also described the quality of their romantic relationship, by indicating the extent to which they agreed with each of five statements (e.g., “My relationship with my partner makes me happy” and “We have a good relationship”). Agreement was recorded on a scale ranging from 1 (very strongly disagree) to 7 (very strongly agree). Choosing the mid-point (4) meant that they neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement.
The researchers found that, averaging across all 307 relationships, regardless of the quality, people experienced more positive feelings and a greater sense of meaning when their partner was present than when their partner was not around. But they did not experience any fewer negative feelings when their partner was around.
Importantly, though, not all romantic relationships were the same. People experienced more happiness and satisfaction when their partner was present only if their relationship was a very good one. Those who rated the quality of their relationship as a little better than neutral (a 4.4 on the 7-point scale), or worse, actually felt happier and more satisfied when their partner was not around!
Remember that overall, participants were no less likely to experience negative feelings when they were with their partner. Again, though, the quality of the marriage or romantic relationship mattered. People who were not very satisfied with their relationships experienced more frustration, worry, sadness, and anger when they were with their partner than when their partner wasn’t around.
Maybe that’s not so surprising. But this probably is: Even people who were quite satisfied with their relationship, rating it a 5.5 out of 7, still experienced more frustration, worry, sadness, and anger when they were with their partner than when their partner wasn’t around. Except for people with the very best marriages or romantic relationships (6 or higher on a 7-point scale), being with your romantic partner is more draining than not being with your partner.
I have been studying single life for decades. I’ve found that marriage is not nearly as uniformly fulfilling as our mythologies and popular culture have led us to believe, and that single life can be far more fulfilling than it has typically been portrayed. As social scientists start looking more closely at how romantic relationships are actually experienced, and as they start taking single people more seriously, too, we are gaining a better understanding of how the prevailing storylines have led us astray.