We live in a media culture of “soulmate couples,” where love is frequently portrayed as a seamless connection with your ‘other half and couple relationships are seen as a pathway to personal happiness. Marriage today is often depicted as a “super relationship” – an effortless and conflict-free union, filled with romantic intimacy and emotional togetherness – that can meet our every need and desire. While “soulmate love” may work for scripted Hollywood films or romance novels, most couples making marriage work in the real world will tell you that maintaining their relationship requires work, patience, personal growth, compromise, commitment, and sacrifice.
Relationship experts define “relationship effort” as how much romantic partners prioritize their relationship in relation to other parts of life. They also emphasize that relationship effort involves how much partners engage in behaviors that are aimed at improving or maintaining their relationship. These behaviors involve paying attention to the current levels of connection and communication in the relationship and making intentional efforts to spend time together. It also involves striving to address areas of struggle and to improve the relationship over time. For some people and couples, this involves setting goals and making changes in their relationship that improve the quality of the relationship for both partners. Research on couples has found that couples with high levels of relationship effort tend to have higher levels of relationship satisfaction, higher commitment to each other, and better communication. Research has also shown that simply thinking about the importance of your relationship can also strengthen commitment and improve personal satisfaction. These better outcomes tend to be the result of these couples having higher levels of partner availability, engagement, and responsiveness which creates higher levels of trust, security, and interdependence between partners.
Research on couple relationships shows that high levels of “relationship effort” are a key part of loving and lasting relationships. Experts define relationship effort by how much mental energy and time commitment romantic partners give to their relationships in relation to other parts of their lives. The following is a breakdown of the various impacts that these have on relationships.
A Neglected Relationship
When there is a lack of focus on both mental energy and time priority it becomes a “neglected relationship.” This means that those couples are relatively low in both the amount of mental energy and time they dedicate to the relationship. In most cases, this pattern is a bit of a red flag for a couple and means that renewed efforts are needed to spend time together and pay greater attention to the level of connection in the relationship. Occasionally, low levels of mental energy and time commitment occur when couples are dealing with conflict and maybe withdrawing from the issues. In some situations, unique life circumstances like taking on a new job or becoming new parents can temporarily reduce the focus they put on the relationship. In these cases, couples typically benefit from striving to turn toward each other, rather than away from each other in addressing their troubles and stresses. Whatever the cause of the lower levels of relationship effort, research shows that couples at all stages of their relationship benefit from intentional efforts to strengthen, maintain, and repair their relationship. If this sounds like you, make the goal to create some simple ways for you and your partner to spend more time together each week – your relationship will benefit from creating some ways for you and your partner to come together and nurture your relationship.
An Interrupted Relationship
When there is a focus on mental energy and lack of focus on time priority it becomes an “interrupted relationship.” This mean means that couples give high levels of mental energy to the relationship, but are relatively low in the amount of time they are able to give to it. In most cases, this pattern occurs when couples are experiencing a busy schedule that pulls their time commitments in several different directions. Whether it’s work, parenting, or caring for a parent, the relationship is being squeezed out more than one would like. Whatever other commitments are crowding out the relationship, research shows that couples at all stages of their relationship benefit from intentional efforts to strengthen, maintain, and repair their relationship. If this sounds like you, make the goal to prioritize time with your partner by rearranging your schedule or saying no to other things from time-to-time. The much-needed time together will restore and strengthen your bond as a couple and help you establish better habits for your relationship.
A Distracted Relationship
When there is a lack of focus on mental energy and high focus on time priority it becomes a “distracted relationship.” This mean means that couples give high levels of time commitment to the relationship, but are relatively low in the amount of mental energy they give to it. In most cases, this pattern occurs when couples are well-coordinated in their schedules and are spending time together, but when they are together they are often thinking about other things or are distracted by technology or other activities. If this sounds like you, your goal is to improve the depth of your interactions when you are together as a couple. Are there ways you can better connect when you are together? Are there things you can do to show love and appreciation to your partner when you are apart? Let your partner know that your relationship matters to you and find some simple ways to give more attention and energy to your relationship.
A Prioritized Relationship
When the focus on mental energy and time priority are put together it becomes a “prioritized relationship.” This mean means that couples are relatively high in both the amount of mental energy and time they dedicate to the relationship. In most cases, this pattern is a real strength for a couple and means that intentional efforts are made to spend time together and attention paid to the level of connection in the relationship. Occasionally, high levels of mental energy and time commitment occur when couples are dealing with conflict. But, even in these cases, it is a good sign that partners are engaging with each other rather than withdrawing from the issues. Couples at all stages of their relationship benefit from intentional efforts to strengthen, maintain, and repair their relationship. These patterns will show that couples have embraced this truth about relationships and the relationship is likely benefitting from the intentional efforts.
While everyone must dedicate time to other life commitments, such as work or parenting, partners who carefully safeguard their time together tend to report higher relationship satisfaction than couples who let other commitments crowd out their time together. There is no better time than now to consider the areas of your life that make relationship priority a challenge. Think on how other areas of your life compete for your time and make sure that your relationship isn’t missing out on important daily and weekly patterns of meaningful interaction. Or you might be someone that may be putting too much time into the relationship. While giving time to your relationship is important, you need to keep your relationship in balance with other life commitments. In fact, feeling that your relationship is balanced with your other life commitments will actually help your relationship in the long run as it will lower stress and allow you time together to be more focused. If your relationship time and mental energy commitment is in balance with the other parts of your life these patterns are likely benefitting your relationship now and in the long run.
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