Variety is the Spice of Love: Promoting Partner Responsiveness within the Relationship Ecosystem

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Philosophy Psychology & Language


Romantic relationships are frequently listed as one of life's most meaningful factors. Thus, understanding what makes relationships successful is a critical issue for individuals and society. Psychologists know a lot about the negative processes that undermine happy and long-lasting relationships. Recently, however, it has become clear that more attention should be devoted to understanding how positive processes promote relationship happiness and success. Positive relationship experiences tend to occur much more often than negative experiences, and romantic relationship quality has a powerful impact on our mental and physical well-being. But how exactly can we enhance the strengths of our relationships to grow as people and have happier lives with our partners?

Consider the following description of a long-term romantic couple: James and Marie have been together for several years, respect each other, and have become quite comfortable in their relationship. Although they argue only occasionally, they both feel as if they are "stuck in a rut" and that the positive parts of their relationship are lacking. The difficulty is, they're not exactly sure how to be more supportive, caring, and appreciative of each other.

This project investigates how romantic couples, such as James and Marie, can capitalize on the strengths of their relationship to enjoy personal growth and greater well-being. To understand these concepts, I adopt an interdisciplinary approach that bridges the social psychological and ecological sciences. Just as natural ecosystems are more resilient when they contain a wide variety and abundance of organisms, it seems likely the healthiest relationship "ecosystems" must also be characterized by a breadth and abundance of relationship attributes and experiences. In this research, I seek to understand how the many different ways romantic partners can convey responsiveness (caring, understanding, and appreciation) within their relationship have downstream effects on health and happiness.

My research approach is couple-based and uses a variety of methods. I ask romantic partners to report their perceptions of their relationship each day for two weeks to understand how their breadth of responsiveness dynamics operate on a day-to-day basis. I combine this information with videotaped interactions between partners to aid in the development of an intervention designed to bolster the variety of ways partners convey responsiveness to each other, testing whether and how responsiveness promotion techniques influence personal growth and relationship quality over time. This intervention has implications not only for couples who are "on the rocks," but also satisfied couples endeavoring to strengthen their relationship.

This topic is important in many different ways. It is important for science because social relationships, and particularly romantic relationships, are critical components of the human experience broadly and daily life more specifically. It is important for society because the financial and emotional costs of relationship breakdown to health and other public services are very high. Moreover, the way we approach long-term relationships and find happiness has changed substantially in the past several decades. Understanding how our romantic relationships benefit us and help us grow, as well as delineating the specific information and strategies needed to improve relationships over time, may help reduce the modern-day 40% divorce rate. Finally, it is important for individuals striving to live a fulfilling and healthy life because understanding how to maximize the positives of our romantic relationships is equally, if not more, important than knowing how to avoid or cope with the negatives.

Planned Impact

Romantic relationships are intimately woven into our daily lives and are key to understanding what makes us happy and healthy. In addition to academic beneficiaries, a scientific investigation of how to promote positive personal and relationship outcomes should interest a variety of stakeholders and provide a natural jumping-off point for increasing public engagement in science. Moreover, this research is likely to produce findings of tangible relevance to couples interested in influencing choices and behaviors within their relationships, educators, and clinicians.

1. Impact on couples experiencing relationship difficulties
In modern society, where the divorce rate hovers around 40%, the financial and psychological costs of a bad relationship are high. The findings from this research may be particularly important for couples who are "on the rocks" or who have recently completed counselling and are working to establish a new relationship equilibrium. My discussions with Anne Chilton of Relationships Scotland and Rachael Kelsey of SKO Family Law (former chair of the Family Law Association) have highlighted a notable lack of information and resources for romantic partners in these situations. Given that partner responsiveness is a tractable marker of better relationships over time, this project's findings would be relevant and potentially helpful for these groups. Relationships Scotland has agreed to disseminate pamphlets describing my findings and their implications for relationships, following completion of the project. Additionally, I will disseminate my findings to the Family Law Association and Family Mediation Network through my contacts with SKO Family Law. Discovering the mechanisms that promote successful and fulfilling relationships also fits the ESRC's strategic priority of influencing behavior.

2. Impact on educators and clinicians
The quality of romantic relationships is a vital longitudinal predictor of well-being, over and above health behaviors like smoking. Partner responsiveness is an essential relationship strength. My pilot data also suggests that, beyond high average responsiveness, relationships embodying the "full package" (i.e., diversity) of responsiveness are especially meaningful for personal growth and well-being. This project will illuminate specific ways in which romantic partners can enhance and maintain high-quality relationships that support fulfillment and should interest anyone who works with couples. For example, my findings could be shared by teachers of Personal and Social Education in Scotland, or other professionals in a position to signpost information to couples. I will also consult with clinical psychology and psychiatry departments at the University of Edinburgh to identify further clinical relevance for my results and to discuss the potential for future collaborative projects in this area.

3. Impact on the broader community
More than 90% of individuals will enter into long-term romantic relationships at some point in their lives. How to achieve a satisfying, successful relationship is thus a fascinating topic for the general public. For example, Dr. Eli Finkel's 2017 book The All-or-Nothing Marriage is already a bestseller praised by academics and media. This natural interest in relationship dynamics and personal well-being creates an opportunity to educate the public not only about this project's findings, but also the importance and value of social science research more generally. I will engage the public through both participation and dissemination. For example, romantic partners participating in my research will discover how scientists use cutting-edge measures to understand romantic relationship dynamics. I will also actively disseminate the results of my research via (a) public lectures at libraries, local museums, science festivals, or on podcasts; (b) social media outlets; and (c) generating press releases with the ESRC and the University of Edinburgh.


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Description This award has produced several important findings related to how people maintain happy, healthy romantic relationships over time. So far, this project has revealed that beliefs about how much a partner or relationship will help us grow in the future, as well as engaging in new and exciting activities with a partner day-to-day, have short- and long-term effects on relationship happiness and stability. Other work stemming from this award has focused on the role of mindfulness is promoting better relationship outcomes. For example, we have shown that day-to-day relationship-specific mindfulness helps partners who tend to struggle with insecurity behave more positively toward each other, and that relationship-specific mindfulness reduces chronic worries about being rejected by partners as well as discomfort with getting close to a partner. Finally, we have found that partners who engage in a variety of different behaviours that indicate care, understanding, and appreciation toward each other tend to be happier in their relationships and experience fewer depression symptoms.
Exploitation Route Thus far, the research stemming from this award has identified specific, concrete aspects of relationships partners may focus on to help them enjoy positive personal and relationship outcomes. Currently, the outcomes of this funding have been primarily focused at the academic level (publications, conference presentations, etc.) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, PI Sarah Stanton organized a community event for the 2021 ESRC Festival of Social Science to teach the general public about the secrets of happy couples. Additional knowledge exchange and impact activities will continue to be pursued as opportunities arise.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Healthcare

Title Diverse Romantic Relationships and Well-Being (DRRAW) I 
Description DRRAW I is a three-phase longitudinal study of romantic couples. Data collection began in January 2020 and concluded in May 2020. Phase 1 is an initial 2-hour lab session; Phase 2 is a 14-day daily experience survey period; and Phase 3 is a follow-up survey two months later. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact As of March 2021, one research output has been published from this database, with several other research outputs in prep (N = 4), under review (N = 3), or in revision (N = 1) at peer-reviewed journals. 
Description 2021 ESRC Festival of Social Science Event (The Secrets of Happy Couples: Lessons from Psychology) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This event was an online webinar presented as part of the 2021 ESRC Festival of Social Science on 9 November, 2021. The webinar involved an introduction, brief presentations from experts in the psychology of relationships, and ended with a panel Q+A and discussion with the audience. This event brought together experts in the psychology of relationships from across the UK to share research on how people can capitalize on the strengths of their romantic relationships and cope constructively with hard times. This event was of interest to any members of the general public and young people aged 16-24. Attendees learned about the most important, evidence-based aspects of satisfying and fulfilling romantic relationships and had opportunities to ask questions of established experts. Approximately 78 people from around the world attended the event and participated in a lively discussion after the three presentations from the experts. Most attendees were members of the general public or young people, with a small number of undergraduate and postgraduate students, and other audiences (e.g., a representative from the ESRC). Following the event, many attendees indicated interest in participating in research in related subject areas and reported that they would use the lessons learned from the event in their everyday lives.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021