Theory of Relationship Satisfaction

What makes a relationship work? How can you guarantee satisfaction in a relationship? These are questions that have been plaguing psychologists, therapists, and couples for years. With divorce rates reportedly rising and falling during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what can lead couples to and away from the edge.

But here’s the thing about relationship satisfaction: psychologists are still figuring it out, too.

There are a handful of theories about relationships that may explain why some couples continue to stay in love for decades and why others fizzle out. In this video, we’ll examine a few of them and discuss how they can be applied to everyday relationships. Whether you are single, dating, or married, this video may shine a light on what it takes to stay satisfied in your relationships.

Soulmate vs. Work-it-Out Theories

When many people think of “relationship satisfaction,” their mind goes to romantic relationships. Let’s start here. What makes a relationship between spouses, life partners, or co-parents work?

The answer isn’t so simple – and some of it depends on how the individual views relationships and satisfaction. Studies have been done to test two different theories of relationships: a “soulmate theory” vs. a “work-it-out” theory. Do you have to find the right person to have a satisfying relationship, or do you just need to be committed to work it out?

weighing the positives and negatives

The study revealed that while the soulmate theory appeared to be safer in the short run, integrating the work-it-out theory into longer relationships was more likely to guarantee the safety of both partners. While this study did not look specifically at relationship satisfaction, it reveals the complexity of relationships that may last for 5, 10, 20, or 50 years. Is finding your “soulmate” enough to last a lifetime? Most likely, no. You may still seek out a great partner, but if you are not working together to commit and deepen your relationship, you’re heading for trouble.

Factors That Lead to Relationship Satisfaction

When you look at the overall research on marital or romantic relationships, it’s hard to find a straight answer on what leads to satisfaction. Many factors come into play, and not one individual factor can be directly linked to satisfaction. Psychologists say that along the way, researchers may find that marital satisfaction is linked to constructs like:

  • Communication
  • Commitment
  • Quality time
  • Dominance

Navigating these different constructs with your partner may reveal what it takes for both of you to feel satisfied in your relationship. Even when you look at communication, commitment, quality time, and dominance, you may see a lot of avenues to explore and a lot of different ways to approach your marital (or dating) relationship. Exploring these ideas is the first step that will allow you to “work it out.”

Triangular Theory of Love

triangular theory of love

Some psychologists have taken just two or three constructs to form theories about what a relationship needs to be satisfying or loving. Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, for example, sees relationships through the dynamics of three different elements: intimacy, passion, and commitment. Different combinations of these three elements result in different types of love, from liking to infatuation to fatuous love. When a relationship contains all three elements, consummate love is felt between both parties.

Taking a look at this theory with a partner can be a jumping off point for discussions about how satisfied you may feel in your relationship and where you need to focus more of your energy.

Attachment Theory

attachment styles

Other theories may not directly explain relationship satisfaction, but they provide insight into how people work within relationships and what they need from their partner. Take Attachment Theory. Attachment Theory defines attachment as the connection felt by two people, be it romantic partners, friends, or a parent and a child. Psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth’s work on this theory have identified different “styles” of attachment and suggested that the attachment styles developed as children may influence attachment styles in adult, romantic relationships.

I know this sounds strange, but it’s a recurring theme that you may find in the work of many psychologists and modern-day relationship therapists. It’s not just Freud who made a connection between parental and romantic relationships. Imago Relationship Therapy, for example, is centered around the theory that childhood experiences shape what people look for in their adult relationships. If they found themselves abandoned as a child, they might seek out a partner who is constantly by their side. If their parents didn’t listen to them, they may seek out a partner who will always listen to them.

We don’t have time to dive deep into the details of attachment theory and therapeutic approaches that make the connection between childhood and adult relationships, but it’s important to note that these theories are out there. Examining the experiences you had as a child may be key in understanding what you need to feel satisfied in your adult relationships.

Social Exchange Theory

Let’s zoom out even further. The key to feeling satisfaction in your relationship may be found in understanding how humans approach all relationships. One of the most well-known theories about social relationships, romantic or otherwise, is the Social Exchange Theory.

The Social Exchange Theory suggests that all relationships are built out of exchanging social behaviors. The goal of these behaviors is to maximize benefits and minimize costs, as if you were exchanging goods or services. Relationships stay strong between two people when they both believe the benefits of the relationship to outweigh the costs. When the costs start to pile up, people back away or look for a relationship that is “less costly.”

One thing to note here is that psychologists believe that in the early days of a relationship, romantic or otherwise, people tend to ignore this exchange. They do not evaluate the costs or benefits as much because they are excited to be pursuing this new type of exchange.

Applying Social Exchange Theory to Relationship Satisfaction

This theory can be applied to friendships or relationships between colleagues, but it may also apply to romantic relationships and satisfaction. Feeling satisfied is clearly a benefit of a romantic relationship, but it comes at a cost. These costs may be “working it out,” attending therapy, or making sacrifices in order to stay committed. When a person cannot see the satisfaction outweighing the costs anymore, they may decide to walk away.

How do you overcome this in a relationship? This is where communication may come into play. What feels “costly” for your partner? What is “costly” for you? Just like two business partners may negotiate on responsibilities or deals, adjusting the cost that each person puts into the relationship may make the satisfaction they get out of it more valuable. Again, understanding what makes your partner feel “satisfied” is also important here.

Resources for Learning More About Relationship Satisfaction

These are not the only theories on relationship satisfaction. Psychologists are working every day to figure out how people determine their satisfaction and how that determination affects what they put into a relationship. For example, in 2017 psychologists proposed the idea that “people base their commitment to a relationship more on their expected future satisfaction with the relationship than on their current satisfaction with that relationship.” As psychologists continue to explore these ideas, we may learn more about what it takes to choose, start, and maintain a relationship that leads to maximum satisfaction.

For now, the answers mainly lie within yourself. What do you need to feel satisfied? Which childhood experiences may have influenced this? What “costs” and “benefits” tip the scales for you when you are in a relationship?

There are many resources that can help you explore these ideas. Books from relationship therapists, like Getting the Love You Want or The Five Love Languages are great places to start. Reaching out to a mental health professional can help you dive deeper into your experiences and what they mean for your behaviors and perspective. Watching videos on the theories mentioned throughout this video, including the Triangular Theory of Love and Attachment Theory, may also provide some key insight into how you experience relationships now and how you can make them more satisfying in the future.

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.