If you’ve ever been in any kind of romantic relationship, you’ll know that it requires maintenance. It doesn’t matter if you and your partner share the same interests, goals, sense of humour and find one another unbelievably attractive: if one or both of you isn’t prepared to put the effort in, the relationship is unlikely to last. But what does that effort actually look like?
In a recent study published in the Journal of Family Theory and Review, researchers set out to investigate the methods people use to ensure their love affairs go the distance. After analysing the results of more than 250 papers on the science of romantic relationships, they concluded that there are two primary ways that most couples attempt to stay together: threat mitigation and relationship enhancement.
These terms might sound a little academic, but they’re actually very simple. Threat mitigation can be summed up as the strategies we implement (consciously or unconsciously) to protect our relationship from potential problems. They’re reactive, defensive steps: putting out fires, rather than keeping the home fires burning.
Relationship enhancement, in contrast, is when we proactively try to make our relationship stronger and happier – simply because we want to. These strategies are not a response to something going wrong; they’re things we do for the sake of our own (and our partner’s) pleasure and enjoyment.
Brian Ogolsky, associate professor in the department of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois, was the lead author on the study. He says that for the most part, successful romances will include a combination of both relationship enhancement and threat mitigation tactics.
In other words, people in reasonably content relationships will probably be doing these things already – but a deeper understanding of how romantic behaviour works can be key in helping couples move forward.
Here, we dig into Ogolsky’s research to find out exactly how these common ‘maintenance techniques’ work.
What is threat mitigation?
Threat mitigation centres on the idea that an important element of relationship maintenance involves fending off potentially destructive forces. This might conjure up images of a femme fatale or devious hunk who wants to whisk your partner away from you, but the reality can be rather more mundane.
Threats don’t have to come in seductive human form, says Ogolsky. Conflicts of interest can threaten a relationship – for example, if one person wants to move to another city for work, but the other person doesn’t.
Interestingly, Ogolsky also highlights “the fear of being average” as something that can potentially be damaging. This doesn’t have to be a fear of being average oneself, although low self-esteem can present a potential roadblock. It can also mean that you secretly believe that your partner isn’t as spectacular as they could be, or you worry that your relationship might not be a love story for the ages.
“Generally, there are many threats early in relationships that can cause problems, but that is not to say that these disappear later,” says Ogolsky. “We know couples cheat in the long-term, people end up in new work places and in new situations where possible alternative partners show up, conflicts arise, or a lack of willingness to sacrifice time for your partner emerges.”
According to the study, there are several ways in which people generally attempt to reduce these threats, and these strategies can be conducted as an individual or as part of a team.
“This question of ‘is this an individual thing or is this a couple-level thing’ often goes unanswered,” says Ogolsky. He observes that people often take steps to defend their relationship from a perceived threat without ever talking to their partner about it.
“There are ways to maintain the relationship that we can characterise as ‘more or less in our own heads’,” he explains. “We are doing something to convince ourselves that this is a good relationship and therefore it’s good for our relationship… We can do that without our partner.”
Individual strategies to fend off relationship threats can include telling yourself that you’re unlikely to find anyone else you’re better suited to, or thinking about your partner or your relationship in an idealised light. These tactics can help people shrug off the temptation to cheat, or reduce the chances of them developing a crush on someone else at all, and can be done without any outside input.
However, if you’re dealing with an actual conflict, it’s essential that you step out of your own head and work at solving the problem with your partner, says Ogolsky.
“Good conflict management or forgiving our partner for doing something wrong is an interactive process,” he says. “When a threat comes in, we can do one of two things: we can ditch our partner or forgive them over time.”
What is relationship enhancement?
Of course, a healthy relationship needs more than simply a mutual determination to work past problems. Both partners should also be enjoying themselves as much as possible – and that’s where enhancement comes in.
What counts as relationship enhancement? On an individual level, it can mean thinking positive thoughts about our partners and being considerate of their feelings. It can also be seen in how we treat our partners, whether we’re expressing our gratitude for a relationship or doing nice things for them.
When working as a team, relationship enhancement can be as simple as putting in the effort to make sure that you’re communicating with your partner and providing one another with support – as well as making each other laugh and spending leisure time together.
“Individually, even the act of thinking about our relationship can be enhancing,” Ogolsky says. “Whereas engaging in leisure activities together, talking about the state of our relationship, these are all interactive.”
Watch: The great ‘I love you’ debate
If you think that the line between enhancement strategies and threat mitigation seems blurry, you’d be right. Ogolsky says that some threat mitigation tactics can actually work to strengthen a bond over time, although he adds that the reverse is not usually true.
“We get to a place where we are pouring energy into the relationship simply because we want to keep the relationship moving forward rather than just mitigating threats,” he explains.
Ogolsky says that he’s more interested in studying the positive side of relationships than the negative because they can be more instructive in the long run. (Incidentally, other research suggests that people have very different motivations for staying in toxic relationships.)
“Relationships have ups and downs. I never go into my work saying people should stay together or they should break up,” he says. “Relationships are individualized, a unique pairing of people that comes with a unique history.
“What we are talking about here are processes that exist across different kinds of couples, some of which work very well for some people, some of which may not work for some people.
“I am interested in understanding processes that keep relationships moving.”
Images: Matheus Ferrero / Tanja Heffner / Netflix / Rex Features