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New Research Explains Why All Your Relationships Turn Out the Same
Over time, our romances tend to fall into the same patterns, for better or worse
When you’re in the throes of post-breakup misery, your friends and family might try to comfort you by trashing the person who stomped all over your heart: You can do better, they’ll tell you. Your ex is going to regret letting you go. They never deserved you anyway.
It’s nice to hear, and it may even be true. You’ve learned from this relationship, you tell yourself. Next time, you’ll go for someone who’s a better fit.
Choosing a new partner who’s different from the people you usually fall for may help steer your next relationship in a better direction. “If we have a ‘type,’ one way to bring about change is to partner with someone who’s different than who we have been partnering with,” says Matthew Johnson, a family scientist at the University of Alberta. But a new partner isn’t necessarily enough to escape relationship inertia. In all likelihood, you’ll be just as happy — or unhappy — in your next relationship as you were in your last one, according to a recent long-term study from Johnson and his colleagues.
The new study, conducted in Germany, followed more than 500 people as they went from one significant relationship to the next over the course of eight years. (The researchers defined “significant” as at least a yearlong commitment.) At four different points during the study, the researchers asked each participant to rate various aspects of their relationships, like how often they had sex and how much they fought.
Not surprisingly, most people viewed relationships much more negatively once they’d dissolved. The unpleasant memories people form as their relationships fall apart “really color our whole view” of the person and the partnership, even if the good moments outnumbered the bad throughout, Johnson says. People also rated their relationships more highly when they were still in the early stages — no shock there, either. Once the honeymoon phase was over, though, people tended to report the same relationship quality with the new partner as they had with the last one.
This is because, the study suggests, you’re the constant. Of course, there are caveats and particularly terrible exes who bring out the worst in you, but for the most part, your relationships are the same because you bring your same self to all of them.
The study “doesn’t mean we’re doomed,” Johnson emphasizes. Although relationship quality was pretty stable on average, there were certainly people who bucked the trend and rated their second relationships more highly. Then again, others — especially people with more negative personality traits, like coldness or a tendency to criticize — trended downward.
A former couples therapist, Johnson remains convinced that people who want to change their romantic trajectories should turn their focus inward, by tending to their own neuroses and building their relationship skills. When he teaches a course about the science of relationships, “I tell my students at the outset that lasting love is possible — it’s within your reach,” he says. “But it depends on the choices you make and the way you go about the relationship.”
“If you want to have a different outcome in your next relationship,” Johnson adds, “it’s going to take some concerted effort.”