For some couples, it’s the staying together that’s important, but for others it’s about seeing their relationship flourish and progress. In recent studies carried out by researchers at the University of Illinois they tend to focus on the couples as a unit opposed to the individual. In doing this, they’re hoping to reveal what makes a relationship keep moving and what may cause it to go stale.

“We know relationships are key,” says Brian Ogolsky, associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois. “We spend all of our time in these relationships. Whether we are at home, with our siblings, our parents, or our colleagues, these are all extremely important. And consequently we spend very little time alone with our thoughts. So it’s critical that we carefully and methodically understand what’s going on in relationships and what is unique that two individuals bring that you can’t get from studying person ‘x’ and ‘y’ separately.”

Two primary motives behind a couple’s attempts to stay together according to Ogolsky is threat mitigation and relationship enhancement. As part of the study, researchers come up with a visual framework of how relationships can survive by cushioning off threats and move forward by putting the effort in. Most relationships will contain an element of both. “Threats to the relationship come from all different places,” explains Ogolsky. “We know that 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.”

Ogolsky also said that some threat mitigation tactics can actually become enhancement strategies over time. Using their model of relationship maintenance, the researchers also demonstrated individual versus interactive components of maintenance. “As we were doing this review, we started noticing that there are ways to maintain the relationship that we can categorize as ‘more or less in our own heads.’ We are doing something to convince ourselves that it is a good relationship and therefore it’s good for our relationship,” explained Ogolsky.

Mitigating conflict however cannot be done as an individual and instead needs to be tackled as a couple. “Good conflict management or forgiving our partner for doing something wrong is an interactive process. When a threat comes in, we can do one of two things: we can ditch our partner or forgive them over time,” says Ogolsky. The same goes for enhancement strategies. “Individually, even the act of thinking about our relationship can be enhancing. Whereas engaging in leisure activities together, taking about the state of our relationship, these are all interactive,” he says.

Rather than offer direct interventions to troubled couples, Ogolsky tends to look at the positives of the relationships. You can learn much more from people who are going through a turbulent ordeal. “Relationships have ups and owns. I never go into my work saying people should stay together or they should break up,” says Ogolsky. “Relationships are individualised, 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.”

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