Optimism Helps Relationships Last

Do you expect the best or plan for the worst?  Do you think good things generally happen to you or are you usually unlucky? If you saw a half glass of water would you describe it as half-full or half-empty? OK, have your answers? If you answered each question with the first option listed, then, congratulations, you just might be an optimist.  And is that good?  Well, according to every piece of research I have seen, being optimistic is very good.  Optimism has been linked with, among other things, happiness, improved physical health, longer-lasting friendships, and.…..you guessed it……higher levels of relationship satisfaction.

As I started to write this article, I realized it would be very hard to give full coverage of the importance of optimism in relationships in one blog post.  There are many aspects of optimism worth discussing. But it is such an important topic I wanted to write at least a little about it here.

First, let’s be sure we are on the same page.  Dictionary.com defines optimism as “a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.”  Optimists expect the best and believe things will generally go their way.

Given that optimism has been linked to so many positive outcomes, it is probably no surprise that optimists are more satisfied with their relationships.  And if that was all there was to it, optimism wouldn’t merit even a short blog post. But like my post on gratitude, the point is not merely that optimism predicts relationship satisfaction.  Rather recent research suggests how optimism can bring about relationship satisfaction.  And knowing how it works is much more useful.

Sanjay Srivastava, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, and his colleagues recently examined the influence of optimism on relationship satisfaction.  They asked 108 dating couples to answer questions about level of optimism, perceptions of how much support their partner provides in the relationship, and relationship satisfaction.  As expected, optimists experienced higher levels of relationship satisfaction.  Additionally, partners of optimists also experienced higher levels of satisfaction.

Along with reconfirming the idea that optimists have higher levels of satisfaction, Srivastava and his colleagues also discovered at least one reason why there is a link between optimism and satisfaction.  Earlier I said they measured perceptions of support from their partner.  They did this with a measure called the Maintenance Questionnaire (developed by Laura Stafford and Daniel Canary). According to Srivastava and his colleagues: “The MQ has five subscales that cover a broad range of supportive behaviors: (a) positivity (e.g., “Does not criticize me”), (b) openness (e.g., “Encourages me to disclose my thoughts and feelings to him/her”), (c) assurances (e.g., “Stresses his or her commitment to me”), (d) social network (e.g., “Focuses on common friends and affiliations”), and (e) sharing tasks (e.g., “Helps equally with tasks that need to be done”)” (p. 145).

Optimists were more likely to report that their partners were positive, open, reassuring, focused on friends in common, and willing to share in tasks.  And these things, then, predicted who was satisfied in their relationship.  One take-home message of this post is that these five types of behavior are all ones each of us can spend more time on. That is, if you engaged in more of these behaviors, your partner is likely to perceive you as more supportive which, in turn, should have an influence on their level of satisfaction in the relationship.

There is another bonus of being a supportive partner. In a later part of the study, Srivastava and his colleagues had each couple engage in a conversation about “the most stressful area of current disagreement in their relationship” (p.148).  They predicted those who perceived their partner as supportive would also see their partner’s participation in an argument as more constructive, thereby influencing how satisfied each partner was in the outcome of the argument. Indeed, the authors report that “both optimists and their partners agreed that their conflicts had reached a more satisfactory resolution 1 week later” (p. 149).  Further, Srivastava and his colleagues also measured whether the couples they studied were still together one year later.  And they found that for men, level of optimism did indeed predict whether or not a couple was still together one year later.  The authors are not sure why optimism is a stronger predictor of long-term satisfaction for men than for women.

Though the results of this study may seem fairly predictable, consider just how powerful the effects of optimism are.  Optimism is just one of the many, many aspects that influences relationship success, and to find that this one variable can play such a large role is striking.

So keep in mind the five types of supportive behaviors: positivity, openness, assurances, focuses on common friends and affiliations, and sharing tasks.  Each can help relationships last and, as is true with many things, a little will go a long way.

In case you are interested…..

Srivastava, S., McGonigal, K. M., Richards, J. M., Butler, E. A., & Gross, J. J. (2006). Optimism in close relationships: How seeing things in a positive light makes them so. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 143–153.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.