When the Beatles proclaimed that “love is all you need,” little did they know these lyrics would be subjected to scientific scrutiny. Indeed, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, the classic song holds some truth for real relationships. Specifically, relationship success may depend not only on fighting less, but also on being more affectionate in contexts where positive, loving behavior is appropriate or expected. While relationships research has historically focused on alleviating negative communication patterns and distress, such as during conflict, a number of recent studies have explored the role of positive processes in promoting optimal relationship functioning.
Researchers at the University of Delaware and University of Virginia examined newlywed couples’ behaviors during two different interactions — one in which partners discussed an area of unresolved conflict in their relationship, followed by a “love paradigm” where couple members communicated positive feelings for each other.1 Each spouse was coded for positive behavior (affection) and negative behavior (contempt) on a scale from 0 (“not represented at all”) to 4 (“very well represented”). For example, behaviors such as flirting, empathy, caring statements, and compliments counted as affection, while contempt was represented by behaviors such as insults and malicious sarcasm. Of interest was the impact of partners’ affection and contempt on marital satisfaction and steps taken toward divorce 12-15 months later.
Consistent with the researchers’ expectations, couples who were more affectionate during the positive interaction evidenced greater marital satisfaction and stability down the road, even after taking into account how satisfied the couple was at the time of the lab visit. Affectionate behavior during the love-task predicted relationship outcomes independent of contempt expressed during conflict. “Affection directed at one’s partner during the love task, but not the conflict task, was uniquely predictive of relationship satisfaction later on,” says Elana Graber, lead author of the study. “Attaining a high level of relationship satisfaction is not just about being less hostile or contemptuous towards your partner, but it is also critical for couples to show affection to one another, particularly in contexts where partners come together to connect and build intimacy.”
In other words, the results of this study suggest that observing how couple members interact in a relationship-enhancing context can better indicate their relationship functioning than just observing how couples fight, which has important implications for relationship counseling. Broadly speaking, this study represents an growing interest in the field of psychology on how positive processes, such as displays of affection, build healthy relationships. The study’s lead author notes, “Positive behaviors play a unique role in predicting relationship outcomes—and our results suggest that the context does indeed matter.” While this research sheds light on the nuts and bolts that operate to predict marital satisfaction and stability, perhaps the Beatles explained it best: all you need is love.
1Graber, E. C., Laurenceau, J.-P., Miga, E., Chango, J., & Coan, J. (2011). Conflict and love: Predicting newlywed marital outcomes from two interaction contexts. Journal of Family Psychology, 25(4), 541-550.
Dr. Jana Rosewarne – Articles
Jana’s research interests include close relationships and positive emotions. She is most interested in the impact of individual-level variables and interpersonal behavior on personal well-being and optimal relationship functioning.
Dr. Tim Loving – Articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving’s research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He’s a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.