A study published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology suggests that the top difficulties faced by couples in long-term relationships are clinginess, long working hours, and lack of personal time and space. The study, conducted among men and women from Greece and China, also revealed that while men were more likely to report bad sex as a source of relationship strain, women were more likely to report clinginess.
In a previous study, Menelaos Apostolou and Yan Wang mapped out 78 relationship difficulties reported by Greek-speaking participants who were either single or in relationships. The researchers sought to build on this research with a new study that surveyed residents of China in addition to Greece, and that only included respondents who were currently in a relationship.
Apostolou and Wang recruited an online sample of 604 Greek-speaking participants and 799 Chinese-speaking participants. All respondents reported currently being in a relationship — 32% of the Greek sample and 34% of the Chinese sample were married. The participants were shown a list of the 78 relationship issues identified in the previous study and asked to indicate the extent that each issue caused them difficulties in keeping their current relationship intact.
Next, using principal component analysis, the researchers classified the 78 issues into the 13 wider domains of fading enthusiasm, infidelity, bad sex, non-monogamy, violence/addiction, lack of personal time and space, long working hours, clinginess, character issues, children, social circle issues, lack of compromising, and lack of effort. While none of the factors were endorsed by a majority of participants, over 65% of participants endorsed at least one of the sources of strain and more than one-fifth of participants endorsed four or more.
Nearly a third of participants (30%) reported their own clinginess as a source of relationship strain, almost a quarter (23%) reported a lack of personal time and space, and around 22% reported long working hours.
The study authors considered these responses from an evolutionary perspective. Long-term mating strategies offer fitness benefits since greater investment in offspring helps children reach reproductive age and pass on genes. Partner monitoring mechanisms, like jealousy and clinginess, should be advantageous in that they minimize non-monogamy and help keep fitness benefits intact. But partner monitoring can cause relationship strain, for example, if a partner does not react well to being accused of infidelity or feels overwhelmed by a partner’s clinginess. This might explain why many couples report clinginess and lack of personal space as significant sources of strain. As for the emergence of long working hours as an important issue for couples, this could reflect contemporary society requiring workers to dedicate many hours to their jobs.
The results also revealed sex differences, with men being more likely to report issues related to bad sex (e.g., “My partner lacking sexual interest for me”), and women being more likely to report issues related to their own clinginess (e.g., “I become too easily dependent on my partner). There were also a few differences between samples. For example, the Greek sample was more likely to report character issues (e.g., “I am selfish”), while the Chinese sample was more likely to report issues related to lack of effort (e.g., “I do not do enough to make the relationship work”).
Apostolou and Wang note that their study cannot possibly capture all the issues faced by couples and that their research only represents a starting point. Future studies will be needed to consider additional relationship issues and study additional cultures.
The study, “What makes it difficult to keep an intimate relationship: Evidence from Greece and China”, was authored by Menelaos Apostolou and Yan Wang.