New research sheds light on how moment-to-moment behaviors in romantic relationships contribute to relationship quality. The findings, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, indicate that couples who better matched each other’s warmth during a difficult conversation tended to have more positive relationship outcomes.
The new study focused on interpersonal complementarity, which describes the tendency for individuals to adjust their behavior in response to others. It involves the mutual matching and balancing of behaviors, traits, or styles. For example, if one person is assertive, the other person might respond by being more passive.
“I’m generally interested in how the momentary behaviors that we engage in within our relationships can build on each other to produce our global perceptions of our relationships,” said lead author Erica B. Slotter, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Villanova University. “Essentially, what is it that goes on day to day, or in the case of this study minute to minute, in a relationship that snowballs into people feeling more or less happy with their partners?”
The study involved heterosexual couples, consisting of a male-identified and a female-identified partner. The participants were recruited from the Chicago metropolitan area through flyers and advertisements placed in the community. A total of 180 couples were included in the final sample. The average age of the participants was 32.27 years, and they had been in their current relationships for an average of 9.2 years. Most of the participants identified as White.
To gather data, participants first completed questionnaires during an online session, providing demographic and other baseline information. Approximately two weeks later, they visited the laboratory and engaged in various tasks with their partners, including surveys and interaction tasks.
Specifically, they had three video-recorded interactions in the laboratory, discussing an unresolved conflict, how they had changed in their relationship, and the things they liked about each other. For this study, the researchers focused on the conflict discussions to analyze interpersonal complementarity.
The researchers used a tool called the Continuous Assessment of Interpersonal Dynamics (CAID) to code the couples’ interactions. Four judges observed each couple’s 8-minute interaction and manipulated a joystick to represent the participants’ behavior. The joystick’s position represented the level of dominance and warmth displayed by each participant.
The judges could move the joystick in different directions and adjust the strength of the movement to reflect the participants’ behaviors accurately. A visual feedback display on the video screen helped the judges track the joystick’s position.
A computer program called DARMA recorded the average location of the joystick every 10 seconds throughout the 8-minute interaction. The program captured the warmth and dominance dimensions as X and Y coordinates, providing numerical data for analysis.
The collected data was organized into behavioral profiles that showed changes in dominance and warmth behaviors over time. Couples in romantic relationships showed noticeable complementarity in both warmth and dominance aspects during their discussions of conflicts. This indicates that partners continuously adapt their behaviors in real-time to create engagement patterns that are similar in terms of warmth and differ in terms of dominance.
“We found that, on average, partners do tend to complement each other. If I’m warm, my partner is warmer; and, if I’m more ‘take charge,’ my partner is less that way,” Slotter told PsyPost.
The researchers found that dominance complementarity was significantly predicted by relationship length. In the early years of a relationship, couples tend to rapidly increase their complementarity in dominance, meaning they adjust their behaviors to balance control or influence over each other.
However, once this initial period is over, the dominance complementarity stabilizes and doesn’t change as much. On the other hand, the study did not find any connection between how long a couple has been together and how they complement each other in terms of warmth.
“We also found that, for dominance but not warmth, people got better at this the longer they had been a couple,” Slotter explained. “This suggests that dominance complementarity might take longer to figure out than warmth.”
Furthermore, the study explored the association between complementarity and relationship outcomes while considering relationship length. Warmth complementarity was found to significantly predict relationship satisfaction and other related constructs, including intimacy, respect, goal compatibility, commitment, trust, partner validation, partner empathy, engaging in sex for emotion and connection, and greater overall love.
“The most impressive findings from the study (from my perspective) was that greater warmth complementarity was associated with a large number of variables that social scientists have used for decades as metrics of relationship functioning and outcomes,” Slotter told PsyPost. “Partners who match each other’s warmth more are more satisfied, they perceive their partner as more responsive, etc.”
“And keep in mind, that this warmth complementarity was assessed every few seconds during a single 8 minute interaction they had in our lab. This means that the way we interact with our partners in these small ways can have downstream consequences for how we feel about our relationship in general.”
In contrast, dominance complementarity was not associated with relationship satisfaction. Warmth complementarity showed stronger effects on relationship constructs compared to dominance complementarity.
“We were surprised that dominance complementarity didn’t predict relationship outcomes better than it did,” Slotter said. “We predicted that both forms of complementarity would matter for relationship functioning, but warmth was definitely a stronger set of effects. Why dominance wasn’t a stronger predictor of relationship functioning is a major open question.”
“In terms of caveats, this research is correlational meaning that we can speak to associations but not causality,” she noted. “We also always believe in the importance of replication. We trust our effects, but would like to see them reproduced in another sample of participants.”
The study, “Love’s a dance you learn as you go: Evidence for interpersonal complementarity during romantic conflict and its association with relationship outcomes“, was authored by Erica B. Slotter, Patrick M. Markey, Alexis Audigier, Samantha C. Dashineau, Eli J. Finkel, and Laura B. Luchies.