Couples Who Aren’t Close Can Still Be Happy

More important is if your degree of closeness matches your desires

Common wisdom—which is sometimes as foolish as wise—says that feeling close to your romantic partner is paramount for happiness. But closer relationships aren’t necessarily better relationships, finds a new study. The most important factor is if you are as close as you want to be—even if that’s really not close at all.

“Our study found that people who yearn for a more intimate partnership and people who crave more distance are equally at risk for having a problematic relationship,” says the study’s lead author, David M. Frost, PhD, of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Current and ideal closeness was measured by a well-established psychological testing method called Inclusion of Other in Self and indicates a couple’s “we-ness” or shared identity, values, viewpoints, resources, and personality traits. At first blush, the actual closeness levels as reported by study participants are consistent with that “common wisdom” thing:

  • 57% reported feeling too much distance between themselves and their partner
  • 37% were content with the level of closeness in their relationship
  • 5% reported feeling too close

But, here’s the kicker: the degree of difference between a respondent’s actual and ideal closeness affected relationship satisfaction and depression in the same manner whether the respondent reported feeling “too close for comfort” or “not close enough.” In other words, what matters between partners is the discrepancy of desired closeness, not the closeness.

“We need to hear from people about how close they are in their relationships and how that compares to how close they’d ideally like to be,” says Dr. Frost. Closeness discrepancies take seriously real differences in the amount of closeness people want in their relationships into account and could change how therapists see couples.

“It’s best not to make too many assumptions about what constitutes a healthy relationship.”

Image: Some rights reserved by John Loo

Category: Psych

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