Long-term and short-term relationships initially indistinguishable.

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Long-term and short-term relationships initially indistinguishable.

 According to conventional wisdom long-term and short-term relationships are obviously different from each other. Some people are the type you’d want to marry; others are good primarily for a short-term fling.   However, contrary to this conventional wisdom, new research suggests that—at first—long-term and short-term relationships may look more or less identical.   

What the researchers say: When you survey the complete time course of either a short-term or a long-term relationship—from the moment you meet (or hire) someone until the moment the relationship is over for good—it takes a while for the differences in short and long-term relationships to emerge.   “Long-term and short-term trajectories typically pull apart after you’ve known someone for weeks or months,” said the lead author of the study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.   “In the beginning, there is no strong evidence that people can tell whether a given relationship will be long-term and serious or short-term and casual.”   He and his co-authors surveyed more than 800 people of all ages. They used a state-of-the-art “relationship reconstruction” survey in which people reproduce the events and experiences they had in their prior real-life short-term and long-term relationships.   

Importantly, they asked the participants to reconstruct these relationships from the very beginning. This procedure differs from the standard “relationship science” approach, which starts studying people once they are already in a dating relationship.   “Some of the most interesting moments in these relationships happen after you meet the person face-to-face, but before anything sexual has happened,” the lead researcher added. “You wonder ‘is this going somewhere?’ or ‘How much am I into this person?’ It is somewhere around this point that short-term and long-term relationships start to diverge, and historically, we have very little data on this particular period.” Other research has found something similar when an employee starts a new job.   

The researchers found that romantic interest—or engagement—rises at the same rate in both short-term and long-term relationships. But at some point, romantic interest (or engagement or employee loyalty) tends to plateau and decline in short-term relationships, while in long-term relationships, it continues to ascend and reaches a higher peak.   What is the moment when the two trajectories start to diverge? On average, it happens at about the time that the relationship starts to become sexual—or the new employee is challenged.   The study offers a new twist on the distinction between the stable, long-term partner and the exciting, short-term partner. In real life, people may end up in short-term relationships when they are “just a little” attracted to the other person. Long-term relationships may be the ones that start especially exciting and grow into something stable and lasting. Like the new job.   

So, what? One of the interesting things about this study is that they accurately describe the “oxytocin effect” (the rise and fall in the levels of that bonding & trust neurochemical) without mentioning oxytocin.   More seriously, one of the problems is often that we’re not sure of what we want from new relationships—corporate or personal. We tend to expect every relationship, or job, to be fulfilling. Often, we have very little idea of what we’re really looking for—our real needs. For this reason, we almost never ask the kind of questions—in early dates or in job interviews—which will ascertain whether this person or this firm will lead to our personal fulfilment or satisfaction.   

What now? It’s important that teens are taught to ask questions that will help them find out what the other person’s (or employer’s) needs of them are and be honest as to whether they can meet them. Unfortunately, this is not happening.  

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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