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A dozen red roses may not be as welcome as washing the dishes on Valentine’s Day – Open University study finds

13 February 2013 Open University

As audiences chuckle at films such as new romantic comedy “I Give It A Year”, researchers at The Open University have been looking at what keeps couples together after the flurry of Valentine’s Day romance is over.

Interim findings from a major two-year study called Enduring Love? Couple Relationships in the 21st Century, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council reveal how - in difficult economic times and with constant reminders of high divorce rates – couples are working hard at their relationships to avoid them falling apart.

Simple acts of kindness ranging from taking out the bins and bringing cups of tea in bed to telling someone they look good naked are cited by the 4,000+ adults in the UK who took part in the Enduring Love? online survey.

Report authors Dr Jacqui Gabb, Dr Janet Fink and Dr Martina Klett-Davies said they were delighted at the high numbers completing the survey – which asked a range of questions about couple relationships.

The results showed a whole host of ways that participants described how their partner makes them feel appreciated and loved, with simply saying “thank you” and thoughtful gestures being prized most highly. Participants also noted plenty of irritations they felt in their relationships. Niggles, such as snoring, noisy eating and stacking the dishwasher badly might lead one to think a Valentine’s card would definitely be ripped up, yet these were all part and parcel of on-going 21st century relationships.

Among the findings, the survey revealed that non-heterosexual parents do more relationship maintenance than their heterosexual counterparts and indeed, lesbian and gay participants were shown to be more positive and happier with their relationship and with their partner in general. There were, however, no significant differences between heterosexual and non-heterosexual participants in their happiness with life.

Mothers are more negative about relationship quality, relationship with partner, relationship maintenance and happiness with relationship/partner than childless women. However, mothers are significantly happier with life that any other group, indicating that children could perhaps be the primary source of happiness for women. 

Mothers are also almost twice more likely than fathers to say that their child/ren are the most important person in their life. Fathers are much more likely than mothers to value their partners as the most important person.

The survey also revealed how sharing values, a faith, beliefs or interests with a partner is very highly regarded and participants expressed disappointment when the everyday experiences of life could not be shared.

“Holding things in common was seen by participants as a key “connector” in the couple relationship,” said Dr Janet Fink, co-lead researcher on the Enduring Love? project.

“And it was clear that long-term relationships appear to endure through a blend of practical and emotional labour,” she added.

In addition, the survey asked whether a stressful situation (experienced in the last two years) - such as a house move, bereavement or redundancy – may have impacted adversely on their relationship. In fact responses from participants showed the opposite and suggest that both parents and childless couples might pull together through such difficult life events.   

“The more events participants reported, the higher their scores on our three measures of relationship quality, partner relationship and relationship maintenance,” said Dr Jacqui Gabb, co-lead researcher on the project.

The study – which is currently just over the halfway point - involves two levels of research, gleaned firstly from an online quantitative survey, completed by 4,212 adults’ long-term relationships in the UK (reported here). This is complemented by a second strand of qualitative research undertaken with 50 couples, aged between 18 and 65, with children and without. The overall aim is to develop a picture of what a 21st century long-term relationship looks like and to examine the emotional and practical work that couples do to sustain their relationship.  

The study finishes in September 2013, and findings from the qualitative research will be available from Spring 2014, culminating in a final report and book.  It is hoped the study will be used to inform and influence relationship support services and relationship education in contemporary Britain.

Dr Martina Klett-Davies, OU Research Associate on the project comments: “The level of interest in this survey did take us by surprise, but reflects the fascination with the topic of relationships and in “self-help” culture.”

“We found that whilst participants do appear to seek help with their relationship – whether that is from friends and relations or other professional sources, they are also employing their own “methods” to keep their relationship on track.”

The report’s authors plan to continue analysing the data from the Enduring Love? survey to extend knowledge of how enduring relationships are lived and felt by people at different times in their life.

To advance the study even more, the research team are undertaking a poll, which they hope will have widespread participation from around the UK and which will ask people to rate the top 10 statements given by the survey respondents to three key questions: What does your partner do for you that makes you feel appreciated? What do you like best in your relationship? What do you like least in your relationship? To take part here and use the link on the right: http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/enduringlove/

http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/enduringlove/

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