03/27/2013 02:47 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

Healthy Relationships Are Less About Degree Of Closeness Than About 'Closeness Discrepancy'

A close romantic relationship is generally believed to be better than a distant one. According to a new study, "Closeness Discrepancies in Romantic Relationships," however, the degree of closeness in a relationship does not necessarily translate into how happy a person is, both in the relationship and generally.

The study -- published online in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in February 2013 -- found that satisfaction with a relationship is not determined by how close a person is to their partner but rather by how much that level of closeness corresponds to their desired level of closeness. In other words, someone can be very satisfied with a relatively disconnected relationship as long as they aren't seeking a greater connection.

The study's authors, David M. Frost, an assistant professor at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health Cat Forrester, graduate student who studied under Dr. Frost at San Francisco State University, had 732 men and women complete annual online surveys over a three-year period. The surveys included questions on relationship closeness, relationship satisfaction, commitment, break-up thoughts, and depression. Ideal closeness and closeness in reality were evaluated using the psychological method Inclusion of Other in Self (IOS), which consists of six sets overlapping circles depicting things like values, viewpoints and personality traits. The more overlapping the circles, the closer the couple is.

Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed wished they were closer to their partner; 37 percent were happy with the level of closeness in their relationship; and five percent said they felt too close to their partner. Satisfaction in the relationship, however, was not determined by level of closeness but rather by degree of difference in the "closeness discrepancy." The larger the closeness discrepancy, the unhappier the person was in their relationship -- regardless of whether they felt too close or not close enough to their partner. A high degree of difference in the "closeness discrepancy" is linked to a greater likelihood of breaking up.

While the study demonstrates that relationship satisfaction is derived from an alignment in real and desired closeness, there is no denying that we are inundated with information emphasizing the importance of an intimate romantic relationship. A 2008 study examined the link between American culture and romantic closeness, finding that the cultural importance placed on romantic relationships can actually lead to a greater degree of loneliness when one is not engaged in a relationship as compared to South Korea, which doesn't place the same premium on romance.

"It's best not to make too many assumptions about what constitutes a healthy relationship," Frost said in a press release. "Rather, 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."



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