Tea and cuddles help to hold relationships together - study


A study run by the Open University and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council has found that simple gestures have a far greater impact on the health of relationships than grand romantic gestures.

The study carried out an online survey of 4,944 people in a relationship, backed up by in-depth interviews with a sample group of 50 couples.

Children had a major impact on the quality of relationship between couples, heterosexual parents being the group least likely to make "couple time", say "I love you", pursue shared interests, or talk with one another openly.

Mothers and fathers were found to be less satisfied with "relationship quality", "relationship maintenance" and "relationship with partner" than childless couples.

However, as individuals, mothers were the happiest group overall, while fathers were on average as happy as men without children.

Age is also an important factor, with younger and older men both rating their happiness with their relationship and with their partners far higher than those in middle age. For women, the youngest group (up to age 34) scores far higher than older groups.

In terms of sexual intimacy, fathers are more than twice as likely to mention differing sexual expectations as something they do not like about their relationship.

Mothers mostly report that they want to have sex less often than their partners do, but the level of sexual activity does not seem to undermine the quality of the relationship overall.

Activities such as simple cuddling and making tea for each other were highly valued by couples as means of expressing affection.

Common sense wisdom was further re-enforced, with respondents highly rating communication and "touching base" often. Being able to share experiences, finding things funny together, and commonly held values like religion or political beliefs, were described as very important.

Conversely, failure to communicate, irritating habits, and disagreements – particularly about money – were rated as the least liked parts of relationships. Irritations included driving too slowly, eating too loudly, failure to do household tasks, and disagreements mentioning the word "dishwasher".

Dr Jacqui Gabb, one of the study's co-authors said: "Actions really do speak louder than words and many people consider a loving gesture to be as valuable as hearing 'I love you'. Grand romantic gestures, although appreciated, don't nurture a relationship as much as bringing your partner a cup of tea in bed, or watching TV together."

Although stresses around finances were a major point of friction between many couples, the study found that the couples that weather trials together, such as prolonged periods of unemployment, are more likely to stay together in the longer term.

Co-author of the report, Dr Janet Fink said "With a tough economic climate, the rise in grey divorce and social media opening up new ways to start affairs, it isn't always easy to keep love alive today. However, our survey has shown that surviving adversities – even very difficult situations such as being out of work - can make a relationship much stronger. What doesn't break you, can make you."

The study was conducted as part of The Enduring Love? project, which aims to advance understandings of personal relationships and family lives in contemporary Britain", specifically:

• To understand how quality and stability are experienced and imagined in long term relationships.
• To examine the gendered 'relationship work' that women and men do to stay together.
• To advance knowledge of how enduring relationships are lived and felt by couples at different generational points in the life course.
• To interrogate the experience of adult couples, living with and without children, and the impact of family policies and cultural narratives.

In asking these questions, the study's authors sought to move away from a negative to a positive understanding of relationship function.

"Much recent policy, academic and professional research has been concerned with the causes and effects of relationship breakdown," the report stated.

"Studies have tended to focus on the 'stressors' that contribute to relationship … We are, therefore, reorienting the conceptual emphasis onto the connectors which hold people together, that is to say, the meanings, practices and imaginings of quality and stability in long-term relationships."

The study also looked at non-heterosexual couples and found that many younger LGBQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer) individuals feel afraid to hold hands with their partner in public, but as a group, LGBQ couples are often happier than heterosexual couples and more likely to act with spontaneity.

Ruth Sutherland, Chief Executive of the charity Relate said: "We welcome this insightful and important research into what makes love last. What this study shows us is that couples need to keep investing in their relationships. It's reassuring to know, especially in these tough economic times, that it's the small gestures of appreciation and affection, rather than the big romantic displays that really make the difference. The report shows the importance of creating a culture where seeking help to strengthen our relationships is seen as the norm."