Science Says Lasting Relationships Rely on a Key Factor

A helpful hint for finding the one.

By Erin Brodwin

  • A recent study found evidence that a single factor mattered more for a couple’s relationship satisfaction than a handful of other considerations, including marriage.
  • That factor was whether couples saw their significant other as their best friend.
  • “Maybe what is really important [in a relationship] is friendship, and to never forget that in the push and pull of daily life,” the researcher said.

Dating is tough. Finding someone you’d call your life partner is even tougher.

If you’re unsure of whether or not your significant other is “the one,” research suggests that it all comes down to one factor: Do you see that person as your best friend?

In a recent study of thousands of couples on marriage and happiness, John Helliwell, a University of British Columbia economist and the co-author of the United Nations World Happiness Report, found evidence that a strong friendship mattered more for a couple’s relationship satisfaction than a handful of other considerations, including whether or not the pair was married.

“Maybe what is really important [in a relationship] is friendship, and to never forget that in the push and pull of daily life,” Helliwell told the New York Times.

Helliwell came to this conclusion after he and his research team analyzed data from two large British surveys and the Gallup World Poll. After accounting for the couples’ ages, gender, income, and health conditions, they found that the happiest couples all said their significant other was their closest friend.

Co-habitating couples who were best friends were just as happy as couples who were best friends and married, the results suggested.

“What immediately intrigued me about the results was to rethink marriage as a whole,” Helliwell said.

The chart below comes from the study and compares the “life satisfaction” of couples who were married (blue bars) with couples who lived together but were unmarried (red bars). Couples who said their partner was their best friend are on the left.

National Bureau of Economic Research

Helliwell isn’t alone in rethinking the value of marriage.

Bella DePaulo, a psychologist at the University of California Santa Barbara, recently looked at a large 2012 review of more than 20 studies of married and divorced couples. She found that marriage didn’t seem to make people happier — in fact, it may do the opposite.

“Except for that initial short-lived honeymoon effect for life satisfaction,” she wrote in a blog post for Psychology Today about her findings, “getting married did not result in getting happier or more satisfied. In fact, for life satisfaction and relationship satisfaction, the trajectories over time headed in the less satisfied direction.”

That idea is supported by a 2011 review of the impact on happiness of major life events, which found that couples who got married generally felt less happy and less satisfied with their lives over time.

But it’s not all bad news. Helliwell’s study — along with a 2012 survey of American couples — suggests that living with your partner and not getting married to them might be your best bet for a healthy, lasting relationship. The survey found that out of all of the couples, those who lived together but were not married had the highest self-esteem and overall happiness.

Originally published at

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