When your relationship ends, how will you rebuild? Will you seek someone to replace your partner or someone completely different? The rebuilding process can be painful if you just keep repeating your same mistakes.
Consider that following the devastating fire that nearly destroyed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to restore the structure to its former glory. The commitment to rebuild gave the French people, and indeed the world, some solace. A similar process occurs when people lose their homes to a natural disaster. You hear those interviewed on the news stating with absolute confidence that they will be able to overcome the challenges of erecting a new structure on their property and refuse to be daunted by the thought that another flood, hurricane, or tornado will strike twice. However, as with Notre Dame, most people plan to make changes when they rebuild so that the same fate doesnt befall the repaired structure.
The psychological rebuilding that occurs when your relationship has come to an end may reflect somewhat similar processes. You need to regroup and, despite what you’ve learned are the challenges, you’re willing to dive back into a new relationship. You may decide that you’ll need to find someone completely unlike your previous partner or, alternatively, a replacement who will be virtually identical to the person you lost, if not in appearance, then in personality.
New research by University of Alberta’s (Canada) Matthew Johnson and Franz Neyer from Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (Germany) examined the question of whether, when people rebuild relationships, they find partners alike or completely distinct from their previous ones. In their words, “Because people seek lasting love amid a relational landscape littered with the remains of prior unions, we asked a simple question: Does a new relationship differ from its preceding one?” Think about the littering that’s occurred on your own relational landscape. How different, in fact, were your partners from each other? More to the point, how did the dynamics that characterized your various relationships differ from each other, or were they virtually interchangeable?
As Johnson and Neyer note, there’s surprisingly little research on this question, despite the fact that relationship transitions are common over the course of adult life. Even if you’ve been with the same partner for decades, it’s likely that you had previous relationships when you were younger. Although you hope your relationship will never end, if you were to think about who a next partner might be for you, how would you envision the dynamics? Would you seek to replay the themes of your current relationship? How would you rebuild?
To address these questions, Johnson and Neyer compared the stability-focused with the change-focused perspectives. The stability model takes attachment theory as its starting point and suggests that people recreate prior dynamics in new relationships because their “habitual patterns of thought and behavior with their lovers” are transferred from old to new partners. In contrast, the change-focused perspective proposes that people alter their relationship dynamics with new partners because each new relationship must be renegotiated. Additionally, the context in which relationships occur change over time if for no other reason than Partner A will never be identical to Partner B. Furthermore, as you move through life, later partners are more likely to come with families of their own to whom your relationship dynamics must adapt.
To contrast these models, Johnson and Neyer took advantage of a large longitudinal data set that began in Germany in 2008 and will continue until 2022, across a total of eight waves of testing. Known as “pairfam,” the German study compared three cohorts that included adolescents (15-17 years old), young adults (25-27), and midlife adults (35-37). The focus of pairfam, which began with a sample of 12,402 participants, is on these four areas: intimate relationships, fertility, parent-child relationships, and intergenerational ties. To arrive at a sample appropriate for the relationship transition question, the researchers narrowed their focus to the 1,949 participants who reported being in more than one close relationship over the course of the study. From this, they selected 554 whose relationship changes occurred across at least two waves of testing.
The first set of analyses tested whether those in more than one partnership differed from those whose relationship history was stable. These relationship-changers were more likely to be female, younger, lower in education, and slightly lower in agreeableness but higher in neuroticism.
Other questions asked of participants focused on satisfaction with the relationship overall, satisfaction with s*x life, frequency of s*xual intercourse, and perceived instability of their current relationship. Participants were also asked about frequency of conflict, extent of self-disclosure, and admiration expressed by the partner to the participant. As predictors of the relationship change measures, the research team included personality measures according to the Five Factor Model (i.e. neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness), s*x, age, and duration of the first partnership.
To assess change over time within individuals, the research team took advantage of a complex analytical strategy that allowed them to test the underlying relationship and individual factors as they evolved over time. This was important because just looking at average scores over time could not answer questions related to change within people across relationships.
Using this model, the findings supported the stability model to an overwhelming degree. In the words of the authors, “this study sought to understand whether a new relationship differs from the one that preceded it… the answer to that question seems to be ‘mostly no." Given this stability, “why does it seem as though a new partnership is different from those in the past?” The illusion of change seems to outweigh the reality of stability. As your first relationship deteriorates and ends, they suggest, you approach your new relationship with “the bliss of new love.”Because the old relationship’s deterioration remains so prominent in your mind, you may rewrite history to think that it was terrible all along. This distorted recall, along with your own longstanding approaches to relationships, as reflected in attachment style and personality, leads you to recreate your old patterns with your subsequent partners.
Interestingly, one exception to this pattern occurred in the areas of s*xual frequency and appreciation, which showed patterns of improvement from partner 1 to partner 2. When it came to internal relationship evaluations, participants didn’t perceive any significant improvements after transitioning to their new partners. As the authors conclude, “Although some dynamics may improve in a new relationship, perceptions of the partnership do not."
To sum up, when people rebuild something that they lost, they may strive to restore it as closely as possible to its prior glory. In relationships, it appears that they will also strive to rebuild their former patterns of interactions, which may actually not be all that desirable if those interactions weren’t working. The Johnson and Neyer study suggests that to find happiness when you’re in the rebuilding process, you look objectively at your role in your previous relationship. You’ll be more likely to find fulfillment in your new relationship if you are able to start with yourself.