Closeness in a Relationship: Is it Overrated?

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Closeness in a relationship doesn’t necessarily follow the more-is-better approach.

A new study shows it doesn’t matter how ‘close’ you and your partner are to make your hearts flutter. What matters is that you’re as close as you want to be, even if that means you’re not very close at all.

In the research, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 732 men and women filled out online surveys over a period of three years. The questionnaires asked about how close they felt to their partners, how satisfied they were with their interactions, how committed they were to their relationships, as well as thoughts of breaking up and symptoms of depression.

The partners’ closeness was measured using the Inclusion of Other in Self scale, which takes stock of how much overlap couples show in areas such as shared identity, values, resources and personality traits. The results showed that 57% of the respondents reported they felt too distant from their partner, 37% were happy with their closeness and 5% felt too close.

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The wider the gap between what a partner felt to be the ideal level of closeness and the actual closeness of his relationship, the more likely he was to report depressive symptoms and poor relationship quality. This was true across all levels of intimacy; it didn’t matter if the respondent wanted more closeness or less, if they weren’t satisfied, they experienced more negative effects.

If the participant’s desired closeness and actual relationship closeness aligned over the years, he was more likely to report a stronger relationship and better mental health. Those who continued to feel “too close” or “not close enough” were more likely to break up.

“It’s best not to make too many assumptions about what constitutes a healthy relationship,” said study author David Frost, a psychologist and professor of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School in a statement. “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.”

The authors suggest their findings could improve therapy for couples by highlighting the amount of togetherness each partner wants, rather than forcing couples to adhere to some abstract idea that more closeness is always better for a relationship.

The findings are especially timely on Valentine’s Day, when many are looking for a little extra intimacy. In a recent study by the marketing research firm Harris Interactive, one out of four men, for example, said they would rather have a root canal than be single on Valentine’s Day.

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The same study also found that 55% of adults ages 18 to 35 think Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to communicate more with their significant other. And couples with kids are more likely (60%) to anticipate having sex on the holiday than moms and dads with no kids living in their home.

No matter what you think of Valentine’s Day, if the holiday gives you a reason to work on your relationship with your significant other, it’s worth the sometimes more commercial and corny aspects of the day. It’s also a reminder that relationships aren’t static, and need constant attention, including finding just the right amount of closeness that works for you.