What Are Retention Behaviors In A Relationship?

Do you always bring your partner flowers after an argument? Do you feel reassured when you climb into bed together? There's a reason why we crave that reassurance in our relationship. Evolutionarily speaking, replacing a mate is costly, so if you can get one faithful, monogamous partner to stick around, you'll increase your odds of success. Biologically for men, a committed female partner ensured that he would raise only his own offspring. For women, having a committed male around ensured that her children would be protected and that her man would devote all his efforts to raising her offspring (via Scientific American). This biological standpoint might not directly apply to LGBTQ+ couples, but the central principle remains: we're stronger as a team. Let's stick together!

Besides the evolutionary theories, there are other reasons why people prefer to stay together. Breakups stink, obviously, and infidelity really stinks. Doctors have even discovered a condition called Broken Heart Syndrome, a temporary swelling of heart tissue that coincides with the emotional devastation of a breakup (via EliteDaily). To prevent heartbreak and avoid replacing a mate, we engage in behaviors intended to reduce the likelihood that our partner will cheat or leave. These are known as mate retention behaviors. Here's what you need to know about these crucial strategies.

The good and the bad

A study of couples explored in Psychology Today identified two categories of mate retention behaviors: benefit-provisioning and cost-inflicting. Benefit-provisioning is a positive mate retention strategy that is considered low-risk and generally beneficial for both partners. Some examples of these behaviors might include giving gifts and praise, planning date nights, or providing support when their partner is unwell. Benefit-provisioning behaviors emphasize the positive aspects of the relationship, seeming to say "I'm kind to you. I'll take care of you. I'll support you if you stay."

On the other hand, there are negative strategies known as cost-inflicting behaviors. Some examples might include controlling the bank account, locking the partner in with pregnancy or marriage, checking their partner's phone, or convincing their partner that they couldn't find anyone better. In extreme cases, a cost-inflicting behavior could even be threatening injury, self-harm, or suicide if their partner cheated or left. These behaviors emphasize a "you need me" or "I'll die without you" mindset — both toxic. These behaviors are high-risk; they make it difficult for the partner to leave, but they aren't staying for the right reasons. 

Most relationships actually use a combination of both strategies. Depending on the balance between benefit-provisioning and cost-inflicting behaviors, a relationship's mate retention strategy probably fits into one of three categories: disengaged, benevolent, or exhaustive (via the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships).

Disengaged partner retention

A disengaged mate retention strategy means that neither partner performs many positive or negative retention behaviors. They stay together because the relationship feels comfortable and trustworthy, and they need neither cost-inflicting threats nor benefit-provisioning acts to stay interested in each other. Neither partner suspects that the other will cheat or leave. Couples that use this mate retention strategy generally have a lot of trust in each other already, and it becomes more common as the relationship progresses, especially in married couples (via Psychology Today). 

However, a disengaged strategy could indicate emotional detachment, and it generally coincides with less physical affection between the couple. Of course, there are many reasons why someone may lose sexual interest in their spouse, but about 20% of married couples have sex fewer than ten times per year, which is officially considered as having a "sexless marriage" (via Intellectual Takeout). Couples using a disengaged mate retention strategy may not see a reason to work on anything, or they may be preparing to part ways. If one partner starts to wander away, a disengaged strategy offers little incentive to make them stay.

Benevolent partner retention

A benevolent retention strategy involves lots of benefit-provisioning behaviors and few or no cost-inflicting behaviors. Partners consistently shower each other with gifts, praise, and emotional support, and they make an effort to spend quality time together as much as they can. In addition to being fun and exciting, the benevolent retention strategy can be very effective at keeping a mate. According to research from the National Marriage Project, couples who set aside quality time (i.e. date night) at least once per week were about 3.5 times happier with their marriage.

People who use this retention method generally have high self-esteem and high confidence in the relationship (via Psychology Today). Couples that use a benevolent mate retention strategy generally don't need any threats or strings attached to keep their relationship. Partners stay together because they mutually benefit from each other, and they don't feel the need to seek better treatment from someone else. The only downside of the benevolent retention strategy is that one partner could feel overwhelmed by the amount of affection they receive. If they are consistently being love bombed, they might take it for granted or even start to feel a bit claustrophobic.

Exhaustive partner retention

The exhaustive mate retention strategy uses a strong mix of both benefit-provisioning and cost-inflicting tactics. One way to think of it is like a double lock on the relationship. Partners perform some kind and positive acts to show their care and appreciation, but they also have some safety nets in place, like checking their partner's phone or controlling most of the financial decisions. Some exhaustive retention relationships actually start out using benevolent retention strategies but implement more cost-inflicting strategies as time goes on (via Psychology Today). 

Through this kind of mate retention, one or both partners may be trying to gain more control of the relationship. This is usually spurred by the perceived risk of infidelity or divorce, or a past transgression, like if one partner has already been caught with digital cheating. An exhaustive retention strategy could also be more likely when costs of infidelity or abandonment are high, such as after purchasing a house together, becoming pregnant, or having children. For this reason, mothers and fathers are very likely to use exhaustive mate retention tactics. In this relationship, both partners might think, "You do all these great things for me and the family, and I'd be afraid to live alone or lose my child if we broke up."

The takeaway

The study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships noted that mate retention strategy can be affected by a lot of factors, including gender, economic status, cultural norms, trust levels, and more. For example. men generally use more benevolent or exhaustive tactics, while women are more likely to use a disengaged strategy. People with fewer financial resources may also depend on more cost-inflicting behaviors, rather than overspending on nice dinners, gifts, or vacations. 

No mate retention strategy is necessarily good or bad, and a healthy relationship can have a combination of both benefit-provisioning and cost-inflicting behaviors. Of course, if a relationship seems to feature nothing but cost-inflicting behaviors, the researchers in the study stated that they would call this a "hostile" strategy. Depending on hostile tactics to retain the relationship could indicate manipulation and abuse. At the end of the day, a healthy relationship should feel supportive and loving. When you're looking for ways to reignite the spark in your relationship and remind your partner why they stay with you, it couldn't hurt to throw in a few more helpful actions, small gifts, or kind words.