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Relationship Maintenance

Repairing Troubled Relationships

Occasionally, there is trouble in paradise. The trouble may involve a problem that is acute (e.g., a single affair) or chronic (e.g., alcoholism). The question of how to repair a relationship that has gone through a severe test—or an ongoing series of tests—has lead various researchers to identify behaviors that function primarily to overcome problems. In terms of repairing relationships that have experienced acute problems, we turn to research on repairing a transgression. In discussing the more chronic problems, we turn to research on reactions to problems.

Not surprisingly, in romantic relationships the most offensive transgression involves sexual infidelity, followed by behaviors such as other forms of unfaithfulness, lying, physical violence, lack of trust, an unsavory past, and lack of consideration (Emmers and Canary 1996; Metts 1994). Although transgressions vary in the extent to which they challenge relational contracts, they all can raise doubts in the mind of the partner who assesses the transgression. In other words, transgressions lead to uncertainty about the person who has committed the behavior as well as about the relationship itself.

Researchers have uncovered various strategies that people use to repair a relationship following a transgression. Relying on Uncertainly Reduction Theory (Berger and Calabrese 1975), Tara Emmers and Canary (1996) coded relational repair strategies into four types: passive, which includes giving partner space, doing nothing, and simply contemplating the event; active, which include behaviors that do not involve the partner directly (e.g., giving gifts, asking friends to talk with partner); interactive, or direct discussion with the partner (e.g., apologizing, spending time together, seeking concessions); and uncertainty acceptance, which simply means accepting one's uncertainty by ignoring the event and possibly dating others. These authors found that partners relied on interactive behaviors most to repair their relationships. Kathryn Dindia and Leslie Baxter (1987) reported a similar finding—people tend to want to talk about issues when making attempts to repair their relationships.

In terms of which behaviors led to actual repair, less obvious results were reported. Emmers and Canary (1996) found that repair (measured in terms of retained intimacy) was greater when men did not use passive behaviors. Interestingly, women's intimacy was higher when they reported using active behaviors; however, men's intimacy was lower when their female partners reported using the same active behaviors. It appears that, to repair relationships, men should not avoid the issue and women should not attempt to use alternative sources to persuade the partner. This study also suggests that both men and women would be wise to use integrative behaviors that are direct and cooperative to repair their relationships following a transgression.

In terms of responses to everyday problems, Caryl Rusbult's investment model is perhaps the most widely cited (Rusbult 1987; Rusbult, Drigotas, and Verette 1994). Commitment is a critically important element of the model, where commitment reflects a desire to remain in the relationship and feelings of attachment. More precisely, the investment model holds that, in response to problematic events, a three-step course of action occurs. First, individuals examine their relationship in terms of its (a) rewards and costs (i.e., comparison levels, such as a previous partner); (b) quality of alternatives (e.g., number of potentials in the field); and (c) investments already made (e.g, time, money). Second, these three factors then determine how committed an individual is; higher levels of satisfaction and investment coupled with lower levels of desired alternatives should associate positively with commitment. Finally, one's commitment level then affects responses to everyday relational problems.

According to Rusbult and her colleagues (1994), reactions to problematic events involve the following factors: decision to remain with one's partner; tendencies to accommodate; derogation of alternatives; willingness to sacrifice; and perceived superiority of one's relationship. In terms of relational maintenance, the decision to remain with the partner is essential; beyond deciding to stay in the relationship, the other responses listed above may follow. Tendencies to accommodate refer to constructive minus destructive responses that people use. These responses to relational problems—exit, voice, loyalty, and neglect—vary according to their activity versus passivity as well as valence (constructive v. destructive): exit is active and destructive; voice is active and constructive; loyalty is passive and constructive; and neglect is passive and destructive. Exit behaviors include threatening the partner, intimidating the partner, and leaving; voice entails the use of disclosure and discussion; loyalty refers to waiting and hoping for things to improve; and neglect behaviors include stonewalling and avoidance of the partner. Thus, the sum of accommodating behaviors can be reflected in voice and loyalty minus neglect and exit responses.

As one might expect, commitment is positively tied to accommodating behaviors; that is, commitment is positively associated with loyalty and voice and is negatively associated with exit and neglect. In addition, willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the partner is positively linked to one's commitment (e.g., forfeiting one's personally important activities for the partner) (Van Lange et al. 1997). Also, people engage in psychological distortion to enhance their relationships when commitment level is high. For example, people think less of relational alternatives (i.e., derogation of alternatives), especially when the alternative is attractive and one's commitment is high. In other words, a committed person is more likely to believe that her or his relationship is better than other entanglements (Rusbult et al. 1994).

In sum, people who are committed are more likely than others to remain in the relationship and engage in constructive responses to problems. Committed people also tend to derogate third party alternatives, sacrifice for the sake of the relationship, and believe that their relationship is superior to the norm. Less committed individuals have the opposite reactions to problems.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsRelationship Maintenance - Maintaining Stability, Maintaining Quality, Maintaining The Status Quo, Repairing Troubled Relationships, Managing Dialectical Tensions