Relationship Processes In Social Networks
Family theories such as the Double ABCX Model (McCubbin and Patterson 1983) underscore the importance of social networks in helping individuals cope with family crises. Network relationships are not only important sources of support in times of stress, but the nature of family crises may themselves necessitate changes in the structure and quality of network ties. For example, social network members provide emotional and instrumental support during times of bereavement following the death of a family member (Suitor and Pillemer 2000). Structural characteristics, such as network composition and the interconnectedness among network members, are thought to play a role in mourning and adjustment to the death of a spouse (Blackburn, Greenburg, and Boss 1987).
How do networks of family and friends shape the nature of relationships between couples and families? Couples and families typically have regular and frequent contact with relatives and friends. Friends and relatives provide couples and individual partners with both emotional support and a variety of different kinds of tangible assistance (Stein and Rappaport 1986). However, there may be some negative outcomes when couples use their networks to help them deal with marital distress.
Danielle Julien and Howard Markman (1991) examined associations among spouses' problems, the support partners sought within and outside of marriage, and levels of individual and marital adjustment. Husbands' support was a particularly relevant component of wives' marital satisfaction, and marital distress was associated with less mobilization of spouses' support. Mobilization of support from network members was associated with greater marital distress. Discussing marital problems with outsiders was associated with low marital adjustment. The authors speculated that network members may provide alternative resources, reducing spouses' motivation to address each other to solve personal problems.
Contact with close network ties can also lead to social comparisons about the nature of relationships and marriage. People can use information and observations of other couples or individual partners to evaluate their own feelings, behaviors, and expectations for couples and marital relations. Social comparisons can provide information about the equity of one's relationship relative to others, validate the correctness of one's attributions or expectations, or reduce uncertainty.
In an exploratory study, Sandra Titus (1980) found that more than half of the thirty married couples in her sample reported explicitly comparing their own marriage with friends' marriages during interactions with friends or their spouses. Social comparisons were more common in younger couples with children less than five years of age and more common among wives than husbands. Social comparisons seemed to establish a frame of reference for marital expectations, helped couples identify issues to discuss in their own marriages, and helped couples to evaluate or affirm the quality of their marriages.
Renate Klein and Robert Milardo (2000) examined the role that network members play in couples' perceptions of how they manage relationship conflict. After identifying one controversial issue in their relationship, partners were independently asked to delineate their social networks in terms of members who they thought would approve of their point of view (supporters) and those who would disapprove of their position (critics). The number of perceived supporters identified by respondents was positively related to their belief that their position in the conflict was legitimate, justified, and reasonable (self-legitimacy). The number of perceived critics was related to a decreased sense of self-legitimacy for men, but not for women. These preliminary findings suggest that the social comparison process may be different for men and women as they manage relationship conflict. It may be that men's sense of legitimacy in relationship conflict is related to a lack of network critics, whereas women's feelings of conflict legitimacy are related to having supporters to validate their point of view.
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