Relationship Maintenance

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Relationship Maintenance


Scholars define relational maintenance in various ways (Dindia and Canary 1993; Montgomery 1993). At the most basic level, relational maintenance refers to a variety of behaviors used by partners in an effort to stay together. Accordingly, researchers would examine relational longevity or stability. At a second level, relational maintenance means engaging in behaviors that help to sustain the quality of the relationship. In other words, being together and stable is not enough—one must also consider the quality of the relationship. Thus, maintenance researchers would be interested in examining relational properties such as satisfaction, love, and trust. A third definition of relational maintenance refers to keeping the relationship status quo. This definition would point to keeping a particular stage or state (e.g., keeping the current level of intimacy, keeping a friendship platonic). Fourth, maintenance refers to repair. This definition leads one to examine how people overcome problems and (perhaps) transgressions. Finally, maintenance refers to managing the dialectical tensions that naturally occur in every close involvement. For example, researchers investigate how people manage their desires for feeling connected to someone while also having an independent identity.

These alternative definitions point to behaviors that function differently to keep close relationships stable, satisfying, in a particular state, and in repair despite natural tensions that inhere in close involvements. This entry briefly highlights research that has examined relational maintenance using each of the alternative definitions (see Canary and Zelley 2000 for a review of alternative research programs on relational maintenance).


Maintaining Stability

For many people, relational longevity equals success. Certainly, silver and golden wedding anniversaries symbolize success. They also reflect years of interaction patterns that have somehow led to stability. Perhaps the most widely cited research with regard to predicting stability comes from the work of John Gottman (1994). Gottman emphasizes behaviors that determine whether or not a couple gets divorced.

Gottman's (1994) theory of marital success versus failure reflects a causal process model that specifies alternative paths that satisfied versus dissatisfied married partners take. Specifically, Gottman argues that marital partners' negative message behavior causes a shift in perceptions of each other that lead to unfavorable beliefs about the partner. In particular, negative message behavior (e.g., sarcasm, accusations) predicts relational instability; conversely, the ratio of positive-to-negative messages indicates stability. Whereas stable couples have a 5:1 positive-to-negative message ratio, unstable couples enact a 1:1 positive-tonegative message ratio. Unstable couples, however, exhibit an equal number of positive and negative messages. According to Gottman, negative conflict behaviors lead to negative emotional reactions. Called the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," these four behaviors are deadly and are believed to occur in a general sequence; initially, partners complain/criticize, which leads to contempt, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to stonewalling (Gottman 1994).

Differences between stable and unstable couples also are evident in the attributions made regarding partners' negative behavior (Gottman 1994). For example, stable partners rely on positive or benign attributions to explain negative behaviors (e.g., he is tired, she has been under a lot of pressure). Unstable partners, on the other hand, explain the causes of their problems using hostile attributions, or explanations that reflect internal, stable, global, and intentional features of the partner (e.g., he is self-centered, which also explains why he never calls when he is late). Once hostile attributions are in place, partners tend to distance themselves from one another, re-cast the history of the marriage, and, finally, separate.

The primary strategies for maintaining stability would be to use cooperative messages, avoid negative reciprocity, and attempt to explain the partner's negative behavior using benign attributions. If one cannot alter defensive beliefs about the partner, then the assistance of a marital counselor, therapist, or spiritual leader would appear to be in order.


Maintaining Quality

For many people, simply staying together is not sufficient; instead, the quality of the relationship is important. For researchers, this means examining behaviors that are linked to relational satisfaction and other indicators of quality. Laura Stafford and Daniel J. Canary (1991) set out to determine a finite set of behaviors that would lead to increases in relational quality. By quality, Stafford and Canary referred to satisfaction, trust, control mutuality (i.e., the extent to which both partners agreed on who has the right to influence the other), and commitment. Using various methods, these authors uncovered a finite set of relational maintenance behaviors.

Stafford and Canary (1991) derived five relational maintenance strategies, or approaches to keeping the relationship in a satisfactory condition. These strategies are positivity, or being cheerful and upbeat, not criticizing the partner; assurances, such as stressing one's commitment and love; openness, which refers to directly discussing the nature of the relationship; social networks, or attempts to involve friends and family in various activities; and sharing tasks, which refer to doing one's fair share of chores and other work that needs to be done. Stafford and Canary found that positivity was most strongly related to satisfaction while control mutuality and assurances were most powerfully linked to commitment. These findings suggest that maintenance behaviors have varying functional utility in promoting different indicators of quality.

Relevant research has also found that perceptions of equity affect the desire to maintain quality relationships (Canary and Stafford 1992, 2001). Equity refers to whether the distribution of rewards divided by costs is fair. More precisely, an equitable relationship occurs when partners perceive the same ratio of rewards/costs. An inequitable relationship occurs when one person is overbenefited (i.e., one person perceives that, on balance, they get more than the partner does) or underbenefited (i.e., one person perceived that, on balance, they get less than the partner does). Canary and Stafford found that both self-reported maintenance strategies and perceptions of partner use of maintenance strategies were highest when the person felt the relationship was fair. However, people who felt overbenefited or underbenefited were less likely to use and perceive the use of the maintenance strategies indicated previously. In addition, self-reported inequity combined with perceptions of partners' maintenance strategies to affect important relationship characteristics, such as commitment. That is, maintenance behaviors would positively affect relational quality, but a lack of equity (especially underbenefitedness) would negatively affect relational quality.


Maintaining the Status Quo

Once a relationship has reached a particular level (e.g., a certain level of intimacy or satisfaction), people might try to sustain the status quo. That is, there should be no changes in the fundamental nature of the relationship. Accordingly, current levels of intimacy, for example, should remain within a predictable and low level of fluctuation around a set point. Dramatic fluctuation—whether they reflect increases or decreases in intimacy—is not desired.

Joe Ayres (1983) examined hypothetical reactions of participants who imagined that their partners wanted either to increase or decrease the level of intimacy they had. Ayers derived three maintenance strategies, or approaches to dealing with the situation: directness, or discussing the nature of the relationship; avoidance of the partner and behaviors that might change the relationship; and balance, or behaving in ways that would counteract what the other person does (e.g., balance favors with favors). When imagining a partner who wanted to escalate intimacy, people reported they would use directness and avoidance. When imagining a partner who wanted to reduce intimacy, participants reported that they would use directness and attempt to balance the situation. Clearly, Ayres provides evidence that people respond to changes in the status quo with particular communication strategies and that these strategies might vary as a function of how the partner wants to change the status quo.

In an examination of a particular relationship context, Susan J. Messman, Daniel J. Canary, and Kimberly Hause (2000) investigated how opposite-sex friends maintained their relationships as platonic. Messman and her colleagues found that opposite-sex friends used several strategies to sustain the platonic nature of the relationship. These include positivity (e.g., be nice and cheerful), support (i.e., show one's support by comforting and giving advice), share activity (e.g., share routine activities), openness (e.g., discuss the relationship), no flirting (e.g., discourage familiar behaviors such as eye gazing), among others. The most commonly used strategies to keep a relationship platonic were alike for men and women: first came positivity, followed by support, share activity, openness, and no flirting.

Noting that many researchers have presumed that opposite-sex relationships are ripe with sexual tension, Messman and her colleagues (2000) also wanted to link different motives for having a platonic friendship to relational maintenance strategies. Motives included safeguard relationship, which refers to keeping the positive benefits afforded by the relationship (e.g., obtains information about how members of the opposite sex think); not attracted (e.g., never thought about the friend in a sexual manner); third party (e.g., the platonic friend was involved with someone else); network disapproval (e.g., others would disapprove of the relationship becoming romantic), as well as other less commonly reported motives. The desire to safeguard relationship was the strongest predictor of all the maintenance strategies. This finding underscores the power that wanting to keep a relationship in a particular state can have.

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.


Managing Dialectical Tensions

A dialectical approach argues that relationships are dynamic entities. Consequently, partners are faced with the continuous management of opposing tendencies as they attempt to answer the question of how relationships operate in the midst of partners being drawn together as well as pushed apart. The dialectical perspective also holds that relationships cannot exist without the interplay between its contradictory parts.

A dialectical approach differs from other maintenance views. People might even find "maintenance" impossible to obtain in the face of ongoing contradiction, change, and tension. Barbara Montgomery (1993) noted that the term maintenance appears to counter a dialectical approach because maintenance denotes change as an anomaly rather than as an inherent construct. Montgomery argued that dialectics involve the term relational sustainment.

According to a dialectical viewpoint, relational partners are said to experience three central contradictions: autonomy/connectedness, openness/closedness, and predictability/novelty (Baxter 1988). Autonomy/connectedness refers to the tension experienced due to the pull between wanting to connect as a partner and wanting to preserve an independent identity. Openness/closedness refers to the tension between desiring to engage in self-disclosure versus retaining boundaries of privacy. Predictability/novelty involves the pull between seeking behavioral patterns that have stability versus a desire for spontaneity. Fluctuation between each of these three poles is a natural and necessary task of every relational partner.

Accordingly, to sustain a relationship, partners must somehow manage these tensions. Baxter (1988) reported four primary strategies used by partners to manage these contradictions: selection of one pole over another (e.g., selection of autonomy over interdependence); separation through either cyclic alternation (e.g., women's night out) or topical segmentation (e.g., golf involves both parties but poker does not); neutralization through either moderation or disqualification (e.g., "I'm just going through a phase"); and reframing, or redefining the problem in terms of dialectical thinking (e.g., "I feel anxious because of the need to be less predictable"). Baxter (1990) discovered that separation through topical segmentation and separation through cyclic alternation exist as the most frequently used strategies to manage relational tensions. Interestingly, Baxter (1990) reported that partners underutilize more sophisticated and possibly more satisfactory strategies, such as reframing the tension so that it no longer functions as a contradiction, thereby suggesting that couples do not necessarily understand the flux of relational tensions and are therefore unable to cope most effectively.

In conclusion, it should be clear that the manner in which scholars define the terms relational maintenance plays a crucial role in determining the types of behaviors studied. As the above review shows, various kinds of behaviors perform relational maintenance–supposed functions. That scholars would attempt to uncover types of behavior that promote the welfare of close, personal relationships constitutes the single principle that unites this new domain of inquiry.

See also:Affection; Attraction; Communication: Couple Relationships; Communication: Family Relationships; Commuter Marriages; Dating; Dialectical Theory; Equity; Infidelity; Intimacy; Marital Quality; Nagging and Complaining; Relationship Metaphors; Renewal of Wedding Vows; Social Networks; Transition to Parenthood; Trust


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daniel j. canary elaine d. zelley