Maintaining Interpersonal Relationships

Maintaining Interpersonal Relationships

Learning Objectives

In this chapter, readers will explore how individuals maintain their interpersonal relationships. By the end of this chapter, readers will be able to

• Understand key elements of relationship maintenance and the differences between positive and negative relationship maintenance behaviors

• Identify the role of interpersonal communication in the commitment and intimacy processes

• Explain how empathy and social support contribute to relationship maintenance • Describe challenges of relationship maintenance, including restoring equity, geographic

distance, and interactions via mediated channels • Apply strategies for competent relationship maintenance communication



Introduction Chapter 8

Introduction In his acceptance speech after winning Best Picture at the 2012 Academy Awards for the film Argo, actor and director Ben Affleck thanked his wife, actress Jennifer Garner, by saying “I want to thank you for working on our marriage for 10 Christmases. It’s good. It is work, but it’s the best kind of work, and there’s no one I’d rather work with” (Zadan & Meron, 2013). This seemingly innocent statement instantly ignited a firestorm, with many reporters and media outlets criti- cizing Affleck’s choice of words and some even going so far as to question whether Affleck and Garner’s marriage was in trouble.

However, the very notion that marriage—and any other close relationship—does not require work is inaccurate. Melissa Wall, a blogger for the online dating website, wrote a post that stood up for Affleck and Garner the next day, calling his statement “moving and authentic” (2013, para. 1). Wall (2013) continued her post by noting that individuals who decide to get married make an enormous “emotional leap of faith” upon conducting an analysis of the costs versus benefits of marriage and decide that the positives are greater than the negatives. She goes on to describe the rewards that we hope to garner from marriage:

But at no point can we ever assume that these rewards will come without putting in the work to achieve them. We’re signing up for a daily struggle—some days it’s a small struggle, some days larger—and a distinct set of tasks that must be completed in order to keep the whole thing from falling apart. . . .Large or small, it’s still work—there is no way around that. And failing or refusing to do this work means the death of the relationship, maybe not today, but eventually. (Wall, 2013, paras. 7–8)

As we have discussed throughout this text, one of the most fundamental human needs is to experience close, mutually caring, and supportive relationships. They are safe havens in times of trouble and can provide comfort and support in times of need. To some degree, you have been shaped and molded by your relationships with your parents, siblings, and other family members, as well as with your romantic partners, friends, and professional colleagues. You will most likely maintain a number of these relationships throughout your life because they provide you with innumerable positive experiences. The excerpt from Wall’s blog post emphasizes many of the concepts that we are going to discuss in this chapter, including relationship maintenance behav- iors, equity, social support, and commitment. Most importantly, Wall highlights the importance of putting in consistent effort to sustain a relationship that is important to us.

Your interpersonal communication skills are some of the most important tools when building a strong relationship. Effective and appropriate communication patterns and skills are important characteristics of a quality relationship. Other specific factors that contribute to building and maintaining strong relationships include the following (Lang, Fingerman, & Fitzpatrick, 2003):

• Commitment to one another • Willingness to work together to maintain the relationship • Exchanges of social support • Intimacy • Empathy

In this chapter, we build on concepts discussed in Chapter 7 related to initiating interpersonal relationships. We will explore how you maintain relationships, and how each of the above rela- tionship and communication concepts factor into relationship maintenance We will also discuss a number of things that can challenge our ability to maintain a relationship, along with strategies for improving your relationship maintenance competence.

Relationship Maintenance Chapter 8

8.1 Relationship Maintenance As we have just noted, relationship maintenance is crucial but is too often overlooked or viewed merely as work—a word that often has a negative connotation. Until just over 20 year ago, com- munication and social psychology researchers also ignored relationship maintenance processes in favor of understanding how relationships were formed and ended. However, communication researchers Laura Stafford and Daniel Canary first formally established relationship mainte- nance as a distinct and important form of interpersonal communication in 1991. Since then, hundreds of studies have increased our understanding of how we use communication to pre- serve our relationships. How do you show your relational partners that you care about them? Do you help your romantic partner by washing the dishes before they get home from work? Do you post a link about an inside joke on your best friend’s Facebook wall? Do you call your parents on their wedding anniversary to tell them that you are thinking of them? When we behave in these ways—actions that sustain or preserve our relationships in a state that we desire—we are engag- ing in relationship maintenance (e.g., Dindia & Canary, 1993).

To better understand the complexity of what is involved in relationship maintenance, Kathryn Dindia and Daniel Canary (1993) conducted an analysis of how researchers defined relationship maintenance. They determined that there are four common relationship maintenance defini- tions, identified in Table 8.1.

Table 8.1: Common definitions of relationship maintenance

Definition Explanation Example

Keeping a relationship in existence Partners sustain the presence of the relationship and avoid its termination

Keeping up agreed-upon daily routines and tasks, such as taking out the trash or making sure to ask how the partner’s day was

Keeping a relationship in a specific condition or state

Partners believe certain qualities and aspects are important for main- tenance so that the relationship is not terminated

Agreeing with a friend that you are “just friends” and nothing more

Keeping a relationship in a satisfac- tory condition

Partners experience satisfaction, in addition to stability, and desire to maintain this status

Feeling consistently content with the partner and the relationship

Keeping a relationship in repair Partners keep a relationship in working condition or fix a relation- ship that is in disrepair

Being willing to talk about issues if the relationship begins to have problems

Source: Adapted from Dindia, K., & Canary, D. J. (1993). Definitions and theoretical perspectives on maintaining relationships. Journal of Social and Per- sonal Relationships, 10, 163–173.

Overall, these definitions of relationship maintenance can overlap with one another and are appli- cable to relationship maintenance in a variety of relationships, including romantic, friend, fam- ily, and professional. The first, keeping a relationship in existence, is the most basic definition of relationship maintenance because it only involves sustaining the presence of the relationship and avoiding its termination (Dindia & Canary, 1993). This definition thus does not acknowledge the changing and shifting nature of relationships, nor does it account for the variety of maintenance behaviors partners can use. The second definition, keeping a relationship in a specific condition or state, includes the relationship qualities or aspects that the partners believe are important for maintenance, including intimacy, trust, stability, and commitment so that the relationship is not terminated. The third definition emphasizes the belief that relationships can be maintained when

Relationship Maintenance Chapter 8

the individuals keep their partnership in a satisfactory condition. In other words, in this defini- tion, one or both partners must experience satisfaction, in addition to the basic stability that is the focus of the second definition, for relationship maintenance to occur. The fourth and final relationship maintenance definition is to keep it in repair. There are two aspects of this definition: fixing a relationship that is in disrepair and keeping a relationship in working condition (Dindia & Canary, 1993).

It is important to understand how relationship maintenance is defined, but it is also crucial to determine what behaviors or messages assist in the maintenance process. Relationship main- tenance behaviors are defined as the actions and tasks that assist with maintaining, managing, or repairing a relationship (Burleson, Metts, & Kirch, 2000). These behaviors are conscious and strategic and specifically involve how to define and establish the parameters of the relationship and manage the tensions and threats to the relationship’s integrity and existence (Burleson et al., 2000; Stafford, Dainton, & Haas, 2000). There are many benefits to using relationship maintenance behaviors. For example, the more a spouse engages in relationship maintenance, the greater the marital satisfaction (Stafford & Canary, 2006). In addition, the more romantic partners employ maintenance behaviors, the less likely they are to terminate their relationships (Guerrero, Eloy, & Wabnik, 1993). As with the definition of relationship maintenance, these behaviors can occur in a number of close relationship contexts.

The next sections will identify the variety of behaviors and messages that we can employ to maintain our relationships. There are both positive and negative behaviors for maintaining close relationships, which suggests that relationship maintenance is a complex interpersonal interac- tion that is not just confined to happy, satisfied couples. In other words, we may choose or even be required to sustain and preserve a relationship that we have with another person.

Positive Relationship Maintenance Behaviors

Wall’s (2013) blog post about marriage, described at the beginning of the chapter, highlights the importance of relationship maintenance behaviors in a successful marriage. The same is true for other types of relationships. Conscious actions, such as cheerfully saying “good morning” to your colleagues at work or supporting a friend or loved one when a parent passes away, are examples of positive maintenance behaviors. There are seven positive or constructive behaviors that can be strategically used to maintain relationships. The first five behaviors were identified by Stafford and Canary (1991), and the remaining two behaviors were added by Stafford and colleagues (2000):

• Positivity: being optimistic, cheerful, pleasant, refraining from criticism, and showing affection and appreciation for the other person and the relationship

• Openness: balancing self-disclosures and honest communication about the relationship • Assurances: expressing commitment, love, faithfulness, emotional support, and messages

that imply that the relationship has a future • Social networks: seeking support from common family and friend networks • Sharing tasks: performing one’s fair share of joint jobs and responsibilities in the

relationship • Advice: expressing partner-related emotions and cognitions and the willingness to com-

municate opinions • Conflict management: using constructive and positive behaviors such as cooperating,

listening, and apologizing when in conflict or disagreements with the partner

Relationship Maintenance Chapter 8

Let’s consider these positive maintenance behaviors in relation to the communication between Sidney and Jamie, a couple who have been married for 12 years. Sidney and Jamie have two chil- dren, and both work full-time. In addition, Jamie is taking online business courses in order to move up in her company. In other words, they are a typical busy adult couple. However, despite all of these family and professional responsibilities, Sidney and Jamie make conscious efforts to maintain their relationship. They engage in all of the above positive maintenance behaviors: They tell each other “thank you” when one does something nice for the other (positivity), and they discuss issues and are truthful and kind to each other when they disagree (openness and conflict management). Sidney and Jamie try to be clear about who completes which task, such as emp- tying the dishwasher or running errands (sharing tasks), and they ask Sidney’s sister, who lives nearby, for help with the kids when Jamie is working on her courses (social networks). Finally, Sidney and Jamie make sure to tell each other that they love their spouse, and they express that love by offering support and by seeking out and listening to each other’s advice when work or parenting issues arise (assurances and advice).

Using these positive maintenance behaviors in your close relationships can have a number of positive payoffs. Stafford and her colleagues (2000) examined the connections between posi- tive relationship maintenance behaviors and the relationship characteristics of commitment, lik- ing, satisfaction, and control mutuality, or the extent to which partners share responsibilities. Spouses who liked each other, experienced control mutuality, and were satisfied with their marriages reported using all seven of the above relationship maintenance behav- iors more often (Stafford et al., 2000). In addition, spouses who were more commit- ted to their relationships also used mainte- nance behaviors more frequently (Stafford et al., 2000). It certainly seems that Sidney and Jamie have a close, committed, and sat- isfying marriage, in large part because they treat each other with respect and kindness by virtue of the above seven positive main- tenance behaviors.

Using assurances is most strongly related to positive relationship characteristics (Stafford et al., 2000). In addition, in both heterosexual and same-sex romantic rela- tionships, the most frequently used relationship maintenance behavior is sharing tasks (e.g., Dainton & Stafford, 1993; Haas, 2002). Positive maintenance behaviors thus help both partners preserve a satisfying relationship.

Negative Relationship Maintenance Behaviors

Though it is preferable to focus on the positive behaviors that we can use to maintain our rela- tionships, sometimes partners use negative behaviors. For example, jealousy or avoidance can be used to retain a specific relationship status. Marianne Dainton and Jamie Gross (2008) explored such behaviors and identified six negative, antisocial behaviors that can be used to maintain romantic relationships:

Stanislav Komogorov/iStock/Thinkstock

▲▲ Using positive relationship maintenance behaviors can help partners preserve a satisfying relationship.

Relationship Maintenance Chapter 8

• Jealousy induction: flirting with and commenting on others’ attractiveness to elicit the partner’s jealousy

• Avoidance: sidestepping discussions about a specific topic or evading the partner • Spying: checking up on the partner by looking at the partner’s e-mails and phone or talk-

ing to others for information • Infidelity: flirting with others and engaging in affairs to keep from being bored and dis-

satisfied with the relationship • Destructive conflict: being controlling, starting a fight, and bossing the partner around • Allowing control: giving the partner control in the relationship by not seeing other people

and letting the partner make decisions

Think back to the example of Sidney and Jamie. Consider what their relationship might look like if they used negative maintenance behaviors instead of positive ones. For example, instead of being kind and respectful in their everyday interactions and when they are arguing, Jamie instead seeks to control and manipulate Sidney by threatening him and saying negative things about him to their children (destructive conflict). Jamie also accesses Sidney’s e-mail and mobile phone to see who else he is talking to and what they are discussing (spying). To keep the peace and keep their marriage and family intact, Sidney tries to generally avoid Jamie and lets her make most major household decisions (avoidance and allowing control). In essence, Jamie and Sidney are maintaining their marriage with these negative maintenance behaviors but doing so in a much more destructive manner.

Overall, as you might predict, using these methods of negative relationship maintenance is related to decreased liking, commitment, control mutuality, and respect, and such behaviors tend to be used more by individuals who are insecure and have negative views of themselves (Goodboy & Bolkan, 2011; Goodboy, Myers, & Members of Investigating Communication, 2010). In addition, the more partners use these negative relationship maintenance behaviors, the less satisfied they are with their relationships (Dainton & Gross, 2008). In the case of Jamie and Sidney, if they rely on negative relationship maintenance behaviors, they are likely to view each other, as well as themselves, with dislike and disrespect and be dissatisfied with the very marriage they are trying to preserve. Thus, it is advisable to avoid consistently using these negative actions to maintain your close relationships; instead, try to integrate more positive maintenance behaviors into your communication with those to whom you are closest. (Read Everyday Communication Challenges for a look at how popular media depict romantic relationships.)


Romantic Relationship Ideals in Popular Media

As a culture America is entranced by epic romances in film, music, and television. The drama and travails of such couples as Romeo and Juliet, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, and even Ross and Rachel from the television series Friends capture and hold our attention like few other things can. But think about how these romances are usually depicted: how the couple meets, falls in love, faces relationship challenges and adversity, and (sometimes tragically) breaks apart. Less important, or


Relationship Maintenance Chapter 8

even completely ignored, is how these star-crossed lovers interact on a day-to-day basis. In other words, what happens once the romance is established?

Consider the conversation between Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big—who many consider to be another recent epic romance in the media—in an early scene of the 2008 movie Sex and the City:

Carrie: I used to write about love. Now I want to write about what happens after you find it.

Mr. Big: Interesting. So what happens?

Carrie: Mm. Stay tuned.

We then watch as the rest of the film plunges Carrie and Mr. Big’s relationship into tumult, along with the romances of Carrie’s friends Miranda and Samantha (her friend Charlotte is mercifully spared significant relationship drama until the sequel). What might this imply? According to the media, what happens after you find love isn’t as interesting as the beginnings or the complica- tions. But how much do these media depictions of romance impact our own beliefs about romantic relationships?

A 2013 study conducted by interpersonal communication and media scholars Veronica Hefner and Barbara Wilson attempted to determine the extent to which popular, romantic comedy movies— the most viewed type of movie (Hall, 2005)—influenced our romantic ideals: that love is powerful, instantaneous, and can overlook flaws and obstacles, and that romantic relationships can be per- fect. Examples of romantic ideals include love at first sight, love conquers all, and that we each have a soul mate or one and only partner for us. To what extent does viewing romantic comedies relate to a viewer’s endorsement of these romantic ideals? Hefner and Wilson’s (2013) study analyzed the 52 highest-grossing romantic comedies from 1998 to 2008 for the presence of idealistic themes such as finding a soul mate and love conquering all. They found that 98% of these movies depicted at least one romantic ideal, with an average of 7.2 ideals across films (Hefner & Wilson, 2013). Clearly, romantic ideals are very common in romantic comedies. The next question that Hefner and Wilson (2013) asked was the extent to which these ideals impacted viewers. Surprisingly, they found that there was very little effect of heavy, repeated viewing of romantic comedies on the endorse- ment of romantic ideals.

Hefner and Wilson (2013) speculated that this lack of relationship may be because “romantic ideals are so pervasive in Western culture that such films alone have little impact on beliefs” (p. 169). In other words, we are so inundated with portrayals of idealized romances—ones that do not typically depict how relationships are maintained—that focusing on one type of medium is not enough to observe an effect. How can we combat these idealizations of romantic relationships? An impor- tant first step is to be aware of them. In addition, idealizing a romantic partner has been found to be beneficial to romantic relationships (Sprecher & Metts, 1999). In fact, troubles only arise when expectations become unrealistic. Thus, although some romantic idealization is OK, do not rely on it or ask too much of your partner based upon these beliefs.

Critical Thinking Questions

1. Think of some movies or TV shows that you watch that present romantic ideals such as the ones discussed above. How do these ideals make you feel about your own romantic relationship?

2. Aside from being aware of romantic ideals, what else can we do to combat romantic relationship idealizations?

3. Do you think that these idealizations have a particular impact on younger people who are just starting to form their first romantic relationships? How can this be problematic?

How Communication Helps Support Commitment and Intimacy Chapter 8

8.2 How Communication Helps Support Commitment and Intimacy

In addition to relationship maintenance, commitment and intimacy are two essential factors for building and fostering interpersonal relationships (Lang et al., 2003). Communication is important because it allows partners to express how they feel about each other and the relationship that they share. The next sections thus discuss how communication supports commitment and intimacy.


If you are committed to a relationship, you are dedicated to your partner and are unlikely to leave if something goes awry. In other words, commitment is one’s “long-term orientation toward a relationship, including feelings of psychological attachment and intentions to persist through good and bad times” (Cox, Wexler, Rusbult, & Gaines, 1997, p. 80). Partners in a committed relationship make the extra effort to work at and improve their relationships, and, in turn, this increased commitment benefits the relationship because it is associated with increased relation- ship quality (Byers, Shue, & Marshall, 2004).

However, if you are not committed to a relationship, you are unlikely to protect it if difficulties arise. For example, romantic partners who are more committed to the relationship are less likely to give each other the silent treatment and are more likely to admit that they are upset (Wright & Roloff, 2009), which can then initiate discussions about an upsetting issue. In the next sec- tions, we explore commitment in two different forms: first, as a central component of a theory about relationship maintenance and second as a motivating force for how you communicatively respond to dissatisfaction in your interpersonal relationships.

The Investment Model One of the primary theories used to understand how and why individuals remain in and work to maintain close relationships is the investment model (Dindia, 2000). The investment model predicts that our commitment to a relationship is the most accurate relationship characteris- tic for understanding if a relationship will continue and remain stable or will deteriorate and end (Rusbult, 1980). Specifically, Caryl Rusbult (1980) stated that relationship commitment is enhanced by three relationship components:

• High relationship satisfaction, which involves positive emotion and attraction toward the relationship

• High investment in the relationship, which involves tangible and intangible resources such as children, property, or shared feelings and experiences that improve the relationship

• Low quality of relationship alternatives, which are options other than the relationship, such as other partners, spending time with friends, and even being alone, that could be viewed as more appealing than being in the relationship

Research has determined that the structure of the investment model can help explain elements of heterosexual and homosexual romances and friendships; it is also applicable in other situations and contexts—such as professional organizations and educational settings—where commitment is rel- evant (Le & Agnew, 2003). Think again about the example scenarios for Sidney and Jamie. In one sce- nario, the couple is maintaining their relationship with positive behaviors such as sharing tasks and assurances. As we noted, these positive relationship maintenance behaviors help Sidney and Jamie feel more satisfied and committed to their marriage. According to the investment model, the more satisfaction and investment in Sidney and Jamie’s relationship, and the fewer perceived quality alter- natives to their relationship, then the more committed Sidney and Jamie are to their relationship.

How Communication Helps Support Commitment and Intimacy Chapter 8

In fact, in a meta-analysis that examined 52 previously published research studies that included over 11,000 study participants, Benjamin Le and Christopher Agnew (2003) found that these three relationship variables predicted commitment with “outstanding consistency” (p. 50). Of the three components, relationship satisfaction was the strongest predictor of relationship com- mitment. Relationship commitment, according to the investment model, thus predicts various aspects of relationship maintenance and stability. Commitment is positively associated with relationship-enhancing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, such as willingness to sacrifice for a romantic partner, and negatively related to destructive relationship patterns, such as the decision to end the relationship (Le & Agnew, 2003).

Overall, the investment model has been a useful theoretical structure for understanding a vari- ety of interpersonal communication situations and contexts. The model has helped researchers identify connections between commitment and predicting the continuation of different types of relationships in the following situations:

• Why dating partners communicate shortly afterward and forgive each other for commit- ting relationship transgressions such as infidelity, deception, and dating or flirting with someone else (Guerrero & Bachman, 2008, 2010)

• How friends communicate with one another (Eyal & Dailey, 2012) • If supervisors use verbal aggression toward employees at work (Madlock & Dillow, 2012)

However, relationship satisfaction was found to be a more useful factor than commitment in situations of betrayal (Ferrara & Levine, 2009) and romantic jealousy expression (Bevan, 2008), which is at odds with the central premise of the investment model. In the relationships that are important to you, you can apply the tenets of the investment model by considering your levels of satisfaction and investment and the extent to which you perceive that you have alternatives to the relationship. How does each of these contribute to your overall commitment to the relationship? Could focusing on improving one specific relationship factor—such as becoming more invested in the relationship—increase your commitment? What might this mean for the relationship and your communication with your partner? (The Web Field Trip gives you a chance to put the invest- ment model into practice.)


Applying the Principles of the Investment Model

The Science of Relationships ( is a website that features content edited and written by academics who study, research, and teach about different aspects of relationships. The editors and contributors to this site, who hold advanced degrees in many dif- ferent fields of study, emphasize the importance of presenting readers with information and advice that is backed by scientific evidence. Search for an article titled “Why Do Victims Return to Abusive Relationships?” Consider the information presented, assessing how the content relates to the mate- rial in this chapter and then address the following questions.


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