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TOPIC: MAINTAINING AND ENHANCING RELATIONSHIPS
I introduced the idea that people often behave in various ways that protect and maintain desirable relationships back in chapter 6 (on pages 209–210). Relationship maintenance mechanisms, the strategic actions people take to sustain their partnerships, have been studied by researchers from two different scholarly camps. Social psychologists schooled in Caryl Rusbult’s investment model1 have identified several behaviors that follow from commitment to a relationship, and communication scholars have noted other actions that distinguish happy partners from those who are less content. Let’s examine both sets of findings.
People who are committed to a partnership, who want and expect it to continue, think and behave differently than less committed partners do (Leo et al., 2012). They perceive themselves, their partners, and their relationship in ways that help to sustain the partnership, and they act in ways that avoid or defuse conflict and that enrich the relationship.
Cognitive Maintenance Mechanisms
People’s perspectives change in several important ways when they are committed to their relationships. First, they think of themselves not as separate individuals but as part of a greater whole that includes them and their partners. They perceive greater overlap between their partners’ lives and their own, and they use more plural pronouns, with we, us, and ours replacing I, me, and mine(Agnew et al., 1998). This change in self-definition is referred to as cognitive interdependence, and it probably makes some of the other maintenance mechanisms I mention below more likely to occur (Fitzsimons & Kay, 2004). I may be even more motivated to take care of us than I would be to take care of just you.
Second, committed partners think of each other with positive illusions, idealizing each other and perceiving their relationship in the best possible light (Luo et al., 2010). A partner’s faults are judged to be relatively trivial, the relationship’s deficiencies are considered to be relatively unimportant, and a partner’s misbehavior is dismissed as an unintentional or temporary aberration (Neff & Karney, 2003). A characteristic that makes these positive illusions interesting is that people are often well aware of the specific obnoxious and thoughtless things their partners sometimes do, but by misremembering them and explaining them away, they are able to maintain global evaluations of their partners that are more positive than the sum of their parts (Karney et al., 2001). And as long as they are not too unrealistic, these rose-colored perceptions help protect people’s happiness by taking the sting out of a partner’s occasional missteps.
A specific type of positive illusion can be said to be a third cognitive maintenance mechanism. Committed partners tend to think that their relationships are better than most, and the happier they are, the more exceptional they consider their relationships to be (Reis et al., 2011). This perceived superiority makes one’s partnership seem even more special (Buunk & Ybema, 2003) and really does make a relationship more likely to last (Rusbult et al., 2000).
Satisfied partners are also less likely to be on the prowl, looking for other lovers. Attractive rivals can distract our partners and lure them away from us only when our partners know they exist, but contented lovers display an inattention to alternatives that leaves them relatively uninterested and unaware of how well they could be doing in alternative relationships (Miller, 2008). People who are not very committed to their current partnerships monitor their other options with more inquisitiveness and eagerness than do those who are more content with what they’ve already got; given the chance in a lab procedure, for instance, they linger longer and more carefully inspect photos of attractive members of the other sex (Miller, 1997a). Uncommitted lovers continue to shop around for better partners, and that puts their current relationships at risk: Young adults who are alert to their other options at the beginning of a college semester are less likely to still be with the same romantic partner when the semester is done (Miller, 1997a). In contrast, committed lovers are relatively heedless of how well they could be doing in other relationships—they’re not paying much attention to such possibilities—and that helps to protect and maintain their current partnerships.
Page 432In addition, when committed partners do notice attractive rivals to their relationships, they judge them to be less desirable than others think them to be. Commitment leads people to disparage those who could lure them away from their existing relationships (Lydon et al., 2003), and this derogation of tempting alternatives allows people to feel that other potential partners are less attractive than the ones they already have. One of the things that makes this perceptual bias interesting is that it is strongest when the alternatives are most tempting and thereby pose the greatest threat to one’s relationship. For instance, committed partners do not derogate images of attractive members of the other sex when they are said to be professional models in another city far away, but they do find them less attractive when they are said to be fellow students on one’s own campus (Simpson et al., 1990). What’s more, whereas single men find women who are not on birth control pills to be more attractive when the women are fertile than when they are not each month, committed men judge a potential alternative to be less attractive when she is fertile than when she is not (Miller & Maner, 2010). To protect their relationships, happy lovers tend to underestimate the desirability of other potential partners.
Behavioral Maintenance Mechanisms
As you can see, the cognitive things people do to maintain their relationships generally involve subtle changes in perception or judgment of others, their relationships, and themselves. Other maintenance mechanisms involve changes in the things people do.
For one thing, committed people are often willing to make various personal sacrifices, such as doing things they would prefer not to do, or not doing things that they would like to do, in order to promote the well-being of their partners or their relationships (Totenhagen et al., 2013). This willingness to sacrifice often involves trivial costs (such as seeing a movie that doesn’t interest you because your partner wants to go), and contented partners frequently make such small sacrifices (Ruppel & Curran, 2012). But sacrifice can also involve substantial costs in which people endure rather long periods of deprivation in order to preserve or enrich their partnerships. If you’re already married, for instance, your spouse may be having to go to a lot of trouble to help you go to school; but, if he or she is committed to your future together, that’s a price that your spouse may be willing to pay.
A Point to Ponder
What is it about prayer for the well-being of our partners that makes us more forgiving and more generous toward them?
Prayer is helpful in this regard. Controlled studies found that those who begin praying for the success and well-being of their partners become more satisfied with the sacrifices they make (Lambert et al., 2012a), and more forgiving, too (Lambert et al., 2013a). And in general, those who pray for their partners tend to be more satisfied with, and more committed to, their relationships. Notably, however, prayer that is focused on one’s own needs and desires doesn’t have such effects (Fincham & Beach, 2014).