4.6 Staying together or falling apart
An initial attraction between two people begins a journey into the growing intimacy of a relationship. Psychologists have tended to describe and explain these intimate relationships in different ways. Robert Sternberg (1999), for instance, distinguishes between three different components of love as being ‘passion’, ‘intimacy’ and ‘commitment’. Romantic love, a combination of passion and intimacy, tends not to last when commitment is low. Equally, partnerships may last through high levels of intimacy and commitment while having low levels of passion.
But how are these intimate relationships nurtured and maintained? Why do some couples stay together for decades and others split within weeks? Is it possible to identify factors that could help us to evaluate the likelihood of a relationship lasting beyond the initial attraction?
Any relationship involves a complexity of layers of interaction. Each relationship has two perspectives, two sets of needs and expectations that have to be at least sufficiently met for the relationship to continue. These perspectives are not fixed, they change as people's needs and ambitions develop. This building of a relationship is carried out in different social settings in which there is usually a range of socially recognised norms and values influencing how people should behave towards each other – and in some cultures norms and values operate through quite strict guidelines, especially in relation to how opposite sexes should interact.
Activity 9: Your relationships
Think about your own relationship with a long-term partner or another couple you know who have stayed together (perhaps your parents or grandparents). Using Sternberg's idea of love involving passion, intimacy and/or commitment, to what extent are the different components important for your chosen relationship? Can you identify any specific strategies that you think might have contributed to keeping the relationship going?
Every couple is unique (like the individuals involved) so you can’t generalise your experience to others and assume that what works in one relationship will work in another.
You may have noted strategies such as sharing interests including hobbies or going out together, humorous interactions, positive comments about each other and similar mutually bonding activities.
Observing interactions between couples can be a fascinating and rewarding approach taken by psychologists as they attempt to understand the internal dynamics of any relationship. For example, Kathryn Dindia and Leslie Baxter (1987) interviewed fifty married couples to try to identify strategies used to try to maintain relationships. They found that they could distinguish two types of behaviours, maintenance and repair. They identified forty-nine different strategies:
Maintenance strategies included:
talking about the day
regular contact (telephone calls) when apart during the day
socialising together with others
joint discussion of purchases such as cars and holidays.
Repair strategies included:
talking about problems
seeking outside help
conceding to the wishes of the partner
You can see that there is clearly the potential for some strategies to be included in both categories for example, ‘gift giving’ and ‘keeping in touch’ when apart can be maintenance or repair strategies depending on the motivations involved and the needs of the situation.
Dindia and Baxter found differences in the type of behaviours adopted that related to the length of marriages. Those that had been married longer tended not to use maintenance behaviours as much as those who had only been married for a short time. It was suggested that the long-married couples knew each other better and were more familiar with each other, so did not feel the need for specific maintenance behaviours as much as those in the early stages of marriage. Another suggestion was that couples who had been together for a long time took maintenance strategies for granted and in a sense failed to notice the significance of their behaviours. It could be that they had already invested so much in the relationship that each felt the other did not need to be actively maintained.
John Gottman (1999) analysed videotapes of many couple's interactions over a period of 14 years. Through this extensive observational study, he found that couples who divorced tended to have four main problems: one or both partners spent a lot of time being critical of the other; one or both became very defensive when their faults were criticised; one or both tended to show contempt for the other; and one or the other refused to respond to the other during disagreements. Couples in more happy and successful partnerships seem to find a positive way of dealing with the four problem areas of criticism, defensiveness, contempt and unresponsiveness. Gottman found that couples who were more successful tended to be more supportive and less critical of each other which led to being more tolerant about each others’ weaknesses (in other words, they weren't trying to change each other).
This section has looked at a range of research findings on the kinds of relationships we engage in as adults and how close intimate relationships evolve. The factors that help to maintain an intimate relationship can vary considerably between couples but research suggests that such things as shared interests, the length of time the couple has been together, children, economic circumstances, individual expectations, past relationship experience and family support and culture are all relevant. And as for ‘romance’ and ‘love’… well this elusive area of human psychology is perhaps the most difficult to evaluate! The bonding power of love can help to overcome all of the factors that might inhibit relationship maintenance, and the absence of love might not be compensated for by the presence of most or even all of the positive factors that help to maintain an intimate relationship.