Personal Relationships (2)

(Here’s a link to my first post about the book).

In this post I’ll talk about four more chapters from the book – the chapters following the ones I covered in the first post. The first one of these deals with ‘Self-Disclosure in Personal Relationships’. The chapter takes a look at individuals’ decision-making in terms of what, when, to whom, and how much we tell other people about how we feel and think, and how this stuff varies with relationship status, relationship length, and other factors. Some theoretical terms/concepts of interest include disclosure reciprocity, the extent to which disclosures are intended for a single recipient only (‘personalistic’), and conversational responsiveness. Studies looking at the latter two variables have found that disclosure input uniquely intended for the disclosure recipient may increase liking, and that the same is true for displays of high responsiveness (responsiveness here = “the extent to which and the way in which one participant’s actions address the previous actions, communications, needs, or wishes of another participant in that interaction”). Responsiveness may be indicated e.g. by response content, response style, and timing. In the context of the reciprocity variable, it’s noted in the chapter that there’s a significant amount of mutuality in terms of how much relationship partners share with each other; relationship partners who tend to disclose much are also likely to be recipients of high levels of disclosure from others. In close relationships people don’t always reciprocate right away, but over time the self-disclosure patterns seem to be somewhat similar (again, they don’t quantify the effects so I’m not sure how much this tells us or how relevant this is).

A distinction can be made between disclosures which are voluntary and disclosures which are not; the chapter only deals with the former kind of disclosures. The Opener scale is a way to measure/instrumentalize the self-disclosure variable – here’s a link. There are various other dimensions/variables one can consider when dealing with this stuff; for example the reward value of disclosure (both positive and negative outcomes may be related to sharing information with others, and this outcome will depend both upon the content of the information shared and the reactions of the people with whom one shares the information). The amount of information shared, usually measures in terms of topic breadth and -depth, is also a relevant dimension, as is whether or not the information shared is true. A distinction can be made between self-disclosures which are of a personal nature and disclosures which are of a relational nature; the latter type of self-disclosures focus on one’s relationship with the interaction partner. It is argued that both forms of self-disclosures have consequences for the development and maintenance of close relationships, which is hardly surprising.

In a meta-analytic review from the 90es, three conclusions were established: We disclose more to people we like, we like people who disclose to us better, and we like people to whom we have disclosed personal information better. According to researchers in this area, “all or most relationship partners will avoid talking about or conceal (or both) certain facts or feelings from significant others.” The chapter on ‘Lying and deception in close relationships’ of course has a lot more about such stuff, so I’ll cover this kind of thing in more detail later. It’s noted that the physical environment in which people interact may affect disclosure patterns, e.g. due to stuff like privacy regulation; how much, and which type of information, people are willing to share with others depend upon where they are sharing it. In the context of a social interaction, when people disclose may greatly impact both the likelihood of self-disclosure and how the message is received. Sharing information early may make it impossible to chicken out later, whereas waiting for a while before self-disclosing may enable the discloser to try to figure out if the (potential) recipient is ‘ready for the information’, or whether s/he’s perhaps too preoccupied with his/her own problems for it to be a good time to disclose. Disclosing at the end of a social interaction will minimize interaction/follow-up questions, but may also hurt the recipient because there’s no time to process the information, ask questions, etc. A distinction can be made between self-disclosures which are planned and ones that are not; people may often prefer to plan embarrassing disclosures.

They also briefly talk about health stuff in the chapter. Here’s a relevant quote:

“The research on the link between disclosure and health often focuses on the possible health benefits of self-disclosure in coping with negative life events and negative thoughts and feelings. But there may be psychological benefits from disclosing about pleasant events and positive emotions (e.g., getting a good grade, birth of a child, lower tuition rates). Gable, Reis, Impett, and Asher (2004) presented data on the phenomenon of capitalization, dealing with the benefits of sharing good things with significant others. Disclosing about positive personal events was associated with increases in daily positive affect as well higher relationship well-being (including intimacy and marital satisfaction) and was even more beneficial if the listener responded in an active and constructive manner to the information (e.g., “asks a lot of questions and shows genuine concern,” p. 50)”.

The next chapter in the book deals with ‘Close Relationships and Social Support: Implications for the Measurement of Social Support’. One general finding in this area of research is that reports of perceived available social support are not strongly associated with how much support is actually received. And when dealing with well-being and health measures, only the level of available support (not the amount of support received) seems to matter. The chapter notes that how support is perceived depends upon how people feel about their relationships, and that several studies have shown that marital satisfaction predicts how partners interpret supportive behaviours. For example husbands low in marital satisfaction have been found to perceive of their partner’s behaviours in a more negative light than husbands with a higher level of marital satisfaction. So if people are dissatisfied in a relationship, suppportive behaviours may not have the same effect they would have in a relationship where people are satisfied; in a relationship where people are dissatisfied, the recipient of social support may be less likely to notice that the other person is being nice to her, and perhaps she’ll interpret some neutral interactions as being negatively charged. Here’s a relevant quote from the next chapter of the book:

“The quality of their marital relationship is an important factor in how marital partners view each other and relationship-related negative events […]. Spouses in positive relationships seem to make attributions that do not locate the cause of the problem in their partner but see it as a temporary thing unlikely to recur. In contrast, spouses in distressed relationships are likely to locate the cause of an untoward event in their partner and see it as stable or lasting and affecting many aspects of the relationship rather than a specific situation.”

I think I talked about this stuff in my last post as well, but it’s a theme brought up a lot because it’s important. This stuff is part of the reason why many marriage/relationship intervention protocols are not purely behavioural in scope; how you behave matters, but how people think about how you behave matters a lot as well.

One of the reasons why social support provided may not be helpful in stressful situations is that support provided might impact self-esteem in a negative manner; if you think you can handle something on your own, being offered help by your partner might hurt you because it might indicate that your partner does not think very highly of your ability to cope on your own. Concerns such as these need be taken into account when considering whether to provide support, and which type of support to provide. Providing support which is ‘silent’/hidden may sometimes be more useful than providing support which is openly acknowledged.

The next chapter in the book deals with ‘Understanding Couple Conflict’. They note that most research on that topic has been done on married couples, so we know less about conflict patterns early on in the course of relationships. Not surprisingly, longitudinal research has suggested that what couples experience conflict about may change over the course of the relationship; one study following some couples over time found that money, jealousy, and relatives were top issues when people were asked before marriage, whereas later on, early in their marriage and after the birth of the first child, the same couples mentioned money (again), sex, and communication as the top issues. Conflicts involving children may be particularly important in the context of people who remarry. The authors state that to attribute negative outcomes of marriage to conflict mismanagement would be too simplistic; conflict is linked to relationship satisfaction, but so is a lot of other stuff. Some have suggested that different variables predict relationship dissatisfaction and divorce, an idea also covered in some detail elsewhere in the volume (lots of people stay in bad relationships, so showing that a variable predict relationship satisfaction is not the same thing as showing that it predicts relationship dissolution). It’s been noted in some of the research that negative conflict behaviours seem to be more important in terms of predicting outcomes than are positive conflict behaviours, and so people might do well to focus on the ratio of the two; and to keep in mind that a very hurtful comment might have a much larger impact than a positive interaction. Some behavioural danger signs which have been identified in longitudinal research and seem to predict marital outcomes years in advance are invalidation, escalation, negative interpretations, and withdrawal. They note in the paper that poor conflict management seems to be linked to depression in the spouse, though they also mention that the link is likely to be bidirectional. They observe towards the end of the chapter that: “A major theme in understanding the impact of conflict on romantic relationships is realizing that the amount of conflict may be less important than how that conflict is managed.”

The next chapter deals with ‘Sexuality in Close Relationships’. The numbers in the text were old, which was annoying, but they’re better than nothing:

“research indicates that by the age of 20, 80% to 90% of people have had sex and that the mean age of first sexual intercourse is around 16 to 17, although slightly higher for older generations and slightly lower for Blacks and Hispanics (e.g., Laumann et al., 1994). One of the most important predictors of early initiation to sex is being in a close, romantic relationship” (I’ve previously blogged some Danish numbers on that kind of stuff – unfortunately the coverage in the link is in Danish. The Danish numbers indicate that at the age of 18-20, 85% of all women (claims to) have had sex, and that 99% of all women in my age group (26-30) have had sex). In the chapter they also mention in this context that according to data provided by the General Social Survey (1998 numbers – as I said, the data are old), the overall mean number of sexual partners during adulthood was 7 (the median is in my opinion a much better variable to use here than the mean because the data is skewed, but they don’t report the median). Men systematically report a higher number of sexual partners than do women, which the authors mention that experts in this field believe is due to the combined effects of men systematically overreporting the number of partners and women systematically underreporting the number of partners.

It might also make sense to ask how often people have sex. Large national surveys (in the US) have tried to answer that question as well, and numbers on this stuff are also included in the coverage:

“Large national data sets have also assessed how often people have sex. Although there is considerable variability in reports of sexual frequency, the overall average (mean or median) has been found to around 1 to 2 times a week. For example, with data from the National Survey of Family and Households (NSFH), Call, Sprecher, and Schwartz (1995) found that married respondents had an overall mean frequency of 6.3 times per month. In the NHSLS, the mean frequency of sexual activity was slightly more than 6.5 times per month (Laumann et al., 1994). Smith (1998) reported that married respondents in the GSS data reported engaging in sexual intercourse an average of 61 times per year, which is slightly more than once a week. […] These national data sets and other largescale studies […], as well as smaller geographically limited samples […], also indicate that sex declines with age and number of years married. Thus, early in marriage, couples generally have sex frequently, but they do so less often over time.”

People who say they are sexually satisfied in their relationships are likely to report higher overall relationship satisfaction, which is very surprising. No, wait… Sexual frequency (how often people have sex) is positively related to sexual satisfaction and overall relationship satisfaction, which the authors suggest may account for the link between sexual satisfaction and general relationship satisfaction. I could easily think of some potential problems with that interpretation, but the research is not covered in detail and I have no way of knowing whether the ‘problem variables’ I’m thinking about have been addressed in the research. Health is an obvious problem variable as unhealthy people may be more likely to have relationship trouble than healthy people, and as unhealthy people may be unable/less likely to have sex (so the variable of interest may be health, not sexual frequency). There’s also some stuff going on in terms of age etc. – young people have more sex and relationship satisfaction tends to be high early on in the relationship (because those first years is the time period where the child being born tends to be most vulnerable and needs the protection and support of both parents, the evolutionary biologist might add) and then it drops later on – it may make some sense to conceive of the frequency variable as at least partly an outcome variable to be explained, rather than a predictor variable.

The chapter also briefly looks at what they term sexual communication, and note that behaviours such as initiations and refusals of sexual interactions are related to relationship satisfaction (both ‘global’ relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction). When a partner more often refuses sex this is bad for relationship satisfaction, and when a partner initiates more often relationship satisfaction is likely to be higher. Another type of sexual communication is the expression of preferences (likes and dislikes) for sexual behaviour; unsurprisingly, couples who communicate more with each other about what they like and do not like in the sexual context have higher levels of relationship satisfaction. The link between sexual conflict (e.g. disagreements about frequency, duration, etc.) and relationship satisfaction seems to be somewhat unclear, though most of the research mentioned in the chapter seems to support the idea that sexual conflict may be bad for relationship satisfaction.

I think I’ve talked about this before in coverage of books on evolutionary biology, but I’m not sure; the chapter notes that studies have found that the jealousy of males is more likely to be linked to a partner’s sexual infidelity (due to ‘paternity considerations’ – as long as other males do not have sex with the partner, he does not run a risk of raising another man’s offspring), whereas the jealousy of females is more likely to be linked to emotional infidelity of a partner (due to ‘provider stuff considerations’ – given the evolutionary context, a man having extra-pair copulations (-EPC) might not have been a big deal if he’s not intending to provide for the offspring resulting from those EPC, whereas on the other hand if he’s bonding emotionally with another female this might from her point of view be taken as an indication that he might actually leave her, which would be bad news for her and her offspring). I was debating whether to include this in the coverage in part because I seem to recall it being observed elsewhere that the differences are small and that they only really show up when researchers apply a forced-choice paradigm (‘if you’re allowed to categorize both types of infidelity as the ‘most awful thing ever’ (…read: use a Likert scale…), people will do that’), but I decided to do it anyway – but be careful not to interpret these differences as somehow suggesting/requiring that maless in general will not care about a partner’s emotional infidelity and that females in general will not care if their partners sleep around, as long as they don’t become emotionally attached to the women they sleep with. That’s not how it works, and the researchers know this.

At the end of the chapter it’s observed that a few studies have found that teenagers are more likely to limit or delay sex if they feel close to their parents and perceive of the parents as supportive, and if the parents exert moderate levels of control over their lives (as opposed to too little or too much).

January 10, 2015 - Posted by | Books, Psychology

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