Personal Relationships (5)

Here’s a link to a previous post in the series, with links to other posts about the book as well.

In the post I’ll cover a few more chapters from the book. Let’s start with some observations from the chapter about relationship satisfaction. When you compare distressed couples with satisfied couples, distressed couples tend to show a range of dysfunctional communicative behaviours which include higher levels of criticism and complaining, hostility, defensiveness and disengagement, and not responding to the partner. “With regard to sequences of behavior, the “signature” of dissatisfied couples is the existence of reciprocated negative behavior that tends to escalate in intensity.” Attempts to repair the relationship usually employ meta-communication – e.g. “You’re not listening to me” – and these are typically delivered with negative affect (e.g. anger). The other party responds to the negative affect and reciprocates; on the other hand in satisfied couples the parties are usually more responsive to the repair attempts. The demand-withdrawal interaction pattern is another commonly observed interaction pattern in distressed couples which I’ve talked about before in my coverage of this book; this pattern involves one party pressuring the other with demands, complaints and criticism, and the other party withdrawing and reacting with defensiveness and passive inaction. An argument can be made that conflict interaction patterns may be relatively stable over time; for example researchers have looked at variables such as active listening, anger, and negative affect reciprocity in newly-weds and used these variables to successfully predict marital satisfaction and stability (presumably relationship dissolution risk, but this is not explicit in the text) 6 years later.

The chapter notes that research on cognitions in the relationship context has looked at the presence of unrealistic relationship beliefs early on in the relationship and used these unrealistic beliefs to predict relationship outcomes/dynamics later; it turns out that unrealistic relationship beliefs predict relationship dissatisfaction and observed couple behaviours. Other studies have instead looked at what they in the chapter term ‘functional’ unrealistic beliefs. I can’t recall if I’ve talked about this stuff before here in my coverage, but I haven’t talked about this chapter before anyway and the chapter notes that such studies have found e.g. that happy couples view their partners in a more positive light than the partners view themselves, and that “egocentrically assuming similarities between partner and self that do not exist is characteristic of being in a satisfying relationship.” The chapter notes that it has been known for a long time that happy couples tend to overestimate the positive qualities and underestimate the negative qualities of their partners, whereas unhappy couples tend to do the opposite. As mentioned earlier in the coverage, “happy spouses [tend to] make egocentric attributions for negative relationships events (e.g., arguments) but partner-centric attributions for positive relationships events”. They observe in the chapter that “[m]ore work has been conducted on attributions in close relationships than on any other cognitive variable. Evidence for an association between attribution and relationship satisfaction is overwhelming, making it possibly the most robust, replicable phenomenon in the study of close relationships”. Attributions affect many dimensions and one perhaps surprising variable involved is our memories. They mention a 5-year longitudinal study of dating couples in the chapter, which found that even though the participants’ self-reports of love of their partner declined during the year every year in the study, participants at the end of the year still consistently reported that they loved their partner more than they had the year before. People are funny sometimes.

The next chapter in the book deals with the topic of ‘romantic love’. I found this part quite interesting:

“Data from animal studies […] support the hypothesis that elevated activities of central dopamine play a primary role in attraction in mammalian species. In rats, blocking the activities of dopamine diminishes specific proceptive behaviors, including hopping and darting […]. Further, when a female lab-raised prairie vole is mated with a male, she forms a distinct preference for this partner. This preference is associated with a 50% increase of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens […] when a dopamine antagonist is injected directly into the nucleus accumbens, females no longer prefer [the] partner and when a female is injected with a dopamine agonist, she begins to prefer a conspecific who is present at the time of infusion, even if the female has not mated with this male […] In sum, the considerable data on mate preference in mammalian (and avian) species, and the association of this mate preference with subcortical dopaminergic pathways in human and animal studies suggest that attraction in mammals (and its human counterpart, romantic love) is a specific biobehavioral brain system; that it is associated with at least one specific neurotransmitter, dopamine; and that this brain system evolved to facilitate a specific reproductive function: mate preference and pursuit of this preferred mating partner.”

When looking at what makes a person likeable, people are usually found to like people who are similar to themselves – “perceived shared attitudes plays a highly consistent role across many experiments” – “but when other variables are also free to vary, the effect sizes are often relatively small”, and the authors note that reduced attraction to perceived dissimilars may play a big role here; maybe it doesn’t matter so much whether or not someone is particularly similar to yourself, and what really matters is that the individual is not ‘too different’. They note that “perceived similarity is much more important than actual similarity”. As for the mere-exposure effect, the authors note that the main effect of the variable is through providing an opportunity for interaction/relationship formation and that there is “little direct evidence for it playing much of a direct role in falling in love”. I found the research included on the ‘arousal at time of meeting the partner’-variable interesting. A psychological experiment from the 70es involving males meeting up with a female confederate on a bridge indicated that when interactions took place on a shaky suspension bridge, the males were more attracted to good-looking female confederates than they were when the two met up on a solid, low bridge. Later studies have since then demonstrated similar effects in a variety of contexts involving positive and negative sources of arousal. I guess if you don’t know the details of the followup-studies and you’re a woman who’ve found a potential partner you’d like to ask out, you might consider suggesting the first date take place on a (poorly constructed?) suspension bridge (or near one)..

The next chapter deals with the topic of commitment. Various conceptual models which provide different ways to think about commitment are presented early in the chapter, but I won’t really talk about that part of the coverage. The first observation I thought worth including here is that if you want to understand topics like abusive relationships, you need to understand stuff like commitment and related topics; it’s not very helpful to explain abuse as the result of the irrationality and stupidity of the victims, and the authors argue that the early literature on such topics were too focused on e.g. relationship satisfaction, which made it hard to understand what was going on. When people started including variables such as the investments (time, money, etc.) people had put into the relationship and available alternatives, some other ways to think about these things presented themselves – as they put it in the chapter, “Once researchers recognized the importance of commitment, it became evident that abuse victims may remain in their relationships because they are trapped – because they have poor alternatives (especially economic alternatives; e.g., limited financial resources, poor employment options) or because important investments bind them to their partners (e.g., young children, joint home ownership). […] recent empirical work supports the claim that persistence in abusive relationships is at least partially attributable to poor alternatives and high investments”.

Researchers in the field have argued that the reason why high commitment levels tend to keep relationships together is because they promote adaptive relationship-relevant acts, termed relationship maintenance phenomena. The important point is of course that you need a mechanism to explain why high commitment leads to different outcomes (it does), and that you need to look at behaviours. Although behaviours are important, so are cognitions (once again); to give a few examples, it’s been shown that people strongly committed to a relationship tend to shield themselves from attractive alternative partners by cognitively derogating tempting alternatives, and that people with strong commitment to a relationship react to periods of doubt or uncertainty by cognitively enhancing their partners and relationships. One behavioural mechanism supporting relationship persistence is that people with strong commitment are inclined to accommodate rather than retaliate when a partner engages in potentially destructive behaviours (instead of yelling when the partner is rude, the other party disengages and asks if s/he had a bad day at work (I’m not sure I’d have termed this type of behaviour ‘accommodation’, but that’s how they frame it in the chapter – as people might notice, this type of behaviour parallels the ‘bad behaviour is (explained away as) situational, good behaviour is personality’-cognitive angle mentioned multiple times during my coverage of the book already)). Research has found that committed people are more likely to sacrifice their personal interests to promote the interests of the partner and relationship (I’m sure some would argue this is/ought to be part of the construct), and that they’re more likely to forgive if confronted with acts of betrayal.

A few quotes related to the above: “Maintenance acts such as accommodation and sacrifice are beneficial not only because they prevent the escalation of conflict and yield better immediate outcomes, but also because they help each partner recognize the extent of the other’s commitment. For this reason, the situations that call forth maintenance acts […] have been termed diagnostic situations […] Such situations are “diagnostic” in that it is possible to discern the strength of another’s commitment only in situations wherein the behavior that benefits a relationship is at odds with the behavior that would benefit the individual […] Why are diagnostic situations important? Confidence in a partner’s commitment is reflected in trust, defined as the strength of one’s conviction that the partner will be responsive to one’s needs […] As such, one person’s trust in the other is a rough gauge of the strength of the other’s commitment […] As people become increasingly trusting, they become more willing to place themselves in vulnerable positions relative to the partner by becoming increasingly dependent – that is, they not only become more satisfied with the relationship, but are also more willing to drive away or derogate alternative partners (i.e., burn their bridges) and invest in the relationship in material and non-material ways […] increasing dependence yields strengthened commitment, which in turn causes […] a variety of prosocial maintenance acts”. Of course for a variety of reasons a desirable cycle like that may be interrupted or fail to materialize, and when things are not going well the cognitive mechanisms which usually help support relationship maintenance will instead support relationship dissolution – an unrealistically favourable view of the partner will e.g. be replaced by an unrealistically favourable view of the available alternatives. Relationship satisfaction is closely linked to commitment, and one thing to note here is that fluctuations in this variable have been shown to predict breakups independent of the level of relationship satisfaction. The authors note in the last part of the chapter that it’s likely that not all types of commitment are equal (e.g. ‘enthusiastic vs. moral’) and that different types of commitment may have different effects on e.g. the risk of relationship dissolution, but it doesn’t seem like a lot of research had been done on this stuff when the book was published – they don’t really go into the details.

February 19, 2015 - Posted by | books, Psychology

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