How do we keep our romantic relationships going?–or, maybe the weirdest study I’ve published

One of my articles just came out in Southern Communication Journal. I think it’s the weirdest study I’ve ever published.

I’m passionate about understanding relational maintenance—in other words, what we do to keep our close relationships… well, close. The dominant line of maintenance research has been offered by Laura Stafford (Bowling Green State University), Dan Canary (Arizona State University), and their co-authors. And, boy howdy, all of us who study relational maintenance owe a tremendous debt to them. Across numerous studies, they’ve identified five categories of maintenance behavior: positivity (e.g., being nice), openness (e.g., self-disclosure), assurances (e.g., affirming commitment to the relationship), social networks (e.g., spending time with common friends), and shared tasks (e.g., doing chores together). It’s important work that represents a meaningful achievement in the field of interpersonal communication research.

I’m also passionate about online communication—and after doing my dissertation on relational maintenance, I realized that we don’t know whether these behaviors, identified in face-to-face romantic relationships, generalize to online communication. (As an aside—I later published some initial evidence that they probably do.)

So, five years ago, I and several Ohio University grad students set out to find what new maintenance behaviors exist online. Or, that’s what we thought we were doing. Research throws curve balls.

We asked participants (college students) how they maintained their romantic relationships. Our survey closely followed the initial 1991 Stafford and Canary study—but instead, we asked about both face-to-face and online behaviors.

The data surprised us—no, not the online data. The face-to-face data!

Participants reported that they maintained their romantic relationships by hanging out, by sharing meals together, by physical touch, by watching TV together. OK—I guess that doesn’t sound too surprising… probably sounds like a typical day in the life of a couple. But it was shocking to us because these behaviors really aren’t reflected in the Stafford and Canary typology (at least not specifically). Not that they are inconsistent with their typology. Rather, Stafford and Canary’s behaviors were more abstract, whereas those we found were less so.

And, I got excited. I mean, how cool would it be to have a survey instrument that would let us address specific communication behaviors that maintain relationships? That might let us give even more targeted advice to people struggling in their romantic relationships. Previous research lets us paint advice with a broad brush; “be positive” and “self-disclose” are important (but kinda vague) suggestions. But “update each other about your day” and “watch some TV together” are more specific and less open to interpretation—and therefore, just maybe, more helpful.

After reporting these open-ended findings, the second study examined the reason why people maintain romantic relationships. This study just published in SCJ is the third study in this line of work. It reports a survey measure that tries to get at those specific communication behaviors in romantic relationships.

Unfortunately, when analyzing the data, the number of different, meaningful behaviors was not nearly as simple as I hoped it would be. I ended up with 11 types of behavior that maintain romantic relationships. On one hand, that’s 11 exciting directions for future research; on the other hand, it’s daunting to understand how they all function together to breathe life into our relationships. But, as many interpersonal communication scholars have noted—interpersonal relationships are exceedingly complex.

The 11 behaviors are (with some examples):

  1. Sharing possessions (money, high- and low-cost items)
  2. Spending time together (hanging out, eating meals, going on dates)
  3. Sharing media together (movies, TV shows, video games)
  4. Verbal affection (“I love you, “I miss you,” using special nicknames)
  5. Informal talk (catching up about the day, talking about fun, light-hearted things)
  6. Deep talk (serious conversations, discussing problems)
  7. Sharing tasks (making a decision together, helping with chores)
  8. Managing conflict (handling disagreements, making up)
  9. Humor (laughing, telling jokes)
  10. Physical affection (cuddling, kissing)
  11. Shared networks (spending time with friends and family)

Researchers will be interested in the methodological flexibility of this instrument. And that is what’s weird about it—rather than our straightforward instruments that measure ‘X’ number of factors, this instrument possesses utility for many levels of abstraction. It can assess very specific behaviors at the item level, maintenance as a whole at the most abstract level, or two levels in-between (the 11-category solution above, or a 4-category solution you’ll find in the paper).

But many of you reading this aren’t researchers. What’s the practical upshot of this work?

First, I found evidence that all of these behaviors are motivated by thinking about the other person as part of the self. This seems to be a critical component of healthy romantic relationships—as the relationship progresses, we no longer think of ourselves as two, but one.

Second, maintaining that close, interdependent relationship takes a lot of time and energy across several different domains. I suspect that friendships (especially those that aren’t particularly close) and some family relationships may employ only a few of these behaviors. But a healthy marriage calls for commitment across all of these domains.

Third, some of these behaviors appear to be more costly than others. Although important, talk can be ‘cheap.’ I’ve blogged about this before. Shared possessions, time, and media are less so. The closest relationships seem to share these non-renewable resources deeply with each other. In other words, a couple with separate bank accounts might not be as close as a couple that shares all of their financial resources in common.

So there’s (maybe) the weirdest study I’ve ever published—weird because I thought we would study online communication, but instead found a grander mystery; weird because something so commonplace turns out to be complex, diverse, and elaborate. In the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Hide and Q,” Picard remarks to Data, “Perhaps someday we will discover that space and time are simpler than the human equation.” With all due respect to quantum physicists, I think Picard might’ve had it right.

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