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.

Is talk cheap?: Relational maintenance and scarcity, part II

In Part I, I discussed some of my recent research on romantic couples. My results suggested some things we do to maintain our relationships are scarce, and others are not. If a behavior is scarce, then if I give it to you, I can’t give it to someone else. That post mainly addressed shared media (e.g., TV/movies) as one such scarce behavior (as well as time and resources).

But, I hope we’d agree that only watching TV doesn’t make a relationship strong. After all, by way of analogy, we need to do many different things to keep a car on the road. Changing the oil is important maintenance work, but it isn’t going to fix your brakes! Likewise, relationships need a variety of behaviors to stay healthy—and human relationships are much more complex than cars!

Among the ways we maintain our relationships, the kind of talk we use is of utmost importance. Consider the Hebrew proverb: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” (Proverbs 18:21, ESV). Between couples, talk can craft a relationship of shining beauty or soul-crushing brokenness. The words we use in our close relationships matter.

But, what kind of talk are we talking about (ha!)? Not all talk is equivalent; chatting about the weather is not the same as discussing politics, and neither are the same as telling someone “I love you” (at least, I hope not!)

This study identified five types of talk romantic couples use to maintain their relationships. To make them concrete, I’ve included one survey item that measured the type of talk:

  1. Verbal affection (“We say ‘I love you’ to each other.”)
  2. Deep talk (“We disclose deeply personal, private information about ourselves to each other.”)
  3. Conflict management (“We handle disagreements with each other.”)
  4. Informal talk (“We talk about what’s up and about what happened during the day.”)
  5. Humor (“We tell jokes and humorous stories to each other.”)

Of course, the next logical question is: Which of these types of talk is most important to the health of a relationship? The answer is: all of the above! Close couples were more likely to use all types of talk in their relationships!

A few “take-away” points:

  1. It isn’t just the deep conversations. We typically think of our closest relationships as those where we can share our deepest thoughts and feelings. But, that’s not always a sign of a super-close relationship. Some people disclose very private thoughts to counselors or clergy, but don’t share the mundane details of their lives with them. In some ways, sharing our daily events over a period of time is much more intimate than one episode of deep sharing.
  2. Conflict can be healthy. This study wasn’t mainly about conflict, and certainly conflict can be destructive. When approached with the desire to sacrificially love the other person, and the heart to work toward the best solution possible, conflict also can improve our relationships and make them resilient. In this study, the closest couples didn’t always run from conflict.
  3. Variety is key. These talk types are remarkably diverse! If your conversation is always light and fluffy, or always super-duper-deep, that could be a problem. Just as the body needs a variety of foods to stay healthy, so romantic relationships need a variety of talk.

Finally, one type of talk emerged as uniquely important. All the talk types reflected a close relationship, but one especially did, and that’s verbal affection. In other words, the closest couples say “I love you” to each other frequently! It strikes me that some couples probably don’t say those words enough, and for others they say it without much meaning. My gut feeling is that it’s best not only to verbalize affection, but also to mean it when we say it.

So is talk cheap? Maybe—but it certainly isn’t scarce. And it’s important. What kind of talk would your romantic partner most like to hear today?

Whether it’s revealing the secrets of your heart, facing a long-standing conflict, or simply chatting about your day, that talk could improve the health of your relationship.

Does Watching TV Together Help Maintain a Healthy Relationship?: Relational Maintenance and Scarcity, Part I

As my wife and close friends can attest, I’m just not much of a movie guy. I fully respect those who are, but for some reason movies have never really been my cup o’ root beer. But I know many couples who spend a lot of time watching movies together. For my wife and me, it’s not so much movies, but TV – after working and taking care of young kids during the day, watching an episode of The Office or Friday Night Lights can be awfully relaxing.

But could it be that watching TV/movies together isn’t just recreational, but also a sign of a healthy relationship? One of my recent studies suggests the answer may be “yes.”

I surveyed 123 romantic couples about things they do to maintain their relationships with each other. The couples were diverse – most were married, but some were dating; some were in their 20s, and others in their 60s and 70s, etc.

The first paper from this data set has been accepted as the top paper in the interpersonal communication division of the Central States Communication Association. You can read and comment on that paper here.

In this study, I wanted to examine the idea, advanced by psychologist Arthur Aron and his colleagues, that the things we do to maintain our relationships arise from something called “including the other person in your sense of the self.” The basic idea is that when you become really close with someone, you don’t think of them as a separate person, but rather as part of who you are. If they’re happy, you’re happy. If they’re hurting, you’re hurting. If they need money, you give it to them. We don’t think of our resources as “mine” and “yours,” but rather “ours.” I don’t know if Aron had the biblical “… and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24) in mind, but that description of utter husband/wife unity seems very similar.

My study identified eleven different behaviors people do to maintain their romantic relationships. What seemed to distinguish these behaviors is whether or not they are scarce. Giving money is a great example of scarcity. If I give you a dollar, I can’t give that dollar to another person. But if I give you some deep conversation, I can still give deep conversation to someone else. Both giving money or deep conversation could maintain a relationship, but one behavior is scarce and the other is not. In this post, I want to talk for a moment about scarce maintenance behaviors. I’ll discuss the non-scarce behaviors in my next post!

What are these “scarce” maintenance behaviors, then? This study identified three.

One is resources—basically, money and possessions. Another is time. Couples who didn’t include each other in the sense of the self—basically, who weren’t “into” each other—didn’t share much resources or time. Couples only shared a lot of time and resources with each other when both people were “into” each other. Only one person being “into” the other didn’t cut it.

The third scarce behavior was shared media, or watching TV/movies together. I had to scratch my head on that one—is sharing media really a scarce behavior? After thinking about it (and after seeing my daughter’s ire when I change channels from Dora to CNN), I realized: “Yeah, it sure is!” Think of the cliché argument over the TV remote (or these days, the DVR). An hour together watching “his” show can’t also go to “her” show. The couple could watch separate shows on separate TVs in separate rooms, but this study focused on shared viewing, not that kind of individual activity.

And like time and possessions, the pattern held: The highest amount of shared media use only occurred when both people were really “into” each other! This seems a bit counterintuitive—vegging in front of the ‘tube’ doesn’t sound like a particularly romantic activity. But, this study suggests watching TV together has something to do with being a close couple.

Now, this finding could be just a side effect of time: Closer couples spend more time together, so they also spend more time watching TV together. Also, it could reflect similarity: Couples watch TV together because they like the same shows.

But nevertheless, I’m intrigued by another explanation: that sharing media might actually help a couple stay close. Perhaps watching TV together provides shared experiences, and maybe it doesn’t just reflect similarity, but also helps build it. Shared media can generate discussion about characters, plot, and actors, and who hasn’t enjoyed in-jokes with fellow fans of favorite shows and movies?

So, I leave the question to you: Do you think the media you share with your romantic partner strengthens your relationship in any way? If so, why; if not, why not?