Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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Maintenance and Breakdown of Relationships

Relaunched: 8 December 2018

George Levinger’s 5-Stage Model of Relationships – graphic copyright © 2001 Psychology Press Ltd

George Levinger (1977) developed a 5-stage model of relationships, providing a complete overview from beginning to end. In many ways the first 3 stages parallel the Stimulus-Value-Role model of Bernard Murstein (1970). However, like Ichak Adizes (1999) who applied his Organisation LifeCycle concept to relationships, the last 2 stages imply a certain inevitability that a relationship will decline unless strategies are deployed to maintain the relationship and keep it in what Adizes calls ‘Prime’.

The first intention of this piece is to consider how relationships can kept in Prime or brought back to it. It is usually relatively easy to keep a relationship going in the ‘first flushes’ of love when the partners idealise each other and there is lots of sexual activity. A year or so later when sexual activity has decreased – William H James‘ (1981) ‘honeymoon effect’ – and the partners are struggling to deal with the ‘daily grind of real life’, maintaining those idealised feelings about your partner and the relationship can be quite a task.

Peter Pineo (1961) identified that, in many marriages, relationship satisfaction decreases almost linearly with length of time of the relationship. Ted Huston, Susan McHale & Ann Crouter (1986) found relationships could actually deteriorate quite quickly. They studied 100 newlyweds and found that, within 3 to 15 months of the wedding day, they reported themselves less satisfied with their marriages and their sex lives. They declared their love for each other less, complimented each other less and disclosed their feelings less often.

Clearly trying to keep the romance alive and passionate is a challenge. The problem with a relationship slipping into companionate love is that, while it may be very comfortable, for the partners, it lacks the excitement and the glamour of romantic love – and thus one or more partners may be tempted by another potential partner who appears to offer something more exciting. The Comparison Level Alternative of Social Exchange Theory. This will be particularly so if one of the partners has strong RED in their vMEME stack. If the male partner is high in the Psychoticism Dimension of Temperament, then equally that will make them vulnerable to temptation.

While the importance of having ‘good sex’ cannot be overstated for most relationships, how to make rekindle the ‘sex spark’ is largely beyond the scope of this site – although some ideas are hinted at in the Blog post Oh, goodie – Passionate Sex!!! But even ‘good sex’ in itself is not enough to sustain a relationship. 2 other key elements are vital to the longer-term success of a relationship: self-disclosure and needs satisfaction.

Irwin Altman & Dalmas Taylor’s Social Penetration Theory focuses on how much the partners in a relationship disclose about themselves to their partner.

The Norm of Self-Disclosure Reciprocity is usually followed by people in the early stages of a relationship in which how much you reveal about yourself is paced with how much the other is revealing about themselves. The Disclosure Reciprocity Effect states that the more someone tells us about them, the more we feel obliged to tell them about us. Or, as Valerian Derlega & John Berg (1987) put it: “disclosure begets disclosure”.

Altman & Taylor see disclosure as going through 4 stages:-

  1. Orientation
    The embryonic partners engage in small talk; disclosure is tentative and cautious
    The level of disclosure at this stage may be limited to, for example, tastes in music
  2. Exploratory Affective Changes
    These are about letting the other person get to know you
    This could include some revelations about past relationships
    However, Altman & Taylor caution that revealing too much about yourself too quickly can be threatening to the other person
  3. Affective Changes
    There is increasing emotional intimacy
    This could include deep seated fears and ‘daft’ ambitions
    Susan Sprecher (1987) notes that deeper revelations at the appropriate time in the relationship are correlated positively with relationship satisfaction
  4. Stable Exchange
    The partners develop a deep knowledge of each other – which, Altman & Taylor posit is not really achieved by that many relationships

Susan Sprecher & Susan Hendrick (2004) studied heterosexual dating couples and found strong correlations between the degree and quality of self-disclosure and several measures of relationship satisfaction. Jean-Philippe Laurenceau, Lisa Feldman Barrett & Michael Rovine (2005) found that self-disclosure and the perception of self-disclosure were linked to levels of intimacy in long-term married couples. Less intimate couples were found to disclose to each other less.

Interestingly Kathryn Dindia & Mike Allen (1992) were able to confirm some gender stereotypes about self-disclosure. From a meta-analysis of 205 studies between 1967 and 1990, covering 23,702 participants, they found:-

  • Women disclose more to romantic partners and same-sex friends
  • There was no difference in levels of disclosure by males and females to male friends
    However, Dindia & Allen did conclude that males preferred to disclose to men rather than women
  • Men were more likely to reveal personal information to people they didn’t really know
  • There was little change in levels and patterns of disclosure over the years despite the meta-analysis covering such a long time period

Richard Archer (1979) notes that, for many couples, the Norm of Self-Disclosure Reciprocity decreases over time. In an intimate relationship over time, one of the partners is more likely to offer support and understanding to the other rather than invest in self-disclosing. Usually, though not always, it is the man who, fulfilling the primeval role of protector, will disclose less and focus on supporting his partner. (The man can even see his own disclosing as a weaknesss when he should be strong for his partner.) This often has the unfortunate effect that the disclosing partner comes to feel they no longer know the non-disclosing partner so well and this can create distance between the partners. Altman & Taylor call this ‘depenetration’. Betsy Tolstedt & Joseph Stokes (1984) note  a variation of depenetration which is to talk intimately about only a few topics which are usually chosen to hurt the other person and usually involve negative feelings. Again the stronger the RED vMEME is, the more likely vengeful and hurtful disclosures will be made. Again, in men, high Psychoticism is likely to ramp this up to the levels of cruelty.

Needs Satisfaction
This approach is based on the idea that we form relationships for the rewards or reinforcements that we receive from others. According to Michael Argyle (1988), romantic relationships meet social needs – eg: approval meets self-esteem needs, being comforted meets dependency needs, controlling meets dominance needs, making love meets sex needs. In 1994 Argyle extended his list of needs to include hostility meeting aggression needs, company of the partner meeting affiliation needs and eating together meeting biological needs. (Families tend to eat more healthily at the dining table than singletons making do with a ‘TV dinner’.)

Argyle based his ideas considerably on the Reinforcement Affect Model of Gerald Clore & Donn Byrne (1974) which applies Classical Conditioning to relationships. In other words, we associate the person (neutral stimulus) with the reward they give us (sex, affection, validation, etc). It also applies Operant Conditioning principles in that we are likely to repeat behaviour we find rewarding – eg: continuing to date a willing/exciting sexual partner, staying married to a spouse who continues to believe in you in adverse circumstances.

The implication in Argyle’s work is that, if the partner no longer meets critical needs, then the relationship will face considerable difficulties.

Clearly there is much in Argyle’s theory and it shares certain assumptions with economic theories. However, its explanatory power has some limitations. Eg: most men don’t love prostitutes they use – even though their sex needs are met. Nor does it explain adequately the self-sacrificial actions partners make at times in many relationships.

Risk factors
Based on longitudinal studies Steve Duck (1992) identified key factors which could put a relationship at risk…such as:-

  • personal habits …as the initial passion fades, things that irritate or annoy become more obvious – eg: leaving the top off the toothpaste tube
  • hobbies can change, leading to the couple spending less time together
    Carol Werner & Pat Parmelee (1979) found preference for leisure activities could be more important than attitudes, saying: “those who play together stay together”
  • values and attitudes can change
  • marriages between couples from different backgrounds are more likely to break up – differences in race, religion, education and social class can all be factors in making the relationship less stable
    Sharon Brehm & Saul Kassin (1996) reported that people relate better to others of the same age, sex, social class, ethnic group, educational background, etc
  • youth and immaturity – people marrying very young may not yet have developed their adult personality
    The question here is whether, in the words of the proverbs, Birds of a feather flock together or Opposites attract? Much of the evidence suggests similarity is more important than complementary differences. Eg: from studying 42 personality characteristics across 1000 engaged couples, Ernest Burgess & Paul Wallin (1953) found significant within-couple similarity for 14 personality characteristics such as feelings easily hurt’ or ‘leader of social events’. Michael Botwin, David Buss & Todd Shackelford (1997) supported d this when they found domineering people ideally looked for someone also strong while submissive people ideally wanted non- domineering partners. However, some evidence supports complementarity. Eg: Robert Winch (1958) found married couples with complementary needs were happier.For example: if someone who is domineering marries someone who is submissive, then they both have their needs fulfilled. However, one of the most convincing studies supporting similarity is that of Glenn Wilson & David Nias (1976) who found low level positive correlations between marital partners on wide range of measures such as personality, leisure interests, reading tastes, sports and attitudes towards children
    Robert J Sternberg & Susan Grajek (1984) contend that  both similarity & complementarity are important for successful relationships
  • sexual problems – such as loss of interest brought on by stress or fatigue,  problems communicating likes and dislikes, erectile dysfunction and ‘female sexual dysfunction’ (a sudden loss of interest in sex that can last for months)
    While some sexual problems are beyond the control of the couple, many conditions are treatable by methods ranging from counselling to specific therapies for sexual dysfunctions

Support for the importance of risk factors comes from the work of Charles Hill, Zick Rubin & Letitia Anne Peplau (1981). The researchers conducted a longitudinal study based on 231 couples, just less than half of whom had ended their relationship approximately 2 years later. Differences in age, intelligence and physical attractiveness were found to be among the key factors in relationship break-up – as was an imbalance in how much each partner valued the relationship.

Hill, Rubin & Peplau also found significant differences in the levels of negative exchange between the couples – those who split up being less able to deal effectively with any conflict that arose. Such couples also were more likely to adopt a negative attributional style, blaming their partner when things went wrong while at the same time not crediting them when events had a positive outcome. The researchers concluded that relationships seem more likely to end when partners adopt a negative perspective, focusing attention on what is going wrong rather than taking positive steps to rectify the situation. The findings and conclusion would seem to fit well with Economic Theories. However, they may not describe attributions in communal relationships quite so well. That point also raises the possibility of cultural bias. The study was done in the individualistic culture of the United States and may not replicate in more collectivistic cultures.