Facing Threats, Accenting The Positive May Move Relationships Forward

For some couples just staying together is good enough. But others want the relationship to move forward and get better and are willing to put in the effort to get there.

For a new study, researchers at the University of Illinois reviewed more than 1,100 studies on relationships dating back to 1950. They found two primary motives behind a couple’s attempts at staying together: threat mitigation and relationship enhancement.

For the most part, improving a relationship includes both components and requires putting effort into the relationship for the pleasure of it.

“Threats to the relationship come from all kinds of different places,” said Dr. Brian Ogolsky.

“Generally, there are many threats early in relationships that can cause problems, but that is not to say that these disappear later. We know couples cheat in the long-term, people end up in new work places and in new situations where possible alternative partners show up, conflicts arise, or a lack of willingness to sacrifice time for your partner emerges.”

Some threat mitigation tactics can actually become enhancement strategies over time, Ogolsky said, but the reverse is not usually true.

“We get to a place where we are pouring energy into the relationship simply because we want to keep the relationship moving forward rather than just mitigating threats.”

In their integrative model of relationship maintenance, the researchers also illustrate individual versus interactive components of maintenance.

“This question of ‘is this an individual thing or is this a couple-level thing’ often goes unanswered. But as we were doing this review, we started noticing that there are ways to maintain the relationship that we can characterize as ‘more or less in our own heads.’ We are doing something to convince ourselves that this is a good relationship and therefore it’s good for our relationship,” Ogolsky said.

“Things like positive illusions, the idea that we can believe our relationship is better than it is or that our partner is better than he or she is. We can do that without our partner,” he said.

Mitigating conflict, however, is something that partners must do together. “Good conflict management or forgiving our partner for doing something wrong is an interactive process.

“When a threat comes in, we can do one of two things: We can ditch our partner or forgive them over time.”

The same is true of enhancement strategies: Partners can do things individually or interactively.

“Individually, even the act of thinking about our relationship can be enhancing. Whereas engaging in leisure activities together, talking about the state of our relationship, these are all interactive,” Ogolsky said.

While Ogolsky rarely offers direct interventions to couples, he said he tends to study the positive side of relationships because of what can be learned from people going through what is inherently a very turbulent thing.

“Relationships have ups and downs. I never go into my work saying people should stay together or they should break up.

“What we are talking about here are processes that exist across different kinds of couples, some of which work very well for some people, some of which may not work for some people. I am interested in understanding processes that keep relationships moving.”

The study appears in the Journal of Family Theory and Review.

Source: University of Illinois