Social Psychology

Student Learning Program

Chapter 11: When Relationships Go Wrong (pp. 425435)

Ask Yourself?

In this topic

  1. Interdependence and Conflict: Seeds of Trouble (pp. 425426)
  2. Resources for Handling Conflict: Relationship Maintenance (pp. 426428)
    1. Idealization of the partner
    2. Commitment
    3. Attachment styles
  3. Conflict Processes (pp. 428432)
    1. Responding to negative acts
    2. Forgiveness
    3. Attribution: You did it because you don't love me
    4. Cycles of conflict
    5. Handling conflicts in everyday life
    6. Jealousy
    7. Declining intimacy and commitment
    8. Relationship conflict and social problems
  4. Break-up and Aftermath (pp. 432435)
    1. The break-up: Your fault, my decision
    2. After the break-up: Grief and distress for two
    3. Till death do us part
    4. Loneliness
    5. Unrequited love
Interdependence and Conflict: Seeds of Trouble

Conflicts are inevitable when people are interdependent in a relationship.

When factors like illness, disability, or personal change reduce a partner's willingness or ability to meet the other person's need, fewer rewards are derived from the relationship, and satisfaction and commitment decline.

External factors, such as job or family responsibilities, or social norms, such as women being the housekeeper and men being the breadwinner, can easily create conflicts.

Reasons for breaking up include desires for autonomy, or a lack of psychological support from the partner. In addition, women mention more often a lack of openness and intimacy, and men mention the absence of romance or passion, as reasons for breaking up. Finally, envy arising from performance comparison can spark conflicts; areas that are high in self-relevance can more easily become a source of conflict.

Demo: Risk factors in a relationship

Resources for Handling Conflict: Relationship Maintenance
Idealization of the partner

Idealization helps people to deal with conflict; having favorable beliefs about the partner is related to less overt conflict and using fewer destructive ways to handle conflicts.

Commitment

Commitment leads to more motivation for people to overlook their partners' flaws, to communicate their needs, to change their own behaviors, and to be willing to sacrifice. Couples who perform behaviors that are linked to commitment are more likely to stay together.

Attachment styles

People's attachment styles influence the way they handle conflicts.

Securely attached people show constructive behaviors in conflict situations, and view their partner and their relationship as more positive after discussing a problem.

Preoccupied or fearfully attached individuals behave in a less constructive way, and have outbursts of negative emotions. During discussion of a problem, they show anxious and stress responses, feel anger towards their partner, and view their relationship as involving less love and commitment.

Dismissive men behave in distant and nonsupportive ways when discussing a problem.

Conflict Processes
Responding to negative acts

Patterns of accommodation are the processes of responding to a negative action by the partner. Accommodations are constructive when acting in ways that help to maintain the relationship, such as actively discussing problems, loyally waiting for the situation to improve, and forgiving the partner. Destructive responses include screaming, refusing to spend time with the partner, and endangering the relationship.

A couple's pattern of accommodations, especially the absence of negative ones, influences relationship satisfaction.

Accommodation is more likely to be constructive when couples have secure attachment styles and are committed to the relationship.

Women tend to accommodate more constructively than men. Gender differences in communications (women's openness about thoughts and concern versus men's nonverbal signs of coldness and distance) can be misunderstood. The more troubled a relationship is, the more prone it is to misunderstanding and misattributions.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness, which involves decreased negative feelings and increased positive feelings towards the partner, is frequently part of the accommodation.

Forgiveness is more likely to occur when relationship satisfaction is high, when people are together for a longer period of time, and when one is securely attached.

Attribution: You did it because you don't love me

When partners are unhappy, they are more likely to make negatively biased attributions; they attribute positive behaviors to situational or other external sources, while negative behaviors are attributed to intentions or personality. Happy partners have the opposite attribution pattern; they attribute positive behaviors to intentions and personality, and negative behaviors to situational factors.

Cycles of conflict

Negative attributions and destructive accommodations can lead to a vicious cycle of conflict. There are two steps in ending such a cycle: the first step is emotional reconciliation, which entails putting the problem in perspective and accepting some blame for the conflict. The second step is accepting the peace offer from the partner and conciliating in return.

Constructive ways to handle conflict can be taught to couples (see SP p. 430).

Handling conflicts in everyday life

There are two constructive approaches to reducing conflicts: avoid generalizing about your partner, and trying to communicate about your feelings.

When avoiding generalizations, you focus on concrete problems, which stay in perspective. When people make generalizations, such as "you always do...," conflicts are hard to resolve.

When communicating about feelings, accusatory statements, pointless arguments, and triggered defensiveness are avoided. In addition, the focus is on the real problem and can more easily be solved.

Jealousy

People experience jealousy when a real or imagined rival appears. When feeling jealous, one might feel depressed and anxious because of the threatened loss of a valued relationship. One might also feel angry due to loss of self-esteem when being rejected for someone else.

Jealousy is stronger when people feel inadequate in their relationship or distrust their partner. Preoccupied attached individuals experience jealousy more often, whereas securely attached people are less likely to feel jealous.

Jealousy can strengthen relationships, but when jealousy is extreme, it can be destructive, especially when self-worth is dependent on a relationship.

Declining intimacy and commitment

When in conflict, partners may spend less time with each other and be less open about their inner feelings. Because intimacy is one of the most important rewards in a relationship, dissatisfaction is easily felt.

Conflict and dissatisfaction can also influence commitment levels. Then, partners may see other people as more attractive, and when receiving positive attention from these alternative partners, comparison with the dissatisfying relationship will lead to a growing sense of leaving the relationship.

Relationship conflict and social problems

Violence and spousal abuse are related to the same factors that lead to relationship conflict and break-up, according to Berscheid and Reis (1998).

Women sometimes remain in abusive relationships because of the quality of their alternatives, and their investment in their relationship.

Severe conflicts in families lead to psychological problems for the children during the conflict itself. After parents are separated, they generally turn out to be fine.

Break-up and Aftermath
The break-up: Your fault, my decision

Ending a relationship is often a long and complex process, with repeated conflicts and reconciliations.

The fact that women tend to experience more distress in a conflict may explain why women terminate relationships more often than men do.

When a relationship has ended, each ex-partner blames the other for the decline in the relationship.

People adjust the best after a break-up when attributing the divorce to the relationship itself, rather than to themselves or to external factors.

After the break-up: Grief and distress for two

Break-ups mostly occur because of rising dissatisfaction and frustration from the relationship and not because of falling out of love.

Feelings of control or believing one understands what happened influence the cognitive and emotional consequences of the end of a relationship and increase the chances of success in future relationships.

Till death do us part

The death of a spouse is the most stressful major life event, causing serious threats to mental and physical health. People whose spouses have died unexpectedly and people who believe they have little control over the future experience the worst problems.

Loneliness

Loneliness is an emotion arising from unmet needs for affection and self-validation from a psychologically intimate relationship. When feeling lonely, people experience distress, desperation, boredom, and depression.

The most effective response to cope with loneliness is trying to meet new people, and making something valuable; while dwelling on bad qualities, drinking, and drug abuse are the worst reactions to loneliness.

Seeing loneliness as arising from transitory, potentially controllable causes can be easily overcome, while loneliness attributed to stable, internal qualities cannot.

Unrequited love

When love is not reciprocated, the rejected person suffers the pains of heartbreak and a loss of self-esteem. The rejecter's self-esteem may be bolstered at first, but he or she can feel guilt and irritation afterwards.

When dealing with a want-to-be lover, one should be polite and brief, without displaying emotions. This is called the zombie approach.

So what does this mean?

Conflicts are inevitable when people are interdependent in a relationship. Reasons for breaking up include desires for autonomy and a lack of psychological support from the partner. Idealization, commitment level, and attachment styles influence the way people deal with conflicts. Negative attributions and destructive accommodations can lead to a vicious cycle of conflict. This can be ended by emotional reconciliation, and by accepting the peace offer from the partner and conciliating in return. Two constructive approaches to reducing conflicts are: avoiding generalizing about the partner, and trying to communicate about feelings. When in conflict, levels of intimacy, satisfaction, and commitment decrease. Break-ups mostly occur because of rising dissatisfaction and frustration from the relationship. The most effective response to cope with loneliness after a break-up is trying to meet new people, and making something valuable.

Back to chapter 11 introduction

In this chapter

  1. Chapter 11 introduction
  2. Initial Attraction
  3. From Acquaintance to Friend: Relationship Development
  4. Close Relationships
  5. Romantic Love and Sexuality
  6. When Relationships Go Wrong
  7. Chapter overview (PDF)
  8. Fill-in-the-blanks
  9. Multiple-choice questions