Although close relationships bring enormous benefits, they also involve costs. In joining a relationship, individuals take on duties and responsibilities that can leave them feeling stressed.
Balancing Interpersonal Tensions
A number of authors, including Leslie Baxter and William Rawlins, have written about the tensions that beset individuals as they try to balance the demands of a relationship and their own personal needs. Individuals must face three sets of tensions as they decide how much of themselves to invest in relationships. These are called the expressive-protective, the autonomy-togetherness, and the novelty-predictability dialectics.
The expressive-protective dialectic involves finding a balance between the need to share personal information and the need to maintain privacy. When we become close to someone, we have a natural desire to share our thoughts and feelings with that person. It is a relief to find someone with whom we can be completely open, and it is gratifying to be entrusted with another’s disclosures. Close relationships are built on shared information, and we usually expect a high level of self-disclosure (the voluntary revealing of information that would normally be unobtainable) in interpersonal relationships.
On the other hand, we can feel very uncomfortable when others ask for information that is too personal. Disclosure is a risk. When we open up to others, we make ourselves vulnerable. Just as we have a need to be open, we have a need to keep some of our thoughts and feelings to ourselves. The problem of how much information to reveal and how much to keep private must be negotiated by every couple.
A second dialectic is the autonomy-togetherness dialectic. Here friends and couples decide how interdependent they want to be. This problem is often experienced by first-semester college roommates. Some people come to school expecting to spend all their time with their roommates. Others expect to spend time by themselves and feel overwhelmed by too much closeness. The person who expects high involvement can be hurt by a roommate who wants privacy, whereas the person who is more autonomous can feel pressured and annoyed by too much togetherness. Of course, roommates are not the only people to feel this tension. Dating and married couples must also decide on the proper level of autonomy and togetherness. Wilmot points out that some of the “craziness” and unpredictability in close, intimate relations comes from the oscillations between autonomy and interdependence. As we get farther away, we miss the other, and when we feel at “one” with the other, we sense a loss of the self.
The only way to resolve this tension is to realize that others’ needs may differ from our own and to talk about our feelings openly as soon as they become a problem.
Finally, partners must resolve the novelty-predictability dialectic. As individuals interact, they fall into patterns. They develop ways of behaving that, for the most part, satisfy their needs. After a time these behaviors become predictable, and the couple spends much of its time repeating old routines. Obviously, a certain amount of predictability is necessary for coordinated activity. A long-term relationship couldn’t sustain itself at the level of uncertainty found in a developing relationship. By repeating familiar patterns, partners bring stability to the dyad.
On the other hand, when behavior gets too patterned, partners can feel bored, and everyday interaction can become flat and stale. If no new ideas are generated, conversations lose their interest. The couple cease to explore and to change. After all, relationships do not occur in a vacuum, they occur in a constantly changing world. The novelty-predictability dialectic is a matter of finding ways to balance the familiar and the new.
Wilmot discusses three ways couples can resolve dialectical tensions. In the first, called dialectical emphasis, couples simply ignore one of the opposing poles of a given dialectic. A couple may, for example, opt for complete freedom in their relationship, ignoring the need for togetherness. The problem here, however, is that the opposite pole does not go away. Later on, the couple may regret their decision when they realize that nothing binds them together. The second way to deal with dialectical tensions is called pseudo-synthesis. Here the couple decide that they can satisfy both dialectical forces at once. They vow to be both autonomous and interdependent at the same time. This choice is usually unrealistic, as it dismisses the power of opposing needs.
A third, and more realistic, way to deal with dialectical tensions is through reaffirmation. Here, a couple accepts the fact that relationships move back and forth between opposing poles. When their relationship stays at one pole too long, they work to bring it back toward the other. During periods when their work loads are heavy, for example, a couple may give each other permission to spend time working. Yet they make sure this doesn’t go on for too long, and they plan breaks when they can do things together once again. Through reaffirmation they learn to accept the contradictory nature of human relationships.
In resolving these and other issues, individuals create relational cultures, which are tacit agreements about the rules that will constitute their relationships. In addition, they also develop relational definitions that are general understandings of what they mean to one another. Sometimes these definitions are clearly stated so that everyone knows the nature of the relationship (“We’re engaged!” or “She’s like a sister to me”), but much of the time, especially in relationships that are developing, the definitions are ambiguous and people agonize over where the relationship is headed: “Are we romantic partners or just good friends?”
It’s important to remember that over time, relational definitions change, and competent communicators must be willing and able to negotiate new relational understandings as time goes by.
Avoiding Dysfunctional Patterns
In the process of working out the general shape of their relationship, individuals create specific patterns of interaction. Unfortunately, these patterns often go unnoticed. When relationships run into trouble, partners rarely analyse their behavior patterns. Instead, they each place the blame on the other’s character or personality. This is unfortunate because although patterns can be changed, people usually can’t.
Dysfunctional patterns – especially our own – are often difficult to describe. We are so used to them that they become invisible to us. Yet with a little effort and a willingness to be objective, we can begin to identify and correct problematic behaviors.