“The art of love… is largely the art of persistence.” – Albert Ellis
Relationships resemble living organisms in many ways… they require nourishment, room to grow, and maintenance in order to thrive. Much like caring for a fragile living thing, the vitality of a relationship is largely dependent upon effective care. When a relationship is ignored or given improper care, it is not surprising to find that it suffers as a result. What behaviors do you perform – however big or small – to nourish and strengthen your relationship?
Relationship maintenance is a term for describing the behavioral interactions/patterns that facilitate the preservation of relationships. These behaviors extend beyond the mere preservation of a relationship – that it simply “exists” – to actively strengthening relational characteristics such as love, satisfaction, and commitment. Routine maintenance behaviors are considered generally unintentional, everyday exchanges that implicitly maintain relationships. Strategic maintenance behaviors are performed with the explicit goal of maintaining a relationship (Dainton & Stafford, 1993).
Think about some routine and strategic maintenance behaviors that you perform… perhaps you do certain agreed upon household chores (routine) or notice that you tend to apologize to your partner if you believe you’ve been hurtful (strategic). We each bring our own set of unique qualities, histories, and expectations to relationships. When these attributes interact with those of another person, relationship dynamics and patterns begin to emerge. Relationships offer the opportunity to see ourselves more clearly by strengthening awareness of our own roles in creating or perpetuating interpersonal dynamics.
From the perspective of attachment theory, we recreate interpersonal patterns within our adult relationships that we experienced in childhood. These patterns may create emotional distress… the suggestion that anyone would “want” such distress may seem counterintuitive. The idea is that individuals with insecure attachment levels may recreate distressing patterns because they are familiar or “safe.” These recreations might offer hope of eliciting a response from a romantic partner that the individual always wanted from a parent(s) or early caregiver(s). In contrast, children who experience relatively emotionally stable, predictable/safe, and responsive/attuned care may develop secure attachment patterns within the context of these early relationships.
None of us can go backwards in time and recreate those early interactions with parents or caregivers. What we can do is bring mindfulness to our current relationships by cultivating greater self-awareness and acting with intention. Consider the ways in which you actively seek out and employ strategies to strengthen your relationship. If you are not currently in a relationship, try reflecting upon a relationship from the past or how you envision a relationship could be in the future.
Important Relationship Characteristics
Relationship maintenance has been repeatedly linked in empirical research to the following relational variables:
- Satisfaction: Degree to which your relationship/partner meets or exceeds your expectations. Relationship maintenance behaviors are associated with higher levels of satisfaction.
- Commitment: From an investment model perspective, related to high satisfaction, investments, and few alternatives. Relationship maintenance behaviors serve to communicate levels of commitment.
- Control Mutuality: “The degree to which partners agree about which of them should decide relational goals and behavioral routines” (Stafford & Canary, 1991, p. 224).
- Love & Liking: Strong positive correlations have been found between love/liking and all five relationship maintenance strategies, suggesting they stem from each partner’s perception of positive/relationship-enhancing actions.
Effective Strategies for Strengthening Relationships
Dr. Brian Olgolsky and Dr. Jill R. Bowers (2012) conducted a study at the University of Illinois to examine what factors are most crucial in maintaining healthy relationships. Their meta-analysis of 35 studies and 12,273 individual reports examined the role of the following five factors of relationship maintenance on positive relationship characteristics:
- (1) Openness: Research highlights the importance of openness in promoting strong and healthy relationships. This means actively “opening up” to your partner about your thoughts and emotions (self-disclosure) and providing a safe space for your partner to do the same.
- (2) Positivity: Positivity as a relationship strategy involves expressing an attitude of cheerfulness and fun when interacting with your partner.
- (3) Assurances: Assurances involve relationship maintenance behaviors directed toward love, commitment, and faithfulness.
- (4) Sharing Tasks: Sharing tasks is related to the basic equality of tasks that you face as a couple.
- (5) Shared Social Network: This factor is focused on the utilization of friendships and affiliations to support/maintain the relationship.
What aspects of your relationship do you have the ability to consciously improve? Take a moment to pause and reflect on the strength of positive relationship characteristics already present within your partnership. You can choose to take a step back and cultivate greater mindful awareness of your relationship by noticing realistic areas for growth. Try to give yourself and your partner the gift of acknowledging aspects of your relationship where you truly shine as a couple. Look for opportunities to use openness, positivity, assurance, equality, and outside social support to strengthen your relationship. If you notice yourself engaging in a relationship maintenance behavior that works, keep it up and observe the outcome… if a behavior doesn’t work, let it go.
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If you are interested in learning what your adult attachment style is, try this free attachment style quiz, based on the widely used “Experiences in Close Relationships – Revised” (ECR-R) questionnaire.
Dainton, M., & Stafford, L. (1993). Routine maintenance behaviors: A comparison of relationship type, partner similarity and sex differences. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10, 255-271.
Ogolsky, B. G. & Bowers, J. R. (2012). A meta-analytic review of relationship maintenance and its correlates. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (2013, January 9). Expert suggests tried-and-true strategies to strengthen your relationship. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 16, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2013/01/130109110059.htm
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