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Chapter 21

Relationship Maintenance and


Dissolution

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Christopher R. Agnew and Laura E. VanderDrift

The study of relationship maintenance has a long


and rich history, largely flowing from the traditional
view of relationships as having a set beginning and a
set end. Maintenance is held to be whatever takes
place psychologically and behaviorally in between
that beginning and end. Voluminous research has
catalogued factors related to a relationships initiation (e.g., Sprecher, Wenzel, & Harvey, 2008), its
maintenance (e.g., Canary & Dainton, 2003; Gaines
& Agnew, 2003), and its dissolution (e.g., Fine &
Harvey, 2006).
Rather than characterizing maintenance by
such discrete phases, however, we take the view
that a relationship at any given point in time is
more fruitfully conceptualized as being on an
independenceinterdependence continuum, with
complete independence of partners on one end and
complete interdependence between partners on the
other. Relationship maintenance can be thought of
as processes that help to keep involved actors relatively interdependent with one another. One benefit
of such a conceptualization is that it does not rely
on certain assumptions in previous approaches that
do not match the reality of how relationships can
change over time. For instance, such a conceptualization does not characterize all relationships of one
type as equivalent (e.g., a romantic relationship can
be more or less interdependent). Moreover, relationship initiation and termination are not considered to
be discrete events. A dissolved relationship, for
example, does not necessarily mean that no relationship exists; rather, the degree of interdependence
may have changed. This is fundamentally different

than an approach that views different relationship


types (e.g., romances, friendships, sexual relationships, kin relationships) as characterized by unique
processes. Such a conceptualization also provides a
useful framework for reviewing past relationship
research that has been conducted under the rubric
of relationship maintenance. In this chapter, we
review that work, as well as findings relevant to failing to maintain a relationship, from this perspective.
We begin by reviewing past work on relationship
maintenance, characterizing the processes investigated by researchers as (a) serving to keep partners
who are content with their current place on the
independenceinterdependence continuum stable
(stability promotion processes), (b) aiding in
increasing partners interdependence (greater interdependence promotion processes), or (c) coming
online when a threat to the current position on the
continuum is confronted (threat-induced processes).
Despite the bevy of relationship maintenance
processes that may be at play, there are, of course,
cases in which partners fail to maintain their relationships. We conclude the chapter by reviewing
both the positive and the negative consequences for
individual partners of failing to maintain, the predictors of maintenance failure, and some suggested avenues for future research.
RELATIONSHIP MAINTENANCE
PROCESSES
Some relationship maintenance processes are characteristic of partners who are content with their

http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/14344-021
APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology: Vol. 3. Interpersonal Relations, M. Mikulincer and P. R. Shaver (Editors-in-Chief)
Copyright 2015 by the American Psychological Association. All rights reserved.

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Agnew and VanderDrift

place on the continuum of relative independence


interdependence and serve to keep them stable,
some aid in increasing partners interdependence,
and others come online when a threat to the current
position on the continuum is confronted.
Processes that promote greater interdependence
involve the entwinement of personal and relational
gain. Those that promote stability can prevent interdependence from either sliding down or sliding up.
Those that prevent it from sliding down buffer partners from the deleterious effects of constant reappraisal, as well as assist partners in their attempts to
not transgress. Those that prevent it from sliding up
have received less research, but what has been done
has suggested that these mechanisms limit some
component of the relationship to prevent interdependence (e.g., intimacy, amount of contact).
The majority of research to date has been on
those mechanisms that come online when a threat is
confronted. These threat-induced processes are in
service of promoting stability in position on the continuum, but they tend to be reactionary rather than
preventive.

Threat-Induced Maintenance Processes


When considering relationship maintenance, it is
most common to describe those processes that arise
to protect a relationship when a threat is encountered. These processes serve to keep the state of the
relationship constant when an event is encountered
that threatens to place a wedge between the two
partners personal goals and the goals of the relationship more broadly (Rusbult & Agnew, 2010).
Threats to the relationship can take many forms but
can be broadly categorized into three classes: (a)
noncorrespondence of outcomes, (b) threats internal to the relationship, and (c) threats external to
the relationship. It is in dealing with these three
classes of threats that the relationship maintenance
activities that we broadly call threat-induced processes come online with the goal of holding the state
of the relationship constant.
Noncorrespondent outcomes. When in an interdependent relationship, an individuals own behavior affects his or her own well-being, as well as the
well-being of his or her partner and relationship.
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The extent to which both partners well-being is


similarly affected by the actions that are available
to them is known as correspondence of outcomes
(Kelley & Thibaut, 1978). Often, the two partners in
a relationship are equivalently affected by the available actions (i.e., an action that benefits one partner
benefits the other similarly). A threat to the relationship arises in the exception to this, in which the
actions that benefit one partner do not benefit the
other. If threat-induced maintenance processes do
not come online during times of noncorrespondence
of outcomes, individuals may act in self-interested
ways to the detriment of their relationships. Several
processes are available to counter such a threat,
including transformation of motivation and willingness to sacrifice.
Transformation of motivation. Transformation
of motivation involves considering and placing the
broader interests of a relationship ahead of immediate, self-interested instincts (Kelley & Thibaut,
1978). As such, it is a process that protects a relationship against the threat associated with noncorrespondence of outcomes. In the first empirical
examination of this process, participants were asked
to give their reactions to a hypothetical situation in
which their partner and they were trying to decide
which of two movies to view on a particular evening
(as described in Kelley et al., 2003). There were four
possible events for an individual in this situation: (a)
see own preferred movie with partner, (b) see own
preferred movie without partner, (c) see another
movie with partner, and (d) see another movie without partner. Participants were presented with these
options and asked to rate their preferences. When
they believed their partner had no preference, they
rated going together to see their preferred movie as
very desirable, going together to the other movie as
slightly positive, and going alone to different movies as quite negative. In this situation, there was no
transformation of motivation because there was no
clear preference incompatibility between partners.
However, when participants believed their partner
had a preference for the other movie, their view of
their own outcomes was sharply modified to take
into account the partners preference: Going together
to ones own preferred movie was less attractive than
before and going together to the other movie

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Relationship Maintenance and Dissolution

(i.e., the partners perceived preferred movie)


became more desirable. In this case, there was transformation of motivation, and taken together, the
total pattern of results shows the influence of transformation of motivation: Individuals who transform
motivation take account of both their own and their
partners outcomes when making decisions. Because
a partners happiness affects ones own happiness,
the outcomes that are associated with getting ones
way versus giving in are not as would be expected
when an individual acts alone (Kelley et al., 2003).
The mechanism of transformation of motivation
involves individuals attending to the aspects of the
situation that are relevant to their own and their
partners outcomes and interpreting and reacting to
those aspects in ways that are explained by their
own social person factors. When transformation of
motivation occurs, individuals act not on the given
situation (i.e., the situation as objectively presented)
but instead on the transformed effective situation
(i.e., how the individual interprets the situation
given the outcome implications and his or her social
person factors; Kelley et al., 2003; Rusbult & Van
Lange, 2003). How this works is twofold.
First, increases in interdependence are frequently
accompanied by increases in situation-relevant
attention, cognition, and affect (Kelley et al., 2003).
In interdependent situations, individuals attention
is diverted to the features of interaction situations
that are relevant to their own personal well-being
as well as to the well-being of others. Individuals
can recognize the ways in which their own outcomes may be affected by others actions, as well as
the ways in which others outcomes may be affected
by their own actions. Second, in interdependent
situations, the importance of social person factors
(i.e., the abilities, needs, and goals that are relevant
to the interaction; Holmes, 2002; Kelley et al.,
2003) is high. These factors influence individuals
behavior when they are cognizant and responsive
to an interdependent situation, including both their
own and their partners outcomes. Accordingly,
individuals in interdependent situations can act in
ways that cannot be explained simply by the given
situation but instead are attributable to a combination of the situation and the properties of the
individual.

Transformation of motivation provides a


procedural explanation for why, when faced with
noncorrespondent outcomes, relationship partners
do not always act in self-interested ways. However,
it is also possible for individuals to not act on their
self-interests without any perceptual shifts occurring. That is, there are cases in which individuals
will inhibit their desired response or engage in an
undesired response for the betterment of their
relationship.
Willingness to sacrifice. Willingness to sacrifice
involves the individual forfeiting his or her own
self-interest to promote the well-being of a partner
or the relationship (Van Lange et al., 1997). This can
be done by passively forfeiting behaviors that would
otherwise be desirable, actively engaging in behaviors that would otherwise be undesirable, or both.
The earliest explanations for willingness to sacrifice revolved around the notion of relationship commitment (Rusbult, Agnew, & Arriaga, 2012).
Committed individuals are dependent on their relationships and are likely to sacrifice self-interest to
maintain their relationship. They have a long-term
orientation toward the relationship that promotes
sacrifice because patterns of reciprocal cooperation
are likely to yield better outcomes long term than
behaving in line with immediate self-interest. They
are also psychologically attached to their partners
(A. Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992) and have developed a communal orientation toward their partner
(Agnew, 2000; Agnew & Etcheverry, 2006; Agnew,
Van Lange, Rusbult, & Langston, 1998), both of
which suggest that a departure from ones self-interest
that benefits a partner may not be subjectively experienced as a departure from self-interest (Rusbult &
Agnew, 2010). This explanation for willingness to
sacrifice is akin to transformation of motivation, but
it is distinct with regard to the exact mechanism.
During cases of transformation of motivation, individuals perceive their behavioral options differently
as a function of their partners preferences, but there
is no assumption that they reap benefits for acting in
line with their partners preferences. A commitmentbased explanation for sacrifice, however, makes no
assumption about whether individuals actually
perceive their behavioral options differently as a
function of their partners preferences, but it does
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Agnew and VanderDrift

suggest that individuals receive benefits from acting


in nonself-centered ways. Certainly the two processes share a degree of similarity, but because they
differ in whether the mechanism is perceptual (i.e.,
transformation) or evaluative (i.e., commitment),
distinguishing between the two has implications for
who will use which mechanism when and what outcomes for the self and the relationship are likely to
result.
Other explanations for sacrifice do not rely on
transformation of motivation or being high in commitment, but rather on the fact that sacrificing for a
partner can yield benefits for the individual. For
instance, sacrifice is beneficial for impression management concerns (McCullough et al., 1998), can
lead to short-term reciprocity in exchange relationships (Clark & Mills, 1979), and can even yield a
boost in positive affect that is associated with behaving prosocially (Batson, 1987). These explanations
for sacrifice explain why, when the cost of the sacrifice is low, even individuals low in commitment are
willing to sacrifice (Powell & Van Vugt, 2003).
Additionally, attachment motives can explain some
sacrificial behavior, because sacrifice can promote
proximity, love, and support between partners.
When these outcomes are perceived to be viable,
individuals higher in attachment anxiety exhibit
greater willingness to sacrifice than do those lower
in anxiety or higher in avoidance (Impett & Gordon, 2010). Whatever the explanation, ample evidence has suggested that willingness to sacrifice is
associated with positive outcomes for the relationship, including greater dyadic adjustment and relationship persistence (Mattingly & Clark, 2010; Van
Lange et al., 1997; Wieselquist, Rusbult, Foster, &
Agnew, 1999), and is thus considered a powerful
maintenance mechanism that comes online to protect relationships against the threat of noncorrespondent outcomes.
Threats internal to the relationship. Not all
threats to a relationship can be explained as natural consequences of sharing outcome interdependence with another, as the noncorrespondence of
outcomes threats can be. Relationship partners,
even highly committed and satisfied ones, may act
destructively on occasion by engaging in behaviors
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such as putting their own needs before those of their


partners or relationships, acting critically, or being
unsupportive. This bad behavior presents a threat to
the relationship. How individuals react to their partners bad behavior has implications for the relationship. Several maintenance mechanisms exist that
hold the potential to combat the threat, including
accommodation and forgiveness.
Accommodation. When a partner behaves
destructively, an individual has numerous behavioral
options available to him or her, each associated with
different outcomes for the relationship. The individual can choose to retaliate in kind, which has negative implications for the relationship (e.g., Gottman,
1998), or can suppress his or her own destructive
behavior and behave prosocially toward the partner. Researchers have examined what reactions are
typical in such situations and have formulated a
typology of four behaviors (i.e., exit, voice, loyalty,
and neglect) that differ along two dimensions (i.e.,
passiveactive and constructivedestructive). The
passiveactive dimension refers to the influence
of the response on the original problem, whereas
the constructivedestructive dimension refers to
the influence of the response on the relationship
(Rusbult, Zembrodt, & Gunn, 1982). Exit, an
active destructive reaction, involves behavior such
as ending or threatening to end the relationship
and abusing, criticizing, or derogating the partner.
Neglect is also destructive but differs from exit in
being passive. It involves behaviors such as allowing
the relationship to deteriorate, avoiding discussing problems, and criticizing the partner regarding
unrelated issues. Loyalty is passive and constructive,
involving behaviors such as passively waiting for
improvement, maintaining faith in the partner in
the face of hurtful actions, and forgiving and forgetting an offense. Finally, the active and constructive
response of voice encompasses discussing problems,
suggesting solutions, and engaging in efforts to
change problematic behavior (Rusbult et al., 1982).
This range of behavioral options is encompassed in
the construct of accommodation.
Accommodation refers to an individuals willingness to inhibit tendencies to react destructively
when a partner behaves destructively (i.e., inhibit
exit and neglect responses) and instead engage in

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Relationship Maintenance and Dissolution

constructive reactions (i.e., use voice and loyalty


responses; Rusbult, Verette, Whitney, Slovik, & Lipkus, 1991). Much research has examined the benefits of accommodation, with the overwhelming
majority of the empirical support suggesting a good
manners rule: Avoiding destructive acts is more
beneficial to maintaining a satisfying and enduring
relationship than is attempting to maximize constructive acts. Constructive acts are beneficial
because they interrupt a spiral of negativity that can
result from a partner behaving badly (Holmes &
Murray, 1996; Rusbult, Johnson, & Morrow, 1986),
but reacting negatively to a partners destructive
behavior by deploying retaliatory criticism or
withdrawing, for instance, can lead to a greater
likelihood that the threat will indeed harm the relationship (Gottman, 1998) and promote a spiral of
negativity that presents more opportunities for the
relationship to suffer harm (Rusbult et al., 1986).
Given the benefits for maintaining relationship
status associated with accommodating in the face of
a partner behaving destructively, it is logical to
question why individuals might ever choose to retaliate instead of accommodate. According to interdependence theory, an individuals initial reaction to
his or her partners destructive behavior (i.e., his or
her given preference) will be to react in a self-centered
way rather than a relationship-centered way (Kelley
& Thibaut, 1978). The processes that give rise to
accommodation, then, are ones that enable individuals to suppress the initial, automatic destructive
impulses they experience. Commitment promotes
the ability to accommodate, with the evidence suggesting that not only is accommodation beneficial
for maintaining a committed relationship, but it is
also more common among those high in commitment to their relationships (Perunovic & Holmes,
2008; Rusbult & Agnew, 2010). However, people
also engage in accommodation when they are low in
commitment, which suggests that a procedural
explanation beyond commitment also exists.
Research has suggested that self-regulatory strength
is a component of this process. Indirect evidence for
this can be found by examining the conditions
under which individuals are most likely to react
badly, such as when the partners destructive
behavior has evoked strong negative emotions

( Kelley & Thibaut, 1978) or when under time pressure (Yovetich & Rusbult, 1994). Strong negative
emotions and time pressure are both known to limit
an individuals self-regulatory ability to override
basic impulses (Baumeister & Heatherton, 1996), so
one can infer that the ability to self-regulate is a key
component of a procedural explanation for accommodation that does not rest on commitment level.
Indeed, those individuals who have lower dispositional self-regulatory ability or have had their selfregulatory ability experimentally depleted engage in
less accommodation than do those with higher selfregulatory ability and those who have not been
depleted (Finkel & Campbell, 2001). These differences are robust to the influence of commitment
level, suggesting that self-regulation is an important
part of accommodation that occurs regardless of
commitment. We should note, however, that having
the ability to self-regulate and accommodate does
not necessarily suggest that an individual also has
the desire to do so. For that, an individual must
desire his or her relationship to continue or see
other benefits in accommodating.
Forgiveness. Accommodation is a maintenance
mechanism that explains in-the-moment reactions
to destructive partner behavior broadly, but
when the destructive partner behavior is extreme,
a more considered, pointed response may be
required to protect the relationship. Specifically,
relationship norm violations and betrayals present
some of the largest threats to a relationship, and
thus they require a powerful maintenance mechanism to come online to protect relationship status
(Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, & Hannon, 2002).
That mechanism is forgiveness, which is defined
in many ways but most commonly described as
the willingness to forgo resentment, condemnation, and subtle revenge toward a partner while
simultaneously bolstering feelings of generosity and love that may not be deserved given the
transgression (Enright, 1996). This definition has
elements suggesting that it is both intrapersonal
(i.e., a within-forgiver mental phenomenon) and
interpersonal (i.e., a forgiverbetrayer interaction phenomenon). When a betrayal occurs or a
relationship norm is violated, the empirical evidence has suggested that forgiveness is often an
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Agnew and VanderDrift

effective mechanism for protecting the state of the


relationship (Fincham, Beach, & Davila, 2007),
except when partners frequently engage in betrayals and norm violations, in which cases forgiveness
is associated with steep declines in relationship
satisfaction for the forgiver (McNulty, 2008). The
benefits of forgiveness after a betrayal are not limited to the relationship, as demonstrated by findings that forgiving can benefit the forgivers mental
health (Coyle & Enright, 1997; Karremans, Van
Lange, Ouwerkerk, & Kluwer, 2003) and physical
health (McCullough, Orsulak, Brandon, & Akers,
2007; van Oyen Witvliet, Ludwig, & van der Laan,
2001). As with accommodation, given the benefits
associated with forgiveness of a betrayal for the
relationship and the individual, it is reasonable
to question why individuals ever fail to forgive.
Because forgiveness can entail one partners making a large concession for the relationship, there
are also instances in which negative consequences
result for the forgiver. Specifically, when the forgivers partner has failed to indicate that he or she
will be safe and valued in a continued relationship
after providing forgiveness, the forgivers selfrespect is likely to be diminished (Luchies, Finkel,
McNulty, & Kumashiro, 2010), which may reduce
the incentive to forgive in the future. Additionally,
individuals may fail to forgive for procedural reasons. As with accommodation, forgiveness involves
overriding an impulse to act in a retaliatory or
otherwise destructive manner in favor of acting in
a more prorelationship manner. Thus, forgiveness
of large transgressions is less likely insofar as the
potential forgivers self-regulatory resources have
been depleted (Stanton & Finkel, 2012). Other
explanations for when individuals will or will
not forgive have been examined. Some predictors
of forgiveness reside at the individual level (e.g.,
agreeableness, narcissism, neuroticism; Exline,
Baumeister, Bushman, Campbell, & Finkel, 2004),
some at the relationship level (e.g., commitment,
attachment anxiety; Finkel, Burnette, & Scissors,
2007; Finkel et al., 2002), and others at the level
of the betrayal event itself (e.g., apologies, concessions, severity; Folger & Cropanzano, 1998;
McCullough et al., 1998). Results from these
examinations have indicated that predictors at all
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three levels influence how likely forgiveness is for


a specific betrayal.
Threats external to the relationship. Relationships
do not exist in a vacuum, devoid of social
surroundings. Thus far, we have discussed threats
to the relationship that originate in the relationship,
either as a natural consequence of interdependence
(i.e., noncorrespondence of outcomes) or as a consequence of the actions of one of the partners (i.e.,
destructive partner behavior). It is also possible that
a source beyond the dyad can introduce a threat.
One of the most commonly encountered threats
that originates external to the relationship is that of
an attractive other who may materialize and tempt
one of the partners to engage in an extradyadic
relationship.
Alternatives. One of the most significant hazards
to interdependence in relationships is an attractive
alternative who might tempt an individual to leave
or alter the nature of the current relationship (e.g.,
Agnew, Arriaga, & Wilson, 2008; Le & Agnew, 2003;
Rusbult, 1983). Not all alternatives are equally
threatening. Desirable alternatives are those that
have greater physical attractiveness and social status
(Lydon, Meana, Sepinwall, Richard, & Mayman,
1999) or, in the case of female alternatives, are in
their period of peak fertility (S. L. Miller & Maner,
2010). These are the alternatives that most evoke
relationship maintenance from the perceiver.
Through two processes, individuals in committed relationships may derogate their alternatives.
The first process is motivated, in which partners in
committed relationships devalue the quality of possible relationship alternatives to maintain cognitive
consistency (i.e., they perceive alternatives to be less
physically and emotionally attractive than they
objectively are to maintain their image of themselves
as a reliable partner; Johnson & Rusbult, 1989).
This process is dependent on having the resources
necessary to derogate; individuals with greater selfregulatory resources display less interest in attractive members of the desired sex than do individuals
whose self-regulatory resources have been depleted
(Ritter, Karremans, & Van Schie, 2010).
The literature also supports a perceptual bias
against alternatives (Johnson & Rusbult, 1989;

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Relationship Maintenance and Dissolution

R. J. Miller, 1997; Simpson, Gangestad, & Lerma, 1990),


based on the construct of comparison level (see
Kelley et al., 2003). A comparison level is the collective set of expectations individuals hold regarding
what outcomes they believe they should receive
from their relationships. The expectations can come
from modeled behavior (e.g., parents relationship),
media (e.g., television depictions of relationships),
and personal experience. If the relationship outcomes received surpass the comparison level, an
individual is said to be satisfied within his or her
relationship. If the outcomes surpass the comparison level over an extended period of time, the comparison level can shift up (i.e., the quality of positive
outcomes that are expected increases). In assessing
whether an alternative is attractive, individuals compare what they believe they could receive from the
alternative with their comparison level. If their current relationship is satisfying, and thus the comparison level is high, fewer alternatives will seem
attractive than when the comparison level is low. In
this way, individuals perceive alternatives of equal
quality differently depending on the perceived satisfaction in their current relationship (Johnson &
Rusbult, 1989).
Additional support for the existence of a perceptual bias against alternatives holds that partners simply fail to notice that they have alternatives or ignore
the alternatives they encounter (R. J. Miller, 1997).
Social life is so complex that individuals often pursue numerous goals at one time. Because of the limited nature of cognitive resources, however, these
goals must be hierarchically stacked so that only the
most salient goal at any given time receives conscious attention and the rest operate in the background (Schlenker, Britt, & Pennington, 1996).
Ongoing goal pursuits are most typically guided by
features of automaticity (notably lack of effortful
control; Bargh, Gollwitzer, Lee-Chai, Barndollar, &
Trotschel, 2001) until a situation arises in which the
goal is thrust into conscious awareness (e.g., when a
problem in implementation arises). When
processing automatically, individuals attention
focuses on goal-relevant stimuli to the exclusion of
goal-irrelevant stimuli (see Gollwitzer & Sheeran,
2006). For partners in relationships, the implication
is that the goal of maintaining the relationship most

often operates via automatic processing (unless


problems have arisen) and, when in this mode, goalirrelevant distractions (i.e., alternatives) are not
attended to. In other words, partners in ongoing
relationships may simply ignore their alternatives,
or deem them irrelevant, to preserve cognitive
resources for ongoing goal pursuits.
Summary. Throughout this section, we have summarized some of the most empirically supported
relationship maintenance processes that come online
when a threat to relationship status is encountered.
Potential threats to the relationship originate in different places, ranging from within the very nature
of interdependence to completely external to the
relationship, but are similar in that they are all commonly encountered and potentially deleterious to
the continued success of the relationship. These
mechanisms and processes are important tools available to partners to ensure their relationship status
remains constant.
Threat-induced processes are unique from the
other classes of processes that will be described in
that they are initiated in response to a problem
rather than because the partners desired a specific
outcome. Because of this, it is important to briefly
consider the underlying motivation behind the use
of these processes. A perspective on what compels
interpersonal behavior that has received support as
an explanation for what motivates individuals to use
maintenance mechanisms in the face of relationship
threat was proposed by Gray (1981), who suggested
that two behavioral systems underlie personality:
the behavioral approach system and the behavioral
inhibition system. The behavioral approach system
promotes approach motivation, in which behavior is
enacted to achieve rewards and positive outcomes,
whereas the behavioral inhibition system promotes
avoidance motivation, in which behavior is enacted
to avoid punishments and negative outcomes.
Research has suggested that which of these motivations drives an individual to use a threat-induced
maintenance mechanism plays a significant role in
whether that mechanism is beneficial for the
relationship or not (Impett, Gable, & Peplau, 2005;
Mattingly & Clark, 2012). Only those acts that are
engaged in for approach-motivated reasons are
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Agnew and VanderDrift

b eneficial for the relationship; those instances in


which individuals engage in maintenance for
avoidance-motivated reasons are negatively associated with individual and relational well-being.
The motivation underlying threat-induced maintenance processes is not the only similarity between
them worth emphasizing. Each of the threats to the
relationship described here involves an individual
having to navigate personal and relational concerns.
In some cases, an individual must forgo individual
desires for the betterment of the relationship (e.g.,
willingness to sacrifice, derogation of alternatives),
whereas in others an individual must suppress an
automatic response to act in a self-interested way for
the betterment of the relationship (e.g., accommodation, forgiveness). Indeed, the theme of personal
concerns and relational concerns requiring reconciliation is not unique to threat-induced maintenance.
Theorists have argued that achieving equilibrium
between personal and relational concerns is a primary goal of individuals in relationships
(Kumashiro, Rusbult, & Finkel, 2008).
Personal and relational concerns can compete for
an individuals attention and resources to greater or
lesser degrees (VanderDrift & Agnew, in press). As we
have alluded to, times of high threat are especially
likely to pit personal goals against relational ones.
Another instance that is especially likely to have this
quality is when the relationship is characterized by a
low level of interdependence. For relationships
characterized by high interdependence at times of
low threat, however, personal and relational concerns are nearly synonymous, and what an individual does for the betterment of one domain has
positive implications for both domains. Accordingly,
a key characteristic of highly interdependent relationships can be thought of as the enmeshment of
personal and relational concerns. Thus, a powerful
tool available to partners who want to increase their
level of interdependence with their partners is to
combine personal and relational concerns.

Interdependence-Promoting Maintenance
Processes
Interdependence-promoting maintenance processes
are those that involve entwining personal and relational concerns. Research has indicated that some of
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these interdependence-promoting mechanisms are


more commonly used in the beginning stages of
relationships to develop relationships characterized
initially by low interdependence (e.g., self-disclosure,
self-expansion), whereas others are commonly used
in already developed relationships to increase
moderate or high interdependence levels (e.g.,
capitalization, investment). These differentiations
are normative but not necessary, because each of
these mechanisms can theoretically be used at any
level to create greater interdependence.
Self-disclosure. Self-disclosure was among the
first processes examined to understand how relationships move from relatively low amounts of
interdependence to relationships characterized by
greater interdependence. In their social penetration
theory, Altman and Taylor (1973) theorized that
the reciprocal exchange of self-relevant information
is the primary means through which relationships
develop. As with the majority of relationship phenomena, a pattern of mutual cyclical growth exists
with self-disclosure: People disclose more to those
whom they initially like, and people like others
more as a result of having disclosed to them (Collins
& Miller, 1994). Additionally, there is cross-partner
cyclical growth in which an individuals disclosure is
likely to elicit disclosure from his or her partner
(L. C. Miller & Kenny, 1986). In fact, compared
with the amount of variability attributable to individual factors (e.g., some people disclose more
than others, some people receive more disclosures
than others), the variability in frequency of self-
disclosure that is attributable to relationship factors
(e.g., reciprocity) is exceedingly high (more than
86%; Kenny, 1994).
In terms of self-disclosure content, research has
suggested that partners tend to match both in topical
content and in depth of their self-disclosures to each
other (Derlega, Metts, Petronio, & Margulis,
1993). Typically, the exchange of information
begins with relatively nonintimate topics and progresses to more personal and private aspects of the
self as interdependence increases (Altman & Taylor,
1973). Longitudinal studies of the influence of
self-disclosure on interdependence have suggested
that self-disclosure is high in the early stages of

Relationship Maintenance and Dissolution

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r elationship formation (Hays, 1985), but after a relatively short period of time, dating couples have
exhausted the majority of the factual disclosures
they have to make, and most conversations tend to
be nondisclosing (Rubin, Hill, Peplau, & DunkelSchetter, 1980). In sum, self-disclosure seems to be
a means by which relationship partners increase
interdependence in the early stages of a relationship,
but it is less characteristic of long-term everyday
discourse.
Capitalization. Capitalization, which can be
thought of as a special case of self-disclosure, refers
to the process by which an individual shares a positive personal life event with a partner and derives
additional benefit from it (Gable, Reis, Impett, &
Asher, 2004). Empirical evidence has supported the
notion that when people share their good news with
others they experience enhanced positive affect,
beyond the increases expected from the news itself
(Langston, 1994), and that this benefit stems from
the partners reaction. The extent to which partners
respond actively and constructively to individuals
capitalization disclosures (vs. passively or destructively), as measured by both the individuals general
perception of their partners enthusiasm during
capitalization interactions (Gable et al., 2004) and
actual partners responses provided during a specific capitalization interaction (Gable, Gonzaga, &
Strachman, 2006), is associated with increased individual and relationship well-being. These benefits
derive from two mechanisms: (a) sharing good news
with enthusiastic others increases the perceived
value of that news and (b) partners enthusiastic
responses during capitalization interactions promote
the development of trust and a prosocial orientation toward the partner (Reis et al., 2010). That is,
capitalization is beneficial to the individual and the
relationship, and this benefit stems from increases in
interdependence between the partners.
Investment. Other mechanisms for increasing
interdependence in a relationship do not rely on
information sharing but instead suggest other
means by which personal and relational concerns
are entwined. Investments in a relationship are the
resources that are attached to a relationship that
would diminish in value or be lost if the relationship

were to end (Rusbult, 1980; Rusbult, Martz, &


Agnew, 1998). These resources can be extrinsic (i.e.,
previously extraneous resources become linked to
the relationship) or intrinsic (i.e., resources directly
put into the relationship), tangible (i.e., resources
that physically exist) or intangible (i.e., resources
without material being), and made in the past or
planned for the future (Goodfriend & Agnew, 2008).
The construct is broad, and whereas some notable
differences in relationship outcomes exist depending
on the type of investments held by the partners (i.e.,
intangible investments are more strongly associated
with commitment than are tangible investments;
Goodfriend & Agnew, 2008), the similarities are
more notable. Across all types of investment, investing leads to greater commitment and relationship
stability (Le & Agnew, 2003).
Michelangelo phenomenon. Thus far, each of
the interdependence-promoting mechanisms discussed has focused on how personal concerns are
folded into relationships. With self-disclosure and
capitalization, personal information is shared with
another to deepen a relationship, and with investment, personal resources are tied to the relationship.
Relational processes also contribute to personal
goals, however, which can yield benefits for both
the individual and the relationship. One of the
most prominent interpersonal models of how close
partners promote individuals pursuit of ideal selfgoals has been titled the Michelangelo phenomenon
(Drigotas, Rusbult, Wieselquist, & Whitton, 1999).
Like the sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti once
said regarding blocks of stone, humans possess
ideal forms waiting to be released. These ideal forms
describe individuals aspirations, or the skills and
traits that they want to acquire that provide direction to personal growth strivings (Higgins, 1987).
Through interactions, individuals adapt to their
partners, changing their behavior to coordinate with
what their partner needs and expects from them.
Whereas this can occur between interaction partners
with any amount of shared interdependence, the
mutual dependence that characterizes highly interdependent relationships affords opportunities for
exerting frequent, benevolent influence across
diverse behavioral domains. For that reason, it is in
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Agnew and VanderDrift

interactions with partners characterized by great


interdependence that adaptation is most powerful,
probable, and enduring (Rusbult, Finkel, &
Kumashiro, 2009). Through processes of partner
perceptual affirmation (i.e., the extent to which a
partner consciously or unconsciously perceives the
individual in ways that are compatible with the individuals ideal self) and partner behavioral affirmation (i.e., the extent to which a partner consciously
or unconsciously behaves in ways that elicit idealcongruent behaviors from the individual), the individual moves toward his or her ideal self. This
movement, in turn, has been found to be associated
with beneficial individual outcomes such as
enhanced personal well-being (e.g., life satisfaction;
Drigotas, 2002) and, also important, positive relationship outcomes such as enhanced adjustment
and greater probability of relationship persistence
(Drigotas et al., 1999).
Self-expansion. Another instance in which a
relationship contributes to an individuals personal
goals that yields benefits for both the self and the
relationship is with respect to self-expansion. Selfexpansion, or the notion that individuals have a
fundamental need to expand their sense of self,
including their physical influence, cognitive complexity, social identity, and global awareness, can be
applied to understanding interpersonal relationship
processes (E. N. Aron & Aron, 1996). Early in relationships, opportunities to achieve self-expansion
abound because of the high levels of novelty and
arousal associated with forming relationships and
getting to know a new partner (A. Aron, Norman,
Aron, McKenna, & Heyman, 2000). Consistent
with the notion that self-expansion is a motivating
force for individuals, this experience is imbued with
positive affect, leading individuals to continue to
develop those relationships that offer self-expansion.
Once the novelty of a new relationship ebbs, selfexpansion opportunities take a different form but
nevertheless still promote greater interdependence.
Engaging in shared self-expansion experiences with
a romantic partner (i.e., those that are novel and
arousing to both partners) can promote greater relationship functioning by increasing positive affect
and excitement and decreasing boredom in the
590

r elationship (A. Aron et al., 2000). Furthermore,


in close relationships, individuals come to view
their partners as extensions of the self (Agnew
et al., 1998; A. Aron, Aron, Tudor, & Nelson, 1991),
and thus they treat the others resources, perspectives, identities, and accomplishments as their own
(Mashek, Aron, & Boncimino, 2003). The benefits
of this process for the self are robust, but there are
also notable benefits of self-expansion for the relationship. To the extent that another is included in
the self, especially when this is made salient, individuals immediate responses in conflicts of interest
with the partner give equal weight to the concerns
and desires of both the partner and the self (A. P.
Aron, Mashek, & Aron, 2004).
Risk regulation. Increasing interdependence does
not come without risk. To be highly interdependent,
as alluded to by the discussion of entwining personal and relational concerns, involves individuals
behaving in ways that give a partner power over
their outcomes and emotions (Gagn & Lydon,
2004; Kelley, 1979). Additionally, being interdependent with another is associated with disclosing
self-doubts and seeking social support from them
during times of vulnerability (Collins & Feeney,
2000). Thus, the mechanisms that promote interdependence also increase the likelihood of rejection in
the short term (e.g., because of the sharing of vulnerabilities) and the perception of how much losing
the relationship would hurt (e.g., because of idealized perceptions of the relationship). For this reason,
a process to manage that risk is necessary. This
process, referred to as risk regulation, explains how
individuals balance the goal of seeking closeness to
a partner with the goal of minimizing the likelihood
and pain associated with rejection (Murray, Holmes,
& Collins, 2006).
Risk regulation entails using confidence in a
partners regard as a gauge of whether it is safe to
put self-protection concerns aside to promote the
relationship (Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 2000). To
facilitate this process, three systems come online in
service of risk regulation: (a) a cognitive system
(i.e., the appraisal system), (b) an affective system
(i.e., the signaling system), and (c) a behavioral
system (i.e., the behavioral response system; Murray

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Relationship Maintenance and Dissolution

et al., 2006). The first system that comes online in


the process of risk regulation is the appraisal system,
wherein individuals evaluate their partners perceptions of their qualities and the regard they have for
those qualities. Individuals derive confidence from
believing that their partner perceives that they have
qualities worth valuing that are not readily available
in other potential partners. Next, the signaling system comes online and detects discrepancies between
the appraisal of their partners regard and the
appraisal they desire from their partner. Discrepancies are experienced emotionally, as either positive
(e.g., when the partners appraisal is higher than
desired) or negative (e.g., when the partners
appraisal is lower than desired). Finally, a behavioral response system comes online as either a direct
result of the experience of approval or disapproval
(as generated by the appraisal system) or an indirect
result of that experience through the resulting emotions (as generated by the signaling system). This
behavioral response system acts to proactively minimize the likelihood and pain of potential future
rejection experiences by allowing interdependence
to increase with a partner only as far as the appraisal
and signaling systems have indicated the partner
will accept. Together, the three systems that make
up the risk regulation process help individuals
detect and react to their partners regard for them in
ways that promote a safe balance of connectedness
and the risk of pain.
Summary. The interdependence-promoting processes summarized are certainly not the only mechanisms an individual can use to deepen the state of
his or her relationship, but they were selected to
showcase the breadth of activities that can achieve
this outcome. Mechanisms are available to increase
interdependence from any starting level, which
means that increasing interdependence is a form
of relationship maintenance that is possible among
relative strangers as well as among relationship
partners who have been together for decades. All
of these mechanisms suggest that combining personal and relational concerns is a primary means
to increasing interdependence, but how those concerns are combined differs. Some of the mechanisms
described involve personal information or resources

being linked to the relationship, whereas others


entail relational processes becoming linked to personal concerns. In both scenarios, there are benefits
for both the relationship and the individuals that
result in increased interdependence.
Not all individuals and situations lend themselves equally well to using these interdependencepromoting mechanisms. Using capitalization as an
example, individuals high in attachment avoidance
are less responsive when their partners share positive news and underestimate their partners enthusiasm regarding their own sharing of positive news
(Shallcross, Howland, Bemis, Simpson, & Frazier,
2011). Furthermore, those whose partners have low
self-esteem are less likely to disclose positive events
than those whose partners have high self-esteem,
citing fear that the interaction will go poorly for
themselves as the primary reason (MacGregor &
Holmes, 2011). Examples such as these can be
found for each interdependence-enhancing process.
For example, those who are high in avoidant attachment would be expected to be reticent to become
highly interdependent with another. Similarly, being
in a relationship with a partner with low self-esteem
is less likely to be conducive to the development of
high interdependence.
It is not just in these cases that individuals may
fail to use an interdependence-promoting mechanism.
Sometimes, the partners may be satisfied with their
current level of interdependence and simply want it
to remain constant. Several processes are known to
do just that, categorized here as stability-promoting
maintenance processes.

Stability-Promoting Maintenance
Processes
Early in relationshipsperhaps because of concerns
about impression management, contact restricted to
nearly exclusively positive settings, or the abundant
self-expansion opportunitiesindividuals are
overwhelmed by attraction to their partners, seeing
primarily virtues in them (E. N. Aron & Aron, 1996;
Brickman, 1987; Holmes, 2000). This attraction can
be threatened as relationships develop, as impression
management efforts ebb, as partners begin interacting
across a wider range of domains, and as self-expansion
opportunities begin to slow. Additionally, and
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Agnew and VanderDrift

s omewhat ironically, individuals may notice their


partners more serious faults only once the barriers
to leaving the relationship are great. Maintenance
processes that promote stability of interdependence
are, thus, important tools that must be used as relationships persist.
Unlike the previously discussed processes, the
processes that promote stability operate continuously and tend to operate outside of individuals
conscious awareness, and by and large they are outside of conscious control (Holmes, 2000). These
processes can occur via automatic activation, in
which the interpersonal goals that unconsciously
guide perception and behavior become activated for
an individual by the mere psychological presence of
the partner (Fitzsimons & Bargh, 2003). They can
also occur via a form of motivated cognition, in
which the dissonance associated with feeling dependent on an imperfect other leads to individuals
making biased appraisals of their partner and relationship, which leads to relationship-maintaining
behavior (Holmes, 2000). Regardless, despite not
being consciously enacted to serve a relationship
function, each of the mechanisms described here has
a profound effect in promoting stability of interdependence in relationships.
Positive illusions. Because few life decisions have
as much impact as choosing to become committed to an imperfect individual, in which the likelihood of being let down by his or her behavior at
some point is nearly inevitable given the amount
of dependence and emotional vulnerability associated with romantic relationships (Brickman, 1987;
Holmes & Rempel, 1989), individuals are motivated
to make certain cognitive appraisals that support
their decision to maintain their relationship. Indeed,
committed individuals see their partners as superior to the average partner (Van Lange & Rusbult,
1995), their relationships as less vulnerable to
divorce (Helgeson, 1994), and after relationship trials or hard times, they experience a bolstered sense
of commitment (Lydon & Zanna, 1990). Further
evidence has suggested that these effects are specific
to the amount of interdependence within a relationship; the more central a partner is to the individuals
identity, the more favorably the individual perceives
592

that partner (Martz et al., 1998). A partners faults


and virtues are subject to an observers subjective
biases, which gives individuals latitude with which
to make impressions regarding their characteristics
and in interpreting their behavior (Griffin & Ross,
1991; Holmes, 2000). This latitude is often used by
individuals to become more secure in their partners
dependability, as evidenced by the fact that their
partners negative behavior is more often than not
attributed to unstable situational forces rather than
stable dispositional ones (Bradbury & Fincham,
1990). Individuals also use this latitude to feel more
positive about their choice of partner; individuals
assessments of their ideal partners are highly associated with their perceptions of their actual partners
(Fletcher, Simpson, Thomas, & Giles, 1999; Murray,
Holmes, & Griffin, 1996). Together, this evidence
suggests that people are motivated and do indeed
find ways to achieve a sense of security in a relationship, often by seeing their partners in an idealized
way. This idealization, referred to as positive illusions,
entails individuals seeing their partners in more
positive ways than even their partners themselves
or their other close friends do (Murray et al., 1996).
Early research on positive illusions focused on
detailing whether holding inaccurate perceptions
of ones partner was a detriment or a benefit to the
relationship. The majority of the evidence has suggested that not only are positive illusions beneficial,
but they may be a romantic necessity (Murray
et al., 1996, p. 1155), allowing individuals to make
a leap of faith and believe that their relationship
future is certain, despite evidence stemming from
both their own relationship woes and witnessing
the relationship woes of others that such confidence
is unwarranted. The benefits of positive illusions
for relationships are robust. Those who hold strong
positive illusions, relative to those who do not, are
more satisfied and less distressed and have fewer
conflicts in their relationships, and their relationships are less likely to dissolve (Murray et al., 1996).
Additionally, spouses who idealized each other
as newlyweds were more in love at that time and
experienced smaller declines in love over a 13-year
span (P. J. Miller, Niehuis, & Huston, 2006). Thus,
positive illusions are important to maintaining relationships. Even Japanese individuals, who do not

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Relationship Maintenance and Dissolution

show the self-enhancement characteristic of Western


cultures (Kitayama, Takagi, & Matsumoto, 1995),
exhibit positive illusions in their relationships
(Endo, Heine, & Lehman, 2000), providing further evidence that positive illusions are integral to
relationship success. Despite the relational benefits
associated with positive illusions, however, there is
risk associated with allowing perceptions of ones
partner to become biased in this way. Specifically,
positive illusions compromise self-protection concerns by increasing the perception of how much
losing the relationship would hurt (Simpson, 1987).
As such, individuals must have a certain amount of
trust in their partner to allow these positive illusions
to color their perceptions and decisions.
Trust. Definitions of trust abound (e.g., Deutsch,
1973; Rotter, 1980; Scanzoni, 1979), but the first
empirical analyses of the construct as applied to
interpersonal relationships found it to be multidimensional (Rempel, Holmes, & Zanna, 1985). This
analysis revealed that the most central dimension
of trust is faith, defined as the belief that ones
partner will act in loving and caring ways whatever
the future holds (Rempel et al., 1985, p. 109). Also
important are the dimensions of dependability (i.e.,
believing that a partner can be relied on in immediate, objective ways) and predictability (i.e., believing
a partner will not act in inconsistent ways). Today,
most theorists have agreed that, within the context
of close relationships, trust can be considered an
internal gauge of the extent and reliability of a
partners motivation to act in ways that promote,
rather than hinder, the relationship (Simpson, 2007;
Wieselquist et al., 1999).
Having trust in ones partner has many beneficial
consequences for a relationship. Notably, trust
serves as a filter through which relationship events
are perceived and interpreted (Rempel et al., 1985).
In problem-solving discussions, for instance, trust in
a partner is positively associated with making consistently positive, benevolent attributions for the
partners behavior (Holmes & Rempel, 1989) and
expressing these attributions during their discussions (Rempel, Ross, & Holmes, 2001). Furthermore, individuals become increasingly likely to
defer immediate gratification and allow themselves

to be vulnerable to a partners influence as they


become more trusting (Kelley et al., 2003). Perhaps
not surprising in light of the benefits, trust is considered by many to be one of the most desired attributes in an ideal close relationship, on par with love
and commitment (Hendrick & Hendrick, 1983).
Given that trust plays a central role in many of the
processes necessary to maintain close relationships, a
great deal of research has focused on the means
through which trust develops. From an interdependence perspective, trust in a relationship is enhanced
when an individual witnesses his or her partner
behave in a prorelationship manner (e.g., accommodate, be willing to sacrifice; Rusbult & Agnew, 2010;
Wieselquist et al., 1999). In addition to the trust an
individual can build in interaction with a specific
other, individuals may develop relatively stable levels
of trust across partners and people more generally.
Attachment theory suggests that, because of early
childhood experiences, individuals differ dispositionally in the ability and willingness to trust others
(Hazan & Shaver, 1994). The amount of trust individuals exhibit toward close others is a key feature
that separates those who are securely attached from
those who are not (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007; Simpson, 2007). Notably, individuals high in attachment
insecurity find it difficult to trust others, with fearful
avoidants (i.e., those high in both anxiety and avoidance) being the least trusting (Shaver & Clark, 1994).
Summary. The mechanisms that promote stability in interdependence are more likely than
mechanisms used for other purposes to occur
automatically, outside of conscious awareness and
control. They operate continuously to influence the
perceptions and behaviors of involved individuals
in ways that promote the level of interdependence
shared between the individuals remaining constant.
The differentiation between the processes that are
stability promoting and those that are interdependence enhancing described in this chapter is normative, but it is not absolute. That is, the mechanisms
categorized as stability promoting typically function
to promote stability but can promote interdependence enhancement, and vice versa.
Many of the mechanisms discussed as interdependence enhancing (e.g., investing, self-disclosure)
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Agnew and VanderDrift

serve double functions in relationships. Not only do


they promote greater interdependence between partners, but because they represent personal resources
that become sunk into the relationship and cannot
easily be removed, they also promote stability.
Indeed, the extent to which an individual feels he or
she has invested heavily in the relationship is negatively associated with leaving that relationship (Le
& Agnew, 2003; Le, Dove, Agnew, Korn, & Mutso,
2010). In this way, these are barriers to exiting the
relationship that need to be considered and navigated before the interdependence level of a relationship can be reduced.
Additionally, many of the mechanisms discussed
as stability promoting (e.g., positive illusions, trust)
can also contribute to greater interdependence in
the relationship. Holding positive illusions, for
example, can serve as an interdependence-enhancing
mechanism akin to the Michelangelo phenomenon.
By treating ones partner as if he or she is ideal and
opting to give the benefit of the doubt when necessary, positive illusions can increase esteem and
attachment security in the partner, thus facilitating
the partner becoming closer to the ideal partner
(Murray et al., 1996).
Our categorization of mechanisms, then, is based
on the most normative situation in which each process is used, but it is imperfect. This imperfection
reflects the reality of relationships, in which processes of mutual cyclical growth or decline characterize the trajectories of interdependence (Agnew
et al., 1998; Wieselquist et al., 1999). Mutual cyclical
growth refers to the process by which prorelationship motives and behavior can influence each other,
yielding tendencies toward greater interdependence.
The cycle was first described with regard to cognitive interdependence and trust, holding that (a)
dependence on a relationship promotes strong commitment, (b) commitment promotes prorelationship
thinking and actions, (c) prorelationship acts are
perceived by the partner, (d) the perception of prorelationship acts enhances the partners sense of
cognitive interdependence and trust, and (e) cognitive interdependence and trust increase the partners
willingness to become dependent on the relationship, and so on (Agnew et al., 1998; Wieselquist
et al., 1999). It is in a shared pattern of interactions
594

over time that cycles of this nature can develop in


ongoing relationships, and thus whether a particular
mechanism promotes stability or growth in interdependence is a normative, but not necessary,
distinction.

Failing to Maintain a Relationship


Despite the bevy of relationship maintenance processes that promote relationship stability, there are,
of course, cases in which partners fail to maintain
their relationships. Whether by allowing a threat to
affect the relationship without using the necessary
maintenance mechanism or by simply failing to
engage in sufficient stability-promoting maintenance, the instances in which relationships are not
maintained are associated with (sometimes sharp)
decreases in interdependence. These drops are often
described as breakups, but we have argued that this
language and way of thinking (i.e., that relationships
are either on or off) does not mirror reality (Agnew
et al., 2008). Instead, relationship partners may shift
the status of their relationship to one characterized
by less interdependence. Nevertheless, because of a
shared history and the potential for recurring contact,
they are still interdependent relationships.

Consequences of Failing to Maintain


Failing to maintain a romantic relationship has been
shown to have many consequences for the individual partners. In the context of stressful life events,
divorce and marital separation have been ranked as
the second and third most stressful events an individual can undergo, respectively, higher, even, than
death of a close family member or being in jail
(death of a spouse, which could be considered the
dissolution of a romantic relationship as well, was
rated the most stressful event; Holmes & Rahe,
1967). It is counterintuitive, then, that some of the
consequences of romantic relationship dissolution
are positive.
Compared with empirical examinations of the
negative consequences of dissolution, relatively few
studies have detailed the positive consequences of
dissolution. Those that have, however, suggested
that it is at least as common to experience positive
outcomes after dissolution as it is to experience
negative ones, be they independent positive

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Relationship Maintenance and Dissolution

o utcomes or positive outcomes that are experienced


simultaneously with the negatives (Tashiro, Frazier,
& Berman, 2006). Several positive emotions can be
experienced by individuals after the dissolution of a
relationship, including relief (Spanier & Thompson,
1983), freedom (Reissman, 1990), autonomy
(Marks & Lambert, 1998), and enjoyment of life
(Nelson, 1982). There are also more global positive
outcomes, such as that found in one study in which
a majority of women (75%) report being happier 3
years after marital dissolution than they were during
the final year of their marriage (Hetherington,
1993). These benefits are hypothesized to stem from
stress relief and personal growth (Tashiro et al.,
2006). When the relationship itself was stressful, the
benefits of its dissolution are likely at least in part to
be a result of the relief of the stress being removed.
Regardless of whether the relationship was a
stressor, however, personal growth can result from
dissolution. This growth has been reported to be
experienced in many domains, including in the self,
ones personal philosophies, and other relationships
(Tashiro et al., 2006).
Despite the potential for positive outcomes after
dissolution, there are nevertheless a host of negative consequences. After dissolution, individuals
report great emotional upheaval, including longing
for their ex-partners, anger, and sadness (Sbarra &
Ferrer, 2006). For those who are left by their partners, these emotions can be devastating (Amato,
2000; Sprecher, 1994). Those who leave their partners are not exempt from feeling negative emotions. Leavers often feel guilt, regret, and shame
(Emery, 1994). After dissolution, individuals often
behave in ways that are self-destructive to cope
with these emotions, including making exaggerated
attempts to reestablish the relationship, engaging in
angry or vengeful behavior, and using drugs and
alcohol to cope (Davis, Shaver, & Vernon, 2003).
Arguably the most negative of the consequences
associated with dissolution is with respect to
health: Those whose relationships dissolve experience decreased physical health in the form of
decreased immunologic functioning (Kiecolt-Glaser
et al., 1987).
Perhaps because of the host of negative
consequences for individuals whose romantic

r elationships dissolve, much research has examined


predictors of dissolution. Procedurally, evidence
has suggested that (a) individuals commitment to
maintaining the relationship ebbs, then (b)
commitment to ending the romantic relationship
(i.e., dissolution consideration) increases, and
finally (c) the individual engages in the behaviors
necessary to decrease the amount of interdependence he or she shares with the partner to a desired
level (VanderDrift, Agnew, & Wilson, 2009). When
an individual has high dissolution consideration,
he or she is more likely to take immediate action to
reduce his or her interdependence. Thus, dissolution consideration is one of the most proximal
precursors to failing to maintain a relationship; it
assesses whether individuals are experiencing
increasing commitment to end their romantic
relationship and making incremental progress
toward that outcome (VanderDrift et al., 2009).
When examining predictors of romantic relationship dissolution that are more distal to dissolution,
there is greater variety both in the nature of the
predictor and in how strongly each has been found
to be associated with dissolution.

Predictors of Relationship Dissolution


Throughout this chapter, we have described
processes that are important for relationship maintenance. Each of these processes is associated with
benefits for the relationship, but the outcome most
telling with regard to how integral a process is to
relationship maintenance is whether it is associated with maintaining the relationship. Examining
how strongly these processes contribute to a relationships failing to be maintained provides additional information about the importance or
centrality of the process to relationship
maintenance.
The predictors of dissolution are often categorized by whether they are individual level, relationship level, or external (Cate, Levin, & Richmond,
2002; Le et al., 2010; Rodrigues, Hall, & Fincham,
2006). In meta-analytic work, there is robust support
for the importance of relationship-level characteristics on dissolution, with the influence of individuallevel and external characteristics being less strongly
associated with dissolution (Le et al., 2010).
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Agnew and VanderDrift

Relationship-level predictors. Some of the predictors of romantic dissolution are relationship-level


characteristics, such as relationship quality, interactions between the partners, the affect experienced
within the relationship, and the cognitive representations of the relationship (Le et al., 2010). Each of
the processes detailed as a maintenance mechanism
in this chapter becomes a predictor of romantic dissolution when absent (e.g., willingness to sacrifice
is a relationship maintenance process, and failing
to be willing to sacrifice is a predictor of romantic
dissolution). Among the most robust predictors of
dissolution are positive illusions, commitment, and
love (Le et al., 2010), each of which evidences a
large effect size in predicting dissolution. Also associated with maintaining the relationship, but moderately so, are the previously described processes of
trust, self-disclosure, perceived quality of alternatives, and investments. In addition, closeness level,
satisfaction level, dependence level, and ambivalence each predict dissolution. Not all relationshiplevel constructs are highly associated with failing to
maintain a relationship. The presence of conflict, for
example, evidences a small effect size in predicting
dissolution. We should note that the strategies used
during conflict (e.g., accommodation, stonewalling) can be highly predictive of later dissolution, but
the presence of conflict itself evidences only a small
effect size (Gottman, 1998; Le et al., 2010; Rusbult
et al., 1991).
Individual-level predictors. Individual factors are
characteristics, traits, or dispositions of the individual partners in the relationship. These can be
either general (e.g., the Big Five personality traits)
or specific to relationships (e.g., attachment orientation). Early research on such individual-level
predictors suggested that they are weak predictors of
dissolution (Huston & Levinger, 1978). Indeed, neither self-esteem nor positive self-beliefs are associated with dissolution (Felmlee, Sprecher, & Bassin,
1990; Helgeson, 1994), and the Big Five personality
dimensions (i.e., agreeableness, conscientiousness,
extraversion, neuroticism, and openness) have garnered mixed support as predictors of dissolution.
In nonmarital relationships, none of the Big Five
dimensions predict dissolution (Le et al., 2010), and
596

in marital relationships, agreeableness, extraversion,


and conscientiousness only predict dissolution in
specific circumstances (e.g., high levels of extraversion are weakly associated with dissolution for
husbands only; Bentler & Newcomb, 1978). Some
evidence has shown that emotional stability predicts
dissolution in marital relationships (Kelly & Conley,
1987; Kurdek, 1993), yet other evidence has suggested that it is associated with satisfaction but not
dissolution (Bentler & Newcomb, 1978; Karney &
Bradbury, 1997).
Individual differences that are specific to relationships are more predictive of dissolution than are
broad personality dimensions, but still the support
is largely weak or mixed. Implicit theories of relationships refer to the beliefs individuals hold regarding the nature of relationships (Knee, 1998). There
is a small effect for destiny beliefs (i.e., the belief
that partners are either meant for each other or not),
with those who hold strong destiny beliefs being
more likely to dissolve their relationships (Le et al.,
2010). Attachment, which refers to the nature of the
affectual bond between partners (Hazan & Shaver,
1994), has received mixed support as a predictor of
dissolution. In an early examination of attachment
style and dissolution, researchers found that avoidant men and women had the highest likelihood of
dissolution (Feeney & Noller, 1992), whereas subsequent research found avoidant mens relationships
and anxious womens relationships were just as stable as the relationships of those who were securely
attached after 3 years (Kirkpatrick & Davis, 1994).
Meta-analytic results of the attachmentdissolution
association found small effects for both avoidance
and anxiety, such that higher levels of each is associated with greater likelihood of dissolution (Le et al.,
2010). Taken together, the support for individuallevel predictors of dissolution is weak, characterized
by mixed findings and small effect sizes.
Despite being poor predictors of failing to maintain a relationship on their own, many of the dispositions examined function in tandem with
relationship-level predictors to predict dissolution.
For example, under some circumstances, attachment anxiety is positively associated with being
willing to sacrifice (Impett & Gordon, 2010), and
destiny beliefs are positively associated with

Relationship Maintenance and Dissolution

f orgiveness (Finkel et al., 2007). Thus, these dispositions are important to relationship maintenance,
but in and of themselves, they do not constitute
important relationship maintenance processes.
AVENUES FOR FUTURE RESEARCH

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Although an enormous amount of research has been


conducted over the years on relationship maintenance and dissolution, areas remain that are particularly ripe for additional work. We highlight several
such areas here.

Successful Balancing of Personal


and Relational Concerns
As mentioned earlier, an important characteristic of
highly interdependent relationships is the enmeshment of personal and relational concerns. Those
seeking to increase their interdependence with a
partner should work to successfully combine satisfying both personal and relational goals simultaneously. What is less clear is how to do so, particularly
in Western societies in which individual goal attainment is so strongly stressed within the larger culture.
The message that one cant have it all is often
broadcast (e.g., Slaughter, 2012) and, if a sacrifice is
perceived as necessary, it more often than not tends
to be a relationship that is sacrificed. Increasing
trends toward solo living testify to rising problems
in balancing individual and relational concerns
(Klinenberg, 2012). Research that investigates
success storiesinstances in which individuals are
able to achieve a happy balance between personal
and partner concernsmay provide insight into
particularly effective approaches to getting the
balancing act right.
This issue is complicated by the very nature of goal
pursuits. Cognitive adaptations arise to help individuals achieve goals that could derail the relationship
maintenance processes described previously. For
instance, individuals who are pursuing a goal draw
closer to others who can facilitate the pursuit (Fitzsimons & Fishbach, 2010), which may make individuals reticent to engage in interdependence-promoting
processes with their romantic partners unless they
promote their goals. Additionally, while undertaking
personal goal pursuits, individuals adopt mindsets

that promote closed-minded, one-sided focus on that


goal (i.e., they selectively attend away from distractions from the goal pursuit and process incoming
information and store it in a biased fashion that supports continuing the goal pursuit; Gollwitzer, 1990).
This mindset may make individuals less likely to
engage in the stability-promoting mechanisms
described previously (VanderDrift & Agnew, in press).
Future research examining how goal pursuits and
other daily activities influence individuals willingness
and ability to engage in relationship maintenance
would be useful, as it may illuminate ways in which
people can learn to achieve a balance between personal and relationship concerns.

Shifts Over Time in Interdependence


With a Given Partner
Research on the dynamic nature of shifts on the
independenceinterdependence continuum between
given partners is sorely needed (Agnew et al., 2008).
For example, it is abundantly clear that people often
continue in a relationship featuring a different
degree of interdependence after the dissolution of a
romantic relationship. How that process unfolds and
what predicts the relative satisfaction experienced in
latter relationships that feature lower interdependence is an understudied area. Such research
requires long-term longitudinal work, involving the
vagaries attendant to such efforts (e.g., need for continuous flow of research support, participant attrition), but it is critical to capture the true dynamics
at work over time in a given dyadic relationship.
The framework offered here, one that situates relationship maintenance on a continuum of relative
independenceinterdependence, is ideally suited to
the task.

Understanding Postdissolution Resilience


More research could also be directed toward understanding what circumstances in a given relationship
are more likely to promote a more positive outcome
after relationship dissolution. Both person and situational factors require attention. Some individuals are
better at coping with the aftermath of a downward
shift in interdependence than are others. What
dispositional factors account for adaptive coping in
a relationship context? What individual differences
597

Agnew and VanderDrift

are associated with particularly poor postdissolution


personal outcomes? What predissolution relationship dynamics are associated with optimal individual functioning postrelationship? Such questions
deserve attention.

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CONCLUSION
Relationship maintenance can be thought of as processes that help to keep involved actors relatively
interdependent with one another. Such a conceptualization provides a useful framework for reviewing
past research conducted under the rubric of relationship maintenance. In this chapter, we reviewed
past work from this perspective, characterizing the
processes investigated by researchers as (a) stability
promoting, (b) interdependence promoting, or (c)
threat induced. We look forward to future work that
continues to further our understanding of processes
that keep relationships going.

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