“Spouses had some difficulty decoding their partners’ expressions of love. Because partners were able to decode expressions of hostility more accurately, they reciprocated hostility more frequently than they reciprocated love.”

The first thing that came into my head was: Why?

This painted such a bleak picture of romantic relationships.

Initially, I thought the reason might be due to poor communication skills. As the text calls it, the “skills-deficit model” of marital distress. So perhaps if partners could learn to express negative emotions in more constructive ways, the problem would be solved. Or it might be due to the way humans are, that we are better at finding fault with others than giving praise.

However, the fact that some other studies have found

“a person may display high-level skills in one relational context (e.g. with coworkers) but not in another (e.g. with a spouse)” (page 21)

is very revealing. I feel that this means the problem with many relationships is not poor communication skills, but because one or both parties simply don’t bother. They may not be putting in enough effort, because they are taking the relationship for granted.

The study by Nodler on comparing skills of couples in decoding nonverbal cues of strangers and their spouse found that “dissatisfied partners were not at a deficit with regard to their decoding abilities” but “they seemed to be unable (or perhaps unwilling) to decode accurately the nonverbal behaviour of their partner.” (page 21)

Indeed, after reading the text I am under the impression that it is very easy for one to be stuck in a negative cycle: those who are dissatisfied with their relationships “tend to make relatively negative, ‘distress-maintaining’ attributions for their partners’ behaviours” (page 12). They might hence engage in negative affect reciprocity or a demand-withdraw pattern. We might eventually start to give up and not bother to work at the relationship anymore. But quite often, people take relationships for granted even when the relationship is pretty stable.

In fact, it is when relationships become stable that we start to take others for granted.

To quote the text again, “the frequency with which spouses engaged in affectional behaviours decreased significantly shortly after marriage. The frequency of partners’ negative behaviours, by contrast, remained relatively stable” (page 17). Marriage, at least for some, is like a gesture of bonding and confirming the relationship; to assure your partner that you want to spend the rest of your life with him/her. So after tying the knot, the relationship can be said to be relatively stable. That is perhaps when one or both parties start to take the other for granted, and may put in less effort in maintaining the relationship, since it is already “confirmed”, so to speak. And when we stop working at relational maintenance, that is when problems start to appear, either because the relationship is stuck in a rut (life becomes boring when partners stop trying to give each other pleasant surprises) or one party feels he/she is over/underbenefited, as we learnt in the equity theory.

Expanding on this point, some of us tend to take many other people for granted as well, besides romantic partners. Our best friends or family members are always there for us when we need them, so we might become too lazy to appreciate them or put in effort to maintain the relationship. Unfortunately (for me or my friends?), I feel I am at times guilty of treating strangers better than my friends. For example I might go out of my way to be nice and polite to people I don’t really know, but I might be more demanding of my close buddies, maybe because I expect more from them or I’m less afraid of offending them since the relationship is already ‘stable’. Reading this has reminded me that relationships are ongoing processes–even when they may seem stable–and all the more we must actively treasure those around us.

(But then again, even if you may neglect friends in favour of love for a while, best friends will always be ready to give you a hug when things don’t work out. That’s why best friends are the best, isn’t it?)


Note to self: I thought I’d have very little to say about this week, considering the number of romantic experiences I’ve had, but looks like I managed to tweak it a bit and come up with this chunk of junk.