Factors that Prompt Turbulence in Romantic Relationships

Every frequent flyer can recount a time when an otherwise pleasant flight was marred by turbulence. A change in wind speed, air temperature, or altitude can jostle a plane and rattle the passengers inside. During these moments of turbulence, passengers are likely to become more attentive and aware of certain aspects of the flight that had previously gone unnoticed. They might pull their seatbelt a little tighter, or grip the armrest more firmly. They might listen more closely to that clicking noise that seems to be coming from the engine, or become more sensitive to the vibrations they sense under their feet. The same experience can be seen in romantic relationships when changing circumstances make people more reactive to events, experiences, and interactions with their romantic partner. Fortunately, just as air turbulence is a normal part of flying and rarely brings down the plane, relational turbulence is also a natural byproduct of negotiating intimacy with a partner and it does not have to sink your relationship.

Relational turbulence is a global and persistent appraisal of a relationship as tumultuous, chaotic, and unstable, resulting from repeated interpersonal episodes characterized by extreme emotions, cognitions, and behaviors. Relational turbulence theory argues that transitions in relationships create conditions that are ripe for relational turbulence (Solomon, Knobloch, Theiss, & McLaren, 2016). Notably, the theory does not assume that transitions are inherently negative or problematic events, it characterizes transitions as periods of change that create a mismatch between existing relationship norms and new relational circumstances. Transitions create opportunities for missteps and discontinuity until partners establish new patterns of relating that are responsive to the new conditions in the relationship. Just as an airplane can overcome turbulence by adjusting its speed, direction, or altitude, relationship partners can re-establish equilibrium by adapting their roles and routines to better align with changing relational circumstances.

There are two features of romantic relationships that give rise to relational turbulence. First, relational uncertainty refers to the questions or doubts that people have about the degree of involvement in a romantic relationship. Relational uncertainty can stem from a variety of sources. People can have self uncertainty, which reflects ambiguity about one’s own level of commitment or desire in the relationship. On the other hand, people can also have partner uncertainty, which involves doubts about a partner’s level of interest or involvement in the relationship. At a broader level, people can also have relationship uncertainty, which occurs when individuals are unsure about the nature or future trajectory of the relationship in general. Transitions are ripe for relational uncertainty because changing conditions in the relationship leave individuals unsure about how to behave, what their partner wants, or how the relationship might evolve. Relational uncertainty contributes to relational turbulence because it can lead to more biased appraisals of relationship events and undermine people’s ability to communicate effectively.

The second feature of relationships that gives rise to turbulence is interference from partners. As romantic couples engage in the process of negotiating interdependence, each partner will have a certain degree of influence over the other partner’s individual goals and routines. As partners exercise greater influence in one another’s daily routines, opportunities exist for a partner to disrupt or facilitate personal goals. Facilitation from a partner refers to the extent to which a partner makes it easier to accomplish personal goals and perform daily routines, such as when a partner picks up groceries on the way home from work because the supermarket is more conveniently located near his or her office. Interference from a partner refers to the extent to which a partner prevents desired outcomes or makes activities more difficult, such as when a partner who does the grocery shopping forgets three ingredients that are needed to make a recipe for dinner. Transitions are ripe for interference from partners because changing conditions in the relationship render previously well-established routines ineffective, but partners have yet to establish new coordinated patterns of behavior. Interference from partners gives rise to relational turbulence because people typically respond with intense frustration and negative emotion when their goals are thwarted by the actions of their romantic partner.

In combination, relational uncertainty and interference from partners contribute to a relationship marked by increased conflict, jealousy, and negative emotions, as well as decreased openness, communication, and intimacy. Over time, these conditions coalesce into a sense that the relationship is unsettled, tumultuous, rocky, and unstable. Thus, just as pilots should be on the look-out for changing flight conditions that could create a bumpy ride, relationship partners should also be vigilant for signs of relational uncertainty and interference from partners that could send their relationship into a tail-spin.

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