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*IMPORTANT* Utilize Bevan –

Making Connections: Understanding Interpersonal Communication,

chapters 8 and 9  (specifically Section 9.2)

Watch an episode of a television program or film from the lists below:

Television options:


(Links to an external site.)

Modern Family

(Links to an external site.)

This Is Us

(Links to an external site.)

Film options:


Erin Brockovich

In this assignment, you will write a two- to three-page (500 to 750 word) paper in which you apply some of the communication-based conflict resolution strategies outlined in your textbook to a conflict in a fictional television program or film.

In your paper,

Define conflict, utilizing Bevan.

Describe one interpersonal conflict that was not handled effectively in the television episode or film.

Explain how this situation meets the criteria for interpersonal conflict, utilizing Bevan, Section 9.2.

Note: Focus on one exchange that illustrates one conflict and not the entire plot of the episode. If possible, provide some dialogue so the reader can clearly see how the characters handled the situation.

Explain why the conflict was not handled effectively, utilizing Bevan (Chapters 8 and 9).

Describe two strategies outlined in Bevan that the characters used to address the conflict, utilizing Bevan.

Describe two strategies outlined in Bevan that the characters could have used to resolve this conflict more effectively, utilizing Bevan.

The Interpersonal Conflict in Television or Film paper

Maintaining Interpersonal
Stephanie Deissner/F1online/Getty Images
Learning Outcomes
After reading this chapter, you should be able to
ሁሁ Understand key elements of relationship maintenance and the differences between positive and
negative relationship maintenance behaviors.
ሁሁ Identify the role of interpersonal communication in the commitment and intimacy processes.
ሁሁ Explain how empathy and social support contribute to relationship maintenance.
ሁሁ Describe challenges of relationship maintenance, including restoring equity, geographic distance,
and interactions via mediated channels.
ሁሁ Apply strategies for competent relationship maintenance communication.
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In his acceptance speech after winning Best Picture at the 2012 Academy Awards for the film
Argo, actor and director Ben Affleck thanked his then-wife, actress Jennifer Garner, by saying
“I want to thank you for working on our marriage for 10 Christmases. It’s good. It is work, but
it’s the best kind of work, and there’s no one I’d rather work with” (Zadan & Meron, 2013).
This seemingly innocent statement instantly ignited a firestorm, with many reporters and
media outlets criticizing Affleck’s choice of words and some even going so far as to question
whether Affleck and Garner’s marriage was in trouble at that time (they have since divorced).
However, the very notion that marriage—and any other close relationship—does not require
work is inaccurate. Melissa Wall, a blogger for the online dating website HowAboutWe.com,
wrote a post that stood up for Affleck and Garner the next day, calling his statement “moving
and authentic” (2013, para. 1). Wall (2013) continued her post by noting that individuals who
decide to get married make an enormous “emotional leap of faith” upon conducting an analysis of the costs versus benefits of marriage and deciding that the positives are greater than the
negatives. She goes on to describe the rewards that we hope to garner from marriage:
But at no point can we ever assume that these rewards will come without
putting in the work to achieve them. We’re signing up for a daily struggle—
some days it’s a small struggle, some days larger—and a distinct set of tasks
that must be completed in order to keep the whole thing from falling apart.
. . . Large or small, it’s still work—there is no way around that. And failing or
refusing to do this work means the death of the relationship, maybe not today,
but eventually. (Wall, 2013, paras. 7–8)
As we have discussed throughout this text, one of the most fundamental human needs is to
experience close, mutually caring, and supportive relationships. They are safe havens in times
of trouble and can provide comfort and support in times of need. To some degree, you have
been shaped and molded by how you communicate in your relationships with your parents,
siblings, and other family members, as well as your interactions with your romantic partners,
friends, and professional colleagues. You will most likely maintain a number of these relationships throughout your life because they provide you with innumerable positive experiences.
The excerpt from Wall’s blog post emphasizes many of the concepts that we are going to
discuss in this chapter, including relationship maintenance messages, equity, social support,
and commitment. Most importantly, Wall highlights the importance of putting in consistent
effort—often via communication—to sustain a relationship that is important to us.
Your interpersonal communication skills are some of the most important tools when building
a strong relationship. Competent communication patterns and skills are important characteristics of a quality relationship. Other specific factors that contribute to building and maintaining strong relationships include the following (Lang, Fingerman, & Fitzpatrick, 2003):
commitment to one another
willingness to work together to maintain the relationship
exchanges of social support
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Section 8.1
Relationship Maintenance
In this chapter, we build on concepts discussed in Chapter 7 related to initiating interpersonal
relationships and explore how to maintain relationships. We explore how each of the above
relationship and communication concepts factor into relationship maintenance. We will also
discuss a number of things that can challenge our ability to maintain a relationship, along
with strategies for improving your relationship maintenance competence.
8.1 Relationship Maintenance
As we have just noted, relationship maintenance is crucial but is too often overlooked or
viewed merely as work—a word that often has a negative connotation. Until just over 20
years ago, communication and social psychology researchers also ignored relationship maintenance processes in favor of understanding how relationships were formed and ended.
However, in 1991, communication researchers Laura Stafford and Daniel Canary formally
established relationship maintenance as a distinct and important form of interpersonal communication. Since then, hundreds of studies have increased our understanding of how we use
communication to preserve our relationships. How do you show your relational partners that
you care about them? Do you help your romantic partner by washing the dishes before they
get home from work? Do you post a link about an inside joke on your best friend’s Facebook
wall? Do you call your parents on their wedding anniversary to tell them that you are thinking
of them? When we behave in these ways, we are engaging in relationship maintenance—
actions and interactions that sustain or preserve the desired states of our relationships (Dindia & Canary, 1993).
To better understand the complexity of the various messages and actions that are a part of
relationship maintenance, Kathryn Dindia and Daniel Canary (1993) conducted an analysis
of how researchers defined relationship maintenance. They determined that there are four
common relationship maintenance definitions, identified in Table 8.1.
Table 8.1: Common definitions of relationship maintenance
Keeping a relationship in
Partners sustain the presence
of the relationship and avoid its
Keeping up agreed-upon daily
routines and tasks, such as taking out the trash or making sure
to ask how the partner’s day was
Keeping a relationship in a specific condition or state
Keeping a relationship in a satisfactory condition
Keeping a relationship in repair
Partners believe certain qualities
and aspects are important for
maintenance so that the relationship is not terminated
Partners experience satisfaction,
in addition to stability, and desire
to maintain this status
Partners keep a relationship in
working condition or fix a relationship that is in disrepair
Agreeing with a friend that you
are “just friends” and nothing
Feeling consistently content with
the partner and the relationship
Being willing to talk about issues
if the relationship begins to have
Source: Adapted from Dindia, K., & Canary, D. J. (1993). Definitions and theoretical perspectives on maintaining relationships.
Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10, 163–173.
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Relationship Maintenance
Section 8.1
Overall, these definitions of relationship maintenance can overlap with one another and
are applicable to relationship maintenance in a variety of relationships, including romantic,
friend, family, and professional. The first, keeping a relationship in existence, is the most basic
definition of relationship maintenance because it only involves sustaining the presence of
the relationship and avoiding its termination (Dindia & Canary, 1993). This definition thus
does not acknowledge the changing and shifting nature of relationships, nor does it account
for the variety of maintenance behaviors and messages partners can use. The second definition, keeping a relationship in a specific condition or state, includes the relationship qualities
or aspects that the partners believe are important for maintenance, such as intimacy, trust,
stability, and commitment, so that the relationship is not terminated. The third definition,
keeping a relationship in a satisfactory condition, emphasizes the belief that relationships can
be maintained when both partners experience satisfaction, in addition to the basic stability that is the focus of the second definition. The fourth and final relationship maintenance
definition is keeping a relationship in repair. There are two aspects of this definition: fixing
a relationship that is in disrepair and keeping a relationship in working condition (Dindia &
Canary, 1993).
It is important to understand how relationship maintenance is defined, but it is also crucial
to determine what behaviors or communication messages assist in the maintenance process.
Relationship maintenance behaviors are the actions, messages, and tasks that assist with
maintaining, managing, or repairing a relationship (Burleson, Metts, & Kirch, 2000). These
behaviors and messages are conscious and strategic and specifically involve how to define
and establish the parameters of the relationship and manage the tensions and threats to the
relationship’s integrity and existence (Burleson et al., 2000; Stafford, Dainton, & Haas, 2000).
There are many benefits to using relationship maintenance behaviors and messages. For
example, the more spouses engage in relationship maintenance, the greater the marital satisfaction (Stafford & Canary, 2006). In addition, the more romantic partners employ maintenance behaviors and messages, the less likely they are to terminate their relationships
(Guerrero, Eloy, & Wabnik, 1993). As with the definition of relationship maintenance, these
behaviors and messages can occur in a number of close relationship contexts.
The next sections identify the variety of behaviors and messages that we can employ to maintain our relationships. There are both positive and negative behaviors for maintaining close
relationships, which suggests that relationship maintenance is a complex interpersonal interaction that is not just confined to happy, satisfied couples. In other words, we may choose or
even be required to sustain and preserve a relationship that we have with another person,
such as a family member, that one friend in a tight-knit group that we don’t get along well
with, or a coworker.
Positive Relationship Maintenance Behaviors
Wall’s (2013) blog post about marriage, described at the beginning of the chapter, highlights
the importance of relationship maintenance messages in a successful marriage. The same is
true for other types of relationships. Conscious actions, such as cheerfully saying “good morning” to your colleagues at work or supporting a friend or loved one when a parent passes
away, are examples of positive maintenance behaviors. There are seven positive or constructive behaviors that can be strategically used to maintain relationships. The first five behaviors
were identified by Stafford and Canary (1991), and the remaining two behaviors were added
by Stafford and colleagues (2000):
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Relationship Maintenance
Section 8.1
• positivity: being optimistic, cheerful, pleasant, not criticizing your partner, and
showing affection and appreciation for the other person and the relationship
• openness: balancing self-disclosures and honest communication about the
• assurances: expressing commitment, love, faithfulness, emotional support, and
messages that imply that the relationship has a future
• social networks: seeking and providing support from common family and friend
• sharing tasks: performing one’s fair share of joint jobs and responsibilities in the
• advice: expressing partner-related emotions and cognitions and the willingness to
communicate opinions
• conflict management: using constructive and positive behaviors such as cooperating, listening, and apologizing when in conflict or disagreements with the partner
Let’s consider these positive maintenance
behaviors in relation to the communication
between Sidney and Jaime, a couple who
have been married for 12 years. Sidney and
Jaime work full-time and have two children.
In addition, Jaime is taking online business
courses in order to move up in his company.
In other words, they are a typical, busy adult
couple. However, despite all of these family
and professional responsibilities, Sidney
and Jaime make conscious efforts to maintain their relationship. They communicate
Stanislav Komogorov/iStock/Thinkstock
all of the above positive maintenance behav- ሁሁ Using positive relationship maintenance
iors: They tell each other “thank you” when behaviors can help partners preserve a satisfying
one does something nice for the other (posi- relationship.
tivity), and they discuss issues and are
truthful and kind to each other when they
disagree (openness and conflict management). Sidney and Jaime try to be clear about who
completes which task, such as emptying the dishwasher or running errands (sharing tasks),
and they ask Sidney’s sister, who lives nearby, for help with the kids when Jaime is working on
his courses (social networks). Finally, Sidney and Jaime make sure to tell each other that they
love each other, and they express that love by offering support and by seeking out and listening to each other’s advice when work or parenting issues arise (assurances and advice).
Using these positive maintenance messages in your close relationships can have a number
of payoffs. Spouses who were more committed to their relationships also used maintenance
behaviors more frequently (Stafford et al., 2000). It certainly seems that Sidney and Jaime
have a close, committed, and satisfying marriage, in large part because they treat each other
with respect and kindness by virtue of the above seven positive maintenance behaviors. In
addition, using assurances is most strongly related to positive relationship characteristics
(Stafford et al., 2000). In both heterosexual and same-sex romantic relationships, the most
frequently used relationship maintenance behavior is sharing tasks (Dainton & Stafford,
1993; Haas, 2002). Positive maintenance behaviors thus help both partners preserve a satisfying relationship.
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How Communication Helps Support Commitment and Intimacy
Section 8.2
Negative Relationship Maintenance Behaviors
Though it is preferable to focus on the positive behaviors that we can use to maintain our
relationships, sometimes partners use negative behaviors. For example, expressing jealousy
or engaging in avoidance can be used to retain a specific relationship status. Marianne Dainton and Jamie Gross (2008) explored such behaviors and identified six negative, antisocial
behaviors that can be used to maintain romantic relationships:
• jealousy induction: flirting with and commenting on others’ attractiveness to elicit
the partner’s jealousy
• avoidance: sidestepping discussions about a specific topic or evading the partner
• spying: checking up on the partner by looking at the partner’s e-mails and phone or
talking to others for information
• infidelity: flirting with others and engaging in affairs to keep from being bored and
dissatisfied with the relationship
• destructive conflict: being controlling, starting fights, and bossing the partner
• allowing control: giving the partner control in the relationship by not seeing other
people and letting the partner make decisions
Think back to the example of Sidney and Jaime. Consider what their relationship might look
like if they used negative maintenance behaviors instead of positive ones. For example, instead
of being kind and respectful in their everyday interactions and when they are arguing, Sidney
instead seeks to control and manipulate Jaime by threatening him and saying negative things
about him to their children (destructive conflict). Sidney also accesses Jaime’s e-mail and
mobile phone to see who else he is talking to and what they are discussing (spying). To keep
the peace and keep their marriage and family intact, Jaime tries to avoid Sidney and lets her
make most major household decisions (avoidance and allowing control). In essence, Sidney
and Jaime are maintaining their marriage with these negative maintenance behaviors but are
doing so in a much more destructive manner.
Overall, as you might predict, communicating via negative relationship maintenance is related
to decreased liking, commitment, sharing of responsibility, and respect, and such behaviors
tend to be used more by individuals who are insecure and have negative views of themselves
(Goodboy & Bolkan, 2011; Goodboy, Myers, & Members of Investigating Communication,
2010). In addition, the more partners use these negative relationship maintenance behaviors, the less satisfied they are with their relationships (Dainton & Gross, 2008). In the case of
Sidney and Jaime, if they rely on negative relationship maintenance behaviors, they are likely
to view each other, as well as themselves, with dislike and disrespect and be dissatisfied with
the very marriage they are trying to preserve. Thus, it is advisable to avoid consistently using
these negative messages to maintain your close relationships; instead, try to integrate more
positive maintenance messages with those to whom you are closest.
8.2 How Communication Helps Support Commitment
and Intimacy
In addition to relationship maintenance, commitment and intimacy are two essential factors
for building and fostering interpersonal relationships (Lang et al., 2003). Communication
is important because it allows partners to express how they feel about each other and the
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How Communication Helps Support Commitment and Intimacy
Section 8.2
relationship that they share. This section thus discusses how communication supports commitment and intimacy.
If you are committed to a relationship, you are dedicated to your partner and are unlikely to
leave if something goes awry. In other words, commitment is one’s “long-term orientation
toward a relationship, including feelings of psychological attachment and intentions to persist through good and bad times” (Cox, Wexler, Rusbult, & Gaines, 1997, p. 80). Partners in a
committed relationship make the extra effort to work at and improve their relationships, and,
in turn, this increased commitment benefits the relationship because it is associated with
increased relationship quality (Byers, Shue, & Marshall, 2004).
However, if you are not committed to a relationship, you are unlikely to protect it if difficulties arise. For example, romantic partners who are more committed to the relationship are
less likely to give each other the silent treatment and are more likely to admit they are upset
(Wright & Roloff, 2009), which can then initiate discussions about an upsetting issue. In the
next sections, we explore commitment in two different forms: first as a central component of
a theory about relationship maintenance, and second as a motivating force for how one communicatively responds to dissatisfaction in one’s interpersonal relationships.
The Investment Model
One of the primary theories used to understand how and why individuals remain in and work
to maintain close relationships is the investment model (Dindia, 2000). The investment
model predicts that our commitment to a relationship is the most helpful relationship characteristic for determining if a relationship will continue and remain stable or deteriorate and
end (Rusbult, 1980). Specifically, Caryl Rusbult (1980) stated that relationship commitment
is enhanced by three relationship components:
• high relationship satisfaction, which involves positive emotion and attraction
toward the relationship
• high investment in the relationship, which involves tangible and intangible
resources such as children, property, or shared feelings and experiences that
improve the relationship
• low quality of relationship alternatives, which are options other than the relationship, such as other partners, spending time with friends, and even being alone, that
could be viewed as more appealing than being in the relationship
Research has determined that the structure of the investment model can help explain elements of heterosexual and homosexual romances and friendships; it is also applicable in
other situations and contexts where commitment is relevant—such as professional organizations and educational settings (Le & Agnew, 2003).
Think again about the example scenarios for Sidney and Jaime. In one scenario, the couple
is maintaining their relationship with positive messages such as sharing tasks and assurances. As we noted, communicating using these positive relationship maintenance behaviors
helps Sidney and Jaime feel more satisfied and committed to their marriage. According to the
investment model, the more satisfied and invested Sidney and Jaime are in their relationship
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How Communication Helps Support Commitment and Intimacy
Section 8.2
and the fewer quality alternatives to their relationship they perceive, the more committed
they are to their relationship.
The investment model has also been a useful theoretical structure for understanding a variety of interpersonal communication situations and contexts. The model has helped researchers identify connections between commitment and predicting the continuation of different
types of relationships in the following situations:
• why dating partners forgive each other and communicate shortly after committing
relationship transgressions such as infidelity, deception, and dating or flirting with
someone else (Guerrero & Bachman, 2008, 2010)
• how friends communicate with one another (Eyal & Dailey, 2012)
• if supervisors use verbal aggression toward employees at work (Madlock & Dillow,
In the relationships that are important to you, you can apply the tenets of the investment
model by considering your levels of satisfaction and investment and the extent to which you
perceive that you have alternatives to the relationship. How does each of these contribute to
your overall commitment to the relationship? Could focusing on improving one specific relationship factor—such as becoming more invested in the relationship—increase your commitment? What might this mean for the relationship and your communication with your partner? (The Web Field Trip feature gives you a chance to put the investment model into
Web Field Trip: Applying the Principles of the
Investment Model
Luvze (https://www.luvze.com/) is a website that features content edited and written
by academics who study, research, and teach about different aspects of relationships. The
editors and contributors to this site, who hold advanced degrees in many different fields
of study, emphasize the importance of presenting readers with information and advice
that is backed by scientific evidence. Search for an article titled “Why Do Victims Return
to Abusive Relationships?” Consider the information presented, assessing how the content
relates to the material in this chapter, and then address the following questions.
Critical Thinking Questions
1. What specific types of resources and opportunities (i.e., alternatives to the abusive
relationship) could be provided to women to increase the likelihood that they will not
return to the abusive relationship?
2. In what other ways could the investment model be applied to other relationship
Communicative Responses to Dissatisfaction
Rusbult and her colleagues (1982) next sought to examine how relationship commitment
connects with communication when a partner is unhappy or dissatisfied in the relationship.
They created a typology of four responses that is based on how partners communicated
their dissatisfaction. The responses varied on two sets of related factors: (1) positive versus
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Section 8.2
How Communication Helps Support Commitment and Intimacy
negative (i.e., how kind or constructive versus how hurtful or destructive one acts), and (2)
active versus passive (i.e., how direct or dynamic versus how avoidant or static one’s behaviors are). Each of the typologies is identified and explained in Table 8.2.
Table 8.2: Responses to relationship dissatisfaction
Active versus
Positive versus
Breaking up, threatening to leave, or
moving out
Discussing issues, suggesting solutions, or entering into therapy
Being patient and waiting out problems that might arise
Ignoring the partner, refusing to
discuss issues, or spending less time
Source: Adapted from Rusbult, C. E., Zembrodt, I. M., & Gunn, L. K. (1982). Exit, voice, loyalty, and neglect: Responses to
dissatisfaction in romantic involvements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 1230–1242.
Based on the above descriptions, Rusbult and her colleagues (1982) found that voice and loyalty behaviors were more likely when romantic partners were more committed to each other
and had greater satisfaction with the relationship before the problems arose. Conversely, exit
and neglect were less likely in committed and satisfied romantic relationships, and expressing dissatisfaction via voice or loyalty also resulted in positive immediate and later consequences, including greater satisfaction and commitment over the long term (Rusbult et al.,
1982). In addition, Farrell and Rusbult (1992) found that using voice and loyalty—and not
using exit or neglect—when expressing dissatisfaction in the workplace was also associated
with higher employee job satisfaction.
These studies indicate that using positive and active responses, specifically voice responses,
are the best course of action when partners are dealing with issues but want to preserve
their relationship. Whether active or passive in nature, positive messages are more direct
and show consideration. Though loyalty behaviors can have the same benefits, such actions
might go unnoticed because they are less direct and thus more difficult for a partner to detect
(Drigotas, Whitney, & Rusbult, 1995).
Relationships rarely remain static. One important change can be growth toward greater intimacy. The root meaning of the word intimacy is “making known to a close friend what is
innermost” (Kasulis, 2002, p. 24). Intimacy involves growing closer by verbally and nonverbally sharing your deepest thoughts, feelings, and ideas with another person. All relationships—romantic, friend, family, and even professional—have the potential for intimacy. Social
psychologist Karen Prager (2000) even goes so far as to say that intimacy is “the distinguishing mark of a person’s most important and valued relationships,” contributing to the greatest
levels of satisfaction, trust, closeness, and love (p. 229).
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Section 8.2
How Communication Helps Support Commitment and Intimacy
As its definition suggests, communication
is inherent in intimacy; in fact, Prager
(2000) argues that intimate relationships
become so as a result of intimate interactions that are characterized by frequent,
emotional, personal, and private disclosures. Though we can have an intimate
conversation with someone whom we do
not know well, such as sharing personal
information with a seatmate on an airplane
or someone we meet on vacation, we cannot have intimate relationships without
personal and private disclosures (Prager,
2000). In other words, intimate communication is a necessary condition for having
an intimate relationship.
Comstock Images/Stockbyte/Thinkstock
ሁሁ In an interpersonal relationship, intimacy can
grow over time as partners begin to share more
about their innermost thoughts, feelings, and
What messages do you use when you want
to convey intimacy to your close relational partners? Most likely, you use a combination of
words, gestures, facial expressions, and touch. Indeed, research consistently finds that verbal
and nonverbal communication each uniquely contributes to our experiences in intimate relationships. Self-disclosure, an idea covered in Chapter 7, is the primary verbal message that
characterizes intimacy. Not only does disclosing private and personal information about you
foster intimacy, it also serves as a tool for building intimacy in newly formed relationships
(Prager, 2000). Self-disclosure can particularly amplify partners’ intimacy when it
• focuses on topics that are particularly personal and private;
• uncovers feelings, emotions, and meanings of events, in addition to the events
• involves immediacy behaviors that show that both partners are attentive to and
focusing upon the interaction; and
• is met with verbal responsiveness and interest from the listener (Prager, 2000).
Nonverbal communication is also important for building and sustaining intimacy. Prager
(2000) points out that involvement behaviors, which show that you are attentive, interested, and active in the conversation, are important when showing intimacy. Examples of specific nonverbal involvement behaviors that convey intimacy include
sharing mutual eye gaze;
having open body posture;
leaning forward toward your partner;
smiling and being facially animated;
nodding your head while speaking and listening; and
touching your partner, particularly on the face or the torso area of the body
(Prager, 1995).
In the sections we have just concluded, we illustrated the importance of interpersonal communication in commitment and intimacy processes. Quite simply, we cannot experience intimate, committed relationships without engaging in personal disclosures and close, involved
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Empathy and Social Support
Section 8.3
nonverbal behaviors. We turn now to the role of empathy and social support in maintaining
interpersonal relationships.
8.3 Empathy and Social Support
The next two important relationship characteristics that contribute to relationship maintenance are empathy and social support. As you will see, these two concepts are considered
together in this section because both emphasize the importance of taking your partner’s perspective instead of focusing solely on your own. Empathy and social support also highlight the
importance of assisting and understanding each partner and his or her respective needs in
the relationship. Each can help in creating shared meaning and in contributing to you being a
more active and effective listener.
If you have access to your feelings and understand them, you can develop the ability to understand and be sensitive to the feelings of others as well. This sensitivity can bring you closer
to people and enable you to feel empathy for them. Empathy is defined as putting yourself
in another person’s shoes or imagining another person’s thoughts, feelings, and perspectives. When you feel empathy for another person, you identify with him or her and accurately
understand his or her thoughts and feelings (Rogers, 1957).
Empathy is different from sympathy, where you convey sorrow for what a person is going
through without identifying with or relating to what the person is dealing with. In other
words, sympathy means that you feel for the other person, but you do not necessarily know
what they are experiencing. To be empathic, you must take the other person’s perspective and
consider his or her thoughts and feelings. When someone shares their feelings with you, try to
recall experiences you have had that have generated similar feelings for you. Your identification of a similar feeling or experience in yourself can help you understand others. In turn, this
can help you and your conversation partner better achieve shared meaning, even when you
are not drawing from the same experience.
For example, suppose your friend Jake tells you that he is terrified of flying in an airplane. If
you love to fly, you may have a difficult time understanding why Jake feels fear on a plane. It
is important here not to devalue or judge Jake’s experience. Instead, try to recognize it and
identify a similar experience of yours that will allow you to better understand and talk with
Jake about how he feels. Specifically, think of an experience that terrified you—for example,
when you saw a rattlesnake in front of you while walking on a trail. Think about the fear you
had then, and you will be able to better understand the feeling Jake experiences when on an
airplane and empathize with him when discussing it. However, do not focus too much on your
own experience, as this could take away from your ability to empathize with your friend.
Expressing Empathy
One of the primary benefits of relational partners sharing their thoughts and feelings with
each other is that doing so helps each partner understand the emotions of the other person. It is for this reason that researchers call empathy “a central and crucial” component of
healthy romantic couple functioning (Busby & Gardner, 2008, p. 232). Dean Busby and Brandt
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Empathy and Social Support
Section 8.3
Gardner (2008) found that expressing empathy positively influenced couples’ relationship
satisfaction one year later—evidence of the power that empathy can have in sustaining close
Empathy is clearly an important quality to have in interpersonal communication with others.
Being empathic also helps one view the world in a more balanced and objective way. There
are many different ways to express empathy in close relationships. Generally, communication
that is helpful and supportive of others can be considered empathic. Here are some specific
guidelines that will help you be a more empathic communicator (Orban, 2001):
• Be an active listener—one who listens long enough to form a perspective before asking questions or responding with your reaction.
• Attend to the interaction and use supportive and engaged body language.
• Show the other communicator that you are sensitive to his or her feelings.
• Put yourself in the place of the other communicator to see how you would feel in a
similar situation.
• Ask questions—ones that are relevant to the situation and that attempt to clarify
your view of the situation.
• Once you have identified the other communicator’s feelings, reply in a way that is
consistent with his or her emotions.
• Indicate that you are willing to assist or help, if doing so is appropriate.
• If you disagree with the other communicator, be honest and express your different opinion while also acknowledging the person’s right to feel the way that he or
she does.
Another specific way to communicate more empathically is to engage in active-empathic
listening (AEL), which occurs when a listener is genuinely focused and emotionally involved
in a particular interaction and when this “involvement is conscious on the part of the listener but is also perceived by the speaker” (Bodie, 2011, p. 278). When AEL is being properly
employed, both communicators recognize that the listener is being actively empathic during their conversation. According to Graham Bodie (2011), and further described by Weger
(2018), AEL has three stages:
• Sensing: The listener indicates that she is actively involved and taking in the information provided by the speaker. Focusing on the speaker’s nonverbal messages can
assist with understanding the content and relational meanings of the message.
• Processing: The listener shows engagement by remembering what the other says
and clarifying points made by the speaker. In essence, the speaker’s message is
evaluated by the listener.
• Response: The listener asks questions, paraphrases, and nonverbally indicates
involvement in and understanding of the interaction.
According to one study (Weger, 2018), in the college classroom, greater AEL on the part of the
instructor—as perceived by their students—was positively related to perceived nonverbal
immediacy of the instructor and negatively linked to a higher number of uncivil communication behaviors from students, such as texting, leaving class early, reading nonclass material,
and even being disruptive by talking loudly or swearing. Thus, listening empathically can be
a modeling behavior that sets a tone for the interpersonal communication in a classroom setting to be one of courtesy and respect (Weger, 2018). In this way, AEL can be linked with the
competent interpersonal communication principle of respecting others as well as oneself.
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Section 8.3
Empathy and Social Support
Take the Self-Test in the following feature to determine how active-empathic a listener you are
in your conversations with your relational partners.
Self-Test: Bodie’s Active-Empathic Listening Scale
Indicate how frequently you perceive each of the following statements to be true of you
using a seven-point scale, where
1 indicates never or almost never true of me

4 indicates occasionally true

7 indicates always or almost always true
1. I am sensitive to what others are not saying.
2. I assure others that I am receptive to their ideas.
3. I assure others that I will remember what they say.
4. I am aware of what others imply but do not say.
5. I assure others that I am listening by using verbal acknowledgments.
6. I summarize points of agreement and disagreement when appropriate.
7. I understand how others feel.
8. I keep track of points others make.
9. I ask questions that show my understanding of others’ positions.
10. I listen for more than just the spoken words.
11. I show others that I am listening by my body language (e.g., head nods).
Sensing: Add up the totals for items 1, 4, 7, and 10 and divide by 7.
Processing: Add up the totals for items 3, 6, and 8 and divide by 7.
Response: Add up the totals for items 2, 5, 9, and 11 and divide by 7.
The higher your scores are for each AEL stage, the more you are an active-empathic
Source: Bodie, G. D. (2011). The active-empathic listening scale (AELS): Conceptualization and evidence of validity
within the interpersonal domain. Communication Quarterly, 59, 277–295. Reprinted by permission of Eastern
Communication Association, www.ecasite.org
Consider Your Results
Perhaps you responded to the statements above in relation to a specific relationship you
have with someone or in regard to a specific topic that others frequently discuss with
(continued on next page)
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Section 8.3
Empathy and Social Support
Self-Test: Bodie’s Active-Empathic Listening Scale
you. Or perhaps you asked someone else to take the test on your behalf to see how activeempathic a listener they perceive you to be. Either way, review the following questions and
reflect upon your results.
1. Was there a specific stage that you scored higher or lower in?
2. If your score was lower than you anticipated, what do you think you could do to be a
more active-empathic listener?
3. If someone else took the self-test on your behalf, how did their perception of your
active-empathic listening match up with your own perceptions?
Types of Social Support
When you are upset or have had something
bad happen to you, one of your first instincts
is likely to reach out to others. When talking to those around you about your thoughts
and feelings in response to a painful situation, you hope that they will listen, validate
you, offer you a shoulder to cry on, and even
be willing to help out or assist in some way.
These behaviors are all examples of social
support, which most communication scholars recognize as a fundamental reason why
we communicate with one another—one
that is as important as sharing information,
forming relationships, and persuading others (Albrecht & Goldsmith, 2003). Specifically, social support occurs when people
who are confronting daily problems or
major life stresses turn to others in their
social network who can “provide information, comfort, perspective, and aid” (Goldsmith, 2004, p. 11); this act of social support then bolsters one’s ability to effectively
cope and respond to the situation. We cope
when we are able to manage stressful situations by changing what can be changed
through problem solving and by adapting
and adjusting to what we cannot change
(du Pré, 2009).
John Warburton-Lee/AWL Images/Getty Images
ሁሁ A desire for social support is a fundamental
reason that we communicate with one another.
We turn to others for information, comfort, and
guidance when we encounter difficult or painful
Communication researchers have been instrumental in advancing scholarly understanding of
social support. These scholars have identified the different types of social support that people can use. Athena du Pré (2009) examined this social support research and identified two
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Empathy and Social Support
Section 8.3
broad categories of social support, each with its own individual social support types. We will
explain each by using an example of a situation where social support is extremely important
in a close relationship: a husband named JaBari providing support to his wife Emma, who has
been diagnosed with breast cancer. The first category is action-facilitating support, which
involves support that is tangible and problem solving in nature. Action-facilitating support
includes two specific types of support. The first is instrumental support, in which support
is provided by performing tasks and favors for the person in need. Informational support,
on the other hand, entails collecting and organizing information.
In our example, JaBari provides instrumental support to Emma when he runs errands such
as picking up her prescriptions from the pharmacy. He offers informational support when he
writes down information during Emma’s medical appointments and researches her diagnosis and treatment options on the Internet. Terrance Albrecht and Daena Goldsmith (2003)
point out that action-facilitating support is most helpful in particularly serious and stressful
situations such as a major health crisis like JaBari and Emma’s. In minor or less severe social
support situations, such as simply having a bad day, using these types of social support could
actually be viewed as criticizing or intrusive in nature.
According to du Pré (2009), the second broad social support category is nurturing support,
which focuses on helping the person in need to cope and feel better emotionally. There are
three types of nurturing support:
1. Esteem support, in which the individual in need is made to feel competent and valued. Esteem support includes offering encouraging words and supportively listening, which many who need support find to be more valuable than being given advice.
When JaBari tells Emma that she is strong and will get through this, and also tells
her that he is there to listen when she simply wants to talk, he is providing her with
esteem support. In fact, messages of praise and expressions of love and concern
when offering esteem support can have a beneficial impact on the person in need’s
self-esteem. (Holmstrom, 2012)
2. Emotional support involves acknowledging and understanding what the person in
need is feeling and providing care, empathy, trust, and love. Emma is seeking emotional support from JaBari when she tells him how she feels, and he listens and tells
her that those feelings are OK.
3. Social network support refers to ongoing relationships that are maintained before,
during, and after a crisis. JaBari can provide social network support by staying with
Emma as she battles her cancer. He can also ask others—their family and friends—to
assist them, or he can accept their offers to help.
These types of nurturing support, especially emotional support, are viewed as helpful and
valuable across many different social support situations, from minor to extremely severe
(Albrecht & Goldsmith, 2003).
How do we actually employ these various types of social support? Albrecht and Goldsmith
(2003) offer five forms of supportive communication that can be helpful in a variety of social
support situations:
• Assist the person in need to gain perspective about the situation, particularly if it is
beyond the person’s control.
• Enhance the person in need’s skills or training relevant to the stressful situation.
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Empathy and Social Support
Section 8.3
• Promote actions or behaviors that provide tangible assistance without the person in
need feeling an excess obligation to reciprocate in the future.
• Offer the person in need the option to engage in private disclosures or to vent their
pent-up emotions and thoughts.
• Offer accepting and reassuring messages for the person in need’s sense of dignity,
face, and self-worth.
One other important caution regarding how and when we provide social support to others is
to remember that more is not always better; du Pré (2009) cautions against engaging in oversupport, in which excessive, unwanted, and unnecessary help is provided, including offering unsolicited advice, providing too much information, and empathizing too much with the
person in need. Instances of oversupport can overwhelm the person in need and make the
person feel exhausted and overly dependent on others.
Social Support and Health
Not only can social support help someone feel better emotionally and psychologically, this
form of communication also benefits physical health and well-being. As we discussed in Chapter 1, many different forms of communication can be linked to improved health, and social
support is one of the most significant of these beneficial factors. Research has found that
receiving support from others can be an important factor in the improved functioning of three
of our physiological systems: (1) the cardiovascular system, which includes heart functioning and blood and lymphatic circulation; (2) the immune system, which buffers our bodies
against the effects of diseases and illnesses; and (3) the endocrine system, which consists
of the glands that secrete hormones such as adrenaline and norepinephrine into the bloodstream and that control our stress reactions and metabolism. Social support also improves
our ability to recover from an illness, cope with and adapt to a chronic illness, remain healthy,
and reduce our mortality (DiMatteo, 2004). For example, in one study, when husbands
received more social support from their wives after having coronary artery bypass surgery,
they needed less pain medicine, were discharged more quickly from the intensive care unit,
and returned home from the hospital sooner than husbands receiving less spousal social support (Kulik & Mahler, 1989).
Albrecht and Goldsmith (2003) suggest a number of ways in which social support and physical health can be linked:
• Receiving social support encourages the person to more adaptively and usefully
cope with stress.
• Social support from others can improve the health behaviors of the person in need;
in essence, the individual is encouraged to live healthier by eating better, exercising
more, or following their doctor’s treatment regimen.
• Receiving social support helps the individual feel better psychologically, contributing
to the person’s self-esteem and positive view of life.
• Social support can give the individual hope for the future and a deeper sense of life
Returning to the example of JaBari and Emma and her breast cancer diagnosis, if Emma
knows that she can rely on JaBari and their family and friends, she can focus on getting well
and following through with her treatment rather than on being stressed and feeling unable
to cope with her cancer diagnosis. Knowing that others are there for her and that she can
depend on them can also make Emma feel good about herself, which can then make her even
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Challenges of Relationship Maintenance
Section 8.4
more determined to beat her cancer. Social support can be thought of as a protective net that
catches and holds the person in need, allowing the individual a safe place to heal or cope.
Being there for someone you care about can therefore assist in maintaining your relationship
with the person and can also contribute to the person’s improved psychological and physical
8.4 Challenges of Relationship Maintenance
Thus far in this chapter we have focused on the many things that we can do to maintain our
relationships. We have discussed the importance of relationship maintenance and considered
how using positive relationship maintenance behaviors—intimacy, commitment, empathy,
and support—can benefit ourselves and others in all types of relationships. Now we consider
some situations where preserving the relationship can be difficult. These situations—which
include having an inequitable relationship and navigating a relationship via mediated channels or over a geographic distance—are important to understand and manage so that the
relationship does not deteriorate or end entirely. We thus consider each with regard to relationship maintenance.
Restoring Equity
One of the most basic things we want out of our interpersonal relationships is to feel rewarded.
We seek to benefit from our relationships, and our partners also seek rewards in return. The
forms of these rewards can be tangible, such as money, jewelry, and material wealth, or intangible, such as feelings of love, understanding, security, and joy.
Though the idea of rewarding relationships sounds simple and logical, relationship scholars
initially had difficulty formally explaining the role of these tangible and intangible rewards
in forming and maintaining relationships. Social exchange theory was therefore proposed
by Harold Kelley and John Thibaut (1978) as a way to extend the economic notion of rewards
versus costs to our relationships with others. According to the theory, we seek to maximize
our rewards and minimize our costs in our relationships. Initially, social exchange theory
was hailed as an intuitive, simple explanation for what we seek to get out of relationships.
Over time, however, the theory proved difficult to test. For example, what one couple might
consider a reward (e.g., “Money is helpful to us because we agree that we can use it to put
a down payment on a house”), another could see as a cost (e.g., “We can’t agree on money
issues, and it is causing us a great deal of conflict”). In addition, those who seemingly receive
very few rewards and are shouldering great relational costs (e.g., those who are being physically abused by their partners) do not always leave the relationship, as the theory predicts
they would.
Elaine Hatfield and her colleagues (Hatfield, Traupmann, Sprecher, Utne, & Hay, 1985) proposed equity theory as a way to reconsider the concept of a relationship reward. Equity theory considers relationship rewards in relation to fairness, providing an alternative to social
exchange theory. Equity theory formally asserts that relational partners attempt to balance
the amount of rewards they each receive with the amount received by the other partner in
order to maintain equity within the relationship. In other words, equity exists when both
partners subjectively believe that they are putting in and obtaining equal or similar levels of
relationship rewards. When inequity arises in a relationship, there is a discernible imbalance
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Challenges of Relationship Maintenance
Section 8.4
for one or both partners that can take one of
two forms: being underbenefited, gaining
fewer rewards than one’s partner, and being
overbenefited, obtaining more rewards
than one’s partner.
We might see many different inequities in
our relationships. For example, maybe your
parents allowed your brother to do something that you weren’t allowed to do, or
perhaps your friend consistently shares less
about themselves than you do about yourself. Even the difference in annual salaries
Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock
between a husband and wife is an example
ሁሁ Equity exists in a relationship when both
of inequity in a relationship. When inequity
partners feel they are putting in and obtaining
is detected, it is often an upsetting experisimilar levels of relationship rewards. If an
ence for both partners. Underbenefited
imbalance exists, one way to restore equity in a
individuals feel unhappy, hurt, angry, and
relationship is to change one’s behaviors.
resentful toward their partners, are less
satisfied in their relationships, and are less
likely to like their partners. Overbenefited partners experience guilt, believe that they do not
deserve these rewards, and, despite receiving the most out of the relationship, feel less satisfied and content than those in equitable relationships. It is thus no surprise that inequitable
relationships are more likely to end. In contrast, individuals in equitable relationships feel
emotionally rewarded and are relationally satisfied.
One way to restore equity is to change behavior—either your own or your partner’s. A study
by Catherine Westerman, Hee Sun Park, and Hye Eun Lee (2007) found that individuals in
inequitable coworker relationships dealt with their inequity in this manner. Westerman and
her colleagues noted that their findings fit the pattern that underbenefited individuals would
feel disadvantaged and thus seek change, and overbenefited people would feel the need to
change how they acted because they felt as if they were taking advantage of their partners.
Specifically, the study revealed that underbenefited coworkers were more likely to ask their
overbenefited partners to act differently, while the overbenefited coworkers responded to the
inequity by changing their own behaviors (Westerman et al., 2007).
Though it seems somewhat cold and businesslike, we do have a tendency to evaluate our close
relationships in terms of having equitable rewards and costs with our partner. You encounter
a significant challenge when you find yourself in a relationship where you are consistently
overbenefited or underbenefited. However, you might be able to restore the equity in the
relationship by changing how you engage in relationship maintenance or by changing the
behaviors and communication messages—both yours and your partner’s—that are primarily
responsible for the imbalance.
We first discussed geographic distance in Chapter 1, where we described long-distance relationships (LDRs) as having a unique set of communication patterns and challenges. We return
to distance here because it is specifically relevant to how we maintain our close relationships.
Long-distance relationships are a common experience today, with commuter marriages;
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Section 8.4
Challenges of Relationship Maintenance
geographically separated romantic, family, and friend relationships; and military deployments contributing to this growth (Merolla, 2010a). Those in LDRs must adjust how they
maintain their relationships and communicate intimacy and satisfaction to one another to
account for the miles between them. However, rather than giving up, LDR partners often show
extra motivation to make up for the distance between them by communicating in specific
ways, such as scheduling specific times to talk to and visit one another, making a point to
engage in intimate and positive conversations, and using multiple forms of social media and
technologies such as texting and video chatting (Jiang & Hancock, 2013).
Though the common belief is that individuals in LDRs have lower relationship quality
than those in geographically-close relationships, research has found this is actually not
the case. A 2010 review of research by Laura
Stafford, a communication scholar who specializes in distance and relationship maintenance, determined that the relationships of
distant romantic partners are as trusting,
satisfying, and stable as those of romantic
partners who are in close proximity to each
other. There were also no differences in
relationship satisfaction and closeness
between distant and close college-age
friends (Johnson, 2001). In fact, in one
study, LDR partners were in longer romantic relationships, had more intimate interactions, and reported greater commitment to
each other than did geographically-close
partners (Jiang & Hancock, 2013).
Blend Images/Ariel Skelley/Vetta/Getty Images
ሁሁ Relationship maintenance might be more
complicated overall for partners in long-distance
relationships, but the quality of such relationships
is more similar to geographically-close
relationships than different.
When distance relationships were compared with geographically-close relationships, there
were no significant differences for the openness, positivity, and assurances relationship maintenance behaviors (Johnson, 2001). However, there were certain distinctions related to other
maintenance behaviors between geographically-distant and close relationships:
• Long-distance romantic partners in ongoing, unresolved conflicts engaged in more
constructive and direct conflict strategies (e.g., calm discussions) and avoided the
conflict more than geographically-close partners (Cionea, Wilson Mumpower, &
Bassick, 2019).
• Geographically-close friends used the social network and joint activities behaviors
more, whereas distant friends relied more on sending cards and letters and calling
to maintain their relationships (Johnson, 2001).
• Wives of deployed U.S. soldiers noted that their attempts to maintain their relationships were often complicated by communication environments that were not private, preventing intimate conversation, and that placed restrictions and time limits
on communications; they also indicated they would prefer more frequent interactions (Merolla, 2010b).
• Partners in LDRs uniquely maintain their relationships by thinking about the previous times they were geographically close and looking forward to the times that will
be spent together in the future (Merolla, 2010a).
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Challenges of Relationship Maintenance
Section 8.4
Together, the research on LDRs shows that relationship quality in such relationships is more
similar than different to geographically-close partnerships. This conclusion goes against the
prevailing belief about the difficulty of managing LDRs, suggesting they may not be as much
of a challenge as is assumed. However, LDR partners do use a number of positive relational
maintenance behaviors and messages that are different from those used by proximal partners, suggesting that people in both types of relationships work to maintain their relationships, but in different ways. Relationship maintenance overall may also be more complicated
for distant partners, which could present a challenge for some individuals in LDRs. But, if
partners acknowledge the difficulty of distance and strive to compensate for it, LDRs have as
much a chance for success as geographically-close relationships.
Mediated Communication
Think about the interactions that you had today with your friends, family, and romantic partner. How many were face-to-face? How many involved some form of mediated communication, such as a mobile phone or the Internet? How many involved a combination of both? It
is likely that mediated communication comprises at least half of your interactions on a given
day. We now rely on many different communication channels in our day-to-day conversations with those who are close to us. In fact, we frequently use mediated channels of communication such as cell phones and text messaging to communicate with romantic partners,
and when we wish to express affection to our romantic partners, we choose these channels
most often (Coyne, Stockdale, Busby, Iverson, & Grant, 2011). It is thus not surprising that
mediated communication has become an instrumental tool for developing and maintaining
Interacting via mediated channels has many benefits: It is convenient, allowing us to communicate from almost anywhere and with almost anyone we wish; we can use it to keep in touch
and maintain relationships with friends and acquaintances from different periods of our lives
or with those who live far away; and we can meet people whom we would otherwise never
have met. However, despite these benefits, there are a number of challenges associated with
maintaining relationships via mediated communication channels.
First, communicating via text messaging or e-mail can leave too much room for interpretation,
causing miscommunication. Texting or e-mailing can also cause frustration because thoughts,
feelings, and ideas cannot be fully expressed through these channels, which have traditionally
been mostly limited to written text or basic symbols. The upgrades in both of these technologies, though, now allow us to share photos, live and recorded videos, emojis, and gifs, which
offer a wider form of expression and narrow the likelihood that miscommunication will occur
and shared meaning will not be achieved.
Second, maintaining relationships by way of social networks such as Facebook may contribute to stress, compromised health, and difficulty in adjusting to parenthood, though research
on the topic is inconsistent. Almost 86% of Facebook users in one study reported experiencing Facebook-induced stress (Campisi et al., 2012). In addition, the more new mothers
checked their Facebook accounts and managed what they uploaded and posted on their Facebook pages, the more stress they experienced about parenting (Bartholomew, Schoppe-Sullivan, Glassman, Dush, & Sullivan, 2012). However, a more large-scale study of public health
data in California determined that individuals with Facebook accounts were 12% less likely
to die in any given year when compared to non-Facebook users (Hobbs, Burke, Christakis,
& Fowler, 2016). The authors of this study noted that the online social networks seem to
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Strategies for Communicating Competently When Maintaining Interpersonal Relationships
Section 8.5
have the same link to our health that off-line social networks do, particularly for individuals
with more online friends (Hobbs et al., 2016). It is possible that we may have initially been
overwhelmed by the increasing number of relationships we felt we must maintain due to the
exponential growth of mediated communication but have learned to better manage and integrate this channel into our lives.
Third, when we communicate via mediated channels, we are often creating a permanent
record of our messages. Research has found that self-disclosure is an important part of
online relationship maintenance (Craig & Wright, 2012). Yet, revealing private and personal
information online can be risky because the disclosures could be shared with others or used
against you. Self-disclosure online is also linked to increased predictability about that partner,
which could become boring for the other partner over time (Craig & Wright, 2012). Stepping away from mediated channels, however, can allow us to feel less overwhelmed with the
constant ability to interact with and maintain relationships with others. Elizabeth Craig and
Kevin Wright (2012) recommend that relational partners supplement their online interactions with face-to-face communications to clarify misunderstandings and that they use other
relationship maintenance behaviors. These are sensible suggestions that would be wise to
use with all forms of mediated communication. Communicating via a mixture of online and
off-line interactions is beneficial to maintaining close relationships.
8.5 Strategies for Communicating Competently When
Maintaining Interpersonal Relationships
This chapter has shown the importance of behaviors in maintaining close, loving relationships: We must consistently show our partners that we care about them through our behaviors and our communication. We also can tell our partners that we care for them by being
empathic and offering them social support when they need it. If we do not maintain our relationships in the communicative ways described in this chapter, the relationship quality will
undoubtedly suffer. We thus close this chapter by offering some specific strategies for improving your relationship maintenance competence.
Strive to Engage in Positive Relationship Maintenance Behaviors
Research has shown that actions and messages that we may usually consider routine, even
mundane, are important for preserving the relationships that are important to us. In addition,
communication competence is strongly related to using positive maintenance behaviors in
your relationships (Hwang, 2011). Reflect on how you (and your partner) use maintenance
behaviors and messages in your close relationships, particularly the sharing tasks and offering assurances strategies. Try to use positive maintenance behaviors, which enhance relationship satisfaction and liking, rather than negative maintenance behaviors, which can damage
the very relationship that you are trying to preserve. Remember that assisting with even the
smallest tasks and telling your partner that you care about him or her can go a long way!
Consider Your Relationships
We saw in this chapter that a number of relational characteristics can contribute to understanding whether a relationship will succeed or fail. Now that you have a better grasp of the
importance of intimacy, commitment, satisfaction, quality of alternatives, and investment in
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Summary and Resources
close relationships, use this knowledge to help determine why you communicate the way
that you do with your relational partners. Consider specifically how much (or how little) you
experience these five relationship characteristics and how your levels may or may not correspond with your partners’ levels. If you are experiencing reduced levels of one or more of
these characteristics, think about how it might be improved. How might distance or the excessive use of mediated communication be contributing to these reduced levels? How might you
communicate differently to improve your relationship’s long-term outlook? How can your
partner do the same?
Engage in Social Support, but Don’t Oversupport
Social support clearly has many positive implications, for relationships, for individuals, and
for one’s health. It is also a fundamental reason why we communicate with others. But it is
important to verify that someone needs or is seeking social support before offering it, even
in less stressful or ordinary situations. Recall that providing too much support or the wrong
type of support can make the situation worse and can cause the person in need to feel even
more stressed and overwhelmed. It is always best to step back and evaluate the social support
situation to see how you can best contribute. Consider the different types of social support
discussed in this chapter, and try to tailor your support to the situation by offering one or two
types that seem as if they will be most beneficial. You might do this by asking the person in
need or others close to the person what you can do to assist. Be empathic in order to understand the needs of the person you are trying to help.
Summary and Resources
How we treat each other and the way that we communicate once we are in a close relationship is the most important way that we can keep a relationship going. Relationship maintenance involves how you act in ways that sustain and repair your relationship so that it is
satisfying to you, and it can be accomplished using both positive and negative maintenance
behaviors. Use of positive maintenance behaviors enhances relationships, whereas negative
maintenance can be relationally damaging.
Two additional relationship components that can be shaped by communication are commitment and intimacy. According to the investment model, being satisfied with and invested in
the relationship and having few quality relationship alternatives increases one’s relationship
commitment, which then increases the willingness to stay in the relationship and communicate in positive ways. When an individual experiences dissatisfaction, he or she can respond
to it via exit, voice, loyalty, or neglect. Voice and loyalty are more often used in committed and
satisfying relationships. Communication is also inherent in intimacy, which involves sharing
thoughts and feelings with another person and can be expressed in both verbal and nonverbal
Empathy and social support are two important ways to maintain a relationship because both
prompt you to consider your partner and his or her perspective. Empathy involves identifying with someone by putting yourself in the other’s shoes. It can be expressed by actively
listening, being involved in the interaction, showing sensitivity, asking targeted and relevant
questions, replying while considering his or her emotions, and indicating a willingness to
help. We can also use social support to help individuals in need cope with and confront stressful situations. Social support has multiple health benefits and can even decrease mortality
and contribute to psychological well-being. This support can be both tangible, by providing
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Summary and Resources
instrumental or information support, and intangible, by providing emotional and esteem support. Individuals offering social support should be careful to offer the type of support that is
most appropriate to a particular situation and to not oversupport the person in need.
We should also keep in mind the three challenges to relationship maintenance. The first is
restoring equity. According to equity theory, we strive to gain the same level of rewards from
the relationship as our partner. When there is inequity, one or both partners receive more
or fewer benefits, and relationship maintenance and quality can suffer. Second, geographic
distance can be a maintenance challenge. However, if the long-distant partners acknowledge
that distance must be accommodated and make a greater effort or engage in unique forms of
relationship maintenance, that challenge can be overcome. The third challenge is maintaining
relationships by way of mediated communication channels. Though convenient, relying on
mediated channels to maintain relationships can cause stress and be overwhelming.
Critical Thinking and Discussion Questions
1. Take a moment to evaluate one of your own relationships or the relationship of
someone close to you. What types of relationship maintenance behaviors are used in
this close relationship? Are different ones used in different relationships? Why?
2. Why might someone use negative relationship maintenance behaviors? Do you think
such actions could be beneficial for a relationship?
3. Which relationship characteristic—intimacy, commitment, relationship satisfaction,
investment, or quality of relationship alternatives—do you think is most important
for maintaining a close relationship? Why?
4. Think of a time when someone provided you with social support. Which type(s) of
social support did they use? Was it appropriate for the situation?
5. What are some specific messages or behaviors you might use to restore equity in a
close relationship? How would you use different messages or behaviors if you were
underbenefited versus overbenefited?
6. As discussed in this chapter, a relationship can encounter different challenges. How
do you work to maintain your relationships when confronted with one or more of
the three discussed?
Key Terms
action-facilitating support A broad social
support category involving support that is
tangible and problem solving in nature.
active-empathic listening (AEL) Listening that occurs when a listener is genuinely
focused and emotionally involved in a particular interaction.
advice A positive relationship maintenance
behavior that involves expressing partnerrelated emotions and cognitions to the
partner and giving opinions.
allowing control A negative relationship
maintenance behavior that involves giving
the partner control in the relationship.
assurances A positive relationship maintenance behavior that involves expressing
commitment, love, and emotional support.
avoidance A negative relationship maintenance behavior that involves not talking
about a topic and evading the partner.
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Summary and Resources
commitment Long-term attachment to a
relationship that persists through both good
and bad times.
conflict management A positive relationship maintenance behavior that involves
employing constructive and positive behaviors such as cooperating and apologizing
when in conflict with the partner.
cope The ability to manage stressful situations by changing what can be changed or
adapting to what one cannot change.
destructive conflict A negative relationship maintenance behavior that involves
being controlling and starting conflict.
emotional support A type of nurturing
support that involves acknowledging and
understanding what a person in need is
feeling and providing care, empathy, trust,
and love.
empathy The ability to put oneself in
another person’s shoes or to imagine
another person’s thoughts, feelings, and
equity When both partners subjectively
believe that they are putting in and obtaining equal or similar levels of relationship
equity theory A theory that proposes that
relational partners attempt to balance the
amount of rewards they each receive with
the amount received by the other partner
in order to maintain equity within the
esteem support A type of nurturing support through which the individual in need is
made to feel competent and valued.
infidelity A negative relationship maintenance behavior that involves flirting with
others and having affairs.
informational support A type of actionfacilitating support in which one collects
and organizes information for the person
in need.
instrumental support A type of actionfacilitating support in which one performs
tasks and favors for the person in need.
intimacy A state of closeness achieved
by verbally and nonverbally sharing one’s
innermost thoughts, feelings, and ideas with
another person.
investment Tangible and intangible relationship resources such as children, property, or shared feelings and experiences.
investment model A relationship model
that predicts that our commitment to a
relationship is the most helpful relationship
characteristic for understanding if a relationship will continue and remain stable or
will deteriorate and end.
involvement behaviors Actions that
exhibit one’s attentiveness, interest, and
active participation in interactions; important aspects of intimacy.
jealousy induction A negative relationship
maintenance behavior that involves flirting
with and commenting on others’ attractiveness to elicit the partner’s jealousy.
nurturing support A broad social support
category that involves helping the person in
need to cope and to feel better emotionally.
openness A positive relationship maintenance behavior that involves self-disclosures and direct relational discussions.
overbenefited A relationship scenario in
which one partner is obtaining more relational rewards than the partner.
oversupport Help that is excessive,
unwanted, and unnecessary.
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Summary and Resources
positivity A positive relationship maintenance behavior that involves being optimistic, cheerful, and pleasant.
quality of relationship alternatives Attractive options other than the relationship, such as other partners, spending
time with friends, and even being alone.
relationship maintenance Actions and
interactions that sustain or preserve the
desired states of our relationships.
relationship maintenance behaviors The
actions and tasks that assist with maintaining, managing, or repairing a relationship.
relationship satisfaction Positive emotion
and attraction toward the relationship.
sharing tasks A positive relationship
maintenance behavior that involves performing one’s fair share of joint jobs in the
social exchange theory A theory that
proposes that we seek to maximize
our rewards and minimize our costs in
social network support A type of nurturing support derived from relationships that
are maintained before, during, and after
a crisis.
social networks A positive relationship
maintenance behavior that involves the reliance on the support of common family and
friend networks.
social support The experience of turning to others in one’s social network when
confronting daily problems or major life
spying A negative relationship maintenance behavior that involves checking up on
the partner.
sympathy Conveying sorrow for what a
person is going through without identifying
with or relating to what the person is dealing with.
underbenefited A relationship scenario in
which one partner is gaining fewer relational rewards than the other partner.
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Challenges of Interpersonal
Learning Outcomes
After reading this chapter, you should be able to
ሁሁ Explain the “dark side” of communication and communication’s role in both helping and hindering
ሁሁ Understand interpersonal conflict, conflict avoidance, and how conflict is resolved and managed.
ሁሁ Compare and contrast the different types of jealousy, deception, and abuse most frequently encoun-
tered in interpersonal relationships.
ሁሁ Apply strategies for competent communication during relationship challenges.
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The “Dark Side” of Interpersonal Communication
Suppose you have been assigned a class project that requires you to perform some complicated statistical calculations and write a paper. You are confident in your ability to write the
paper; however, your statistical skills are poor. You ask your sister for help with the statistics
part of the project during the coming week. In return, you offer to let her borrow your car
for the week. Your sister agrees to the arrangement, so you give her your car keys. During
the week, you ask your sister to help you two times; each time she tells you she is too busy
at the moment. Tomorrow is the deadline for the project, and your sister says she does not
have time today to help you with it. The two of you begin to argue, and you accuse her of taking advantage of you by using your car all week and not helping you as she promised. You ask
that she return your keys immediately. Your sister becomes upset, claiming that she wanted
to help you but that you just kept asking for help at inconvenient times.
Every relationship faces difficulties in the form of conflict, jealousy, deception, or even aggression or abuse. But how the relational partners communicate in the face of these challenges
can be what ultimately makes or breaks the relationship. If the partners can talk through the
experience and understand each other’s perspective, they can likely manage the challenge
successfully and return to relationship maintenance, as we discussed in Chapter 8. However,
if the partners ignore the issue or only deal with it by yelling and being angry at each other, it
may be an issue that the relationship cannot overcome.
Being able to understand and navigate relationship difficulties is instrumental for the successful continuation of any close relationship, and it is thus the focus of this chapter. In particular, in this chapter we explore challenges and discord that can arise in different types of
interpersonal relationships. The discussions address the “dark side” of interpersonal communication and how communication can both contribute to and assist in tackling the challenges that relational partners face. We discuss the challenges of conflict, jealousy, lying, and
deception, as well as verbal and online abuse, and we conclude the chapter with strategies for
competent communication that can be of use when challenges arise in relationships.
9.1 The “Dark Side” of Interpersonal Communication
The phrase “dark side” was in large part popularized when the original Star Wars movie was
released in 1977. In the film, Darth Vader tries to entice Luke Skywalker to join the “dark
side”—to let his evil side take over. The phrase now has an iconic role in American popular
culture, and it generally refers to an evil, malevolent component of something.
The phrase “dark side” is also used in reference to how we behave in our interpersonal relationships. In The Dark Side of Interpersonal Communication (1994), interpersonal communication researchers William Cupach and Brian Spitzberg focused on the malevolent forces that
influence interactions and relationships. They initially defined the dark side of interpersonal communication as interactions that are challenging, difficult, distressing, and problematic (Cupach & Spitzberg, 1994). Some years later, they refined the definition of dark side
messages to those that involve “dysfunctional, distorted, distressing, and destructive aspects
of human action” (Spitzberg & Cupach, 1998, p. xiv).
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Section 9.1
The “Dark Side” of Interpersonal Communication
Cupach and Spitzberg (1994) decided to study the dark side of communication to balance the scholarly understanding of how we positively relate to each other—through selfdisclosure and by showing love, cooperation, and empathy—with the negative, destructive
aspects of relationships. Such a balance between bright and dark allows for a more comprehensive consideration of how relationships—and the communication that sustains them—
truly function. Research on conflict, jealousy, deception, stalking, hurt, anger, infidelity, and
verbal and physical abuse grew exponentially after Spitzberg and Cupach’s initial studies, and
with this research, our understanding of the dark side of communication developed as well.
Before we explore common challenges
faced by relational partners, it is important to point out that no message is purely
dark, just as no message is entirely bright.
There can be negative aspects to messages
that we generally view as positive and vice
versa. For example, being entirely honest and open with your partner could hurt
his or her feelings. In addition, relying on
humor and jokes, especially ones that are
sarcastic or pointed, can prevent your partner from truly knowing who you are. Likewise, extending social support to another
can make things worse if the person in need
does not view it as being helpful.
Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Thinkstock
ሁሁ Some dark messages are not wholly
destructive and can sometimes be useful or
valuable. Anger, if expressed in a manner that isn’t
harmful, can help partners confront and work
through relationship challenges.
In the same way, dark messages can sometimes be useful or valuable. Being jealous
and expressing that jealousy is often viewed
as a sign of weakness, but it can also be a signal to your partner that you care or find him or
her appealing and attractive. A relationship in which interpersonal conflict is entirely absent
may seem calm on the surface, but troublesome issues that are not being addressed likely lie
beneath the surface. Expressing anger, if done in a manner that does not hurt anyone psychologically or physically, can help partners realize that the issue is an important one and that
frustration has risen to a level that is no longer sustainable. Although communication can be
dark, it can also be an essential way to confront relationship difficulties and challenges. The
context, situation, and nature of the relationship determine whether messages are viewed as
helpful or harmful.
But what is the impact of the dark side of interpersonal communication? Research has shown,
time and again, that the more often romantic couples interpersonally grapple with dark issues
such as conflict, jealousy, infidelity, and abuse, the lower their satisfaction with the relationship. In fact, engaging in negative marital interactions was a stronger predictor of relationship
dissatisfaction than being positive toward each other (Gottman & Krokoff, 1989). Based on
this and other findings, psychologist and relationship researcher John Gottman (1994b) proposed that the ratio of positive to negative interactions in a romantic relationship should be 5
to 1 for that relationship to succeed. This 5 to 1 positive to negative message ratio is evidence
of how important dark side messages can be in close relationships.
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Section 9.2
Relationship Challenges
9.2 Relationship Challenges
When you first form a relationship with another person, whether it is romantic or nonromantic, the relationship tends to be harmonious. When a relationship is in its infancy, both people
are usually cautious about what they tell each other and how they say things, and they make
a conscious effort to present positive information about themselves and to avoid conflict.
Researchers have found that one of the reasons new relationships are usually so pleasant is
that, at this stage, people emphasize the similarities they have and downplay their differences
(Brown & Rogers, 1991).
However, as a relationship progresses, differences between people emerge. We learn about
and further explore these differences—both big and small—through our interpersonal communication. We might handle a small difference, such as squeezing the toothpaste from the
middle or the bottom of the tube, by making a lighthearted joke in a way that informs our
partner that this is an issue, but one that is easily resolvable. In contrast, a larger difference,
such as how we handle money or how to depict our relationship to others on social media,
might be harder to communicate interpersonally. These larger differences may result in communicative challenges such as interpersonal conflict, expressing jealousy, being deceptive, or
engaging in verbal or online abuse. The following sections focus on four of the most prevalent
and frequently problematic relationship challenges that individuals encounter: (1) interpersonal conflict and conflict avoidance, (2) jealousy, (3) deception, and (4) verbal and online
Interpersonal Conflict and Conflict Avoidance
Probably the most frequent relationship challenges that people face are conflicts in their personal and professional life. Interpersonal communication conflict researchers William Wilmot
and Joyce Hocker (2013) note that the following must be present for a conflict to exist:
1. There is an expressed struggle, meaning that one or both parties must communicate
about the conflict in some verbal or nonverbal manner.
2. There are at least two interdependent parties; the individuals involved need one
another in some way, and their choices affect one another.
3. The perception of these parties is that (a) they have incompatible goals, where they
both want different things or even want the same thing, such as a promotion, but
cannot both have it; (b) they have scarce resources, such that there is not enough
of something—money, time, or even love—to go around; and (c) they have interference—often involving communication—from others in achieving their goals, which
means that the other party is perceived to get in the way of how an individual wants
to act or what that individual seeks to have.
Let’s look at the separate components of this definition in relation to the situation presented
at the beginning of the chapter:
• You and your sister openly and directly communicate your feelings and frustrations
to each other about this conflict.
• You and your sister depend on and need something from each other.
• You and your sister possess different goals (you want your sister’s help in exchange
for lending her your car, but she has been unwilling or unable to assist you).
• There is not enough time or access to the car that can be divided up between you
and your sister.
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Section 9.2
Relationship Challenges
• You each view the other as getting in the way of what you each ultimately want.
Conflicts such as this can worsen over time, potentially even permanently damaging a relationship if they are not successfully managed or resolved. Interpersonal conflict can end marriages, separate friends, break up families, and increase job dissatisfaction and turnover. It
can also be painful and damaging to other people who are not directly involved in the conflict.
If the conflict occurs in a family, for example, it can negatively affect children and other family
members as well as the partners involved in the conflict. In fact, children can also learn their
parents’ conflict patterns and go on to use them in their own romantic relationships later in
life (Koerner, 2014). Your ability to competently manage and resolve conflict can thus help
you face this relationship challenge and preserve your important relationships.
Conflict Styles
One important thing to understand about conflict is the communication style individuals use
in conflicts. Management professor M. Afzalur Rahim (1983) identified five basic conflict
styles—or patterned behavioral responses—that individuals tend to use across different
conflicts and with different people. Though Rahim developed his conflict style typology for
the organizational context, it is now also used by scholars interested in conflicts in close relationships. These five styles are composed of various combinations of two related dimensions:
(1) how concerned you are about yourself and what you seek to get out of the conflict and (2)
how concerned you are about the other person and assisting the other in getting what he or
she wants. Figure 9.1 describes how these two dimensions combine to create each conflict
style. Let’s look at each of these styles a bit more closely.
Figure 9.1: Conflict styles organized by dimension
ሁ Each of the five conflict styles considers the individual’s degree of concern for self versus his or
her degree of concern for the other person.
High concern
for self
Low concern for others
HIgh concern for others
Low concern
for self
Source: Adapted from Rahim, M. A. (1983). A measure of styles of handling interpersonal conflict. Academy of Management Journal, 26(2), 368–376.
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Relationship Challenges
Section 9.2
The avoidance conflict style occurs when there is a low concern for yourself and a low concern for the other person. When our style is to avoid conflict, we believe that if we just ignore
an issue, it will go away. If your sister prefers the avoidance style during the conflict example
we introduced at the beginning of the chapter, she would likely communicate by being evasive, denying that the conflict exists, changing the topic, using humor to deflect the conflict, or
physically or emotionally withdrawing from interacting with you (e.g., avoiding eye contact).
Withdrawal, by itself, is not always negative; sometimes it is good to get away from the other
person to get your emotions under control or to think about the issue before you discuss
it. However, researchers found that in failing marriages, negative emotions overwhelm the
spouses’ interactions, and the spouses each withdraw as a result (Zautra, 2003). The goal
should not be to always avoid conflict, but to strategically use the avoidance style to manage
conflict in a useful way.
In the accommodation conflict style, there is a low concern for yourself but a high concern
for the other person. In other words, you are more interested in giving in to what the other
person wants than you are about accomplishing your own goals. An accommodating person
tends to give in to the demands of other people and accepts being “put upon” by others. If you
used this conflict style with your sister, you might communicate by speaking softly with a low
volume and soft pitch and be reluctant to express your opinion. You may also look down and
avoid eye contact. Those with an accommodating conflict style have a body posture that is
often closed, with their arms drawn inward, and they rarely use gestures to punctuate their
speech (Hartley, 1999).
The competition conflict style involves a high concern for yourself and a low concern for the
other person. This style is evident when an individual engages in aggressive or competitive
behavior by being critical, having a win–lose orientation, or engaging in direct confrontation.
Imagine both you and your sister are competitive in your conflict. You may communicate by
speaking at a high or low pitch and in a demanding tone of voice. Your sister may be forceful
in her communication and may try to intimidate you (Arredondo, 2000). The goal is winning,
and you each may interrupt, use a loud volume when talking, stare down one another, or even
be abusive in your communication. Those who use the competition conflict style run the risk
of inviting an even more aggressive response to their statements, which can result in escalating conflicts (Hartley, 1999).
In the compromise conflict style, there is a moderate concern both for yourself and for the
other person. The individuals in the conflict work together to create a fair solution that is
acceptable for both of them, but that also means that no one gets entirely what he or she
wants. After you and your sister both cool down, you might try to compromise by negotiating
back and forth, suggesting trade-offs, and prioritizing what one wants the most versus what
is more easily given up. This may mean that your sister drops everything to help you complete
your assignment on time and that you will not ask her to wash your car or refill it with gas. In
formal conflict mediation situations, many agreements are compromises—both parties formally agree to give up something in exchange for something else. These are often finalized
with formal handshakes.
When you have a high concern for yourself and a high concern for the other person, you will
most likely use the collaboration conflict style. People using this style attempt to create a
win–win situation for both people—one where both feel satisfied and support the decision
or solution they have reached. As opposed to the compromise strategy, where both parties
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Section 9.2
Relationship Challenges
have some gains and some losses, collaboration involves both parties achieving all that they
originally sought and being satisfied with the outcome. Because both parties must be satisfied in this conflict style, it is the most challenging and demanding style. Collaborative people
will be supportive about what the other person says and may nonverbally communicate their
openness by nodding, making eye contact, facing the other person, and shifting their body
posture so that it is open (e.g., not sitting with their arms crossed). To collaborate in our
conflict example, you and your sister might make statements that disclose and describe your
thoughts and feelings and seek information from each other to get the “full picture” of what
the other feels and thinks in order to move forward.
Your dominant culture can influence the conflict style you are most comfortable using. Much
of this research has focused on Hofstede’s individualism–collectivism cultural membership
dimension in relation to conflict style usage of American versus non-American cultures (Orbe,
Everett, & Putman, 2014). Based on the broad characterization that European American individuals tend to be individualistic, whereas members of Latino, Asian, and African American
cultures tend to be more collectivistic, European Americans tend to prefer direct, solutionoriented cultural conflict styles such as compromise and collaboration (Orbe et al., 2014).
Asian cultural members tend to prefer both accommodation and avoidance, while Latino individuals tend to rely more on the avoidance style; however, both are likely to show consideration of their partners’ feelings and to be tactful. African American individuals tend to prefer
emotional expressiveness and involvement in conflict (Orbe et al., 2014).
Biological sex can be an informative cultural element here as well: African American females
tend to prefer direct conflict approaches in an organizational context, whereas European
American females tend to be more avoidant and anxious about direct confrontation (Shuter &
Turner, 1997). As is always the case with communication patterns, one’s individual approaches
and preferences interact with cultural norms to determine one’s conflict style. Also note that
these cultural difference findings should not be generalized as stereotypes; approach all conflicts with an open mind.
Overall, these conflict styles are fairly enduring patterns that individuals tend to prefer using
in conflicts. However, interacting with a particular person, topic, or situation could mean that
you use a different style. Because conflict involves two individuals interacting, the other party
in the conflict can affect which conflict style you use. For example, if you usually prefer to
compromise or collaborate, but your sister is always extremely competitive, you may choose
to use the avoidance style with her because her style preference offers little opportunity to
accomplish anything productive when you are in conflict with her. The Self-Test feature will
allow you to determine your preferred conflict style or styles.
Self-Test: Identify Your Conf lict Styles
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