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“Clear for Takeoff”: Turbulence in Romantic Relationships

It doesn’t take a social scientist to tell you that relationships are complicated. But it may not hurt to ask one why relationships are complicated. Take breakups, for example. People often question their breakups only in hindsight, looking back to wonder exactly what went wrong. They may ask things like, “Was it something I said, or did?” Well, according to one theoretical perspective, it may have less to do with specific behaviors, and more to do with the way that people approach relationships in general.

Imagine you’re on a plane. As you travel from point A to point B, it is possible that you may encounter turbulence. This is common during most plane rides, and after a short while it usually evens out eventually. Researchers have begun to think about romantic relationships in this way: smooth flights that occasionally encounter turbulence. Normally, things turn out fine, but enough turbulence can cause any flight to crash. It is during the transition from point A to point B that turbulence becomes dangerous.

Enter the relational turbulence model (RTM), which claims that relationships are at the highest risk of ending when couples go through transitional periods (like moving, changing jobs, having children, etc.).1 Major life changes such as these leave couples prone to high levels of relational turbulence, which are the negative experiences that might occur in relationships in response to transitions.2 Essentially, the more transitions that a couple goes through, the more likely that couple is to experience relational turbulence. And the more relational turbulence a couple experiences, the more likely that couple will argue and, eventually, break up. According to the model there are two major sources of relational turbulence: the amount that a person’s partner interferes with everyday goals (e.g., borrowing the car, not taking out the trash, making or canceling last minute plans), and the extent to which that person experiences relational uncertainty.

Relational uncertainty may creep into your life in a few ways. First, you may not have enough confidence in your own role within a relationship (self-uncertainty). So, how much do you love your partner, how committed are you to them, how much do you want this relationship to work. Second, you may have doubts about your partner’s involvement in the relationship (i.e., partner-uncertainty). Finally, experiencing self or partner-uncertainty can lead to relationship-uncertainty (e.g., how certain you are that the relationship will work as a unit). Self, partner and relationship uncertainty all fit under the umbrella of relational uncertainty. According to the RTM, the more relational uncertainty you experience, the more turbulent your relationship will become.

In order to test the tenets of this model, researchers decided to look at how relational uncertainty influenced relational turbulence. In a study of 135 dating couples, they looked at peoples’ experiences of turmoil (e.g., chaos and feelings of being overwhelmed), sadness, and anger as a measure of relational turbulence. Their results were very telling. First, increased experiences of relational uncertainty lead to increased experiences of relational turbulence. Moreover, a person’s own experiences of relational turbulence lead to an increase in their partner’s experiences of relational uncertainty at a later date. Most interesting of all, peoples’ experiences of relational turbulence were most affected by their partners’ experiences of relational uncertainty. In other words, the more relational uncertainty my partner experiences, the more likely I am to experience feelings of anger, sadness, and turmoil; those feelings will eventually lead to our partners to experience more uncertainty, and the cycle continues.

This research provides an important link between cognitions, behaviors, and relationships. The findings explain how and why people experienced uncertainty about their relationships, and how that uncertainty can negatively affect those relationships. Taking the time to have open and honest conversations with your partner about any uncertainties that you are experiencing can save your relationship from encountering turbulence. Even more importantly, making sure that your partner’s uncertainties are in check can lead to a more satisfying and healthier relationship. Unfortunately, transitional periods are bound to occur throughout any relationship, and the ensuing turbulence may be unavoidable. This is a normal part of any close relationship, but nipping your minor insecurities in the bud can save you and your partner a ton of grief.

1Solomon, D. H., Weber, K. M., & Steuber, K. R. (2010). Turbulence in relational transitions. In S. Smith & S. Wilson (Eds.) New directions in interpersonal communication research (pp. 115-134). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

2Knobloch, L. K., & Theiss, J. A. (2010). An actor—partner interdependence model of relational turbulence: Cognitions and emotions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships27, 595-619. doi: 10.1177/0265407510368967

James Stein - Graduate Student - Arizona State University

James' primary area of research is the study of uncertainty and how it influences close relationships. So, what behaviors make us the most uncertain about our relationships? And, more importantly, how do those uncertainties affect our relationships? James also studies friends with benefits relationships in great detail, and how they differ from/overlap with more traditional close relationships.

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