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Relationship Work: When You Have Relationship Problems, Who Should You Talk To?  

Imagine your relationship isn’t going well and you need to talk about it with someone. You start the conversation by saying something along the lines of, “Things aren’t going well in our relationship. We seem to be in this rough patch where I don’t feel like we’re connecting the way we used to.”  The question is, who would you be most likely to say this to -- your relationship partner or your best friend?

The fact is that every relationship has problems (e.g., who is responsible for vacuuming, dealing with in-laws, the growing malaise consuming your relationship, etc.). When things hit a rough patch, talking it over may help. When you discuss your relationship problems or challenges with others (typically your own partner or your best friend), researchers call this “relationship work.”1 A recent study from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships explored the nature of relationship work and how such work may help shape a relationship’s long-term quality and stability.

How They Did It

The researchers had 67 college women respond to questionnaires at two time points, approximately 1 year apart. Specifically, participants completed measures regarding the frequency of relationship work with their best friend (91% of best friends were the same-sex as the participant) and partner (e.g., “How often do you bring up the way that you and your partner spend free time”). Researchers also assessed feelings of love (e.g., “To what extent do you love your partner at this stage?”), and conflict (e.g., “How often do you and your partner argue with one another?”). In addition, researchers kept track of relationship stability, or whether the relationship remained intact over time.

What They Found

Results indicated that the amount relationship work done with the best friend did not change over time. However, relationship work done with the relationship partner increased over time. Participants engaged in more relationship work with the partners than they did with their best friends at both time points. Over time, participants reported feeling more love at Time 2, however, relationship conflict did not differ over time.

In terms of stability, the results suggest that relationship work with the partner helps keep the relationship intact, while relationship work with a best friend undermines stability. That is, those who reported greater relationship work with their partner at Time 1 experienced greater romantic stability (i.e., were more likely to be with their partner at Time 2). The opposite was true for relationship work with the best friend; if you turn to your friends to talk through romantic problems, your relationship is less likely to survive.

At each time point, engaging in more relationship work with one’s partner correlated with reporting more romantic love. For conflict, those who reported greater conflict at Time 1 also reported less relationship work with the partner at Time 2. Also, those who reported greater conflict at Time 2 also reported engaging in relationship work with the best friend.  Importantly, it is not clear what the causal direction is (if any). That is, it could be that more conflict arises from discussing problems with a friend, or that because the relationship has more conflict there is more to discuss with the friend.

What These Results Mean For You

There appears to be link between discussing problems with your partner and greater romantic love. This could mean that discussing problems strengthens feelings of love. Of course, it could also be that couples who are more in love are more likely to discuss problems or that the problems they’re discuss are less severe (e.g., “I don’t like that shirt you wear.” Vs. “I don’t like your personality.”).

When your relationship experiences problems and challenges, it is important to discuss them with your partner.  Discussing your issues with a best friend may actually be counterproductive. It is important to note that relationship work with one’s friend and partner are not mutually exclusive. You can discuss issues with both. Most likely, the problems with best friend relationship work arise when it takes place in place of relationship work with the partner.

Overall, it seems the best takeaway is to deal with relationship problems at the source. After all, your partner is in a much better position to fix what’s wrong. 

Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed. Learn more about our book and download it here.

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up.

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