Fighting with your friend or partner? Here's why... cover image

Fighting with your friend or partner? Here's why...

Dorian Minors • April 25, 2014

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

In this article, I'm going to talk about how emotion is created and managed in close relationships. We've already talked about how emotions happen and why we feel the emotions we feel. We've also talked about what makes a relationship close. Go read them and come back (I'll wait).

In 1983, Ellen Berscheid realised that these concepts were closely connected. She realised that everyone has connected chains of organized action sequences (routines we follow that are key to achieving our goals in life) as well linked chains of higher order plans (the goals we have for our lives). She called these intra-chains. Let's use an example.

Tim's job is sniffing butts. He's hoping to get promoted to 'tree pee on-er'. Photo courtesy of Wendy Hollands (Flickr) Tim's job is sniffing butts. He's hoping to get promoted to 'tree pee on-er'. Photo courtesy of Wendy Hollands (Flickr)

Tim wakes up every Monday, eats breakfast, brushes his teeth, dresses and heads off to work. He does this because breakfast (routine) keeps him energised for the day's work (goal), brushing his teeth and dressing (routines) has him in a position to look pretty and feel confident to meet new people to add to his social circle, perhaps a girlfriend and to work towards that promotion at work (goals). See why they were called 'chains' by Berscheid? The routines all link up in a series to all different goals. You're just following those chains, everyday. Now obviously our routines aren't always this superficial and there are going to be many other reasons Tim does these things. His goals may also be broader and there are certainly going to be more of them. But just think of all the things you do regularly and ask why it is that you do them. Every routine we carry out has a purpose. Those purposes are goals in themselves and probably lead to even greater goals. The main thing to take away is that his routines and his goals are all linked together, in many intra-chains, which we'll just call chains.

“The more people hang out together, the more they tangle up their existing goals and routines. Not just couples, but friends and family too.”
So Tim, with his chains meets Sarah. Sarah is going to have her own chains. Some might be the same, some are definitely going to be different. Maybe she's only working part time and her goal is to finish her TAFE course (she wants to be a landscape-gardener). Whatever the case may be, before they met each other, they were on parallel tracks. Sarah was only following the routines that led to her goals and Tim was only following his routines towards his goals. But when Sarah and Tim meet, they begin meshing those chains and getting 'em all tangled. This is where one of the main aspects of interdependence theory comes in. Those inter-connections are these chains. Sarah might have to wake up a bit earlier to fit in with Tim's schedule, Tim might need to start eating more vegetables to suit Sarah's health goals. Their separate intra-chains are starting to tangle and become combined inter-chains, what we'll just call tangled chains.

And as we talked about, the more of these tangled chains (which again, are basically the same as inter-connections) are created, the closer these two will be to each other. The longer they are together and the strength and diversity of these tangled chains are going to determine how important they become to each other. Why? Well, the more Sarah is changing her routines to include Tim, the more Sarah feels responsible for Tim and his Higher Order Plans. In addition, the more dependent she is on him to help her fulfill her Higher Order Plans. Same goes for Tim, as his routines change to include Sarah, the more he becomes simultaneously dependent and responsible for her life goals.

Looks just as pretty, is just as complicated. The more we tangle up our desires and their desires, the more we 'like' people, because we rely on them! Photo courtesy of flashfix (Flickr)
So why is this important for the emotions we feel in relationships? Well, if you remember , emotions are caused when our routines (organized action sequences) are interrupted. When two people mesh their chains of routines together, it means that you have double the amount of potential interruptions to your routines! Not only that, but you have double the amount of routines that could be interrupted! Where before, Tim just needed to worry about those interruptions happening to him and his routines, he now has to worry about interruptions happening to Sarah which could affect both his and her routines (which are now his routines too). Where do these interruptions come from? Well, that falls back on your expectations of a relationship, your schemas. If you expect your husband/wife to make breakfast for you like your father/mother did, if that doesn't happen (which is a relationship violation that threatens your 'going to work/TAFE/Uni' routine) then that's an interruption, you're going to feel an emotion. What emotion that is depends on the importance and valence of the interruption. Are they high? Well, you'll switch on your attribution machine and the rest will be history. Ok, so what have we learned.
  1. Our closeness to others is directly related to how much we let them influence our important routines and subsequent life goals.
  2. The more routine chains we mesh together, the more invested we become in each other and the closer we will feel.
  3. Interruptions to our routines lead to emotion, so meshing our routines with someone else means we have double the routines AND double the amount of potential interruptions.
  4. Our expectations (schemas) about relationships guide the types of interruptions we will experience. When your partner/friend/family member violates your expectations and it threatens your routines, you are probably going to feel an emotion
  5. This theory isn't one of those 'it'll do until we find a better one' either. It's like gravity to physicians. As much fact as science can be. In 1987, Simpson studied almost 300 couples long term and found that distress on breakup was a direct result of their inter-chain connections.
But, it's not just bad news. Since our schemas for the most part determine what our interruptions are going to be, these are easy to manage. Work out what your expectations are and if some are more likely, maybe it's time to reconsider. In addition, you might have more routines to worry about, but you also have another player on your team. Those interruptions you might have had to deal with alone once are now just as much your new buddies' responsibility. It reminds me of what a comedy writer once wrote; 'it means playing co-op through life'. You might have to help them when they fall down, but you've got them to help you when you do too. That was a big one. I wouldn't be surprised if you were tuckered out. But if you're keen for more, why don't you check out why some people are clingy and some are cold - another fundamental of social psychology! Or for something less deep, perhaps you'd like to know why you're always fighting with your friend/partnerGiving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology. Thumbnail image courtesy of Kim (Flickr)

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.