Relationship deterioration : description and implications

Langlais, Michael Roger
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Ending a relationship is a common and often difficult experience for adolescents and young adults who are dating (Furman & Wehner, 1997). Yet, little is known about how romantic relationships deteriorate prior to breakup (Carver, Joyner, & Udry, 2003; Duck, 1981). The main goal of this study is to develop a definition of relationship deterioration that delineates the process of deterioration, by specifying a beginning and end point of deterioration and identifying characteristics that distinguish deterioration from breakup. Data for this study comes from the University of Texas Tracing Relationships and Commitment study (UT-TRAC), which contains 464 participants (232 heterosexual couples) who graphed changes in commitment over a 9-month period providing reasons describing each change. Deterioration, as defined as declines in commitment, was described by both partners in a romantic dyad in 90 couples whereas 75 individuals described deterioration and their romantic partner did not. A coding manual was created and pilot-tested to measure frequency and intensity of the four characteristics of deterioration in participant’s descriptions of changes in commitment. The current investigation used multi-level modeling separately for couples experiencing deterioration (to control for the dyadic nature of the data) and individuals whose partner did not report declines in commitment. Survival analyses using logistic regressions (Singer & Willett, 2003) were applied to measure how the characteristics of deterioration could predict breakup. Results of the analyses revealed that participants who experienced a breakup were more likely to report relationship deterioration, particularly for couples where both individuals described deterioration. Hierarchical linear models revealed that more frequent amounts of the deterioration characteristics was associated with deterioration as compared to pre-deterioration. However, intensity of the characteristics was not significant in differentiating between deterioration and pre-deterioration. In comparing deterioration with breakup, frequency of the deterioration characteristics predicted breakup only in descriptions of alternative partners, whereas intensity of the all four deterioration characteristics predicted breakup ranging from 37% (more intense scores of relational uncertainty) to 74% (more intense scores of alternative partners for an individual’s partner). Implications of this study will be in terms of commitment theory in order to further understand relationship processes.