Having “hand” (a.k.a., power) and being the person with least interest in a relationship was recently discussed in one of our recent posts (“Who has the upper hand? Power, Sex, and Seinfeld”). Why is it that some people have power? Does it mean that the fate of the relationship is dictated by the person who has the power?
According to research I’ve conducted with colleagues,1 one key to understanding current relationships is understanding past relationships. Using data from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation (MLSRA), an ongoing study that has followed participants from before birth to the present (participants are currently in their 30s), we found that (a) individuals who did not have supportive mothers when they were 2 years old, and (b) individuals who were unable to resolve conflict in a mutually beneficial manner with a best friend at 16 years old, were more likely to become the person with power in their relationships. In other words, people with past relationships that had a clear winner and loser (no win-win relationships here) were more likely to be the the partner with the less to lose if the relationship ends – that is, the “weak-link” partner – and have “hand” in their romantic relationships at age 20-21.
As Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock claim, “It takes two to make a thing go right. It takes two to make it outta sight.” As I child of the 80s, I love that song; as a relationship researcher, I love those lyrics! Will the weak-link partner’s commitment singularly determine relationship fates? Not according to our findings. We need to consider two things to predict breakup: (a) how does this weak-link partner compare to other weak-link partners and (b) how discrepant are the partners’ commitment levels?
If there’s little difference between the partners’ levels of commitment, there’s little hostility or hopelessness shown by both partners when discussing ongoing problems and ideal partner characteristics. If the weak-link is actually fairly high in commitment, and his/her partner shares similar commitment levels, there’s less hostility! In this situation, it is likely that both partners are performing pro-relationship behaviors. When the weak-link partners are very low on commitment, and partners have fairly similar levels of commitment, they also show little hostility or hopelessness. In this case, both partners probably don’t care enough to try to change the other, and they are less hostile.
Where couples run into problems is when the weak-link is particularly weak (compared to other people’s relationships), and the partner considerably more committed. Both partners are showing and reciprocating hostile behaviors, and the high commitment of one partner isn’t enough to buffer the low commitment of the other. Much research in the field2 indicates being highly committed to one’s partner predicts good outcomes for relationship. Our research, however, suggests having similar levels of commitment predicts good outcomes.
I’ll leave you with one last song lyric written by Stephen Sondheim: “It takes two. I thought one was enough, it’s not true. It takes two of us.”
1Oriña, M. M., Collins, W. A., Simpson, J. A., Haydon, K. C., Kim, J., & Salvatore, J. A. (in press). Developmental and dyadic perspectives on commitment in adult romantic relationships. Psychological Science.
2Le, B., Dove, N., Agnew, C. R., Korn, M. S., & Mutso, A. A. (2010). Predicting non-marital romantic relationship dissolution: A meta-analytic synthesis. Personal Relationships, 17, 377-390.
Dr. Minda Oriña – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Oriña is a developmental social psychologist whose program of research examines processes that help individuals maintain and enhance the quality of their adult romantic relationships. Her primary interests involve studying romantic relationships within a developmental context.