Alejandro J. de Parga/Shutterstock
Source: Alejandro J. de Parga/Shutterstock

In a previous blog, I pointed to a set of five behaviors that can ruin what was otherwise a perfectly good relationship, specifically a close, intimate one. There are also ways to ruin relationships that don’t have such high stakes, but are important to you nonetheless. These other types of relationships can be with people you work with or have an otherwise professional relationship, or they could involve ties between yourself and family members, people in the community, or pretty much anyone you see often, but don’t have a formalized loving connection. 

Although written from the standpoint of true close relationships, new research by the University of Zurich’s Monika Kunster and colleagues (2017) provides a useful perspective for understanding what can go wrong in ordinary day-to-day interactions among people who have a variety of working or other social relationships. Their framework applies the motivational psychology of approach and avoidance, which views people as oriented either toward positive relationship goals of building trust and support or away from negative outcomes involving conflict. 

In non-intimate relationships, people also have approach-avoidance goals. You may prefer, for example, to build positive relationships with the people you interact with at work or in your informal networks. It’s more pleasant to get along with these individuals, and you may even enjoy a certain degree of friendship and camaraderie. You also probably don’t want to experience problems and would like to keep things on an even keel. To understand what leads to a ruined informal or working relationship, the approach-avoidance model can be of value.

“Relationship problems,” according to Kunster et al., are defined as "any form of emotional or problem-centered stress directly concerning the two members of a couple” (p. 577). If you’re an approach-oriented person, you’ll try to avoid those problems by using constructive methods of resolution when you sense there’s trouble. If you’re an avoidance-oriented person, you’ll be so worried about things going awry that you’ll be inhibited from finding the paths to cooperation and trust that characterize good relationships. The irony is that the more worried you are about the relationship’s future, the less well you will handle problems when they arise.

In their study of 368 couples, Kunster and her team used this motivational framework to look at how individuals perceived themselves and each other in such attributes as coping methods, provision of support, and ability to communicate. As the authors predicted, the approach-oriented coped better with problems and also perceived their partners as more supportive and communicative. They were also rated more favorably by their partners. The avoidant-oriented both perceived and were perceived as less able to cope, as well as being less supportive. They were likely to “hold back their stress in order to preserve the stability of their relationship” (p. 587).

Returning now to those people you’re not as close with, but who, nevertheless, contribute to your well-being and ability to achieve your goals, the motivational framework can be quite helpful. People who are oriented toward avoidance will be less able to communicate with the people who matter to them even in these non-intimate relationships, and their fear of rejection will lead them to engage in perplexing behaviors. They may cross boundaries, strive to prevent your rejecting them, and be unaware of their role in contributing to problems in their relationship to you. As a result, they’ll manage to wreck what you, the approach-oriented individual, were hoping to achieve through the relationship, through these five behaviors: 

1. They turn a professional relationship into a personal one when the feelings aren’t reciprocated.

You can relate to this cause of a relationship’s end if you’ve ever had a person you’ve known in a professional context start to turn creepy. You have to text your plumber, because a drain got clogged, and you can no longer use the sink. The plumber comes and unclogs the pipe, but a few days later, you get a text from him at 10:30 p.m. wanting to “chat.” Not taking the hint from your non-response, he continues to try to make contact with you, until you’ve got no choice but to block him on your phone. This is annoying on many levels, but on a practical one, it means that you’ve got to look for someone new to help you out when the next emergency occurs.

2. They fail to follow through on their promises.

You’ve asked the chair of the fundraising committee of a local charitable organization you care about to send out an email list of invitations to the next big event. The list is one you’ve built up over the years, and you’re pretty sure that the invitations will be well-received. Even if they don’t attend, these individuals are more than likely to make a donation. Much to your dismay, though, you learn later that the invitations were never sent out. Why did she make that promise to begin with? All she had to do was tell you she was too busy, and you would’ve done it yourself, or found someone else to help. When people make promises they don’t keep, you’ll be unlikely to trust them ever again.

3. They criticize other people in order to make sure they’ll be chosen instead of them.

Perhaps you’re exploring options for someone to complete a major project that will involve a large investment, such as a contractor or consultant. Or let’s say that the major project isn’t tied to work, but to your own health. You go to a new dentist, someone recommended to you by a close friend. The dentist proceeds to examine your mouth, commenting liberally on all the areas that are in worse shape than you imagined. She then asks you about your previous dentist and tut-tut’s when you describe his approach. Though not calling him an idiot, she conveys the distinct impression that his treatment was flawed and offers, instead, an alternate method that you suspect will cost you a fair chunk of change. After leaving the new dentist’s office, you do a reality check and recognize the breach of professionalism that her comments represented. Not only were those comments self-serving, but they also suggest she is pretty desperate for your business.

4. They slack off in the quality of their work.

There’s always a honeymoon period when people are newly hired for any project, particularly one that everyone hopes will continue. It’s difficult to know who you can trust, and hiring someone can involve a long and complicated process that you’re not eager to repeat. You also want to have a good relationship with the people who do work for you. Say you’ve hired a repair person to fix up windows in your house that aren’t opening, and as it happens, they’ll have to be replaced. The repair person does an excellent job, and you’re satisfied with the results. However, the next project doesn’t go so smoothly, and the one after that is even more ineptly done. Sadly, it’s time for you to start the process all over again and find someone new, and you just hope that person B will be more reliable than person A was.

5. They start making requests no one can satisfy.

That fundraising chairperson should have followed through on her promises, because those were within the purview of her job. She couldn’t complain that you were asking her to do more than would be justified by her role. However, if you were to ask her to take on a project outside of her job scope and make continuous demands that she do so, the chances are good that you’ll be dropped from this committee that you value so highly, and perhaps be asked to step down completely from your role in the organization. Adding and adding to the responsibilities people expect others to perform will make the askers seem unreasonable and demanding — definitely people to avoid in the future.

All of these relationship-dooming behaviors will lead you to want to end your relationships with avoidant-oriented individuals — precisely the outcome they fear the most. In achievement situations, as noted by Kunster and colleagues, avoidant individuals will create self-fulfilling prophecies when their anxiety over failure manifests itself in behavior that proves counter to their goals. The avoidant individual in the non-close relationships I've just outlined shows this counter-productive behavior in becoming defensively protective (#3 listed above), failing to enter into negotiations that could lead to productive outcomes (#1 and #5), and even self-handicapping (#2 and #4). They’re hoping for validation from the people with whom they interact, but because they’re so anxious about rejection, they create the opposite result.

Finding fulfillment in relationships involves both intimate partnerships and the social bonds that keep people together in their larger networks of work, family, and community. Learning why the relationship-ruining individual engages in these behaviors — and, by the same token, learning to avoid what the avoidant individual does — can help keep your relationships on a more solid and constructive footing.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2017

References

Kuster, M., Backes, S., Brandstätter, V., Nussbeck, F. W., Bradbury, T. N., Sutter-Stickel, D., & Bodenmann, G. (2017). Approach-avoidance goals and relationship problems, communication of stress, and dyadic coping in couples. Motivation and Emotion, doi:10.1007/s11031-017-9629-3

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