- Relationships are made up of positive and negatives, but the question is whether the positive can balance out the negative.
- New research on couples shows that, indeed, positive perceptions of your partner can go far in buffering the negative.
- To improve your relationship satisfaction, kissing and making up may actually prove to be a pretty good strategy.
Do you believe that there’s nothing better than so-called “make-up sex”? In your own relationship, how many times has an angry exchange with your partner evolved into a passionate embrace followed by an unusually ardent expression of sexuality? Even if the end result wasn’t quite as extreme, did you feel that the argument somehow brought a new spark into your feelings about your partner?
A close relationship wouldn’t be a real relationship if partners never disagreed. The better test of a relationship is not whether couples never argue but whether the agreement-disagreement ratio moves the needle in a positive direction overall. According to a new study by Baylor University’s Amber Cazzell and colleagues (2022), the two “basic dimensions of adaptive interpersonal processes” include those that are “positive and helpful” and those that are “negative and damaging” (p. 1050).
Abbreviated as PPE (Positively Perceived Exchanges) and NPE (Negatively Perceived Exchanges) the authors conceptualize them as not one low-to-high continuum but as two distinct types of relationship behavior that can each vary independently. Your relationship may be high on PPE and NPE, low on both, or high on one and low on the other. The high PPE-NPE couple may have more excitement in their relationship compared to those who are low on both. Either combination of high or low PPE or NPE would, alternatively, indicate a relationship fraught with ambivalence.
PPEs, NPEs, and Relationship Satisfaction
When you think about those interactions that are positive and helpful, what comes to mind? The Baylor researchers suggest that they involve providing support, expressing warmth, and promoting intimacy or closeness. The opposite includes interactions in which partners criticize each other, miscommunicate, and withdraw.
As Cazzell and her team conceptualize these, PPEs and NPEs can be seen as forms of “dyadic coping” or ways of handling stress. As in the stress and coping literature, in which stress is defined in terms of the perception that a person lacks the resources to manage a challenge, it’s the perception of the exchange that matters, a perception that partners can either share or not share. You might think that you’re showing an enthusiastic response when your partner shares some good news with you, but in your partner’s mind, you’re acting in a way that seems more passive-aggressive.
Because they’re independent dimensions, it’s possible to examine the separate contributions that PPEs and NPEs make to relationship satisfaction. Furthermore, because they represent perceptions, rather than some objectively measured count of partner exchanges, it’s possible to test separately the ways that each partner rates their interactions on the same scales. Combining both into a PPE X NPE factor makes it possible, additionally, to see if there’s something unique about a couple who is high on both.
Testing the Kiss and Make-Up Theory
Using an online sample of 886 mixed-sex marital dyads recruited from across the U.S. (average years of marriage: 11 years), Cazzell et al. administered a simple, five-item relationship quality measure as the outcome variable (scored separately for wives and husbands). As predictor variables, the research team used all possible combinations of wife positive-negative exchanges and husband positive-negative exchanges that included a so-called “interaction” factor for each consisting of PPE X NPE scores. The “kiss and make-up” theory would account for those couples whose interaction shows up as high-high on PPE and NPE.
Putting yourself in the place of these couples, see how you would rate on the PPE and NPE items. Using a 1 to 6 (not at all to extremely) scale, rate how “helpful” and “upsetting” your partners are when:
- Needing advice or guidance about personal problems
- Needing to feel cared about, understood, and sympathized with
- Needing favors or assistance
- When feeling excited, happy, or proud of something
- During routine daily interactions, conversations, or activities.
Turning to the results, and using the length of marriage as an additional predictor, the authors were able to support their proposal that PPEs and NPEs don’t just sit along a single dimension but that each contributed independently to overall relationship satisfaction. Furthermore, the effects remained significant even after controlling for the cross-partner perceptions. In simple terms, it appears that what matters in determining your relationship satisfaction is your own perception of the combination of plusses and minuses in the way that your partner handles key basic areas of your daily lives.
Get Ready to Pucker Up
As you can see, negative interactions with your partner don’t have to mean that your relationship is doomed. It’s possible for you to experience some interactions as upsetting, such as having your partner fail to help you, or, vice versa, when your partner thinks you’re not being all that supportive of their accomplishment. What matters is that you’re able to show intimacy and support at other times, preferably (we can assume) within a reasonably short time frame. Unfortunately, the Baylor study only examined couples at a single measurement point. It would have been interesting to see just how the PPE-NPE cycle might have performed in predicting changes in relationship satisfaction.
The findings also indicated that it doesn’t matter whether, at least among couples who were not the same biologically assigned sex, it’s the husband or wife whose buffering matters the most. There was no more buffering of husbands to wives than wives to husbands.
Putting these findings to use, then, would seem to involve several relatively simple steps. First, ask yourself those PPE and NPE questions and see where you fall on the joint set of dimensions. Then figure out where you’d like to be. Are you in the middle on both? Perhaps you might try pumping up the volume at least on the PPE side of your relationship. Do your NPEs outweigh your PPEs? The questionnaire itself gives you guidance on how to achieve a greater balance. If you’re already high on both, you can now reassure yourself, and your partner, that all the drama might actually be working in your favor. The NPEs never feel very good, but taking solace in the high level of PPEs you also experience can help you gain perspective on the value of putting some buffering to good use.
To sum up: The Cazzell study certainly reinforces the fact that relationships are, indeed, a complex mix of the good and the bad or at least perceptions of the good and the bad. The path to relationship fulfillment may very well be one of allowing both of those qualities to express themselves, preferably to an equal degree.
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Cazzell, A. R., Rivers, A. S., Sanford, K., & Schnitker, S. A. (2022). Positive exchanges buffer negative exchanges: Associations with marital satisfaction among US mixed-sex couples. Journal of Family Psychology, 36(7), 1050–1060. https://doi,org/10.1037/fam0000963