Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Doing the Work of Relationships: A Maintenance Approach

Research identifies positive/negative behaviors used to maintain relationships

If I ever get around to writing the book I always talk about writing, it’ll be called “Doing The Work of Relationships.” This is because relationships take an incredible amount of work, and that work is communication (it’s all verbal and nonverbal messages). Years of communication research have focused on relational maintenance, identifying behaviors that help partners keep their relationships in a desired state (e.g., Canary & Dainton, 2006; Dindia & Canary, 1993; Stafford & Canary, 1991). The purpose of this entry, then, was to review some of these positive, and negative, behaviors.

Although there is variance in the definitions of what maintenance is, and what behaviors are considered maintenance, generally researchers argue that the following behaviors help partners maintain relationships:

  1. Assurances
  2. Openness
  3. Positivity
  4. Social networks (No, not a shared Facebook account. Instead, it is spending time with and gathering support from shared friends)
  5. Shared tasks

Engaging in behaviors like the ones above are important as they have been linked to relational satisfaction, commitment, and liking (Canary & Stafford, 1992; Stafford, Dainton, & Haas, 2000). A commonly adopted perspective for understanding maintenance is Equity Theory (Adams, 1965). Essentially, in relationships we compare the ratio of our inputs, or what we bring to the relationship, to our outputs, what we receive, against our partner’s ratio of inputs and outputs. This results, then, in feelings of being under-benefitted, over-benefitted, or in an equitable relationship. Studies suggest that when one feels under-benefitted he/she engages in fewer maintenance behaviors (see, for one example, Dainton, 2003).

Though years of research document the positive behaviors we engage in for maintenance, only recently have negative maintenance behaviors been identified. Dainton and Gross identified the following negative behaviors enacted to keep relationships in a desired state:

  1. Jealousy induction
  2. Avoidance
  3. Spying
  4. Infidelity
  5. Destructive conflict
  6. Allowing control

Although we do not often like to think this way, we often engage in positive and negative ways in relationships—the negative maintenance behaviors highlight some of the negative ways we may behave. As Dainton and Gross found, individuals who reported being satisfied in their relationships engaged in more positive maintenance and those who reported being less satisfied engaged in more negative maintenance behaviors. It is important, then, to actively avoid routine use of negative maintenance behaviors as it may erode satisfaction, associated commitment, and relationship persistence.

As previously stated, maintaining your relationship takes an incredible amount of work. The research identifying positive and negative maintenance behaviors highlight the common ways that we engage in maintenance. For couples, it is important to be aware of perceptions of equity as well as working towards engaging in positive maintenance behaviors (and avoiding the routine use of those negative behaviors).

Sean M. Horan (PhD, West Virginia University) is a faculty member at Texas State University. Follow on Twitter @TheRealDrSean

Canary, D. J., & Dainton, M. (2006). Maintaining relationships. In A. L. Vangelisti and D. Perlman (Eds.), Handbook of Personal Relationships (pp. 727-743). New York: Cambridge.

Canary, D. J., & Stafford, L. (1992). Relational maintenance strategies and equity in marriage. Communication Monographs, 59, 243-267.

Dainton, M. (2003). Equity and uncertainty in relational maintenance. Western Journal of Communication, 67, 164–186.

Dainton, M., & Gross, J. (2008). The use of negative behaviors to maintain relationships. Communication Research Reports, 25, 179-191.

Dindia, K., & Canary, D. S. (1993). Definitions and theoretical perspectives on maintaining relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10, 163-173.

Stafford, L., & Canary, D. J. (1991). Maintenance strategies and romantic relationship type, gender, and relational characteristics. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 8, 217-242.

Stafford, L., Dainton, M., & Haas, S. (2000). Measuring routine and strategic relational maintenance: Scale revision, sex versus gender roles, and the prediction of relational characteristics. Communication Monographs, 67, 306-323.

More from Sean M. Horan Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today