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Eight Ways Romantic Partners Get Into Trouble

New research examines the eight factors of "relational turbulence theory."

Source: Maklay62/Pixabay

When your relationship is going well, you feel that you can handle the occasional problems that pop up to disturb your equanimity. You would prefer to go to a movie, but your partner would rather stay home. After a brief and perhaps heated discussion, you settle on a compromise (stay home tonight, go out tomorrow night). No one’s feelings are hurt, and you can move on without suffering any long-term consequences.

Now consider another scenario that doesn’t end up so satisfactorily. Your partner is spending more and more time at home talking with a co-worker on the phone, working out the details of a project that could easily be resolved in the office. From what you’re able to hear, it seems that the conversation regularly switches to more personal topics, and there is a considerable amount of chuckling and giggling.

Try as you might, it’s hard to suppress your feelings of jealousy, which only get worse when you try to remember the last time you and your partner yourselves had such long and enjoyable conversations. As the days go by, your resentment and jealousy feed on themselves, and you become more and more upset about the situation. You realize that you could be jumping to the wrong conclusions, but you can't stop yourself from becoming deeply concerned.

According to a new paper by Pennsylvania State University’s Denise Solomon and Kelly Brisini (2019), close relationships start to disintegrate when they become marked by turbulence, “a quality of romantic relationships that emerges after ongoing exposure to polarized experiences with a partner" (p. 2417).

The phone conversations can become those polarized experiences, but only under certain conditions. In a non-turbulent relationship, you would notice these conversations but not doubt your partner's loyalty to you. In a turbulent relationship, the imagined emotional cheating by your partner would cause your emotions to cascade downward and eventually eat away at your ability to have a sensible conversation with your partner about why you feel so bothered.

Indeed, in turbulent relationships, partners seem to be engaged in almost constant warfare. To the outside observer, it might be hard to figure out how those relationships endure for as long as they do. Indeed, constant conflict can be emotionally exhausting and will almost certainly lead to unsatisfying outcomes.

Using an online sample of 363 adults ages 20 to 85 (average of 50 years old; almost 50-50 split into men and women), the Penn State authors tested key predictions of relational turbulence theory (RTT) involving eight key features that could lead a relationship to be perceived as turbulent or not. The participants were not in relationships with each other, so an important qualification to keep in mind is that all responses were only from the individual participant’s point of view, not corroborated by the partner. However, the findings could eventually become the basis for examining the dyadic interplay between partners as this affects relationship outcomes.

These eight factors, and the measures used to tap into them, form the basis for RTT’s predictions of whose relationship becomes turbulent and whose does not. You can test yourself with these sample items:

1. Relationship uncertainty: How sure are you that you will stay in the relationship (self uncertainty)? How sure are you that your partner will stay with you (partner uncertainty)? How sure are you that your relationship will continue? This key factor becomes a major predictive piece of RTT’s approach to understanding whether your relationship is in trouble or not.

2. Taking conflict personally: Do you tend to let problems get to you, even if they are only minor in nature? Do conflicts with your partner lead you to feel victimized?

3. “Cognitive jealousy”: Think back on those conversations with the co-worker. Do you see threats to your relationship when none, realistically, exist? Do you ask yourself, on a frequent basis, whether your partner is or may be attracted to someone else? In the RTT model, cognitive jealousy adds to relationship uncertainty to doom, potentially, your satisfaction with your partner.

4. “Emotional jealousy”: How upset do or would you get when certain events with your partner occur? Do your emotions get aroused when you think your partner is cheating on you? Or, if your partner hasn’t engaged in anything suspicious, how aroused would you get?

5. Goal-blocking vs. help by your partner: Does your partner try to keep you from accomplishing what you need and want to do? If you make a set of plans for the day, does your partner seem to keep you from finishing those plans? Or does your partner ask how he or she can help you get done what’s needed in order for you to achieve your goals?

6. Ability to communicate directly to your partner: When you’re bothered by your spouse, are you able to talk about your irritation? Do you express these feelings directly? If you’re feeling jealous, are you able to share these feelings with your partner? The Penn State researchers believed that communication quality factors heavily into relationship turbulence.

7. Avoidance of difficult topics: Do you actively keep from talking about areas of importance in your relationship that have caused problems before? Do you make excuses to yourself (i.e., things aren't that bad) so that you don’t have to bring up these touchy issues?

8. Negative affect: How often do you feel angry, hurt, sad, or afraid with your partner? Would you describe your feelings at home or within the relationship as less pleasant than your feelings in situations outside the relationship?

In the statistical model testing RTT’s predictions, the authors found support for associations among these measures that, in some cases, were consistent with RTT and in others were not, or were only consistent for men but not women or vice versa. For the most part, people who were older or were in relationships for a longer time had lower relational turbulence, as you might expect, as the relationships that were excessively turbulent would be more likely to end.

Although all eight factors could be independently identified, they also had associations with each other. People higher in relational uncertainty were more likely to take conflict personally, to experience cognitive and emotional jealousy, and to have a higher negative affect. They were not, contrary to expectation, less likely to communicate directly to their partner.

Seeing your partner as unsupportive was more angering to women than men, but for men was more likely to be related to topic avoidance. Importantly, seeing a partner as supportive was related to greater ability to communicate directly about feelings of being hurt.

It's important to mention that in addition to not having data from matched sets of partners, the study was limited in being a one-time correlational design, and could therefore not account for the evolution of relationship turbulence over time. For example, are people who are more jealous more likely to feel uncertain about the future of their relationship, or does uncertainty provoke more jealousy?

To sum up, the Solomon and Brisini study provides an intriguing perspective on qualities that might keep relationships from descending into trouble. Identifying these factors is an important first step to testing more complex models that examine changes over time. For your own life, start by examining how yours measure up if you’re seeking a way to replace war with peace.

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Solomon, D. H., & Brisini, K. S. C. (2019). Relational uncertainty and interdependence processes in marriage: A test of relational turbulence theory. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(8), 2416–2436. doi:10.1177/0265407518788700.