- Committing to marriage means you pay attention to how you interact with each other—your interpersonal process.
- Pay attention to the process in intimate interactions, the process in negotiating issues, and the negative process in reacting to each other.
- Trust in each other is cultivated by enhancing the interpersonal process in your marital relationship.
Marriage is a special kind of relationship in which we make a sincere commitment to both creating and maintaining this special connection. In the beginning, we are attracted to someone, perhaps enthralled with them. It’s all about who this person is that attracts us. Maybe it is chemistry. It’s not about the relationship.
When you begin to get serious about this brilliant, attractive, sexy, glorious other, your attention should shift to how you interact with one another—the quality of your relationship. I propose that you make a commitment to the quality of the relationship in addition to your emotional connection to the person you are so attracted by. Let me make the case.
There are two stand-out reasons why I think we should commit to the relationship in the same way we have committed emotionally to the person.
First, committing to the relationship means you must pay attention to what is happening between the two of you as you go about managing your life together. Psychologists use the term interpersonal process to talk about what is happening between two people as they interact with one another around specific issues and events. If you do not attend to the quality of the interpersonal process between you, you may find that love can die. More about this later.
Second, committing to the relationship means that, when things go badly, you focus on the interpersonal process—not just label your spouse as the “bad guy.” The most important example of this happening is when infidelity occurs. More about this later, too.
How to Understand Interpersonal Process in a Relationship
Interacting with your partner has two aspects: (1) the content around which the interaction is occurring and (2) the process that is happening. “Content” refers to the specific issue you’re discussing or the event that is happening. “Process” refers to what is occurring between the two of you as you discuss the various issues, events, etc. that occur. An example:
My husband, Joe, does not like to go out to movie theaters. When I approach him about an evening at the movies, I am often skeptical that he will respond favorably. I tend to be tentative about asking or I demand that we go out, making some complaint about his resistance. My approach is not always straightforward, which can increase the likelihood that Joe will react to the process—how I am coming across—rather than the actual content of the interaction—going to the movie.
Instead, I try to think through what is important to me about going to the movie. Do I want to see this movie? Is it about getting out of the house? Is it that I want time with him? Am I willing to go on my own or with a friend? These questions are important to consider before I make a request. Once I have the answers to them, I can approach Joe in a straightforward manner and negotiate an outcome rather than approach him defensively.
3 Important Kinds of Interpersonal Process
There are three important kinds of interpersonal process that occur in relationships: intimate interactions, negotiating interactions (when you are working out things between you), and reactive interactions (when things go badly between you):
1. Process in an intimate interaction: Intimacy is not a static “thing.” It is between you and your partner—it is interpersonal! Interactions between you and your spouse have a unique quality that makes them intimate. The basic dynamic of an intimate interaction involves one of you disclosing or sharing some part of yourself and your partner attending to that disclosure.
For example, Lucas discloses a personal worry he has about something important to him. His wife, Sarah, invites further conversation about his concern, indicating he has her attention (not advising him unless asked). As they continue their discussion, alternately disclosing and paying attention reciprocally, the intimacy between Lucas and Sarah deepens.
2. Process in negotiating—how to manage issues: Negotiating is the workhorse of a relationship. It is how each of you expresses the things in life that are important for you both to live well. Negotiation is the process by which you express your individual wants and desires while honoring your partner’s wants and desires.
3. A negative relationship process—reacting:
You: “How can you ignore me like that? I work so hard at being nice to you.”
Your spouse: “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
An interaction like this can lead to a breakdown in the connection between you and your spouse. In this event, Sarah was telling Lucas about her difficult day at work, and Lucas was not paying attention to what she was saying…hence, her feeling that he was “ignoring” her. She upped the ante by letting him know how “nice” she is to him.
Sarah is “taking personally” Lucas’s not paying attention to her. She experiences this as him "ignoring" her. It is certainly legitimate to want, even to expect, that your spouse will be interested in what is happening to you. However, Sarah characterizes what he did as "ignoring" her, instead of describing that he was not attending to her in the way she wanted him to. Lucas is likely to agree that he was not paying attention to Sarah in the way she wants him to. He is unlikely to agree that he was "ignoring" her.
When Lucas reacts to the way Sarah characterizes what he did, a conflict is created. Relationship conflicts are about the relationship process (how Sarah characterized Lucas’s action) not the content (he did not pay attention the way she wanted him to). Content issues can always be negotiated. Process is not negotiated because it is about who is the bad guy and who is the good guy in the relationship.
Infidelity—When Things Go Badly
Infidelity is the best example of why committing to the relationship process is such a good idea. Committing to your spouse can result in your characterizing him/her as the “bad” spouse who committed adultery. He/she is “bad” because he/she betrayed you as a person. This is the personal sense of betrayal, the feeling of being personally rejected by your partner in infidelity—he/she rejected you as a person.
I take the radical approach that the betrayal is to the relationship, not to you, the spouse. Let me explain. Your partner has disinvested in the relationship with you and did not tell you. He/she is no longer committed to the relationship process through which you address issues in the marriage. This leaves you making decisions about your life without having the information you need to make good decisions.
Believing that the betrayal is of the relationship, not the person, allows you to avoid characterizing someone you love as a “bad” person. It also helps you understand that this is not about you as a person; it is about the breakdown in the relationship process that you trusted.
Recovery from infidelity means not letting this be about you as a person—you remained committed to the relationship. You may or may not be interested in recommitting to the relationship process. You must assess with professional help whether your partner is so committed.
When Love Dies—It’s About the Process
Research on how love dies in a relationship suggests it is disillusionment with the interpersonal process that causes the problem. Concerns about a partner’s controlling actions (53 percent), partner’s lack of responsibility (53 percent), and a partner’s lack of emotional support (47 percent) all describe the negative interpersonal process that account for disillusionment in the marriage.1
Trust Grows From the Relationship Process
Trust is what you cultivate with your partner by committing to the relationship process. Both respect for one another and trust in one another accrue through practicing the process of intimacy, the process of negotiation, and knowing how to get out of the negative process of reacting to one another. Committing to the interpersonal process in your relationship is fundamental to the well-being and longevity of your marriage.
1. Kayser, K. When Love Dies: The Process of Marital Disaffection. New York: The Guilford Press, 1993.