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Dating Drama: Does Roller-Coaster Romance Last?

Research reveals the potential consequences of a roller-coaster romance.

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We all know that couple. You notice when they arrive at the party, because time spent in their company almost always involves witnessing some type of drama or emotional display, often with histrionics to match. “Oh, that's just Tim and Cathy,” you might say. After all, despite the drama, they are still together. But for how long?

Emotive, animated personality types might be prone to dramatic expression in all types of relationships. In some cases, some level of drama might spice up romance — depending on the topic and the emotions involved — particularly if they are positive. Negative theatrics, however, whether displayed emotionally, verbally, or, God forbid, physically, can transform a romantic plot into a tragedy — ending with a breakup.

One obvious downside of dramatic communication is the connection with conflict. In most cases, drama involves disagreement. So when it comes to relationship drama, how much is too much?

Relational Theatre Does Not Always Forecast a Happy Ending

In a study entitled “Pathways of Commitment to Wed” (2016), Brian Ogolsky et al. investigated how different relational pathways of commitment do or do not lead to the altar.[1] They classified couples into commitment pathways based on changes in their commitment to get married, as well as the reasons for the changes. They identified four distinct processes of commitment: (a) dramatic, (b) conflict-ridden, (c) socially involved, and (d) partner-focused.

The largest group of people in their study was classified as involved in dramatic commitments. They defined dramatic commitments as involving “relatively frequent fluctuations in commitment and negative attributions about their relationships.”

Interestingly, they had a separate category for relationships marked by conflict. They defined conflict-ridden commitments as including “high levels of conflict and relatively frequent decreases in commitment.” Yet there were differences.

When the End of the Ride Is the End of the Road

Ogolsky et al. reported results that might not surprise some people who have been in roller-coaster relationships. Couples involved in dramatic commitments were more likely than any other type to end their relationship. During the course of the study, they were approximately twice as likely to break up as couples in the other groups. Furthermore, this group demonstrated a higher likelihood of regression in relational involvement. Specifically, they were noted as least likely to either advance or even maintain their stage of involvement.

What type of couples attempt to weather the turbulence of dramatic commitment? The authors report findings from two theoretical perspectives. The first involves hesitation about getting involved in the first place. The authors note that it is people with higher levels of relational ambivalence who are more likely to be classified as dramatic. Ogolsky et al. note that ambivalence may contribute to relationship dissolution. Apparently, it was not attitudes about marriage that predicted dramatic commitment, it was hesitation over becoming seriously involved in general.

Regarding the notion that relational drama is caused by passionate love, this hypothesis was not supported. On the contrary, the authors found that individuals involved in dramatic commitments had the lowest levels of passionate love and reported satisfaction. They speculate that perhaps couples in this group stay with their partners, because they lack acceptable relational alternatives.

Regarding compatibility, however, Ogolsky et al. found that couples were less likely to be classified as dramatic when they reported higher levels of compatibility related to mutual liking and engagement in leisure activities. In their study, couples in the dramatic group were more likely to break up amidst signs of incompatibility.

Passion Play: Coping With Conflict

Ogolsky et al. also reported some interesting observations about members of the conflict-ridden commitment group. They identified the major predictor of inclusion in this group as passionate love. They observe that passionate love is thought to originate out of lust, and likely to manifest through instability and loss of control.

Regarding compatibility, they note that couples reporting more compatibility in terms of participating in and enjoying leisure activities together are less likely to be in conflict-ridden commitments to begin with.

Regarding relational hesitation, they note that couples in conflict-ridden commitments report the highest levels of marriage concerns. Even so, they are less likely to break up than couples involved in dramatic commitments, and most likely to maintain the status quo in terms of relational stage of involvement — as opposed to progressing or regressing.

Among other observations regarding this group, the authors note that their results are consistent with previous research on married individuals showing that the relational volatility in couples with higher conflict were no more likely to dissolve their relationships than maintain them. Apparently, they note this pattern may precede marriage.

Paving a Path to Relational Permanence

The takeaway? A drama-less existence would turn partners into robots, and some level of conflict is to be expected within relationships. But relational strife and negativity are more likely to lead to dissolution than success. For couples interested in becoming official, taking steps to address problem behaviors and attitudes early in the relationship is the best plan in terms of paving a path to the altar.


[1]Brian G. Ogolsky, Catherine A. Surra, and J. Kale Monk. “Pathways of Commitment to Wed: The Development and Dissolution of Romantic Relationships.” Journal of Marriage and Family 78, no. 2 (April 2016): 293–310. doi:10.1111/jomf.12260.