Relational maintenance refers to activities that occur in interpersonal relationships after the relationship is developed and before the relationship is terminated (Stafford 1994). Although the term implies a temporal stage of relationship life, communication scholars have more frequently focused on the processes that sustain a relationship. For example, Dindia & Canary (1993) identified four common definitions of relational maintenance: (1) the process of keeping a relationship in existence; (2) the process of keeping a relationship in a specified state or condition; (3) the process of keeping a relationship in satisfactory condition; and (4) the process of keeping a relationship in repair.
There are several controversies within relational maintenance scholarship, including theoretical commitment and views of intentionality. For example, three major theories have emerged. The first is equity theory. Associated with the work of Canary, Stafford, and colleagues, equity theory posits that maintenance behaviors are both rewards and costs. These authors identified seven maintenance strategies: “positivity” (being cheerful and optimistic), “openness” (self-disclosure and direct discussion of the relationship), “assurances” (messages stressing commitment), “network” (relying on common friends and affiliations), “sharing tasks” (accomplishing instrumental responsibilities), “advice” (expressing opinions and support), and “integrative conflict management” (e.g., cooperating, apologizing). Research indicates that these strategies are consistent and strong predictors of relational characteristics such as satisfaction, commitment, and love.
The second theoretical approach is a dialectical perspective. Championed by scholars such as Baxter and Montgomery (1996), the dialectical approach focuses on the ways that contradictory tensions are managed in order to sustain the relationship. For example, a dialectical tension might involve the desire for both predictability and novelty in the relationship. Eight management strategies have been identified. These include “denial” (rejecting the existence of a tension), “disorientation” (ignoring the ability to actively manage tensions), “spiraling inversion” (responding to first one, then the other pole), “segmentation” (partitioning the relationship by topic/ activity), “balance” (partially fulfilling the demands of each pole), “integration” (responding to both poles simultaneously), “recalibration” (temporarily synthesizing the contradiction so opposing forces are no longer viewed as opposite), and “reaffirmation” (celebrating the stimulation that contradictory tensions provides).
Finally, systems approaches have been touted as the ideal theory for understanding maintenance processes (Stafford 1994). Systems approaches allow for an understanding of how mutual and reciprocal influences affect the balance of the relationship. In his seminal study of maintenance processes, Ayres (1983) found that three strategies – “avoidance”, “balance,” and “directness” – functioned to sustain a relationship’s equilibrium.
Although these theories have provided insights into maintenance processes, they have not provided a full picture. Equity theory, for example, is biased toward western notions of relationships. The dialectical perspective provides an intuitive means for understanding relationships, but does not provide a mechanism for predicting which relationships will be maintained and which will not. And, despite the potential usefulness of the systems perspective, relatively little maintenance research has adopted this view. A significant area for future scholarship is the development of a theory or theories that more fully explain the maintenance process.
A second ongoing controversy is the extent to which maintenance is achieved intentionally. At issue is whether maintenance is effortful and planned (i.e., it is strategic), or whether it also occurs as a by-product of everyday interaction (i.e., it is routine maintenance). Dindia (2000) identified three possible relationships between strategic and routine maintenance. First, she argued that some behaviors might start off as strategies for relational partners, but become routinized over time. Second, some behaviors might be performed primarily strategically by some partners and primarily routinely by others. Finally, Dindia proposed that the same behavior might on some occasions be used strategically, and on other occasions be used routinely. Tentative support has been found for all three possibilities, and for the proposal that routine maintenance may be a stronger predictor of relationship satisfaction than strategic maintenance (Dainton & Aylor 2002). However, the larger question of when and why maintenance is performed strategically vs routinely has not yet been answered.
Regardless of theoretical perspective or stance on intentionality, much of the published research has used self-report data. Although communication is presumed to be the central mechanism for relational maintenance, the sheer difficulty of capturing real-life interactions in real-life settings makes research focused on actual communication problematic. Whether strategic or routine, relational maintenance is embedded in the rocky terrain of daily life, and is rarely on public view. Future research will need to devise creative methods to fully investigate maintenance communication.
Moreover, although scholars have learned a great deal about the cognitions and behaviors that relational partners use for maintenance, network and cultural influences have largely been ignored. Future research needs to put maintenance in context, investigating the extent to which cultural norms, as well as family members, other relationships, and social structures, affect the maintenance process.
Finally, nearly all of the research has focused on dating and marital relationships, but clearly other types of relationships are maintained. Scholars are just beginning to investigate the maintenance of friendships, family relationships, co-worker relationships, and the like. An intriguing but as yet unanswered question is the extent to which the same maintenance processes operate across contexts. Early results indicate that there are some maintenance activities that occur in numerous relationship forms, including providing support and talking about the relationship. The relative importance of these more generic strategies vs the contextually determined and/or relationally idiosyncratic behaviors is an area for future research.
- Ayres, J. (1983). Strategies to maintain relationships: Their identification and perceived usage. Communication Quarterly, 31, 62–67.
- Baxter, L. A., & Montgomery, B. M. (1996). Relating: Dialogues and dialectics. New York: Guilford.
- Canary, D. J., & Dainton, M. (eds.) (2003). Maintaining relationships through communication: Relational, contextual, and cultural variations. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Canary, D. J., & Stafford, L. (eds.) (1994). Communication and relational maintenance. New York: Academic Press.
- Dainton, M., & Aylor, B. A. (2002). Routine and strategic maintenance efforts: Behavioral patterns, variations associated with relational length, and the prediction of relational characteristics. Communication Monographs, 69, 52–66.
- Dindia, K. (2000). Relational maintenance. In C. Hendrick & S. S. Hendrick (eds.), Close relationships: A sourcebook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 287–300.
- Dindia, K., & Canary, D. J. (1993). Definitions and theoretical perspectives on maintaining relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10, 163–173.
- Harvey, J. H., & Wenzel, A. (eds.) (2001). Close romantic relationships: Maintenance and enhancement. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Stafford, L. (1994). Tracing the threads of spider webs. In D. J. Canary & L. Stafford (eds.), Communication and relational maintenance. New York: Academic Press, pp. 297–306.