3Social Decentering, Relationship-Specific Social Decentering (RSSD), and Interpersonal Relationships
One of the significant reasons for using social decentering presented in Chapter 1 was to achieve our social goals. Social decentering and relationship-specific social decentering (RSSD) are tools people use to manage their relationships and meet personal goals. The ability to socially decenter enhances individuals’ abilities to select and adapt communication strategies that help them successfully attain their social goals, such as increased relational intimacy. Consider the most egocentric person you have known, someone lacking sensitivity to others – like Sheldon of Bing Bang Theory. Perhaps you have noticed that person has difficulty in forming and maintaining relationships. Sheldon’s friendships exist primarily because his friends’ social and relationship-specific decentering help them recognize his egocentrism and quirkiness, feel sympathy, evoke tolerance, and prompt accommodation which often serves as the basis for much of the show’s humor. The response to Sheldon demonstrates that social decentering does not occur in a vacuum and that its application is moderated by a variety of personal and relational factors such as interpersonal needs, personality, attraction, similarity, partner familiarity, relational history, and social information processing skills.
This chapter focuses on how social decentering contributes to the development, maintenance, and termination of interpersonal relationships, particularly in adult relationships. Adults have reached a point of personal and relationship development that continues throughout their life. In an article published in Human Relations (Redmond, 1989), I identified several functions that empathy and social decentering play in interpersonal relationships. On a general level, social decentering adds to people’s ability to understand others and to predict other people’s behaviors or reactions. Those two general abilities then allow for the accomplishment of other goals such as an increased ability to persuade or gain compliance from others and the ability to make decisions about others (though a sympathetic response might lead to less objective decision making). Social decentering contributes to impression formation by increasing the accuracy of attributions through contextual awareness and mindfulness. People tend to form positive impressions of others who are empathic, and by association, those who socially decenter, often because those qualities are reflected in active listening and confirming responses. Communication reflecting empathy and social decentering validates and confirms other people’s sense of self which contributes to the development and maintenance of relationships. Relationship building is often identified as a key element of counseling and therapeutic relationships and is another function of empathy and social decentering. The development of interpersonal relationships and social decentering, particularly RSSD, reflects an interdependent relationship. In new relationships, social decentering provides a foundation on which to adapt when little else is known about the partner, but RSSD requires self-disclosure and extended observation of a partner which occurs in concert with relationship escalation. After reviewing research on empathic accuracy, Colvin, Vogt, and Ickes (1997) concluded that people’s empathic accuracy with friends is based on “their accumulated observations of the targets’ behavior-in-context across varied situations, and over an extended time frame” (p. 187). In a similar manner, RSSD develops by accumulating observations over time and across contexts. Early in relationship development, effective social decentering can lead to additional interactions between new acquaintances and thus more opportunities to observe. Those opportunities then lead to the escalation of the relationship to the point where partners interact in a greater variety of activities and contexts.
The final functions identified in my article dealt with the more emotional impact of empathy on relationships: providing comfort, conveying caring, and reflecting. These functions are often identified as qualities that define close relationships. Underlying these functions is an arousal of emotions in an observer who then provides comfort and support, and helps the other person understand his or her situation and feelings. The affective and cognitive processes that contribute to social decentering and RSSD allow people to not only share in the emotion of the other person, but also to adapt responses to the other person and achieve positive outcomes. For example, knowing an appropriate response to the news of the death of a friend’s parent might prompt both sadness and a decision not to say anything but instead to just hug the friend. Decentering enhances our understanding of others and an appreciation of their situation. Sharing or reflecting that understanding to the other person often helps increase that person’s understanding of her or his own situation. For these reasons, empathy and perspective-taking have long been elements associated with effective counseling. Social decentering informs the counselor’s decision to provide feedback by enhancing their consideration and prediction of the client’s reaction to what might be shared. In a like manner, social decentering helps us in evaluating what and when to provide feedback to others.
Surprisingly, not a lot of research has been done on the direct impact of empathy, perspective-taking, or social decentering on relationship development. Most studies are context specific, examining empathy and perspective-taking within the context of organizations, leadership, nursing, patient care, counseling, marriage, etc. The research that does examine interpersonal relationships tends to focus on observable behaviors such as empathic listening and does not explore the process that contributes to such listening behavior.
A general model of relationship development stages reflecting escalation toward intimacy and de-escalation from intimacy provides a useful template for discussing the role of social decentering and RSSD in interpersonal relationships. Part of this discussion draws from extant theory and research and part of the discussion presents the outcomes that can be expected from applying social and RSSD to interpersonal relationships development from a theoretical perspective.
A variety of relationship stage models have been generated, often reflecting a specific theoretic slant. For example, Altman and Taylor’s (1973) social penetration theory identified four stages of relationship escalation (orientation, exploratory affective exchange, affective exchange, and stable exchange), which are built around changes in self-disclosure. Their model lists only one stage of de-escalation – depenetration. Mark Knapp (1984) developed a more communication-oriented stage model with five escalation stages and five de-escalation stages that has served as the structure for several research studies (see for example, Dunleavy & Booth-Butterfield, 2009; Welch & Rubin, 2002). I adapted Knapp’s model to reflect additional aspects of relational development for use in an introductory interpersonal communication textbook (Beebe, Beebe, & Redmond, 2017). Like Knapp, my model has five escalation stages and five de-escalation stages, where each stage reflects variations in self-disclosure, communication, and the relationship. While the number of stages included in models often varies, the underlying principle is the same across models; that is, the relationships go through discernable changes as they move toward and away from intimacy. As such, the role and application of social decentering and the development and use of RSSD should correspond to movement from one stage to another. Movement often depends on assessing the current value of the relationship and the potential value of moving to the next stage. Social and RSSD aid this assessment by facilitating the appraisal of a partner’s likely reaction to moving to another stage. Decentering also facilitates the development of strategies that can be used to move the relationship to the desired stage.
The following is a brief overview of the relationship development escalation and de-escalation stages (see Figure 3.1) discussed in Beebe, Beebe, and Redmond (2017). Following that overview, each stage is discussed in terms of the roles played by social decentering and RSSD. The first stage, pre-interaction awareness, occurs when a person acquires some information about another person but has not interacted with the other person in any meaningful way beyond a passing, “Hello”. The information that is learned is usually from mutual acquaintances or from simply observing the other person in some context. The result of this stage is the development of an initial impression that affects subsequent interactions. This stage is skipped in the instances where two strangers meet for the first time and immediately begin interacting.
The second stage, acquaintance, involves two phases. The first phase is the introductory interaction that occurs the very first time two people meet. This phase is never repeated between the same two strangers unless they both forget that they’ve already met. The interaction is typically routine and is usually limited to sharing basic impersonal information. Conversants can extend the introduction phase as they move into the second phase of acquaintance – casual banter. In the casual banter phase, conversations expand to include additional topics with limited disclosure of personal information; although, that disclosure is more than occurs during the introductory phase. Subsequent meetings between first time conversants generally involve continued casual banter until they decide to and negotiate a move to the next stage – exploration.
The exploration stage reflects a decision to establish an ongoing, interpersonal relationship. Partners engage in more substantive self-disclosure, spend more time together, and consider each other to be friends. As mutual trust and enjoyment increases, partners escalate the relationship to the intensification stage. The intensification stage is characterized by personal self-disclosures, the creation of a sense of “we-ness,” and labeling the relationship as best friends or, if romantic, as boyfriend/ girlfriend. The final stage, intimacy, is marked by a strong sense of confirmation of each partner’s value, intimate disclosure, and relationship commitment.
The number of stages toward intimacy that a relationship reaches affects how many de-escalation stages occur when relationships move toward termination. Relationships that reach the intimacy stage and de-escalate, generally experience all five of the de-escalation stages beginning with the turmoil or stagnation stage. Sometimes the level of conflict and tension in an intimate relationship reaches a point that the relationship is no longer in the intimate stage. At other times, intimate partners might lose interest in each other and the relationship becomes less fulfilling leading to stagnation and lack of relational energy. Further deterioration in the relationship is reflected in the deintensification stage in which self-disclosure, affection, and interest in the partner decrease. While technically remaining in the relationship, during the individualization stage, partners spend more time independent of one another and thus less communication and disclosure. During the separation stage , partners either drift into or decide to go their separate ways, and they both regard the relationship as over. During this stage, there might still be interaction because of shared work or social networks, but those interactions mimic the casual banter phase. Finally, the post-interaction effects stage occurs in which separated individuals internalize the effects of their terminated relationship resulting in continued longterm effect on their sense of self and on other relationships.
Social decentering has general application to the management of any relationship, providing people with ways to understand and adapt to partners regardless of the level of intimacy. However, RSSD is inextricably linked to the development of interpersonal relationships. RSSD does not exist outside the confines of a specific relationship since it depends upon interactions with a specific other for development and application. RSSD plays a significant role in the maintenance of close relationships and in achieving relational satisfaction. Failure to develop or apply RSSD is likely to undermine the relationship. As partners develop a more and more intimate relationship, there is a growing expectation that the information they disclose to their partner will be appreciated, retained, and incorporated into their partner’s communication and responses to them. Wright and Roloff (2015) found that after one partner in a romantic relationship did something that upset the other, the other became combative or gave the silent treatment if the partner failed to understand the other’s feelings and needs without being told. In essence, the failure to effectively apply RSSD had a negative effect on the relationship. This principle of retention of information about the other and adaptation to that information is woven into the discussion of the relationship development stages and explored in the research on relationship development presented in Chapter 4.
In reading the brief descriptions of each of the relationship development stages you would probably have already identified instances where empathy, perspective-taking, and social decentering are likely to have an impact. But some applications might not be as obvious as others. The following sections examine the role that other-centeredness (and lack of other-centeredness) plays in moving relationships both toward and away from intimacy.
We often form initial impressions and make attributions about people based on observation without direct interaction. Noticing someone running to catch a bus might lead you to infer that the person is late for work or school. Social decentering helps facilitate understanding others, even from a distance. Understanding others during the pre-interaction awareness stage illustrates the roles of the three analysis methods used in social decentering. Being other-centered during this stage draws heavily from use of self and use of generalized-others in making sense of what is observed. If you’ve run to the bus because you’ve been late for work or class, or have observed that behavior in others, those experiences provide a basis for interpreting the person’s behavior running to the bus. Remember, however, that social decentering is not simply making attributions, but it is considering the situation from the other person’s perspective. In this example, you might feel some relief that the person made it to the bus, or you might have reflected on the concern and relief the person must have felt after nearly missing the bus. Factors that affect our ability to socially decenter during the pre-interaction awareness phase include the amount of information we have about the target person, the degree to which we have parallel experiences, and observations of people you know or people in general who are related to the observed situation.
Social decentering should enhance people’s ability to assess their compatibility with other people by providing an answer the following question, “To what degree would that other person be attracted to me or be likely to get along with me?” Social decentering allows people to consider the other person’s perception of them. Accomplishing this assessment is dependent upon on how accurately and honestly people know themselves. Thus, if you thought you were a really funny person and had been observing a new co-worker who often laughed at other people’s humorous comments, you might conclude that person would find you attractive. But, if you are not really funny, you’ll probably be disappointed after interacting with the new person and finding the other person doesn’t find you funny and thus, not attractive.
The depth of pre-interaction awareness depends upon the number and length of opportunities to observe or collect information about another person. Berger and Bradac (1982), in presenting their theory of uncertainty reduction, identified strategies for acquiring information about others, two of which are particularly applicable to this discussion: (1) passive strategies where another person is observed, and (2) active strategies of getting information from other sources, such as friends or the Internet. Berger and Bradac assert that being able to observe another person in a variety of social interactions and situation provides more substantive information than watching a person in non-social interactions, such as typing on their laptop. The more important the other person is to the observer, the more effort that will be made to gain information. The desire and effort to reduce uncertainty by gaining knowledge would increase the ability to effectively and accurately decenter.
Among the possible negative consequences of social decentering are errors in conclusions and adaptations due to faulty or incomplete information. Another consequence is that as interaction occurs the target might be disconcerted by the adaptive and predictive abilities of the social decenterer. In an episode of the old Andy Griffith TV show the Mayberry townsfolk get up in arms when a stranger comes to town and knows all about them. He’s practically run out of town until it is explained that he knew all about everyone because he subscribed to and had been reading the local paper for a couple of years. He decided this was a town he would like to live in and that they would accept him. But he failed to predict how people would react to his having extensive knowledge of them. His comments, based on a low level of RSSD, caused alarm when talking to the townsfolk because he was referencing personal information that they had not disclosed to him.
The application of RSSD to pre-interaction awareness is limited not only because there isn’t a relationship, but because there hasn’t been the self-disclosure needed on which to build insights. Nonetheless, some degree of unique predictions of a specific person might be possible if there is sufficient information. For example, students in classes learn to predict which students will raise their hand to answer a question or make some joke during class. But that ability has little effect on the observed person. In ongoing interpersonal relationships, the other person is aware of their partner’s adaptations because RSSD grows relative to the other person’s willingness to self- disclose.
The acquaintance stage is quite similar to the pre-interaction awareness stage in terms of having limited information and forming impressions of others. But the acquaintance stage has the potential for learning more specific information from the partner, though such information is often limited by the scripted nature of the introductory phase. This phase usually involves sharing names, occupations/majors, hometowns, discussion of the situation at hand, the weather, or other general topics (Kellermann, 1991). Future interactions by way of casual banter are usually just extensions of the introductory phase, with subsequent interactions reflecting continued bantering about topics of mutual interest – sports, TV, music, classes, travel, and so on. Self-disclosure is limited in this stage to fairly impersonal information but provides a potentially stronger base for social decentering than the pre-interaction awareness stage. People’s behaviors during the acquaintance interactions provide additional information about people’s personality and character.
Since the introductory phase is the first interaction between two people, the immediacy of the conversation limits the ability to apply social decentering. As Bavelas and Coates (1992) noted, the nature of dialogue is such that participants quickly improvise responses to each other and that “there is no time to stop and think in conversation” (p. 304). Generally, social decentering requires time for processing; however, in situations that are particularly familiar or with people who seem to be familiar, a person might be able to apply conclusions previously developed through social decentering. Rusbult and Van Lange (2003) noted that in interactions with strangers “representations of partners with whom one has a history are easily evoked, activated, and applied to new partners” (p. 356).
Use of self would probably be the least used of the three forms of analysis during the introductory phase because it requires a bit more processing time to focus on the other person’s dispositions and then consider one’s own dispositions. Use of specific-other would occur to a limited degree when conversational partners appear similar to people already known. Social decenterers can utilize the knowledge and attributions associated with their specific-others who are most similar to their conversational partners, narrowing their specific-other choices as more information is gained during the interaction. Generalized-other will be relied on the most because it can be generated with the least amount of information and can thus be readily applied in introductory interactions. Rusbult and Van Lange (2003) described a process similar to the use of generalized-other, “Expectations are not particularly accurate in new relationships, as they must be based on probabilistic assumptions about how the average persons would react in a given situation” (p. 361). But those assumptions can be improved as you learn more information that allows you to apply information relevant to specific categories of people. Learning that your partner is from Hong Kong might evoke adaptation both in the topics you discuss and in your interpretation of your partner’s behaviors.
In a study on accurate perceptions, college students interacted one-on-one with 3 to 12 other college students for 3 minutes each and after each interaction completed a personality assessment of their partner (Human & Biesanz, 2011). Those assessments were averaged to create a measure of the observers’ general impression of others. Partners also completed personality assessments which were averaged to create a measure of normative accuracy. Well-adjusted participants perceived “new acquaintances on average as similar to the average person, reflecting an accurate understanding of what people generally tend to be like” (p. 356). But well-adjusted individuals assumed more similarity between themselves and their partners than there really was. Well-adjusted individuals were no better than the less-adjusted individuals in identifying unique partner characteristics. Three minutes greatly restricts how much information can be obtained from a partner, but the study does demonstrate the dependence on the use of generalized-other as a basis for understanding a new acquaintance.
An acquaintance relationship sustained in the banter phase gives people the opportunity to use social decentering to consider their partner’s dispositions between one interaction and the next. The banter stage varies in terms of how much information the conversants self-disclose and the variety of social situations in which it occurs. Some acquaintanceships involve little more than saying “Hello” from time to time and thus little information is gained on which to expand the social decentering base. Other acquaintanceships can include continued discussion about previously shared information (“Your football team is really doing well”) or expansion into new topics of discussion. The more information shared during the bantering phase, the more opportunity to fine tune the social decentering.
Social decentering, in and of itself, is a quality that might increase a person’s attractiveness. Hogan (1969), Grief and Hogan (1973), and Redmond (1989) claimed that empathy is viewed as a positive personal attribute. If a person is perceived as trying to understand the target’s thoughts and feelings, that could translate into affinity toward the social decenterer. The need to gain information on which to socially decenter might lead to increased question asking, attention to the partner, and other behaviors that increase the decenterer’s attractiveness. Bodie, St. Cyr, Pence, Rold, and Honeycutt (2012) examined what behaviors people attribute to a competent listener and are likely to create a positive impression. Listeners who showed understanding through paraphrasing and seeking elaboration during initial interactions, positively affected the speaker’s feelings of being understood, communication satisfaction, and attraction (Weger, Bell, Minai, & Robinson, 2014). Behaviors associated with social decentering and RSSD in initial interactions include showing interest, asking questions, and communicating understanding both explicitly and implicitly. Such behaviors should positively affect attraction and satisfaction with the social decenterers.
A colleague, Denise Vrchota, and I conducted a study on attraction in initial interactions that included social decentering, uncertainty reduction, and interaction competence (Redmond & Vrchota, 1994). For our study, 101 pairs of undergraduate male and female students who were strangers to each other engaged in getting acquainted conversations which began with interactions limited to 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 minutes. After completing several measures, participants continued their conversations for another 6 minutes for total interaction times from 8 to 16 minutes and then completed a second set of measures. After both interactions, participants completed a seven-item measure of attraction incorporating three items from McCroskey and McCain’s (1974) measure of social attraction and four additional items relevant to interactions between strangers such as “I would like to continue interacting with this person at this time.” Reliability for the scale was α = 0.85 after the initial interaction and α = 0.89 after the extended interaction. After the extended interaction, participants completed the 36-item social decentering scale with reliability for this study of α = 0.90.
No significant correlations were found between one partner’s level of social decentering and the other partner’s reported level of attraction after either the initial or extended interactions. This finding is not particularly surprising since social decentering’s influence on a partner’s attraction is limited by the routine and scripted nature of initial interactions and by the lack of time to reflect and adapt to the partner. The impact also might be affected by the similarity and difference between partners’ levels of social decentering which were explored by examining pairs of high, low, and mixed level social decentering respondents. Females were divided into high and low groups relative to their mean; the same was done for males. This created four combinations of social decenterers: (1) both high in decentering; (2) both low; (3) the female high and male low; and (4) the male high and female low.
An analysis of variance of the attraction between partners across the four groups produced a significant difference after both the initial interaction [F (3,198) = 3.53, p = 0.016] and the extended interaction [F (3,198) = 2.97, p = 0.033]. Tukey’s HSD post hoc analysis identified only two groups that were significantly different (p < 0.05) after the initial interaction: pairs of high social decenterers reported a higher level of attraction than pairs of low social decenters (see Table 3.1). Stronger social decenterers are likely to be sensitive to their partners’ displays of social decentering and thus see similarity with their partner which in turn increases their attraction. After the chance for extended discussion, two other pairs emerged as significantly different: higher social decentering pairs reported stronger attraction than the pairs made up of high socially decentering men with low decentering women (see Table 3.2).
After the initial interactions, males reported greater attraction than the females; there was no significant difference in attraction levels after the extended interaction. In addition, the males’ attraction was not significantly different between any of the four groups either after the initial or the extended interactions. Male attraction seemed unaffected by either the length of the interaction or the level of females’ social decentering. Given that in general, women are higher in social decentering and empathy than men (78% of the women in this study scored higher in social decentering than the men’s average), might led to men not being affected by variations in women’s social decentering because they have a preconception of women as strong social decenterers and thus fail to notice the variations.
Analysis of the females’ attraction across the four groups was not significantly different after the initial interaction but were significantly different after the extended interaction (F (3,97) = 2.88, p = 0.04). This result suggests that as the interaction progressed, females became more cognizant of the males’ level of social decentering which then impacted their attraction. A Tukey HSD post hoc analysis found that higher socially decentering females paired with higher socially decentering males reported stronger attraction (M = 37.83, n = 29) than the lower socially decentering females paired with higher socially decentering males (M = 32.75, n = 20, p = 0.07). The lower level of attraction reported by lower socially decentering women partnered with higher socially decentering men parallels a finding reported in Chapter 6, where low social decentering wives reported the lowest level of satisfaction when paired with a high decentering husband. Interactions with strong social decentering men might negatively affect the self-esteem of lower social decentering women. Such women might see themselves failing to meet the social expectation that women should be empathic and understanding; thus, the women negatively react to the interaction and their partner. In addition, men who are strong at understanding and adapting to women might be viewed as manipulative by women who lack such skills.
The differences between men’s and women’s reactions to their partner’s level of social decentering in the introductory phase of acquaintanceship might be an indication that the importance of understanding and adapting in cross-sex interactions is viewed differently by men and women. For example, in a study of 10th grade Australian student friendships, females were more likely to identify males who with higher empathy as friends but males selection of female friends was not related to female levels of empathy (Ciarrochi, Parker, Sahdra, Kashdan, Kiuru & Conigrave, 2016).
The results of our attraction study are likely to under-represent the role of social decentering in initial interactions. Given that this getting-acquainted interaction was done in a research setting inevitably influenced the participants’ goals, decisions, and assessments. Without an expectation for further interactions with each other, the participants had no real need to gather or evaluate information about the other. Thus, their questionnaire responses were based on a cursory evaluation of their partners. Social decentering is likely to play a more important role than our study demonstrated when people are in interactions where there is the potential for developing ongoing relationships.
Further analysis in our study involved dividing the respondents into high and lower groups based on the three process subscales – self, specific-other, and generalized-other. The level of attraction was different between those who were higher in use of specific-other compared to those who were lower. Neither use of self or use of generalized-other produced any significant differences. While limited during short scripted initial interactions, immediately adapting to information learned about the partner by applying use of specific-other is more likely to be noticed by a partner. In addition, the immediacy of the interaction reduces the time to reflect on one’s own perspective or on people’s perspectives in general. Less time is needed to adapt and respond to the new information about the partner in confirming similar interests or asking pertinent follow-up questions which can promote attraction. This finding is consistent with previous research on affinity seeking by Bell and Daly (1984) who found that engaging in other oriented behaviors such as confirming, listening, and supportiveness increases affinity.
One of the major goals of the acquaintance stage is to decide whether the relationship should remain at this stage or escalate to the exploration stage. This goal is accomplished by reducing uncertainty about the partner (increasing predictability) and assessing the predicted outcome value of future interactions or relationship escalation. Sunnafrank (1986) asserts in his predicted outcome value theory that in initial interactions participants try to determine the likelihood that continued or future interactions would be rewarding. Given that social decentering involves predicting partners’ dispositions and behaviors, it can contribute to the ability to assess future outcomes. In the study on attraction reported above (Redmond & Vrchota, 1997), participants responded to a modified measure of uncertainty, Clatterbuck’s CLUES7 (1979). The seven-item scale measures global uncertainty about another person. Respondents assess their confidence in predicting a partner’s behaviors, emotions, values, attitudes, liking for them, and their empathy. In getting-acquainted interactions, participants are limited as to how much information they collect and thus how much uncertainty that can be reduced. And as already mentioned, without an expectation for continuing a relationship after the study, participants had less need to reduce uncertainty. Under normal circumstances, social decentering, particularly, use of generalized-other, will increase a person’s ability to make predictions and reduce uncertainty.
In our study, social decentering significantly correlated with uncertainty reduction (r = −0.20, p < 0.05). Separately, both men’s and women’s level of social decentering correlated with their perception of reduced uncertainty (r = −0.25, p < 0.05; r = −0.23, p < 0.05, respectively). These findings suggest that those who are most active in seeking understanding and adapting to others are more confident in their predictions about people they have just met. That finding parallels Stinson and Ickes’ (1992) research finding that conversational involvement between male strangers related to higher empathic accuracy. Social decentering should help people recognize their partners’ uncertainty and thus lead them to self-disclose more in an effort to help reduce it which was supported by the findings. While not particularly strong, higher levels of one partner’s social decentering was related to reduced uncertainty in the other (r = −0.15, p < 0.05), suggesting that those stronger in social decentering helped their partners feel more informed about them.
The lack of correlation between use of self and uncertainty reduction indicates that the immediacy of initial interactions apparently limits the application of this analysis. Use of specific-other was related to a reduction of uncertainty (r = −0.14, p < 0.05). Respondents probably gained enough information about their partners to form some general impressions. They might also have been able to see similarity between the partner and other specific friends which provided a base for making predictions. A larger correlation (r = −0.25, p < 0.001) was found for the use of generalized-other and uncertainty reduction indicating that those with a stronger understanding of people in general possess the self-efficacy to predict the behaviors, values, and attitudes of a new acquaintance. Those strong in use of generalized-other are likely to have more person schemas and greater depth in those schemas, creating greater accuracy in categorizing new acquaintances. This was also made easier in this study because of the relative homogeneity of the college-student participants in the study. But use of generalized-other should be as strong or stronger when dealing with heterogeneous partners for individuals with experience interacting with diverse partners.
Social decentering should relate to a person’s ability to manage initial interactions by not only reducing uncertainty but also by increasing their ability to adapt to other people. Douglas (1991) created the six-item Initial Interaction Competence Scale to measure people’s self-assessment of their ability to manage initial interactions. The scale includes such items as “how often do you run out of things to talk about” and “how often do you say the ‘right’ things.” For our study, we revised the items to apply to the assessment of how well a respondent felt they managed a particular initial interaction. Social decentering was found to relate (r = 0.15, p = 0.03) to participants’ reports of how well they managed the getting-acquainted conversation. Management of cross-sexed interactions is likely to be perceived differently by men and women, so separate analyses were made of men’s and women’s responses. Women’s social decentering positively related (r = 0.23, p = 0.02) to how well they felt they managed the interaction. No such relationship was found for men nor were any of the subscales related to men’s initial interaction competence.
In a study examining how younger and older women’s accurate affective and cognitive empathy might vary, Blanke, Rauers, and Riediger (2016) had partners in getting-acquainted conversations discuss a positive and negative event in their lives. Women’s empathic accuracy regarding their partner’s positive thoughts and feelings related to the women’s communication satisfaction. Empathic accuracy was not related to the partner’s communication satisfaction nor to accuracy regarding negative thoughts and feelings. The researchers indicated that the short interaction time reduced the display of understanding or empathy and thus participants’ empathic accuracy did not have a chance to affect their partners. Empathizing with a partner’s positive situation was thought to elevate positive feelings and satisfaction with the conversation but that does not happen when empathizing about a negative situation. An interesting implication of their study is that people might avoid or terminate interactions with acquaintances in which the application of social decentering results in experiencing negative thoughts and feelings. Or, rather than terminating the interaction, people might choose not to engage in social decentering. In initial interactions where partners express positive thoughts and feelings, social decentering can be used to better understand the other person’s situation and thus increase the decenterers’ own positive emotional experience and overall satisfaction.
Despite the limited information and scripted nature of initial interactions, Sunnafrank (1984) and Redmond and Vrchota (1997) found that individuals assessed the attractiveness of their partners as well as their own desire to continue the relationship. Being attracted to a partner and having a desire to continue the relationship provides motivation to develop RSSD. Such motivation is needed if people are to exert the energy needed to attend to and retain information about their partners. The decision to move the relationship to the exploration stage involves a decision to seek more information which inherently leads to RSSD.
The exploration stage reflects a decision by both partners to establish an ongoing, interpersonal relationship. Partners engage in more substantive self-disclosure, spend more time together, and consider each other a friend. As partners gain more trust and enjoyment with each other, they escalate the relationship to the intensification stage where the partners identify each other as close friends or best friends. And as partners experience greater variety in social activities and interactions, the more opportunities they have to observe and learn about each other (Berger & Bradac, 1982). The opportunity to see a partner among friends, family, and co-workers provides further information on which RSSD can be built and facilitates decisions about the relationship. Sometimes relationships are limited to only one context or situation such as interacting only at the workplace with co-workers or only in the classroom or hallway with classmates. Relationships limited to narrow, contextually bounded interactions means the subsequent relationship-specific understandings and expectations will also be limited. For example, you might be surprised to find a co-worker acting wildly at a club or bar in contrast to your workplace image of the co-worker as quiet and laid back.
The increased level of self-disclosure that occurs during this stage results in significant development of RSSD. Social decentering continues to be used and it serves as a yardstick by which information about the relational partner is evaluated. For example, knowledge and understanding of the partner is weighed against knowledge and understanding of one’s self, other partners, and people in general, and your partner’s emotionality is judged relative to the emotionality of you and others.
Brem (1989) observed that empathy and showing understanding required people to self-disclose to the target, essentially switching back and forth from empathizer and discloser to be effective in interpersonal encounters. Social decentering and RSSD provide a foundation on which to make decisions about the appropriateness of any given disclosure by taking into account the predicted reaction of the partner. I’ve previously written about self-disclosure as a dance where each partner reacts to the movements of the other (Beebe, Beebe, & Redmond, 2017). As such, social decentering helps people recognize the need to slow down or speed up their disclosing in response to their partner’s self-disclosing behavior.
Developing RSSD is facilitated by two of the uncertainty reduction strategies identified by Berger and Bradac (1982): interrogation and self-disclosure. Interrogation involves asking questions to gain the desired information and clarify ambiguity. Berger and Bradac caution that the actual interaction can actually inhibit gaining information because we become too distracted in presenting our self. For example, we fail to remember the name of someone we’ve just met because we are focused on presenting ourselves. Self-disclosure as a strategy to solicit disclosures from our partners relies on the dyadic effect of reciprocating disclosures. So rather than asking if the other person likes jazz, you simply disclose that you like jazz with the expectation the other person will declare his or her like or dislike or indicate some other musical preference. Both strategies provide the information needed to develop RSSD. As the relationship escalates information continues to be acquired adding to the complexity and effectiveness of RSSD.
As mentioned in the Chapter 2, time spent together provides opportunities to share experiences, observe partners, and discuss thoughts and feelings regarding those experiences. In this way, a knowledge structure is created that serves as the foundation for RSSD. This structuring process is described by Lewis and Hodges (2012) in their discussion of the development of schemas and expectations:
[...] as time goes by and we gather more and more information about a person, the mental schemas we construct become richer, providing a basis for more accurately inferring detailed thoughts that would be difficult, if not impossible, to read by simply observing the person’s behavior in the immediate situation. (p. 76)
Stinson and Ickes’ (1992) studies on empathic accuracy included a study focused on comparing the interactions of male friends and pairs of male strangers. Their study’s results apply to both the acquaintance stage and the exploration stage. Despite finding few differences in the personalities of the pairs, sociability levels were correlated between friends but not between strangers, leading Stinson and Ickes to conclude that friends see things in the same way, have greater rapport, and thus greater empathic accuracy. After correcting for issues of interdependence and guessing, friends were found to have greater content accuracy than strangers “derived from knowledge structures activated by the specific content of their interaction, rather than from lucky guesses or from general stereotypes about their interaction partners” (Stinson & Ickes, 1992, p. 793). They also concluded that the information used for accurate empathy was based on prior knowledge, not just knowledge obtained in the interaction. The results corroborate the claim that individuals in the exploration stage develop a basic level of RSSD and are less dependent upon the use of generalized-other social decentering. It should be noted that while the empathic accuracy level between friends was significant, it only accounted for about 14% of the variance in their scores. The level of empathic accuracy could be a reflection of a general weakness in males’ empathic accuracy skills as well as a lower level of intimacy in their friendships.
Besides the expectation for increased understanding associated with relationship development, there is also an expectation for increased support and comfort. Egbert, Miraldi, and Murniadi (2014) found that behavioral intentions to interpersonally intervene with a friend exhibiting depression (based on a hypothetical scenario) positively related to participants’ perspective-taking and emotional concern, but not to their reported communicative responsiveness (including ability to appropriately respond). These results indicate that a level of compassion and understanding occurs during the exploration stage, but there is a question of self-efficacy in actually helping a friend manage a stressful situation. The more participants felt emotional contagion (similar negative emotional response) with the depressed friend, the less they were inclined to intervene. In essence, the concern that one’s own negative feelings will be evoked when dealing with a depressed friend undermines intervening. The depth and specificity of understanding associated with RSSD should lead to both increased self-efficacy in responding to the specific other, as well as an ability to manage the cognitive and affective responses, and better meet the needs of the other person.
Another study examining support among friends, assessed participants’ supportive responses to a hypothetical situation where a friend was having alcohol problems (Trobst, Collins, & Embree, 1994). The results indicated that women with higher levels of dispositional empathy (operationalized with Davis’ empathic concern and perspective-taking subscales) were more likely to be socially supportive of friends than were men. The researchers contended that dispositional empathy led to greater feelings of concern and therefore stronger inclinations to engage in helping behaviors. While females scored higher than males, males still indicated some support for their friends which was likely related to their level of dispositional empathy. The results of that study further support the contention that social decentering and RSSD increase the probability of providing support to friends. Such support is likely during the exploration stage but should be even stronger as the relationship escalates.
The intensification stage is marked by the establishment of a close relationship in which partners often label their relationship “best friend” or “boyfriend/girlfriend.” Among the qualities associated with this stage are: greater dependence on each other for self-confirmation, more intimate self-disclosure, more time together, greater variety of shared activities, decreased personal physical distance, more physical contact, and personalized language (Beebe, Beebe, & Redmond, 2017). Many of these changes both enhance and reflect RSSD. Partners shared experiences serve as unique references that they incorporate into their conversations knowing that their partner will understand the reference. For example, a couple who previously ate a horrible meal at a place called Tony’s might comment to each other, “Reminds me of Tony’s” while dining at another bad restaurant with friends, but their friends would not understand their reference.
In reaching the intensification stage, partners are exposed to a significant amount of information about the other on which to form their RSSD. Such exposure does not automatically mean that an individual will develop RSSD. A number of factors can inhibit such development as discussed in Chapter 2. Nonetheless, as the relationship develops people increasingly expect their partners to develop and use RSSD. The development of RSSD increases the likelihood for stability in relationships that reach this stage. In their study on social networks, Kardos, Leidner, Pléh, Soltész, and Unoka (2017) found that participants’ level of empathic concern and perspective- taking (using Davis’ IRI scales) positively related to the number of people who made up their social support group (weekly contact and close relationship) but not to the level of closeness. Participants were asked to indicate how much they engaged in each type of dispositional empathy with each of their partners, a measure similar to RSSD. Participants reported more empathic concern and perspective-taking with their support group members than others in their social network. The researchers concluded that “people utilize their empathic abilities in a strategic pattern to maintain their closest social relationships” (p. 4). They concluded that “maintenance of these relationships requires, or at least benefits from, mutual emotional understanding and concern” (p. 4). Social decentering and, more specifically, RSSD allow partners to better understand and adapt to their partners during the intensification and intimacy stages.
Social decentering and the development of RSSD allow partners to convey an understanding of each other which has several positive impacts on the relationship. Being understood helps to confirm our sense of self and self-worth, positively influences the management of conflict, and allows individuals to feel greater autonomy (Hadden, Rodriguez, Knee, & Porter, 2015). Being understood by someone we care about makes us feel good and is one of the reasons we work hard at developing and maintaining close relationships. Relationship quality has been positively related to the feeling of being understood (Finkenauer & Righetti, 2011; Pollman & Finkenauer, 2009), as well as understanding whether a partner’s attitudes are influenced more by a meta-attitudinal base of emotions or beliefs (Tan, See, & Agnew, 2015). Tan, Agnew, et al. (2015) found that the greater a participant’s understanding of whether a partner’s attitudes are dominated by emotions or beliefs, the stronger the partner’s feelings of satisfaction, love, trust, and commitment. Social decentering and RSSD reflect processes by which we come to understand the foundations of our partners’ attitudes and thus should provide similar positive relational impacts as found by Tan et al. – satisfaction, love, trust, and commitment. But the impact on relational partners often depends on partners recognizing that the other understands them, which in turn is usually dependent on the other engaging in observable actions and adaptations. Remember that people can engage in social decentering but choose not to or are unable to exhibit adaptive behaviors which might evoke responses like “You just don’t understand me.” Not feeling understood by partners increases the likelihood that the relationship will end. But social decentering and RSSD can help manage misunderstandings. College students described a misunderstanding (the relationships were primarily intimate) and completed several self-reports including perspective-taking in a study conducted by Edwards, Bybee, Frost, Harvey, and Navarro (2016). Levels of students’ perspective-taking positively correlated with reports of fewer misunderstandings in the relationship, greater use of integrative strategies to address the misunderstanding, and greater communication satisfaction after the misunderstanding. Similarly, social decentering and RSSD can be expected to not only reduce the number of misunderstandings that occur but facilitate positive outcomes after misunderstandings.
While social decentering and RSSD can strengthen and help in maintaining interpersonal relationships, they can also be used in deciding to de-escalate or terminate relationships. As more and more information is learned about a partner, social decentering and RSSD allow people to better determine how well they can achieve their personal goals within a given relationship. A point is often reached where people’s analyses lead them to recognize that they will be unable to achieve their goals within a given relationship and decide to de-escalate or terminate that relationship. For example, people sometimes reach a point in romantic relationships where, through decentering, they predict the relationship would be more satisfying as a friendship. Another example would be a person in a romantic relationship who wants to have children ending the relationship when decentering leads him or her to predict the partner would not be a good parent, or simply finds the partner’s personal goals do not include children. Ultimately, social decentering and RSSD are not about being subservient or accommodating to any partner, but instead are tools that help individuals achieve their own personal goals. One of those goals might be a serious, long-term, committed relationship that represents reaching the final escalation stage – the intimacy stage.
The intimacy stage represents the closest level of relationship that two people can attain sometimes reflected in romantic partners seeking formal public endorsement as a married couple. At this stage partners have engaged in extensive self-disclosure, sharing highly intimate information built on the development of trust. The extensive amount and depth of information that has gotten the relationship to the intimacy stage serves as the basis for well-developed RSSD. I define interpersonal intimacy as “the degree to which relational partners mutually confirm, value, and accept each other’s sense of self” (Beebe, Beebe, Redmond, 2017, p. 244). Partners develop communication patterns specific to their relationship that include more expressions of oneness (“us” and “we”), more use of personal idioms and nicknames, increased conversation with future references, increased communication efficiency (fewer words are needed to convey ideas), and greater sensitivity to each other’s nonverbal cues (Knapp, 1984; Mongeau & Henningsen, 2015). Achieving intimacy means that both partners feel they can totally be themselves and still be accepted by the other. Both partners become more and more dependent on one other to confirm their sense of self and their self-worth. One of the ways that such confirmation occurs is through the application of RSSD. Partners expect each other to understand them, be sensitive, adaptive, comforting, and confirming. RSSD plays a significant role in our management of knowledge of specific others and provides the foundation for positively valued adaptive behavior. Displaying understanding of a partner promotes positive feelings, enhances trust, reduces conflict, and increases relationship quality (Finkenauer & Righetti, 2011). Perception of a partners’ responsiveness increases the perceivers’ efforts to maintain the relationship (Finkenauer & Righetti, 2011).
Clark and Lemay (2010) argue that responsiveness is the key to successful relationships. Responsiveness includes helping partners meet needs, endorsing a partner’s goals, providing support to reach those goals, spending time together, celebrating a partner’s accomplishments, affirming a partner’s self-concept, restraint of negative comments, and providing appropriate constructive criticism (Clark & Lemay, 2010). Many of these forms of responsiveness require a strong understanding of the partner to facilitate selecting the most appropriate and effective response. RSSD is a key to effective responsiveness. RSSD helps people better understand their partner’s needs and goals and develop appropriate responses in support of their partner. The benefits associated with responsiveness in an intimate relationship are facilitated by RSSD. Clark and Lemay (2010) discuss how a person might decide not to help a partner with a given task (tying a child’s shoelace) and instead let the partner accomplish the goal that the partner can achieve by him or herself and thus increase the partner’s self-confidence. Through RSSD a person knows the capabilities of the partner and can predict the partner’s behavior and outcome. While responsiveness has the ultimate goal of supporting a partner’s well-being, RSSD does not. If a person engages in a behavior that undermines a partner’s goals that would not be responsive, but that person might still have engaged in RSSD before deciding to behave against the partner’s interests. Clark and Lemay (2010) observe that responsiveness is relationship specific and as such the demands of being responsive limit its application to a few prioritized relationships. These constraints apply to RSSD as well, further confirming its similarity to responsiveness.
When people in intimate relationships do not feel that their partners are being responsive or do not feel understood by their partners, they are more likely to feel dissatisfied and undermine the relationship (Finkenauer & Righetti, 2011). Failure to apply and act upon RSSD in an effective manner is likely to create stress in the relationship and if sustained might bring about de-escalation or even dissolution. Finkenauer and Righetti (2011) see a chain reaction occurring where not feeling understood leads to keeping secrets and keeping secrets then leads to even greater lack of understanding as well as feelings of stress, loneliness, and isolation. Similarly, withholding information undermines the ability to effectively engage in RSSD leading to failures to understand and appropriately adapt, thus fostering further negative consequences.
In a study I conducted to determine the role of social decentering in interpersonal relationships, I collected social decentering scores from participants in relationships of varying levels of closeness and sex makeup (Redmond, 2002). As discussed in Chapter 2, those in the earlier stages of relationship development (casual friends, friends) had smaller differences in partners’ social decentering scores than those in the most intimate relationship (my best friend/fiancée/lover/spouse) even with adjustments to the effect of sex differences in scoring. Social decentering appears to be more important in the early stages of development as partners look for similarity.
In the study, participants identified their relationship as acquaintance (0); casual friend (0); friend (17); close friend (17); one of my best friends (24); my best friend/fiancée/lover/spouse (42). Differences in the partners’ social decentering were calculated and an analysis of variance indicated significant difference among the relationships [F (3,96) = 4.82, p = 0.004]. Post hoc analysis revealed that partners in the most intimate relationship had significantly greater differences in their social decentering scores than friends (see Figure 3.2).
As a trait, individuals’ social decentering should remain fairly constant throughout the development of a relationship and thus the social decentering means should remain constant throughout changes in closeness. No significant differences in social decentering between the relationships were found. While the averages in each relationship were not different, that does not mean that each partner in the relationships had the same level of social decentering. Respondents were divided according to their social decentering scores into those above the mean labeled high and those below the mean labeled low. Women were divided according the mean for women, and men according to the mean for men which meant men were not classified relative to the intrinsically higher scoring women. For each of the four levels of closeness, partners were further classified on the basis of both partners being low social decenterers, both partners being high social decenterers, or partners being mixed, with one high social decenterer and one low social decenterer. Table 3.3 shows the relative percentages of pairs for each of these levels of closeness. Among friends, the majority are composed of partners where both partners were either high social decenterers or both partners were low social decenterers. That distribution changes dramatically in the remaining relationships. The number of mixed pairs in the relationships increases substantially between friend and close friend and another sizeable increase occurs as relationships move to the intimacy stage (best friend/lover/spouse) with almost 74% of the partners engaged in complementary relationships with one partner a high social decenterer and the other partner as a low social decenterer. While not longitudinal, this study does represent samples from a fairly homogenous group and should be a reliable indication of the nature of the relationships at each level of closeness.
Given the claim that social decentering is unlikely to change much over the course of the relationships, the observed change in the combinations of social decenterers probably reflects the emergence of the combination (one high and one low) which best endures the move to intimacy. Friendships in the acquaintance and exploration stage appear to favor partners who share similar levels of social decentering, with only a few of those relationships continuing toward more intimacy. While fewer early friendships are composed of partners with complementary levels of social decentering (one high and one low), those relationships appear more likely to develop intimacy. Each level of closeness consists of relationships for which a particular balance of social decentering is best suited – symmetrical (both high or both low in social decentering) for low intimacy relationships and complementary (one high and one low) for intimate relationships. The impact of symmetry and complementarity was also found in the research on married couples reported in the Chapter 6. Among friends, similarity would seem to be a significant factor in the decision to establish and maintain a friendship. More intimate relationships appear to rely more on the ability of one partner to understand and accommodate the other. In addition, adaptation and accommodation by both partners becomes a key element in the maintenance of intimate relationships and is more dependent on the development and utilization of RSSD than social decentering.
No reports regarding changes in RSSD are available for this study because the RSSD scale was not yet developed. Indeed, the finding in this study that partners low in social decentering still developed satisfying intimate relationships was an indication to me that some other process was occurring that allowed for reciprocal adaptation – partners developing a relationship-specific form of social decentering. This was further explored in a study that examined RSSD across all the stages of escalation and de-escalation that is discussed in the next chapter.
Social decentering should allow people to more effectively influence others by adapting appropriate compliance gaining strategies. This was partially explored in the above study. Besides completing the measure of social decentering, the 50 pairs of respondents rated each other’s ability to influence them on a four-item scale of interpersonal influence that included “This person is effective at arguing his or her point and swaying me to his or her position” and “This person isn’t very effective at winning me over to his/her way” (reverse scored). No overall correlation was found between social decentering and interpersonal influence. But in less intimate relationships (casual friends, friends and close friends), one partner’s social decentering significantly correlated with the level of interpersonal influence reported by the other partner (r = 0.46, p < 0.01, n = 32) as did each of the social decentering subscales (use of self, r = 0.46, p < 0.01; use of specific other, r = 0.43, p < 0.05; use of generalized other, r = 0.35, p < 0.05; affective response, r = 0.50, p < 0.01; and cognitive response, r = 0.34, p < 0.10). No significant correlations were found for the most intimate relationships (my best friend/lover/spouse, n = 38). These results indicate that in casual relationships social decentering is an effective foundation for developing interpersonal influencing strategies. But when the relationships reach intimacy, social decentering no longer serves as the basis for influencing strategies. While no data on RSSD were collected, the development of RSSD in intimate relationships probably supplants social decentering as the source for strategizing. As couples become intimate and develop roles and routines there is less use of compliance gaining. Additionally, as intimate couples become aware of each other’s influencing strategies, they are more prepared to resist the other’s influence (Miller & Boster, 1988), which explains the failure to find a relationship between influence and social decentering in intimate relationships.
Dissolution of relationships typically follows one of three patterns: sudden death, fading away, or incrementalism (Beebe, Beebe, Redmond, 2017). The termination of a relationship can occur abruptly as the result of some major transgression such as cheating by a romantic partner (sudden death), can occur slowly without deliberation as communication decreases such as friends moving away after college (fading away), or can go through specific stages of de-escalation finally reaching a point where one or both partners moves to end the relationship (incrementalism). How disengagement progresses, depends on the level of intimacy and interdependence – the more intimate the relationship, the longer the de-escalation process. For example, during the exploration stage a partner might simply turn down an invitation to get together and thus end the relationship rather easily. But such an approach would not go over too well in a marriage. Our romantic relationships generally involve greater deliberation and formal commitment than in our friendships. As a result, de-escalation in romantic relationships tends to be more deliberative and more strategic in breaking the bonds of commitment. In considering de-escalating or reacting to a partner’s efforts to de-escalate, individuals increase their cognitive efforts to analyze themselves, their partners, and the relationship (Duck, 2005; Fletcher, Fincham, Cramer, & Heron, 1987). Such cognitive efforts include the use of social decentering and RSSD to make sense out of the partner’s dispositions and to make predictions about the partner and relationship. But as the relationship de-escalates, so does the motivation to gain knowledge and understanding of each other (Harvey & Omarzu, 1999). Harvey and Omarzu (1999) presented a theory of minding whereby partners reciprocally seek to know each other (RSSD) and make relationship enhancing attributions. They contend that the decrease and end of information sharing leads to an “eventual shutdown of the minding process and, we hypothesize, the relationship itself” (p. 43). While a decrease in information impacts the effectiveness of RSSD, it is the decrease in efforts to consider the dispositions of a partner and adapt accordingly which more likely contributes to the de-escalation of the relationship.
While the de-escalation stages apply to friendships, they are more pronounced in romantic relationships which have received most of the research focus. Even so, I found little research on empathy and perspective-taking related to the de-escalation and termination of intimate relationships. Baxter (1987) observed that the research that has been done on relationship termination focuses on a single event rather than the de-escalation process. Specifically, research on empathy and perspective-taking is often in the context of managing transgressions, seeking forgiveness, and managing conflict. This is not surprising since empathy is often linked to positive or altruistic outcomes rather than the more negatively oriented process of “dumping” a partner. Social decentering and RSSD are neither inherently positive nor negative, but instead allow people to evaluate the impact of alternative responses. Social decentering and RSSD are utilized during de-escalation to evaluate potential strategies. The strategy that is chosen usually reflects the disengager’s level of concern for the partner’s feelings and well-being.
Prior to deciding to abruptly end a relationship due to a transgression, people might apply social decentering and RSSD to analyze the partner’s failure. Initial volatile responses to transgressions might be mitigated by such analysis. Emotional empathy for both men and women positively relates to forgiving others (Macaskill, Maltby & Day, 2002). While empathy is often found to correlate with forgiveness (Riek & Mania, 2012), these findings might be unduly influenced by how empathy is measured. For example, in one study only the perspective-taking subscale of Davis’ empathy measure was found to positively relate to granting forgiveness (Hodgson & Wertheim, 2007). Perspective-taking allows partners to cognitively consider the offender’s viewpoint and motivations which appears to then increase the likelihood of forgiving. Like perspective-taking, social decentering and RSSD provide fairly detached analyses of transgressions rather than the emotional response of sympathy or altruism produced by emotional empathy. The decentering process allows people to draw from their understanding of their partner in analyzing the transgression while weighing their own self-interests in developing their response.
The focus of the remaining de-escalation discussion is on the incremental deescalation of relationships that is reflected in the stage model. While Altman and Taylor’s (1973) model of relationship development presents depenetration as the reversal of social penetration, the reality is that as a relationship ends partners don’t just erase all the information they learned about by their partners overnight. Similarly, RSSD doesn’t just disappear once a relationship begins de-escalating or even when it is terminated. Sometimes, post-intimacy relationships are maintained with each partner continuing to use their RSSD to effectively adapt and respond to one another, though the motivation to apply generally diminishes over time.
RSSD can contribute to the decision to de-escalate or terminate nonviable relationships. As intimate knowledge continues to be gained, RSSD might lead to predicting negative personal and relational outcomes. For example, knowing that your intimate romantic partner has different religious beliefs might be of minor concern in the initial stages, but in considering marriage and a family, the partner’s hardline religious views might lead to predicting significant issues in raising children and a decision to end the relationship. When people choose not to engage in RSSD, they might fail to recognize potential relational problems which might otherwise have been avoided.
Termination of relationships also vary in terms of whether the decision to end a relationship is bilateral with both partners sharing interest in ending the relationship or whether the decision is unilateral with only one partner choosing to end the relationship. The role of social decentering and RSSD differs in these two patterns. When both partners share in the decision to de-escalate they are likely to share more information about their thoughts and feelings which enhances their RSSD and understanding of each other’s positions. In a unilateral breakup, the departing parties often engage in a sequence of strategies beginning with indirect strategies such as reducing their level of self-disclosure followed by direct strategies of expressing a desire to end the relationship (Baxter, 1987). Several factors contribute to the slow process of disengagement: disengagers are often motivated to protect the feelings and face of their partners; disengagers are also concerned with their own face, not wanting to be viewed negatively; and disengagers want to minimize the post-relationship repercussions (an ex-partner betraying confidences or turning a shared social network against the disengager). Social decentering and RSSD can contribute to developing and implementing strategies to manage these factors.
Social decentering and RSSD can also have a negative impact on the decenterers themselves. Social decentering and RSSD might predict negative or hostile reactions from the partner to a request to terminate the relationship. As a result, social decentering and RSSD would add further to the disengager’s distress. One way of coping with that distress would be to delay efforts to directly terminate the relationship, increase one’s resolve to tough it out, or increase efforts to subvert the relationship.
According to Miller and Parks (1982), disengagers enact compliance gaining strategies to persuade their partners to dissolve the relationship. The success of these compliance gaining strategies is improved by the level of understanding and accuracy of predictions about partners that people can make based on their RSSD. But as discussed earlier, the more intimate the relationship, the more possible a partner can use his or her understanding to counter the influence. Unilateral disengagers often work toward achieving an ideal termination wherein their partners grant permission or at least agree to end the relationship – changing the decision from unilateral to bilateral (Baxter, 1984b). The level of partner resistance to granting that permission or agreement tends to extend the disengagement process. The partner might propose alternatives to ending the relationship such as seeking counseling or repairing relational problems. Throughout this process, RSSD plays a critical role for disengagers in deciding what to say and how to behave relative to predicted responses from their partners. In some instances, the disengagers might discover that they are missing information needed to make such predictions. This uncertainty necessitates getting the partner to disclose additional information often by engaging in relationship talk (Baxter, 1987). To the degree that each stage of de-escalation involves interacting within new circumstances and within a redefined relationship, RSSD can prove to be ineffectual at times. A lack of ongoing relationship talk, might undermine a person’s understanding of the partner’s thoughts and feelings about the current status of the relationship. Such relationship uncertainty reduces the effective application of RSSD. For example, having little knowledge of how a partner has reacted to previous relationship break-ups (if any) makes it challenging to predict that partner’s reaction to the current decision to separate. Social decentering can provide some understanding by utilizing one’s own experience, knowledge of other close friends’ break-up experiences, and understanding people’s reactions in general, to the loss of a relationship. The effectiveness of social decentering depends on how well these referents parallel the current relationship and partner. In contrast to the absence of information, new information is gained simply by observing a partner’s reactions and behaviors during de-escalation (Baxter, 1983). We might find that our partner is much more understanding, committed, caring, or accommodating then we expected. Unfortunately, we might also uncover more negative characteristics about our partner, such as an inclination toward hostility, violence, or threatening behavior that was not previously known. Acquiring such new information causes us to modify RSSD resulting in revisions of our strategies and behaviors.
Leslie Baxter (1984a) classified termination strategies as indirect (withdrawal, pseudo-de-escalation, and cost escalation) and direct (negative identity management, justification, de-escalation, and positive tone). The strategies vary in terms of the degree to which they attempt to protect the other’s feelings and face. Social decentering and RSSD can help individuals select and implement a strategy designed for their specific relational circumstances. For example, positive tone involves directly stating a desire to end the relationship but affirming the positive qualities and value of the other person in an attempt to end the relationship on a positive note. Positive tone was seen as a strategy used by people who are strong perspective takers who see their partner needing help in adjusting to the relationship ending (Banks, Altendorf, Greene, & Cody, 1987). RSSD helps disengagers recognize the needs of a partner, and to develop and enact an effective positive tone strategy. Justification involves a clear desire to end the relationship along with an honest explanation of why. Strong RSSD skills help in assessing a partner’s ability to handle a direct declaration and straightforward explanation and in developing a message that will best protect the partner’s face. Remember though that decentering doesn’t necessarily mean a person engages in behaviors that have a positive impact on their partners. People might choose withdrawal as the strategy to end their relationships because it requires less effort and protects their face even when RSSD predicts that their partner will be stressed by the uncertainty and suffer loss of esteem (Baxter, 1987).
The first stage toward de-escalation of an intimate relationship typically follows one of two patterns. The first, turmoil, reflects increased conflict, more fault finding, and less tolerance. The second, stagnation, involves one or both partners losing interest in the other and/or relational boredom. Relational boredom consists of seeing the relationship as lacking fun, lacking excitement, having no spark, and/ or partners just being sick and tired of each other (Harasymchuk & Fehr, 2012). These two patterns occur both in friendship and romantic relationships. Regardless of the pattern, a significant drop in the use of social decentering and RSSD is likely as one partner’s interest in the other partner declines and as they become more self-oriented.
Many factors contribute to waning interest in a partner and those factors affect the engagement in and depth of social decentering and RSSD. For example, a partner talks with food in her mouth which had not been an issue because her partner’s RSSD leads to tolerance through understanding that the partner was raised in a household devoid of dinner etiquette. But in the turmoil/ stagnation stage, the partner no longer applies RSSD to achieve that understanding and instead of tolerance, criticizes the behavior. Such increasing intolerance adds to the turmoil and de-escalation of the relationship.
RSSD can be particularly destructive during conflict when an individual decides to abandon self-censorship and civility. The accumulated knowledge about a partner means that RSSD can be used in a particularly negative and hurtful manner to generate messages and actions that specifically target the known weaknesses of the other. Messages perceived as intentionally hurtful tend to further damage relationships that are already fragile (McLaren & Solomon, 2014).
Just as ongoing conflict can be an indication of trouble, so can the lack of conflict (Levinger, 1983). Avoiding conflict means couples are either censoring their responses to their partners, avoiding discussing issues of difference, and/or minimally disclosing their thoughts and feelings. The longer the stagnation lasts, the less and less a partner is aware of his/her partner’s current dispositions and the more out-of-date and ineffective their RSSD – essentially the couples just grow apart.
RSSD peaks during the intimacy stage with partners reaching a fairly complete and profound understanding of each other. As a result, partners are better positioned to make long-range forecasts about each other. In some instances, those forecasts might present a less than satisfying future for the relationship – one that is not going to meet personal needs and goals. As a result, RSSD can be both a cause of stagnation and the product of stagnation. Because there is not the same level or type of commitment, friends are more likely to engage in fading away as a strategy to deescalate stagnating relationships than are romantic couples. Romantic couples can be expected to endure stagnation longer than most friendships.
At the point of deintensification, partners have pulled further away from each other “decreasing their interactions; increasing their physical, emotional, and psychological distance; and decreasing their dependence on the other for self-confirmation” (Beebe, Beebe, Redmond, 2017, pp. 253–254). Knapp and Vangelisti (2005) call this stage circumscribing, since communication is constricted and information exchange decreases in quality and quantity as well as breadth and depth. The continuing decline of self-disclosures further undermines effective RSSD. Knapp and Vangelisti also see an increase in the number of topics that are touchy and potential conflict triggers. Partners become more sensitive to what is said, and new rules are introduced about what is out-of-bounds. Such changes in the communication rules necessitate incorporating those rules into a person’s RSSD. Unfortunately, motivation to incorporate such information tends to fade during de-escalation and failure to do so is likely to contribute to hostility, anger, conflict, and further relationship deterioration. Imagine the impact of a women saying, “I don’t want you to keep comparing us to how my mother and father fought” and the next day her romantic partner says, “You’re acting just like your parents did before they got divorced.” The failure to either incorporate the new rule into RSSD or the decision to intentionally violate that rule is likely to exacerbate the situation.
People can use social decentering to compare their thoughts and feelings, as well as their partner’s thoughts and feelings, to other people they know and to people in general. Considering what other people would do or feel at this stage of de- escalation can provide comfort when it parallels their own feelings and actions. Consideration of what other friends have felt and done when faced with the de- escalation of close relationships might also provide strategies to consider in managing deintensification.
During deintensification or at some other point during de-escalation, partners are likely to engage in a relationship dissolution talk in which they review the relationship history, compare their behaviors to social relationship norms, entertain proposals for increasing satisfaction, evaluate the costs and benefits of the relationship, and experience and express feelings of guilt or anger (Duck, 2005). During such discussions, some expectations derived from RSSD are affirmed while others are contradicted as new information is learned about a partner. For example, Felix sees his close friend and messy roommate, Oscar, as melodramatic. Felix announces that he is going to move to his own place. And just as Felix predicted, Oscar moans and groans that “All is lost!” and “My life is falling apart.” In anticipation of this, Felix already had prepared a strategy to address Oscar’s concerns. But such anticipation cannot always be done, as relationships de-escalate, couples are less likely to be open and thus RSSD becomes more and more unreliable. For example, one partner might not discover that his or her partner’s antagonism was the result of jealousy about the excessive amount of time the partner spent at work because the partner had not shared those feelings.
During the individualization stage, partners tend to operate mostly independent of each other, spending time in their own social networks and engaging in activities without the other partner. Nonetheless, they still consider themselves in a relationship with each other. They might still be married, refer to the relationship as boyfriend/ girlfriend or best friends but they do not actually consider themselves to be in such relationships. They are like a couple quietly sitting together at an airport waiting for their flight to separation. Generally, there is little conflict because there is minimal interaction with both keeping a distance from each other. The interactions they do have are primarily impersonal and task oriented.
At this point partners have probably accepted the impending end of the relationship and might seek to end the relationship amicably, which RSSD can help to accomplish. Sometimes partners in intimate relationships might agree to continue the relationship as a post-intimacy relationship (post-romantic relationship). Previous research has found that the ability of one’s partner to continue to provide resources contributes to the continuation of post-intimacy relationships (Busboom, Collins, Givertz, & Levin, 2002). Rather than continuing to the separation stage, partners in a post-intimacy relationship might move back to the exploration stage of escalation. Partners seek to maintain the relationship as friends, enjoying the resources that such a relationship provides. Gaining knowledge about a partner’s desire to maintain a less intimate relationship is added to an RSSD mindset of respecting the other’s individualism while still showing concern for the other’s welfare. RSSD again becomes a tool for maintaining a positive relationship, albeit, at a less intimate level.
Hess (2002) had college students provide accounts of how they controlled the amount and nature of interactions they had with people they disliked. Three categories of strategies were identified: avoidance, disengagement, and cognitive dissociation. Such strategies reflect the types of behaviors and thoughts likely to occur during individualization. Avoidance includes preventing and/ or limiting interactions. Disengagement involves hiding information about self and interacting less personally. Cognitive dissociation reflects a change in the way a person thinks about the partner through mentally disregarding messages, entertaining derogatory thoughts, and envisioning separation and being detached. One outcome of these strategies is undermining a partner’s ability to enhance or apply his or her RSSD on the other. Avoiding interactions takes away the opportunities for a partner to display any understanding or adaptation to the other. Disengagement prevents the acquisition of information about the partner’s current dispositional state rendering previous RSSD out-of-date. And cognitive dissociation might lead to less time spent thinking about the partner and thus less engagement in RSSD.
Steve Duck’s (1982, 2005) model of relationship dissolution focuses on the role of the social network including the process of letting other people know that the couple’s relationship is over. Because partners are individually spending more time with friends and family, it becomes apparent to others that the relationship is in trouble or over. As a result, individuals begin to “focus on accounting, attribution, and the creation of psychologically palatable stories about one’s own and the partner’s role in the relationship decline” (Duck, 2005, p. 212). People provide accounts to others of what and why the relationship is de-escalating; then after the break-up, they develop and provide post-dissolution accounts (Duck, 1982). In constructing these accounts, social decentering and RSSD come into play, not for dealing with the partner, but for adapting their stories to the people with whom they discuss the break-up. For example, developing a story about why you and your boyfriend or girlfriend broke up that you expect will be most palatable to your parents. Duck (2005) labels the process after the breakup as grave-dressing where people create simple, face-saving accounts:
Topics in grave-dressing are likely to be plausible stories about the betrayal of self by Partner, or else depict the difficulties of two honest folk working together on a relationship that requires more work than it is worth. In such cases, different audiences are addressed in different ways, with relevant narrative being specifically crafted for them. (p. 212)
These stories continue to be refined as part of the social process after the partners have separated. Social decentering through the use of generalized-other allows people to create stories they believe will be acceptable to the public. These stories are also likely to be shared at some point during the development of a new relationship.
In the separation stage, individuals usually move toward eliminating further interactions or at least restricting interactions to specific contexts – such as the classroom or workplace. Separation might involve one partner moving out of a shared living space, dividing property and resources, and even dividing members of their shared social network. When the disengagement is amicable, RSSD can facilitate these divisions by helping partners reach an understanding of what and who is important to the other, strengthening their openness to accommodation. When the disengagement is hostile, RSSD can be used to undermine the division when people know which things are most important to their partners and for that reason choose to make things more difficult by resisting their partner’s claims. Once the partners actually part company and are no longer interacting, decentering is obviously no longer needed to understand or predict the partner’s dispositions.
Separation does not necessarily mean that there are no longer any interactions. Sometimes couples separate romantically but maintain friendships in which case decentering continues to contribute to the management of the friendship. Other times, couples either eliminate or diminish their interactions only to resurrect the relationship later. This rekindling occurs both for romantic and non-romantic relationships such as friends who reconnect after not interacting for several years. Reasons for continuing or restarting relationships that had been romantic include the existence of strong commitment, returning to friendship, social network support, the partner as a source of resources, and satisfaction with those resources (Busboom et al., 2002; Tan, Agnes, VanderDrift, & Harvey, 2015).
The process of maintaining or re-kindling a relationship after separation is facilitated by partners’ having a preexisting understanding of each other through RSSD, assuming the RSSD was relatively accurate and effectively used previously in adapting to the partner. A lack of or failure to apply RSSD before might well be one of the reasons the relationship ended. Depending on how much time passes before reconnecting, RSSD provides a quick foundation for understanding and adapting to the partner at a level that is beyond that found in acquaintanceships. In some instances, significant changes might have occurred in each partner which necessitates significant RSSD revision. In reconnecting, comparison of new observations of partners with predictions based on the original RSSD can lead to an appreciation of the positive changes made by the partners and updating of the original RSSD. For example, if the original RSSD included a partner’s disposition to be possessive but the current observation was of a more confident and self-sufficient partner, the partner could be perceived as more attractive. In this way, RSSD plays a significant role on whether relationship escalation reoccurs by highlighting the new, improved attributes of the partner or lack thereof.
Many times, we run into people with whom we formerly had very close relationships. Those interactions are often awkward since we have intimate knowledge of each other, yet our interaction occurs on a level more akin to casual banter with an acquaintance. In such interactions, our use of RSSD for adaptation generally focuses on selecting the topics we predict the other person feels comfortable discussing in the current context. Such topics might include asking how the other person’s family members are doing, finding out what the other person is doing, or reminiscing about old times. Over time RSSD becomes less applicable as information fades from memory and little new information about the partner is acquired. Adaptation to the other becomes more dependent on the application of use of generalized-others social decentering skills by the interactants.
In the model of relational development used in this chapter, the post-interaction effects stage was created to acknowledge that even when partners are no longer interacting, the experience of the relationship has a lasting effect on the individuals. Our reactions to and behavior in new relationships are affected by our past relational experiences. Each relationship becomes part of who we are and influences future perceptions and interactions. During this stage, depending on the depth and importance of the relationship, people engage in a relationship post-mortem in which they try to understand what happened in the relationship and learn from that experience (Duck, 1982). For Duck (2005) this stage offers “the chance to review and adjust psychological beliefs about Self, Others, and Relationships that might hold up better in the future” (p. 212). When reviewing non-marital breakups, Ann Weber (1998) wrote “So much of our cognitive work of the breakup process is focused on obsession, attribution, and explanation of what happened that it seems clear we must establish some sense of meaning in order to grieve and move on” (p. 297).
Our relational experiences and the insights gained through retrospection and the post-mortem contribute to the continued development of all three forms of social decentering analysis. Every one of our relationships potentially adds to our self-knowledge – our likes and dislikes, the level of our need for confirmation, inclusion, independence, support, control, and so on. This knowledge becomes part of our use of self form of social decentering used to analyze the dispositions of others. If we felt depressed after the breakup of a long-term intimate romantic relationship, that experience becomes one option for understanding and adapting to a friend who recently experienced a similar breakup. The partners in terminated relationships become part of our use of specific-others’ repertoire. When we meet someone new who reminds us of that former partner, we are likely to use knowledge of our ex to make predictions about the new person. We will also discover differences between the new partner and the old that help us form alternative predictions. Finally, each former relationship becomes part of the collective about how people in general think and feel that is the foundation of the use of generalized-other. Each new relational experience increases the depth and applicability of the use of generalized-other. On one hand, the more relational experience someone has, the greater potential for developing strong social decentering. On the other hand, the inability to sustain relationships might reflect a failure in interpersonal competence including an inability to learn from those relationships or develop RSSD. The question this leads to is: Who is more likely to develop a long-lasting romantic relationship, the person who has had 20 romantic relationships over 10 years or the person who has had 2 romantic partners of 10 years? One answer is, whoever learned the most from their experiences.
People with strong RSSD are likely to have more productive relationship postmortems than those with weak RSSD. When relationship disengagement is due to differences in partners’ goals or incompatibilities, those with strong RSSD who have been honest with themselves will likely have noticed those differences and anticipated the end of the relationship. Their post-dissolution rumination will primarily involve confirming their earlier recognition of differences. They still might consider what they might have done differently to bridge the differences and sustain the relationship at some level of intimacy. Those weak in RSSD are more likely to be baffled by the end of their relationships because of their limited understanding of their partners’ needs and dispositions. We are also likely to be mystified about what happened in a relationship that ended earlier than we anticipated if we did not have the opportunity to develop RSSD. We are perplexed when a person we’ve dated a couple of times no longer returns our calls; our uncertainty is high, and we have little personal information about the partner on which to form a more than a general conclusion. We will probably utilize social decentering to provide possible explanations, particularly the use of generalized-other.
Throughout the relationship escalation and de-escalation stages, the role of social decentering and development and application of RSSD play a variety of roles. The changes in RSSD and application of decentering associated with changes in stages are one reason that makes researching the role of other oriented cognitive process so challenging – it is not consistent throughout relationship development. The preceding discussion of the stages provides a model of the fluctuating relationships between other oriented processes such as social decentering and RSSD and relational stages. The next chapter presents a study I conducted that examines some of those relationships within the context of escalation and de-escalation stages.
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