Scripts and Communication for Relationships

Second Edition

by James M. Honeycutt (Author) Pavica Sheldon (Author)
©2017 Textbook XIV, 384 Pages


The book is divided into five parts: (1) Emotions, Imagination, and Physiology of Relationships, (2) Bases of Relational Scripts, (3) Relational Escalation and Deescalation, (4) Relationship Scripts in Context, and (5) Cautions and Recommendations. The authors discuss the basis of relationship scripts, emotions, imagery, and physiology of relationships including romance, friendship, work associates, mentors, and Facebook friends. They argue that people’s expectations for relational development influence their communication, faith, and commitment in relationships. Misconstruing sexual or flirtatious intent, for example, is derived from having different scripts about attraction. They discuss abusive relationships including characteristics of abusers, stalking, and verbal and physical aggression.
Designed for classes in psychology, communication, sociology, family studies, and social work, this book provides a comprehensive overview of how scripts and communication are used in relationships. Guidelines based on developing and improving verbal and nonverbal communication competence are provided. A downloadable teacher’s guide is also available.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One: The Pursuit of Intimacy and Relational Scripts
  • Fatal Attraction
  • Symbolic Interdependence in Relationships
  • Matching Hypothesis: Birds of a Feather Flock Together
  • Interpersonal Attraction
  • Ratings of Physical Attractiveness
  • A Brief Introduction to Relational Scripts
  • Summary
  • Discussion Questions
  • Applications
  • References
  • Part One: Emotions, Imagination, and Physiology of Relationships
  • Chapter Two: Emotion and Cognition About Relationships
  • Characteristics of Happiness
  • Representation of Affect According to Cognitive Theories of Emotion
  • Differences Among Emotions, Moods, and Affect
  • Similarities and Differences Among Love, Hate, Anger, and Jealousy
  • Prototypes of Anger in Relationships
  • Types of Anger
  • Scripts for Anger
  • Emotional Scripts for Relationships
  • Communication and the Sentiment-Override Hypothesis
  • Emotions and Social Media Relationships
  • Summary
  • Discussion Questions
  • Applications
  • References
  • Chapter Three: Generating and Maintaining Relationships Through Imagined Interactions
  • Creating Relationship Scripts Through Imagined Interactions
  • Main Features of Imagined Interaction Theory
  • Third-Party IIs
  • Relational Maintenance Function of Imagined Interactions
  • Imagined Interactions with Ex-partners
  • Comparisons Between Friends and Friends with Benefits
  • Imagined Interactions and Social Isolation: Parasocial Relationships
  • Affect and Imagined Interactions
  • Use of Imagined Interactions in Linking Together Prior Conversations
  • Gender Differences in Imagined Interactions and Memory
  • Imagined Interactions in Marriage
  • Imagined Interactions Among Engaged and Married Couples
  • Imagined Interactions in Virtual Relationships
  • Summary
  • Discussion Questions
  • Applications
  • References
  • Chapter Four: Physiology and Relationships
  • Communibiology Assumptions
  • Imagined Interactions (IIs) Conflict-Linkage Theory
  • Why Study Physiology in Relationships?
  • Common Physiological Measures of Arousal
  • Oxytocin and the Physiological Development of Love
  • Cortisol and Stress in Relationships
  • Diffuse Physiological Arousal in Couples
  • A Physiological Script for Relational Deterioration
  • Study of the Impact of Imagined Interactions and Arguing Among Couples on Heart Rate
  • Procedure
  • Case Study of a Couple Discussing Pleasing and Displeasing Topics
  • Agenda Initiation
  • Summary
  • Discussion Questions
  • Applications
  • Notes
  • References
  • Part Two: Bases of Relational Scripts
  • Chapter Five: Schemata, Scenes, and Scripts for Relationships
  • Sex Differences in Interpreting Flirtatious Signs
  • A Comparison of Memory with the Organization of a Computer
  • Schemata
  • Relational Schemata
  • Scenes
  • Scripts
  • Mindlessness Versus Mindfulness
  • Initial Interaction Scripts
  • Scripts for Dating
  • Sequences of Dating Behavior
  • Sequence-Grouping in Dating Behavior
  • Sexual Scripts
  • Sex with Androids
  • Hooking Up
  • Friends with Benefits
  • Online Relationship Scripts
  • Cultural Scripts and Performances for Sex
  • Changes in Interactive Scripts
  • Summary
  • Discussion Questions
  • Applications
  • References
  • Chapter Six: Development of Relationships: Stage Theories and Relational Script Theory
  • Developmental Models of Relationships
  • Criticisms of Developmental Models
  • Relational Dialectic Models
  • Criticisms of Relational Dialectic Models
  • Social Cognition: The Script Approach
  • Gender Differences in Intimate-Relationship Scripts
  • Summary
  • Discussion Questions
  • Applications
  • References
  • Part Three: Relational Escalation and Deescalation
  • Chapter Seven: Scripts for Romantic Development and Decline
  • Redundancy and the Complexity of Romantic Scripts
  • Content of Romantic Scripts
  • Deescalating Script
  • Inferences Associated with Relationship Decay
  • Typicality Versus Necessity in Predicting Beliefs About Relational Development
  • Predicting Beliefs About Relational Decay
  • Underlying Dimensions of Relational Development and Decline
  • Card-Sorting Experiment for Escalating and Deescalating Actions
  • Story-Segmentation Analysis
  • Gender Differences in Generating and Processing Scripts
  • Scripts for Friendships Compared with FWBs
  • Summary
  • Discussion Questions
  • Applications
  • References
  • Chapter Eight: Semantics of Break-ups
  • Linguistic Codes of Omissions and Commissions
  • Semantic Codes of Action
  • An Attributional Explanation
  • An Implicit Benefit-of-the-Doubt Explanation
  • A Rules-Based Explanation
  • Gender Differences in Omissions and Commissions
  • Summary
  • Discussion Questions
  • Applications
  • Note
  • References
  • Part Four: Relationship Scripts in Context
  • Chapter Nine: Online Communication and Relational Scripts
  • Cues-Filtered Out Theories and Computer-Mediated Communication
  • Online Relationships Development
  • Uncertainty Reduction Theory
  • Social Penetration Theory
  • Hyperpersonal Perspective
  • Changing Nature of Friendships
  • Romantic Relationships Online
  • Tinder
  • Who Forms Online Relationships?
  • Attitudes Toward Online Relationships
  • Summary
  • Discussion Questions
  • Applications
  • References
  • Chapter Ten: Scripts for Office Romance: Approved or Forbidden?
  • Proximity Theory and the Formation of Relationships
  • When Mentoring Scripts Include Romance
  • Gender Scripts in Office Romances
  • Hierarchy Differences
  • Sexual Harassment Scripts
  • Same-Sex Sexual Harassment
  • Intercultural Differences
  • Summary
  • Discussion Questions
  • Application
  • References
  • Part Five: Cautions and Recommendations
  • Chapter Eleven: Dysfunctional Scripts for Abusive Relationships
  • Conflict Tactics and Types of Abuse
  • Cycle of Abuse
  • Stalking
  • Gender Differences in Relational Abuse
  • Signal Detection Theory and the Ability to Notice Escalating Conflict
  • Verbal Aggression, Arguing, and Physical Coercion
  • Imagined Interactions and Verbal Aggression in Predicting Physical Coercion
  • Pit-Bull and Cobra Batterers
  • Summary
  • Discussion Questions
  • Applications
  • References
  • Chapter Twelve: The Dark Side of Social Media Communication
  • Mechanization, Attention Deficit, and Addiction
  • Selective Self-Presentation and Narcissism
  • Declining Quality of Interpersonal Relationships
  • Privacy and Security
  • Cyberbullying
  • Cyberstalking
  • Misinformation and Deception on Social Media
  • Summary
  • Discussion Questions
  • Applications
  • References
  • Chapter Thirteen: Scripts for Constructive Communication
  • Communication Competence
  • Communication Behaviors Leading to Breakup or Divorce
  • Conflict Tactics
  • Rules for Arguing
  • An Acronym for Effective Communication Tips: Listen Observe (or Oxytocin) Verify (or Validate) Express
  • Biofeedback to Reduce Stress
  • Linguistic Cues Signifying a Happy Relationship
  • Tests of Grievances and Arguing Behaviors
  • Summary
  • Discussion Questions
  • Application
  • References
  • Author Index
  • Subject Index

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We wish to acknowledge our motivated students in our relational communication classes for their vibrant and energetic opinions on relationship development. We continue to have inspiring and lively discussions over gender similarities and diversity in attending to relationship processes. Human beings including hermits to a degree are social creatures. General systems theory has always indicated through the concept of “holism” how collaboration and strength in numbers overcome isolationism. Couples live longer than single people and insurance companies know this by the amount that you pay for your insurance policy as a single or a couple. We would also like to thank the couples over the years who have participated in various interaction, physiological, and psychological studies at LSU. We also thank Jonathan Frost for providing valuable research assistance in the MatchBox Interaction Lab at LSU.

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The Pursuit of Intimacy and Relational Scripts

Relationship diversity is a popular term that captures the wide array of relationships that exist. Relationships can be characterized among multiple dimensions including intimacy which is a basic human need just as we have physiological needs (e.g., food). Indeed, feeling connected to others along with a sense of autonomy and competence has been identified as a basic human psychological need (Deci & Ryan, 2012). A simple continuum of intimacy ranging from superficial to intense intimacy could be strangers, acquaintances, casual friendships, close friendships, best friends, and intimates. Other relationships that can fall anywhere on the intimacy continuum are online and social media liaisons, relations with pets (e.g., some people are afraid of certain pets due to their experiences), your relationships with characters in various forms of multiplayer online games (e.g., World of Warcraft, League of Legends), imaginary companions or parasocial relationships, supervisor–subordinate, mentor–mentee, coach–player, teacher–student, business provider–client, etc.

Classic pioneering research indicates that all human relationships can be classi-fied among four bipolar dimensions: cooperative/friendly versus competitive/hostile, equal versus unequal, intense versus superficial, and socioemotional/informal versus task-oriented/formal (Wish, Deutsch, & Kaplan, 1976). Hence, your relationship with a given coworker may be formal, superficial, unequal (e.g., he or she ← 1 | 2 → gives orders), and hostile; you can easily think of someone in your social network where the relationship is cooperative, equal, intense, and informal (e.g., a romantic romantic).

Over 200 years ago, Jane Austen, an astute observer of the rituals of late 18th-century courtship, wrote rather pragmatically that a happy marriage was the result of chance (Austen & Shapard, 2012). With due respect to Miss Austen, modern relationship researchers have revealed that scripts concerning pair bonding rituals are constituted in a manner so as to leave little to chance when romantic attachments are formed, intensify, and sometimes dissolve. According to Consumer Rankings, the five highest ranked web sites for meeting people were Zoosk, Match.com, Our Time, e-harmony, and Elite Single (consumer-rankings.com, 2016). Other popular sites are kindle and a host of specialized sites for various groups including seniors, gay, lesbian, and Christians.

This sorting process is exemplified by the classic stimulus-value-role (SVR) theory of Murstein (1987) who suggested that courtship begins as a simple exchange of information involving initial impressions of physical attributes followed by an interpretation of values, attitudes, and beliefs about a variety of topics that are of interest to each potential partner (cf., Reis & Sprecher, 2009). Recall the cliché that you cannot judge a book by its cover. However, you can often tell if the book is an encyclopedia, comic, or novel. People tend to be right two-thirds of the time in judging personality impressions of strangers based on appearance.

Indeed, this is referred to as “thin slices” which refers to a brief observation that leads to accurate judgments about others (Lambert, Mulder, & Fincham, 2014). Indeed, people watching short clips of others who were simply giving instructions on how to draw an object were able to accurately judge which persons had engaged in infidelity in the past. The researcher asked each participant to describe their current romantic relationship and if they had been intimate with another person outside of that relationship. Voice pitch may have influenced infidelity perceptions since O’Connor, Re, and Feinberg (2011) found that voice pitch influences perceptions of infidelity.

Research reveals that the sound of a person’s voice communicates a great deal of biologically and socially important information to potential mates (Hughes, Farley, & Rhodes, 2010). Voices of those with greater bilateral body symmetry which past Miss America contestants have had are rated as sounding more attractive than those with less symmetrical features and body symmetry has been shown to be a marker of developmental fitness (Baumeister, 2005; Hughes et al., 2010). More attractive voices are associated with positive personality traits including warmth, likability, honesty, and achievement while both sexes lower the pitch of their voices when communicating with more attractive people (Hughes et al., 2010). ← 2 | 3 →

Once a similarity is noted, the individuals are categorized and assigned to possible roles such as business acquaintance, tennis partner, best friend, potential lover. While this simple model has been criticized, it is noted that the typical sequence is SVR. However, a person could begin a relationship with another in the role stage such as mother–infant which is designated at birth or adoption. Further communication and ritualized behavior provide additional information about the partners’ abilities to function in additional roles in preparation for potential roles as mates or parents. This chapter introduces the concepts of relational schemata and the scripts that evolve from them including the changes that have occurred in the manner in which relationships are perceived and enacted.

The concept of interpersonal intimacy in its current form began evolving in 19th-century America and Europe, with the development of industrial society. More recently, in the computerized information society, the emphasis has shifted more to the individual as a reaction to the impersonalization of factory and business life. This trend continued and accelerated as the world approached the 21st century because of the migration to urban environments: in 1905 the percentage of the world’s population living in cities was 15%; a hundred years later, almost 50% of the citizens of our planet live in urban environments (Acedevo, 2005). In urban society, individuals often gain their primary identity and psychosocial support from personal relationships rather than from their roles in the community since these roles may be unknown or more fluid. The change in scripts for relationships has extended beyond the United States and western society. For example, research in India reveals that while arranged marriages are still relatively common, the prospective bride’s preferences guide the process in a much more definitive manner than her mother or grandmothers did when partners were selected for them with idea of marrying up in terms of status and economic resources (Banerjee, Duflo, Ghatak, & Lafortune, 2013). Interestingly, marital satisfaction expressed by partners in arranged marriages appears to be very similar to the level of satisfaction expressed in western cultures where individuals select their own partners. However, couples from India in arranged marriages scored higher on spirituality, nutrition, and cultural identity while Americans scored higher on realistic beliefs and work, sense of humor, and self-care (Myers, Madathil, & Tingle, 2005). In terms of the last factor on self-care, the American cultural script stresses individuality, competition, and self-reliance.

Individuals now develop relationships in cyberspace through the use of dating web sites for singles and divorcees, and correspondence with others through social networking sites. Individuals increasingly work at home due to satellite technology on their smartphones, tablets, and computers which actually parallels working out of the home in the 19th century before the Industrial Revolution, which preceded ← 3 | 4 → the information revolution in the late 20th and this century. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution, which took place from the 18th to 19th centuries, was a period during which predominantly agrarian, rural societies in Europe and America became industrial and moved from isolated rural areas to metropolitan cities. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain in the late 1700s, manufacturing was often done in people’s homes, using hand tools or basic machines.

Working out of the home is a return to the pattern in colonial times when the business was the home, in the form of farms and shops attached to living quarters. Yet, the proliferation of computers decreases face-to-face interaction as web sites are accessed to find and track individuals with similar interests so they can be harnessed as consumers of goods. For example, have you noticed how Facebook tracks where you visit and then transmits advertisements to you when you log on. Relatedly, online dating services such as Tinder and match.com report a thriving business and suggest that couples matched through their services enjoy better quality relationships than individuals who select their own partners in more conventional ways. Facebook and Instagram exist as virtual networking sites allowing users to “friend” someone with whom they have never had any face-to-face interaction while easily allowing the use of ghosting and unfriending people with no explanation required. Yet as Bruno (2007) described a number of years ago, “Facebook might well be changing the nature of relationships, making them both more intrusive and yet somehow less intimate at the same time” (p. 9).

Only time will tell if courtships will develop through computer contact, as they have evolved in face-to-face communication. According to evolutionary psychologists, these rituals of courtship are learned, defined, and expressed in the context of society and culture because of biological drives for procreation. For example, Fisher (1994) discussed how biochemical processes contribute to the development of romance. Human brain chemistry creates a heightened sense of excitement that people often describe as falling in love or infatuation. Fisher further suggested that the brain physiology and chemistry associated with bonding evolved as part of the human primordial mating system.

According to the self-expansion model, people have a fundamental motive to expand their sense of self that is primarily achieved through the formation of close relationships. Hence, research has revealed that romantic love remains steady and that obsessive love shows a steady decrease as a function of aging rather than time spent in the relationship (Sheets, 2014). Additionally, Fisher’s cross-cultural research reveals that in societies allowing divorce the most common length of marriage is 4 years. This length of time conforms to the traditional period between successive human births. Fisher proposed that this 4-year cycle is a pattern that evolved as a reproductive strategy to successfully raise a helpless infant. That is, she believes that couples remain partners for the length of time it took for an infant to ← 4 | 5 → become somewhat able to fend for himself. When our distant ancestors began to walk upright, infants had to be carried, thus precluding the caretaker from effectively foraging or defending herself. In order for the infant to survive and the genetic material inherited from its parents to be transmitted to future generations, it had to be protected, a task that took two individuals; however, when the infant became able to forage and walk herself (approximately four years), the necessity of having a pair bond dissolved.

In addition to human brain physiology, part of the reason for failed relationships is that the stability of contemporary relationships is contingent on positive emotions as the glue for relationship bonding and the reason for a relationship to continue. Commitment to a relationship depends on the ebb and flow of levels of intimacy. However, such has not always been the case in most of the western world. In earlier agrarian societies, a large family was essential to provide farm labor. Infant mortality was high, so women were encouraged to have many children with the hope that some offspring would survive past infancy. Consequently, mates were chosen with great care for their potential as partners and parents, and were assessed and tested for their compatibility through the ritualized stages of courtship. During the colonial period in the 18th century, intimacy was, at best, the result of the formal relationship rather than the cause of the romantic bond or marriage (Gadlin, 1977). Individuals were admonished to be faithful partners even though physical assaults were common. Only later did affection become both the cause and cement of marriage.

For most of the 20th century, cultural scripts included the idea of women marrying up. That means marrying a man who was 2–3 years older and who had a higher income level in order to provide a secure base for offspring. Additionally, there is the earlier sexual maturation of females as well as male delay in achieving stable levels of emotional maturity. Yet, this has changed since 2007 with men marrying up. According to the Pew Research Center, economic gains from marriage have been greater for men than for women in recent years (Fry & Cohn, 2010). With more women attending college and entering the workforce, they are more likely to marry men who have less education and earn less money, showing a reversal from times when fewer women worked outside the home. Only 4% of husbands had wives who brought home more income than they did in 1970, a share that rose to 38% in 2015.

Marriage rates have declined for all adults since 1970 and gone down most sharply for the least educated men and women (Fry & Cohn, 2010). As a result, those with more education are far more likely than those with less education to be married, a gap that has widened since 1970. Because higher education tends to lead to higher earnings, these compositional changes have bolstered the economic gains from being married for both men and women. ← 5 | 6 →

In the 20th century, affection was eroticized, although seen as fleeting and unstable. Stephen (1994) discussed how people think of marriage as a status that symbolizes mutual affection. Affection is necessary for marriage, whereas its erosion is a sufficient reason for divorce. However, Lewis and Spanier (1982) explored temporary high-quality (i.e., high-affection), low-stability marriages that ended in divorce and cited examples of dual-career couples who, after having to relocate in different cities in order to pursue each partner’s career, eventually terminated their relationships. Is something more than simple affection necessary here?

According to Stephen (1994), some other possible causes of divorce are living in a pluralistic society that is saturated with diverse information, lifestyle choices, political interests, and religious values. For example, Cameron and Quinn (2006) note that one week-day edition of any major newspaper contains more information than an individual in the 18th century was exposed to in his/her entire lifetime. This plethora of information extends to relationships as well, providing a variety of possible scripts for initiating, maintaining, and dissolving relationships. People construct their realities from diverse sets of resources.

Fatal Attraction

Some people have a relationship script that involves being drawn to a quality or behavior that while initially attractive, ultimately proves dissatisfying. Fatal attraction occurs when two people drawn to each other romantically become involved in a relationship, but over time discover annoying or disturbing aspects of the other’s behavior or personality (Felmlee, 1995). There is a link between the seemingly disparate processes of romantic attraction and disenchantment. Consider a moth attracted to a flame. This research indicates that the sequence begins with attraction to a quality exhibited by a partner and ends in disillusionment with that quality.

In previous work on fatal attraction, individuals recalled their most recent romantic relationships that had ended and described qualities that initially attracted them to their former partners and the characteristics they later disliked (Felmlee, 1995). Specifically, this research shows 33% of the participants themselves identify similarities between attracting and disliked partner characteristics. The three most common types of attractors were physicality, fun, and caring; qualities they didn’t like were selfishness, insecurity, and undependability.

The qualities that attract two individuals sometimes become complaints if the relationship starts to sour (Felmlee, 1995). “At first, I thought he was carefree and laid-back. Now, he is indecisive and irresponsible.” This process in which individuals change their evaluations of each other after a time, as opposed to persevering ← 6 | 7 → in their initial impressions, is known as cognitive accommodation. Box 1.1 contains sample cognitive beliefs about the qualities that first attract couples to each other that could be restructured later into negative attributes.

Another study by Felmlee (2001) found that 44% of the participants who were surveyed reported a fatal attraction in a prior or current relationship. Felmlee (1998) also has found that individuals who stated that the quality that attracted them to their partner was “dissimilarity” were more likely than those with other types of attractions to really dismiss that particular attracting characteristic.

Three possible explanations accounting for fatal attraction are given. (1) People’s virtues and vices are one and the same (Goldberg, 1993). (2) Some individuals are drawn to characteristics in another that exemplify one dimension of these opposing forces, but they find the relationship lacks the corresponding dimension. (3) The individuals need to sustain confidence in the belief that they are in the right relationship with the right person and that they will use various cognitive tactics to maintain satisfaction and commitment. However, presumably once a relationship has ended, the motivation of weakness is removed and the faults once transformed into virtues are now seen as vices.

Today, each individual’s sense of uniqueness permeates his or her views of the characteristics of an ideal relationship. This is especially true in our individualistic Western society. Research by Wish et al. (1976) revealed that individuals distinguish communication behaviors (e. g., cooperative versus competitive) ← 7 | 8 → among relatively few dimensions that are used to distinguish almost all types of relationships (e.g., personal enemies, husband/wife). In addition, people make different distinctions in their own relationships than in typical or other people’s relationships. For example, cooperation is more important for evaluating typical relationships than for evaluating their own relationships. In evaluating their own relationships, individuals mention fewer hostile relations (e.g., one’s relationship with a lover is mentioned more often than one’s relationship with a bitter enemy). Hostile relations (e.g., business rivals, political opponents, guard/prisoner, supervisor/employee, and interviewer/applicant) are perceived as characterizing other people’s relationships. In essence, people select highly positive relational attributes to construct seemingly ideal life spaces in which they live, learn, and love.

Another relatively recent evolution in romantic relationships is the tendency to distinguish between long-term and short-term relationships, each having a distinct set of scripts. While at one time, courting was considered a prelude to the formation of a relationship for life, at present, there appear to be criteria and scripts for two distinct types of relationships: those that may evolve into a long-term commitment and those considered short term only. Stewart, Stinnett, and Rosenfeld (2000) suggest that while there may be gender differences in heterosexual couple’s expectations regarding partner selection, both men and women listed different attributes for long-term versus short-term romantic partners. In regard to short-term relational partners, women rated good earning capacity, dependability, sense of humor, and ambition most important; men rated physical attractiveness and good heredity most important. In long-term relationships, women rated kindness/understanding and ambition as important; men rated physical attractiveness and adaptability as more important for long-term relationships. Buunk, Dijkstra, Fetchenhaur, and Kenrick (2002) reported that men valued intelligence in a longer term relationship and physical attractiveness in the short term, while women valued education more in long-term relationships.

Each individual’s construction of reality is based on experiences which also affect beliefs about the development and decline of romantic relationships. Individuals vary in their expectations of how relationships should develop due to the variety of informational sources that form the foundation for their expectations. In this regard, Staines and Libby (1986) discussed predictive romantic expectations, which are beliefs about behaviors that are expected to occur in a romantic role regardless of one’s desires. Thus, a person who has been spurned before may be more likely to expect this to happen in future relationships than is someone who has not been rejected. ← 8 | 9 →

Staines and Libby (1986) have investigated these idealistic romantic expectations or beliefs reflecting an individual’s desires of what should ideally happen in the role of a lover or spouse. Perhaps not surprisingly, women report more discrepancies between prescriptive and predictive expectations than men do. A common complaint is that wives prefer their husbands to do more household cleaning even though they don’t expect that it will happen. Consequently, women often report lower levels of marital happiness than their husbands (Gottman, 2011). Broughton and Van Acker (2007) discovered romantic expectations of marriage and motherhood can have deleterious consequences for low-income women whose early life choices preclude furthering their education. That is, the discourse of romance was a significant factor that influenced their early life choices. Expectations not met resulted in failed marriages requiring these women to reevaluate their aspirations.

Nonetheless, even in an age of too-often-failed expectations, women and men meet, fall in love, and some even live happily ever after. Why? Symbolic interdependence provides an answer to this question.

Symbolic Interdependence in Relationships

Long-term relationships provide continuity and confirmation for idiosyncratic beliefs and protection from doubt, loneliness, and ambiguity. We tend to be attracted to those who reinforce our attitudes and beliefs. Hence, we are more attracted to those who agree with us rather than constantly challenging our views. Social homogamy refers to “passive, indirect effects on spousal similarity” (Watson et al., 2004, p. 1034). The result showed that age and education level are crucial in affecting the mate preference. While there are exceptions expressed in slang language, that is, “cougar,” or “gold-digger,” many people are attracted to someone with similar ages who go to their school because of the frequency of face-to-face communication beyond text messaging and Facebook interactions.

Stephen (1994) discussed the idea of individuals sharing conceptions of relationships in terms of symbolic interdependence. This is a type of mental sharing in which individuals share similar beliefs about the world: relational partners react to events in similar ways and derive similar conclusions from information. Furthermore, Honeycutt (2009) has found that symbolic interdependence predicts a quality relationship. He tested this among randomly paired strangers, casual dating, engaged, and married couples. He correlated the scores on the Relationship Worldview Inventory from Stephen and Markman (1983), which is a survey asking individuals what they value in a relationship. Sample items include “Being in a relationship can provide purpose for one’s own life. One has to make great ← 9 | 10 → efforts to get the most from a relationship.” The higher the correlation, the more individuals agree on underlying relational values. The idea is that individuals may bring these values into the relationship or actively communicate about them as a joint couple’s identity is created. Engaged couples had the highest level of symbolic interdependence (r = .50) followed by married and dating couples, with random couples demonstrating the least interdependence (r < .18). There were significant differences between engaged couples and the others. Part of this explanation has to do with the fact that engaged couples are in a “honeymoon” phase (pun intended) where assumed agreement is higher and individual differences of opinion are ignored or glossed over. Married couples show slightly lower agreement.

Stephen (1994) found that it is not that the self has found another who can penetrate the self, but that both self and another have refashioned themselves (and indeed the rest of their world) through the dialogue of their relationship until they are possessed of a type of self consistent with the relationship worldview. The couple creates an interpretive framework and at the same time reinterprets themselves within it. Needless to say, persistently deviant interpretations will be regarded as problematic and effort is likely to be expended in smoothing discrepancies.

These discrepancies can be seen as relational conflicts about behaviors, attitudes, and appropriate performance of romantic roles. If the smoothing does not resolve the discrepancies, the relationship may dissolve. More importantly, the smoothing strategies go into memory and act as a repository of information that may be opened for subsequent relationships. Thus, happy long-term relationships are enhanced when individuals have a shared social reality and relationship worldview. The partners share similar expectations about what constitutes relationship development and those qualities that characterize a satisfying relationship. The sharing of expectations reflects evolving stories that individuals construct as they communicate with each other. Yet the mere sharing of expectations and predictions is not enough; the intimate conversations between romantic partners do not get lodged in memory in some pure form. Rather the discourse becomes embedded in some form of preexisting mental script that can allow prospective partners to separate out irrelevant data, mill the appropriate associations between actions and intents, and forge a stable, shared relational worldview. Thus, relational schemata serve as scripts that organize relevant information and, ultimately, test the tensile strength of any romance.

Symbolic interdependence is based on the idea that individuals share a similarity of beliefs and views. However, the initial stimulus resides in a classic concept of “birds of a feather flocking together” rather than “opposites attracting.” Indeed, research on the “matching hypothesis” is vast and reveals the power of individuals initially seeking out others that physically resemble themselves. ← 10 | 11 →

Matching Hypothesis: Birds of a Feather Flock Together

The matching hypothesis claims that people are more likely to form long-standing relationships with those who are equally physically attractive. They also look for similarity in hobbies, interests, and values over time. People with dissimilar looks do form and sustain relationships, but it takes longer because the communication about personality traits and motivation takes longer (Lewandowski, Aron, & Gee, 2007). The notion of “birds of a feather flock together” points out that similarity is a crucial determinant of interpersonal attraction. Similarity seems to carry considerable weight in initial attraction, while complementarity assumes importance as the relationship develops over time (Vinacke, Shannon, Palazzo, Balsavage, & Cooney, 1988). Furthermore, the idea of “opposites attract” appears more plausible if the areas of dissimilarity are not critical underlying values that are important to the relational partners. Hence, Gottman and Silver (2015) report how conflict-engagers, or those who like to argue, paired with conflict-avoiders have more relational problems and long-term incompatibility than symmetrical pairings of avoiders with avoiders and engagers with engagers. Similarly, couples who reported the highest level of loving and harmonious relationship were more dissimilar in dominance than couples who scored lower in relationship quality (Markey & Markey, 2007).

Interpersonal Attraction

Research on attraction has found that physical attractiveness and indicators of attachment anxiety and avoidance were related to the number of first dates, and the probability of entering into an exclusive relationship in an eight-month period (Poulsen, Holman, Busby, & Carroll, 2013). Moreover, people with similar levels of perceived attractiveness form relationships quicker while persons with dissimilar levels take longer to form sustained relationships. McCroskey and McCain (1974) initially conceptualized interpersonal attraction as a multidimensional construct. Prior research in this area suggested that interpersonal attraction was characterized by three distinct dimensions: (a) a liking or social dimension; (b) a task or respect dimension; and (c) a physical dimension. They concluded that perceptions of attraction were responsible for increased communication and interpersonal influence.

Each complete dimension offers unique characteristics that incorporate many other known types of attraction. Social attraction, or the liking dimension, is influenced by how much time we want to spend with another person. The second ← 11 | 12 → dimension, or task attraction, is known for the desire to want to work toward objectives with the other person, which is quite common in workplaces since socializing is usually required in order to work with others toward a goal. Finally, the last type of attraction or dimension is physical attraction. This is attraction based on the physical characteristics of the other person. Overall, the three dimensions are also known as the “Big 3” due to the ability for other types of attraction to be subsumed within them, therefore making it unlikely for any other type of attraction to occur without these three having an influence. Heterosexual, cross-cultural research indicates that men are subliminally looking for fertility cues in women and have a desire for women with a low waist-to-hip ratio, while women prefer men with a similar wait and hip size (Donohoe, von Hippel, & Brooks, 2009; Swami & Furnham, 2008).

A study of online dating involved the matching hypothesis (Shaw, Fiore, Mendelsohn, & Cheshire, 2011). The attractiveness of 60 males and 60 females was measured and their communication was monitored. The people with whom they interacted were then monitored to see who they interacted with, and returned messages to. They found that people contacted others who were significantly more attractive than they were; however, it was found that the person was more likely to reply if they were closer to the same level of attractiveness.

Studies have revealed that very attractive people flock together, while individuals lacking the perfect face and body also stick together. According to Morry’s |attraction-similarity model (2007), there is a common belief that people with actual similarity produce initial attraction. People who lack looks place more stock in nonphysical features, such as sense of humor, than in physical beauty (Lee, Loewenstein, Ariely, Hong, & Young, 2007). However, the data also reveal that guys are less concerned with their own looks when deciding whom to date. So while a man might have no qualms about going after someone much better looking than he is, a woman will tend more to choose partners with compatible looks. Yet, for both men and women, physical attractiveness guides Cupid’s arrow.

Lee and his colleagues (2007) analyzed an online dating web site called HOTorNOT.com, which was an influence on the founding of Facebook and YouTube. This site allowed members to rate others on their physical attractiveness. They analyzed how an individual’s attractiveness rating affected how that person rated others’ physical attractiveness on a scale from 1 to the hottest value of 10. Then, the researchers compared the average hot-or-not ratings for each person with the number of dating requests. On average, participants paired up with others having compatible attractiveness. Compared with the women, men were most influenced by physical attractiveness when requesting dates, but their own appearance ratings had less effect on their date choices. The study concluded ← 12 | 13 → that males were less affected by how attractive they themselves are compared to females. Men were more likely than women to request dates out of their league. Individuals who slid furthest down the hot-or-not scale seemed more desperate, as they were the most likely to respond “yes” to any date requests. For every unit decrease on the 10-point scale of the member’s own attractiveness the member was 25% more likely to say “yes” to a potential date. The hot-rated members tended to accept only dates from others in their attractiveness neighborhood.

To understand how the physically lacking individuals cope with the cards they were dealt, Lee et al. (2007) conducted a follow-up speed-dating study. At an event sponsored by a Boston-based online dating company, 24 participants indicated how high they rated the relative importance of six criteria—physical attractiveness, intelligence, sense of humor, kindness, confidence, and extroversion—for selecting dates. The participants then chatted for four minutes with each potential date, after which they rated each other on physical attractiveness and decided whether to meet up again with that person. The data revealed that more attractive people placed more importance on physical attractiveness than other qualities in selecting their dates. Less attractive people placed more weight on other qualities, including sense of humor. Hence, it appears that people who are less attractive change their scripts for initial attraction by caring less about beauty and more about sense of humor.

A “hot” or “not” type of study, involving men and women who were exposed to pictures, revealed that the human brain determines whether an image is erotic long before the viewer is even aware they are seeing the picture (Anokhin et al., 2006). Moreover, the brain quickly classifies images into a hot or not type categorization. The study’s researchers also discovered that sexy shots induce a uniquely powerful reaction in the brain, equal in effect for both men and women, and those erotic images produced a strong reaction in the hypothalamus.

Not only does the matching hypothesis explain desire in initial attraction, but it has been supported in studies of couples who have celebrated their silver anniversaries (25 years of marriage). Zajonc, Adelman, Murphy, and Niedenthal (1987) found that people who live with each other for a long period of time grow physically similar in their facial features. They had photographs of couples when they were first married and 25 years later. The photos were judged for physical similarity and for the likelihood that they were married. The results showed that there was indeed an increase in apparent similarity after 25 years of living together. In addition, an increase in resemblance was associated with greater reported marital happiness.

Possible explanations for this involve facial mimicry in which partners subliminally imitate the facial expressions of each other. Hence, if you live with a happy ← 13 | 14 → person, you are more likely to smile compared to living with a gloomy person. Emotional processes produce vascular changes that are, in part, regulated by facial muscles. The facial muscles act as ligatures on veins and arteries, and are able to divert blood from, or direct blood to, the brain. An implication of this process is that habitual use of facial musculature may permanently affect the physical features of the face. The implication holds further that two people who live with each other for a longer period of time, by virtue of repeated empathic mimicry, would grow physically similar in their facial features. Kin resemblance, therefore, may not be simply a matter of common genes but also a matter of prolonged social contact. Finally, research among women has revealed that women who enjoy good childhood relationships with their fathers were more likely to select partners who resemble their fathers, while women who had negative or less positive relationships were not attracted to men who looked like their fathers (Wiszewska, Pawlowski, & Boothroyd, 2007).

Ratings of Physical Attractiveness


XIV, 384
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XIV, 384 pp., 10 b/w ill., 11 tables

Biographical notes

James M. Honeycutt (Author) Pavica Sheldon (Author)

James M. Honeycutt (Ph.D., University of Illinois) is an LSU Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies and a winner of numerous research awards including the Rainmaker Research Award. He has shaped research in psychology and family studies. He is founder of the Matchbox Interaction Lab and is internationally recognized for his work in relationship scripts and imagined interactions. Pavica Sheldon (Ph.D., Louisiana State University) is Associate Professor and Interim Department Chair of the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. In 2015 Sheldon won the Janice Hocker Rushing Early Career Research Award from Southern States Communication Association.


Title: Scripts and Communication for Relationships