The Value of Communal Relationships

One issue I will come back to often is the amount of give-and-take in a relationship.  Of course, give-and-take and compromise happen more in some relationships that others. And they are much more likely to occur in relationships that can be defined as communal: a relationship where each partner is more concerned with the welfare of their partner than with their own.

In a recent study, Margaret Clark, a psychologist at Yale University, and her colleagues asked couples just before they were married and then again two years later questions about their relationship satisfaction and the degree to which each partner tended to act in a manner that would be described as communal or exchange-oriented (relationships where quid pro quo is the norm; ones where partners expect to have to give something to get something). It is particularly interesting that they asked couples to report how ideal they thought exchange versus communal behavior is and also asked about their specific behavior.  We might all think that doing whatever we can to meet the needs of our partners is ideal, but if few couples are actually operating communally then it is nothing more than a good idea.

One piece of good news is that couples clearly endorsed the idea that “The way marital relationships should operate is that each person should pay attention to the other person’s needs. Each person should give a benefit to the other in response to the other’s needs when the other has a real need that he or she cannot meet by him- or herself…” (p. 945), and that helping one’s partner does not require repayment.  More good news is that couples reported following communal norms to a greater degree than exchange norms, though, importantly couples idealized a communal norm more than they practiced one, and also practiced an exchange norm more than they endorsed it.  That is, couples didn’t act as communally as they desired and acted from an exchange mentality more often than they would have liked.  This last part is not bad news—it is realistic news.  In the real world, we do not always act as our best possible selves.  And not quite reaching our goals gives us something to strive for.

All this is background for the real point of this blog post. Remember that couples were surveyed just before marriage and two years later. What do you think happened over time?  Do you think Clark and her colleagues found that couples acted more and more communally as time went on?  This is not unrealistic because just before they were married they already considered communal behavior ideal. So maybe each day, they worked and worked to put their partners’ needs ahead of their own without thought of repayment.  Possible…but no.  As you might have guessed by now, over time couples showed small decreases in both idealization of communal norms and practice of them.  This is important because practice of communal behavior is related to relationship satisfaction.

You may say that because the differences are only small they are not worth considering. My concern is that small decreases in communal behavior after two years might indicate there will be small decreases every two years.  And it doesn’t take long for small decreases of this sort to build up and turn into a much bigger problem.

Another theme of this site is to focus on relationship issues partners can do something about.  We had a post about the value of expressing gratitude because doing so is perfectly within a person’s control.  Here, too, acting to satisfy the needs of your partner without feeling that your partners owes you is within our control.

I hope you will keep the exchange versus communal distinction in mind and allow it to influence your behavior.  This research shows that acting communally is more than just a good idea.

In case you are interested…

Clark, M. S., Lemay, E. P., Graham, S. M., Pataki, S. P., & Finkel, E.  J. (2010).  Ways of giving benefits in marriage: Norm use, relationship satisfaction, and attachment-related variability. Psychological Science, 21, 944–951.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit