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Factors That Inhibit Expressing Concerns About Another's Romantic Relationship(1)
Boundary rules are social conventions that protect the primary activities of a relationship from extrarelational interference. This study examines how boundary rules restrict the ability of individuals to express their concerns about the negative behavior and characteristics of a friend's romantic partner. A survey of college students indicated that about 50% of their concerns had been communicated to their friend, but less than 10% were expressed directly to the romantic partner. Respondents provided a variety of reasons for not disclosing irritations as well as specifying conditions under which they could express their concerns. Females were more likely than males to disclose their concerns to the friend, but no gender differences were found with regard to disclosing irritations to the romantic partner.
According to Argyle and Henderson (1985), interpersonal relationships can be thought of as rule-governed systems. Although they may differ according to the type of interpersonal relationship, a variety of rules guide and regulate relational conduct (Argyle, Henderson, & Furnham, 1985). In general, relational rules enhance the quality and survivability of a relationship by prescribing behaviors that further the interests of relational partners and by inhibiting their disruptive, exploitative, and unsupportive actions (Argyle & Henderson, 1985).
One specific type of relational rule involves boundary setting. McCall (1970) argues that boundary rules are norms that are meant to ensure continuing role support for relational partners. To do so, "boundary rules screen out, in fact deny the existence of, other relationships" (McCall, 1970, p. 45). Presumably, by screening out external relationships, individuals can focus all of their attention and resources toward the relational activity at hand and at the same time prevent outsiders from interfering with it.
The existence of such rules implies that a relationship is surrounded by a metaphoric boundary that reserves some activities just for a particular type of relationship. For example, Argyle and Henderson (1985) found rules permitting sexual activity existed in 8 of the 22 relationships that they studied. At the same time, boundaries prevent activities Mm one relationship from intruding on another. Hence, individuals might agree to leave at home job-related work while on a family vacation. Or, some organizations adopt rules that discourage consensual romantic activity on the job (Dillard & Broetzmann, 1989).
With regard to communication, boundary rules influence the kinds of information that can be let out of a relationship. Petronio (1991) has argued that individuals form a protective boundary that regulates the disclosure of private information. Similarly, we believe that relational rules exist which create boundaries that regulate information flow out of the relationship. For example, Argyle and Henderson (1985) found a nearly universal rule (applicable in 21 of 22 relationships), which specified that relational partners should not discuss with others outside of the relationship things that each partner discloses in confidence. Similarly, Vangelisti (1994) found that some family events are not discussed outside the family because they are personal and believed to be nobody else's business.
As noted by Petronio (1991), boundary rules may also restrict the receipt of information. With regard to a relationship, this implies that individuals may be reluctant to express opinions to another about the dynamics of his or her other relationships. Indeed, Gelles and Cornell (1990) observed that neighbors who have evidence of ongoing family abuse are often reluctant to intervene because they do not want to get involved in another person's home life. Although such reluctance could result from fear for personal safety, it may also reflect a belief that family affairs are private, and that outsiders have no right to intervene in them (Laslett, 1978).
Although boundary rules may indeed insulate a relationship from outside interference, they may also reduce the likelihood that individuals will receive needed assistance with relational problems. Individuals may feel that they should not disclose relational problems to those outside of the relationship, and those outsiders who observe such problems and want to help might not feel empowered to do so. Thus, even though there is external knowledge of relational difficulties, no action is taken. Fortunately, boundaries are not impermeable (McCall & Simmons, 1978) and their restrictiveness can be negotiated (Petronio, 1991). However, we know of no research that has studied the existence of relational boundary rules and the conditions under which they might be relaxed.
To help understand the dynamics of boundary rules, we will advance a framework that is focused on those rules that separate friendships from romantic relationships. In particular, we will examine the boundary rules that prevent friends from intervening in each other's romantic relationships and the conditions under which friends might be willing to ignore these restrictions. We will then report an experimental study that tests our theoretical assumptions.
Boundaries Between Friendships and Romantic Relationships
Although high-quality friendships and romantic relationships play important roles in maintaining an individual's well-being (Berg & Piner, 1990; Cutrona, 1982), these two associations can be in conflict with one another. Both types of relationships can require a substantial commitment of time and resources, which can be difficult for a person to provide. Hence, as two individuals become more romantically involved, they spend more time together and shift their social, emotional, and concrete resources from their friends to each other (Slater, 1963). Indeed, scholars have observed a dyadic withdrawal effect such that romantic escalation is accompanied by decreases in the quality and quantity of interactions with friends (Johnson & Leslie, 1982; Krain, 1977; Milardo, Johnson, & Huston, 1983). Because friendship is an important source of support, such reallocations are likely to be met with resistance. In fact, interference from friends has been found to increase as individuals move from occasional to exclusive dating (Johnson & Milardo, 1984). Such interrelational conflict can have severe repercussions. For example, individuals often sacrifice their cross-sex friendships if their dating partners find them threatening (Davis & Todd, 1985). On the other hand, individuals who run afoul of their romantic partner's friendship network often find their romance to be short-lived (Parks & Adelman, 1983; Parks, Stan, & Eggert, 1983).
To control such conflict, there are rules of friendship that dictate that friends should be supportive and not be critical or jealous of each other's relationships (Argyle & Henderson, 1984), and rules of romantic involvement that prescribe that partners respect each other's relational lives outside of the relationship (Baxter, 1986). In a sense, boundary rules prevent an individual from being subjected to a relational tug-of-war between friends and a romantic partner. Although functional for controlling the interrelational conflicts that are the by-products of dyadic withdrawal, such rules may be dysfunctional for helping individuals solve difficulties in their romantic relationships. In effect, boundary rules may inhibit friends from commenting on the problems they see in each other's romantic relationships.
Although friends try to be supportive of extrarelational affiliations, they may experience tensions or irritations with regard to each other's romantic partner. Irritations can range from mere annoyances and slight grievances to legitimate complaints and deep concerns about the romantic partner's character or behavior (Cloven & Roloff, 1994; Roloff& Cloven, 1990). When seeing negative sides to a friend's romantic partner, individuals should feel compelled to act on the behalf of the friend. By and large, friendships are helping relationships (La Gaipa, 1977; Leatham & Duck, 1990). Argyle and Henderson (1984) found cross-cultural rules of friendship which include the mandates that friends should volunteer help in time of need and that friends should stand up for each other in their absence. Together, these rules require that Mends be vigilant with regard to their respective needs and when sensing distress, they must take the initiative to reduce it. When the source of the distress is their friend's romantic relationship, individuals should feel pressure to intervene.
Given that romantic partners enact a variety of provocative behaviors toward one another (Roloff & Cloven, 1990), one might expect that individuals would be prone to intervene in their friends' romantic involvement. Surprisingly, research suggests that friends are generally loath to do so. For example, Johnson and Milardo (1984) found that maximum friendship interference occurred during exclusive dating, and then, individuals reported that on average, less than a quarter (23%) of their friendship network expressed disapproval. Moreover, Parks et al. (1983) found that only 2% of their sample reported that their friendship networks were …