By: Caroline Elliott, Edited by: Jack Tucker
Tension arises in relationships all the time. In fact, it’s pretty much inevitable. Whether tension involves making time for each other, putting effort into a relationship or cell phone usage, it doesn’t always mean that the relationship is headed downhill. If you’ve been struggling with these things, you’re not alone. It’s okay to have conflicts with the person you’re with, but you don’t have to stay stuck in that tension forever.
Communication researcher Daena Goldsmith described this phenomenon as a “dialectic tension of autonomy and connection” in a study published in Western Journal of Speech Communication. The tension between “autonomy” and “connection” is characterized by the seemingly competing desires to maintain control and individuality while also developing a close relationship with another person that often requires sacrifice. This becomes a problem easily because of the difficulty in balancing each of these desires, but the tension itself is unavoidable. We do not need to learn to get rid of this tension, but we do need to learn to manage it well.
According to Goldsmith, one of the conflicts that causes the most tension is about the level of priority a relationship should have compared to the rest of each partner’s life. Certainly, it’s easy for building or investing in one relationship to feel mutually exclusive to other experiences.
Going off to college and leaving a boyfriend or girlfriend at home is never an easy thing to do. You would likely want to stay together because you love your partner, but you would want to create your own life apart from him or her at the same time. This can be hard to do when you find yourself in a constant state of traveling to see your partner or calling him or her just to keep your relationship afloat.
This tension is one that I have experienced. How much time should I put into my relationship with my boyfriend from home? Should I not go out with friends so that I can talk to him on the phone instead of texting him? Is it even worth trying anymore? One obviously would not want want to invest too much time into a romantic relationship because of the threat to other friendships, but relationships also require time and investment to grow.
I love you, but…
Another important implication of the autonomy-connection tension is that the relationship you are pursuing could require more time and effort than you are willing to put into it. Individuals in relationships are often in different places in their lives, and some might not be ready to sacrifice a season of life to build a relationship.
However, there are ways to mitigate this fear. Goldsmith found that individuals flourished when they intentionally chose being in a relationship or remaining single because their choice reflected their identified priorities. When are forced to choose between your relationship and other activities, reassess what is most important to you. If you decide to pursue a relationship, make sure that your partner’s priorities reflect your own as well.
Can I call you later?
Balancing autonomy and connection is difficult in many relationships, but it is especially so in long distance relationships that rely on texting and calling to communicate. College students need smart phones for many different purposes, but these devices carry great power to both relieve and create relational tension.
According to communication researcher Robert Duran and his colleagues in their article “Mobile Phones in Romantic Relationships and the Dialectic of Autonomy Versus Connection,” higher amounts of phone usage often create tension related to one partner not responding with enough frequency or timeliness. Some days, you just may not be able to answer your phone because you have a huge project due that you procrastinated on until the very last second. On other days, you may just be so exhausted that you need to unplug from your phone for a while. These are perfectly good reasons to spend some away from your phone which can be a healthy thing to do in itself.
The conflicts created by greater amounts of cell phone use put stress on many relationships because they place emphasis on being connected at all times of the day. It can be challenging for both partners to always be available to each other through cell phones, but it is a more fundamental problem when two partners’ expectations or desires for the relationship do not align.
According to Duran and his colleagues, this tension can be relieved by designating rules for cell phone usage between you and your partner. Although this suggestion is likely not used by most college students, it may still be well worth considering if cell phones are causing tension in your relationship. Who knows what would happen if you did?
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that experiencing tension does not mean your relationship is over. If you’re facing conflict about differing priorities, mutual effort or cell phone communication, take a deep breath. It will be okay. Think about what you can do to resolve these conflicts instead of thinking that the only option is to break up, and embrace the tension because the best things can come out of tough situations.