Cognitive Processes in Relationships

Mark A Whisman. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Editor: Harry T Reis & Susan Sprecher. Sage Publication. 2009.

How people think about themselves, their partners, and their relationships has a major influence on how they approach other people, how they feel about their relationship, and how they act toward their partners. There are a variety of methods and constructs that are included under the umbrella term relationship cognition. Mark Baldwin introduced the concept of relational schemas as a framework for understanding the cognitions people have about relationships. According to this perspective, relationship knowledge consists of a model of the self (self-schema, or how the self is experienced in a specific interpersonal situation), a model of the other person (partner schema, or how the other person is experienced in that interpersonal situation), and interpersonal scripts for expected patterns of interaction between the self and the other person. This perspective—that people develop cognitions representing regularities in patterns of interpersonal relatedness—may help to understand, organize, and integrate the various types of relationship cognitions that have been studied by relationship scientists. This entry provides background on relationship cognitions and summarizes research linking these cognitions to relationship functioning, particularly in terms of the well-being and stability of romantic relationships.

Attribution Processes

One cognitive process that has been shown to be important for relationship satisfaction and stability is the explanations or attributions that people make for events that occur in their relationship. People are particularly motivated to make attributions for unexpected or novel experiences, negative experiences, and experiences that are personally relevant. For example, consider the situation in which a partner does something negative and unexpected, such as criticize his or her partner in front of his or her friends or family. In such a situation, the criticized partner may ask, “Why did my partner do that?” The explanation that the criticized partner comes up with is his or her causal attribution of why the event occurred. Attributions are typically studied by presenting people with relationship events and asking them to rate the cause of the event, or the partner’s responsibility for the event, along several dimensions. For example, in one prominent line of research, the kinds of causal attributions people make about their partner’s behavior are evaluated along the following dimensions: (a) internal reasons (e.g., something about the person) versus external reasons (e.g., something about the situation or circumstances), (b) stable reasons (e.g., something likely to continue over time) versus unstable reasons (something that is transient or time-limited), and (c) global reasons (e.g., something likely to affect many areas of a relationship) versus specific reasons (e.g., something likely to affect only one or a few areas of a relationship). People in distressed relationships make attributions that lessen the impact of positive events and accentuate the impact of negative events, whereas the opposite patterns occur in nondistressed relationships (i.e., the impact of positive events is enhanced and the impact of negative events is negated). For example, people who believe that negative partner behavior is due to internal, stable, and global causes (e.g., a partner’s broad and unchangeable traits) tend to be less satisfied with their relationship and exhibit greater declines in their relationship satisfaction over time. Furthermore, people also make responsibility attributions for events in which they judge whether their partner should be blamed for their behavior. Compared with people who are happy with their relationships, people who are unhappy with their relationships tend to blame their partner for relationship problems, viewing their partner’s behavior as intentional or selfishly motivated. People who make negative causal and responsibility attributions not only are less satisfied with their relationships but also tend to have less effective problem-solving discussions and behave more negatively toward each other. Finally, it has been shown that the association between attributions and relationship functioning is not due to potential confounding variables, such as personality (i.e., neuroticism), self-esteem, physical aggression, depression, or measurement procedures.

Relationship Beliefs

Another line of research focuses on the content of relationship beliefs or cognitions. For example, assumptions reflect individuals’ beliefs about characteristics of their partner and the way that they and their partner relate to one another. Assumptions represent a person’s views about the way people and relationships actually are and include beliefs about the partner (such as “My partner is trustworthy”) and scripts regarding sequences of events in social contexts (such as the steps involved in forming or ending a relationship). Second, standards reflect a person’s views about the characteristics that a partner should have or the way that a relationship should be. For example, people often hold standards about how much time they should spend with their partner and what they should be doing during the time spent together. Standards serve as templates against which relationship events and partner behaviors are compared and evaluated. Third, expectancies or expectations reflect a person’s beliefs about how a partner is likely to behave or about the future status of a relationship. Expectancies often take the form of “if-then” contingency statements such as, “If I am feeling down, then my partner will try to cheer me up.” Expectations play a particularly important role in close relationships to the extent that they become self-fulfilling prophecies, which are predictions that become true because they lead people to behave in ways that confirm the expectation. For example, people who expect that their romantic partners will eventually reject them may act in such ways that result in rejection by others. Assumptions, standards, and expectancies can be widely shared by a culture or can be idiosyncratic to a particular individual or couple.

Assumptions, standards, and expectations are not inherently functional or dysfunctional. Rather, they become problematic or dysfunctional when they are extreme, rigidly held, or unattainable or when they are inaccurate in important ways (either as theories about relationships in general or mismatched to the reality of a specific relationship or partner). Dysfunctional relationship assumptions, standards, and expectations include the beliefs that disagreements between partners are a threat to their relationship, that partners should sense each others’ needs without overt communication, that partners cannot change themselves or their relationship, that one must be a “perfect” sexual partner, and that men’s and women’s relationship needs are radically different. Greater endorsement of these beliefs is associated with lower relationship quality. Furthermore, people tend to be happier in their relationship when they have relationship-oriented standards, such as believing that two people should have a great deal of closeness and sharing, should solve problems in an egalitarian manner, and should be highly invested in giving to the relationship. Finally, greater relationship satisfaction is associated with greater consistency or agreement between individuals’ assessment of their current partner and relationship and their ideal partner and relationship.

A second set of general relationship cognitions that have been linked with relationship outcomes concerns people’s implicit theories about ideal partners and ideal relationships. For example, research by C. Raymond Knee and colleagues has shown that people differ in whether their implicit theories emphasize destiny versus growth. People who believe in romantic destiny think that potential relationship partners are either meant for each other or they are not, and they emphasize the romantic ideal of finding the right partner. In comparison, people who hold growth beliefs emphasize relationship development over time because of hard work and perseverance. The implicit theories people hold contribute to the meaning assigned to relationship events, thereby influencing not only relationship outcomes but also the way in which people appraise and cope with relationship events, including relationship stressors. For example, early dissatis faction in dating relationships has been shown to predict breakups for people whose implicit theories emphasize destiny but not for people whose implicit theories emphasize growth.


Memories about relationships is another important area of research on relationship cognition because individuals’ evaluations of their relationships in the present and their predictions of how their relationships might change in the future are likely to be based, at least in part, upon their memories of the past. For example, research has shown that retrospective reports of relationships differ from how relationships actually develop. Specifically, partners appear to be biased toward remembering the past in such a way that lets them perceive improvements over time. For example, spouses tend to remember declines in relationship satisfaction in the distant past but improvements in the more recent past, even when their satisfaction actually declined over time. Furthermore, as memories of the recent past recede into the distant past over time, it appears that people revise their memories so that they continue to recall improvements only in the recent past. Such memory biases may provide a sense that relationships are progressing and improving, regardless of current levels of relationship satisfaction. Viewing the recent past more favorably than the distant past may also help to see improvements as having taken place recently and declines as having taken place in the distant past. In short, memory biases such as these appear to help people see their relationships as improving, which may contribute to their optimism that their relationship will be even better in the future.

Motivated Cognition

Motivated cognition is a line of research that examines the cognitive processes that allow individuals to dispel doubt and sustain conviction in the face of less-than-perfect partners and relationships. Research by Sandra Murray and colleagues has shown that in general people tend to judge their partners with positive illusions in which the partner is portrayed in the most positive light possible. In these studies, people rate themselves, their partner, their ideal partner, and a typical partner on interpersonally oriented virtues and faults. Individuals’ ratings of their current partners are associated with their ratings of their ideal partners, suggesting that images of an ideal partner color perceptions of a partner’s actual traits. In addition, people tend to idealize their partners, rating them more positively than their partners rate themselves. Furthermore, individuals are happier in their relationships when they idealize their partners and their partners idealize them. Idealization also appears to have self-fulfilling effects insofar as (a) people come to share their partners’ idealized images of them over time, and (b) people who idealize each other become more satisfied with their relationships over time and are more likely to stay together. Finally, people’s motivation to sustain positive images of their partner results in cognitive restructuring processes such as elevating or embellishing the importance of positive characteristics of a partner or by downplaying or minimizing the significance of negative characteristics in a partner.

Working Models and Rejection Sensitivity

In writing about Attachment Theory, John Bowlby proposed that the quality of infant-caregiver bonds influence relationships in later life through the development of internal working models. In particular, based on the quality of early interactions with caregivers, people develop (a) models of the self as worthy or unworthy of love and caring and (b) models of other people as available and responsive or unavailable and unresponsive. As applied to the study of adult relationships, early research tried to assess adults in terms of attachment types or styles that paralleled research on infant-caregiver attachment. More recently, research on internal working models in close relationships has generally focused on the underlying dimensions of anxiety (the degree to which a person holds negative views of himself or herself as a relationship partner) and avoidance (the degree to which a person holds negative views of others). Research on working models typically involves self-report instruments for assessing attachment dimensions. Although a comprehensive review of existing research is beyond the scope of this entry, a large body of research has found that internal working models are associated with relationship outcomes. In brief, this research shows that lower levels of anxiety and avoidance predict better relationship outcomes. Research is also being done to examine the degree of continuity of attachment and working models over the life span and across different relationships.

A cognitive-affective processing disposition that also draws from the theoretical models of Bowlby’s is rejection sensitivity. Introduced by Geraldine Downey and her colleagues, rejection sensitivity refers to a disposition to anxiously expect, readily perceive, and easily overreact to perceived rejection. Compared with people low in rejection sensitivity, people high in rejection sensitivity report less satisfaction in their close relationships and their relationships are more likely to break up. On days preceded by conflict, partners of people high in rejection sensitivity experience greater relationship dissatisfaction and are more likely to consider ending the relationship. Furthermore, in a laboratory interaction session, people high in rejection sensitivity behaved more negatively, resulting in greater levels of partner anger after the interaction. Thus, rejection sensitivity may serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy in which people who anxiously expecting rejection perceive intentional rejection in their partner’s ambiguous behavior, which in turn leads them to respond with negative behavior that, if unjustified or exaggerated, may elicit greater rejection from their partner, leading to confirmation of their rejection expectancies.


Relationship outcomes have also been shown to be influenced by self-concept. In general, people assume that other people view them as they view themselves. For example, people with low self-esteem underestimate how positively their dating or married partners see them. Furthermore, self-esteem may serve as a gauge or sociometer that monitors self-acceptance so that feelings of self-doubt alert people to the possibility of social rejection or exclusion, thereby motivating compensatory behavior. In addition, the self-concept serves two important functions. First, people generally seek feedback that enhances the self-concept and allows one to think positively of oneself. That is, people tend to seek out and associate with people who help them feel good about themselves. Therefore, one function of the self-concept is self-enhancement. Second, people tend to seek feedback that confirms or verifies existing self-concepts, as this verification helps to make life more predictable and provides a feeling of security. Thus, a second function of the self-concept is self-verification. For people who have positive self-concepts, self-enhancement and self-verification work together in tandem: Positive social interaction both enhances and verifies their self-concept. In comparison, the situation is more complex for people with negative self-concepts (i.e., people with low self-esteem). Positive evaluations from others serve to make people with negative self-concepts feel good about themselves but threaten their negative self-concepts, whereas negative evaluations from others confirm their negative self-concepts but make them feel bad about themselves. Thus, these two functions of the self-concept are at odds for people with negative self-concepts. Furthermore, self-enhancement and self-verification appear to differ in importance depending upon the kind of close relationship. Whereas self-enhancement appears to be more important for dating relationships (dating persons are most intimate with partners who evaluate them favorably), self-verification appears to be more important for committed relationships such as marriage. For married people with negative self-concepts, this translates into greater levels of intimacy for people whose spouses evaluate them more negatively.

Information Processing

Much of the research on cognition in close relationships has been conducted with self-report measures in which people rate how much they agree with items representing a particular belief, based on the assumption that people can and are willing to accurately report on the content of their beliefs. A different line of research has focused on how people perceive, interpret, store, recall, and act on information about their interpersonal experiences. For example, research by Susan Andersen and her colleagues has shown that significant others have distinct mental representations that are typically chronically accessible and affect individuals’ views of other people. Upon meeting a new person that resembles a particular significant other in some way, the significant other’s schema will be activated and the new person will be responded to in many ways as if he or she were the significant other, much like the clinical construct of transference.

Relative to the literature on self-report measures of relationship cognitions, there has been comparatively little research on information-processing measures. However, what research has been done suggests these methods may be useful for understanding relationship functioning. For example, people classify and organize information in terms of social relationships: Information about relationship partners is stored together, and this is done more for close relationships (e.g., marriage) than it is for distant relationships (e.g., acquaintanceship). Furthermore, when individuals in relationships are given a list of traits and asked whether the traits describe them, people have more difficulty in making me-not me judgments for the traits in which they differ from their partner than they do for traits in which they resemble their partner. This suggests that cognitive processes tend to blur the boundaries between relationship partners and the self. Continued research involving information processing methods should help increase understanding of how people notice, store, and recall relationship information.