Relationships at risk: How the perceived risk of ending a romantic relationship influences the intensity of romantic affect and relationship commitment

Abstract

Drawing on emotional intensity theory (EIT: Brehm in Personality and Social Psychology Review 3:2–22, 1999; Brehm and Miron in Motivation and Emotion 30:13–30, 2006), this experiment (N = 104) shows how the manipulated risk of ending a romantic relationship influences the intensity of romantic affect and commitment. As predicted by EIT, the intensity of both romantic feelings varied as a cubic function of increasing levels of manipulated risk of relationship breakup (risk not mentioned vs. low vs. moderate vs. high). Data additionally showed that the effects of manipulated risk on romantic commitment were fully mediated by feelings of romantic affect. These findings complement and extend prior research on romantic feelings (Miron et al. in Motivation and Emotion 33:261–276, 2009; Miron et al. in Journal of Relationships Research 3:67–80, 2012) (a) by highlighting the barrier-like properties of manipulated risk of relationship breakup and its causal role in shaping romantic feelings, and (b) by suggesting that any obstacle can systematically control—thus, either reduce or enhance—the intensity of romantic feelings to the extent that such obstacles are perceived as ‘risky’ for the fate of the relationship.

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Fig. 1
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Notes

  1. 1.

    We did not consider more recent work by Miron et al. (2012) for sample size estimation, because two of the three studies reported by Miron and her colleagues were correlational in nature, whereas the third study—a true experiment—was designed to evaluate a more articulated research question and, also, did not find any main effect of the experimental manipulation on romantic affect.

  2. 2.

    In the original Italian wording of this item, the expression “From a pure emotional point of view, I feel completely motivated towards my romantic partner” [“Da un punto di vista puramente emotivo, mi sento completamente motivato nei confronti del mio partner”] conveys a strong sense of emotional involvement, that corresponds to a strong feeling of leaning towards the partner and feeling good with her/him, and also to a manifest sense of comfort and attraction towards the partner/relationship. This fact is reflected in the high value of the Cronbach’s alpha coefficient for the three items measuring romantic affect (α = 0.93).

  3. 3.

    A preliminary one-sample t-test revealed that the mean ratings of romantic affect in the control condition (M = 10.81, SD = 1.28; scale range 0–12.50 cm) were, on the average, significantly higher than the scale neutral midpoint (= 6.25), t (25) = 18.18, p < .001. This result may be taken to suggest that, at the beginning of the study, a relatively high degree of romantic affect was successfully induced in participants (see ‘Participants, design and procedure’ section above; cf. Brehm et al. 2009; Miron et al. 2007, 2008). As suggested by emotional intensity theory, in order to deter an affective state, that state must first be present with a certain degree of intensity (Brehm 1999). An analogous one-sample t-test run with respect to participants’ commitment ratings in the control condition (M = 10.91, SD = 1.32; scale range 0–12.50 cm) revealed that relationship commitment was significantly higher, on the average, than the corresponding scale neutral midpoint (= 6.25), t (25) = 18.01, p < .001. Thus, also a certain degree of romantic commitment was presumably present before the risk (i.e., deterrence) manipulation.

  4. 4.

    Importantly, a further one-way ANOVA indicated that, as expected, the mean number of discussions and/or minor quarrels that participants reported to have typically had, per week, with their romantic partner (M total = 1.35, SD total = 1.54) did not differ among low (M = 1.29, SD = 1.24) vs. moderate (M = 1.54, SD = 2.19) vs. high (M = 1.22, SD = 1.01) risk conditions, F (2, 75) = 0.30, p = 0.743. It was therefore the false feedback in itself—not the actual number of recalled troublesome exchanges between partners—that systematically deterred romantic affect. In the control condition, of course, no reference to disputes between partners was made, nor participants were asked to recall such potentially stressful episodes.

  5. 5.

    We conducted also a traditional Baron and Kenny (1986) mediation analysis, in which (1) the risk of breakup predicted both the intensity of romantic commitment (β = 0.27, t = 2.841, p = .005) and (2) of romantic affect (β = 0.34, t = 3.594, p = .001); (3) the intensity of romantic affect predicted the intensity of commitment (β = 0.85, t = 16.161, p < .001); and, finally, (4) the risk of breakup no longer predicted the intensity of commitment when romantic affect was entered into the equation (β = − 0.02, t = − 0.271, p = 0.79)—this signaling complete mediation. The indirect path was significant at the Sobel (1982) test (test statistic = 3.52, Se = 0.15, p < .001).

  6. 6.

    Technically, we cannot attribute, univocally, the observed effects to the influence of the manipulation at step 1 (perceived likelihood of general relationship failure after two years), instead to the influence of the manipulation at step 3 (perceived likelihood of personal relationship failure after two years), or to a combination of both. However, we considered the complete three-step procedure necessary to guarantee the credibility of the personalized feedback information to be given at step 3. Each of the two steps (step 1 and 3), if implemented alone, could have not been sufficient to effectively manipulate the independent variable. Further, both steps 1 and 3 were intended to operationalize the same theoretical construct in different but converging ways. Thus, both steps shared the same operative goal—inducing in participants a sense of being at risk.

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Sciara, S., Pantaleo, G. Relationships at risk: How the perceived risk of ending a romantic relationship influences the intensity of romantic affect and relationship commitment. Motiv Emot 42, 137–148 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-017-9650-6

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Keywords

  • Emotional intensity
  • Deterrence
  • Perceived risk of relationship breakup
  • Romantic affect
  • Relationship commitment
  • Goals
  • Motivation
  • Emotions
  • Paradoxical effects