"What if I'm Dissatisfied?" *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

Whether it is work, friendship or romance, what can you do if you are dissatisfied with a relationship? In the 1980s, social psychologist Caryl Rubult identified four major ways in which dissatisfied people react in a relationship.


If dissatisfied, you can voice your feelings and opinions. Essentially you are trying to rescue a friendship that is in trouble. This type of communication can be an attempt to compromise, to seek help, or to try to change yourself, your partner or the situation. On the job, you can do it by discussing your problems with a supervisor, suggesting solutions, consulting with a union official or even "blowing the whistle" on corporate mismanagement. In a romantic situation or friendship, you can talk with your partner, suggest improvements in your relationship or offer to seek counseling. This response typically occurs if you have been previously satisfied with the relationship and have a great investment in it.


A passive, optimistic response of merely waiting for things to improve is called loyalty. On the job, you would maintain the status quo by publicly supporting your organization and continuing to do your job well. You would merely hope that the problem would go away. Likewise, a dissatisfied, loyal romantic partner or friend would merely wait hoping or praying for improvement. This passive response is most likely if your relationship problems are minor, so you are not seriously dissatisfied overall. If the problems are more serious, the passive response is more likely if you have a great investment in the relationship and you have poor or no alternatives.


Neglect means that you "let things fall apart" without making any effort to maintain the relationship. On the job, you would be frequently late or absent, or fail to complete assignments on time. With a friend or lover, you might spend less time with them, ignore them or refuse to discuss problems with them. Neglect is most likely to happen, if you have not been very satisfied with the relationship in the past and have a very low investment in it.


Getting out of the relationship is an exit. On the job, you can seek a transfer, get a new job or just quit. In a personal relationship, you can leave, move to a different location or get a divorce. (Exit might include hostile responses like physically abusing your partner.) Exit is most likely when your relationship is very unsatisfactory, you have very little investment in the relationship (little to lose), and when you have reasonable alternatives available.

Mutually satisfactory relationships are more likely
if there is a balance of power.

Of these alternatives, the most destructive for your relationship are neglect and exit. Even so if things get bad enough these choices might be personally helpful and appropriate for you. On the other hand, constructive choices for your relationship are voice and loyalty. Of these two, speaking up by using the voice alternative is more likely to achieve the changes you desire. Often you might be too afraid to speak up, because there is a risk that your partner might respond with neglect or exit. Only you can estimate your risk and decide if your dissatisfaction is great enough to take that chance.

* Adapted from David Sears, Letitia Peplau and Shelley Taylor's Social Psychology, Prentice-Hall Publishers, 1991, page 232.

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