Opening up the ex files: using coorientation theory to examine partner perceptions of talking about relational history



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The role talking about relational history plays in romantic relationships is unclear. Talk about relational history (TRH) involves disclosing information about past relationship experiences to a romantic partner or asking a romantic partner about his or her past relationship experiences. Prior research indicates that individuals in romantic relationships could conceivably have a range of perceptions about TRH, from perceiving TRH to be highly taboo (Baxter & Wilmot, 1985) to perceiving such relationship talk to be highly important (Actielli, 2002). The degree to which partners agree with and understand each others’ perceptions about TRH could be associated with their relationship satisfaction. Studying TRH is important because relational history is relevant to current relationships; seeking out or avoiding discussions of relational history has relationship implications. Coorientation theory (McLeod & Chaffee, 1973) was used to guide this investigation of perceptions pertaining to TRH, including the extent to which TRH was perceived as taboo, important, and discussed in romantic relationships. Findings from two pilot studies indicated that TRH is a multidimensional concept made up of three factors: talk about characteristics of past partner(s), talk about sexual history, and talk about characteristics of past relationship(s). In the main study, partners from 135 couples (270 individuals) reported their own perceptions pertaining to TRH; they also reported what they believed their partners’ perceptions were pertaining to TRH. Findings from the main study indicated that relationship context played a role in TRH perceptions: people in shorter relationships perceived TRH to be less taboo and TRH took place more frequently than in longer relationships. In many respects, men's and women’s perceptions of TRH were significantly different from one another. Though neither perceived TRH to be taboo on average, men did perceive TRH to be more taboo than women did. Implications of the findings are discussed, and future research directions are also suggested.