Interpersonal Relationships

In interpersonal relationships, two participants are interdependent, where the behavior of each affects the outcomes of the other. Additionally, the individuals interact with each other in a series of interactions that are interrelated and affect each other. Individuals form many different kinds of relationships with other people, some of which are intimate and close (e.g., parent–child, spouse–spouse, friendships) and others which are not intimate and close (e.g., neighbor, teacher–student). Most of the research on interpersonal relationships has focused on those relationships that are close, intimate, and have high interdependence. In an influential book, Kelley and colleagues (1983) define a close relationship as one that is strong, frequent, and with diverse interdependence that lasts over a considerable period of time. In sociology, although the classic distinction between primary and secondary relationships has been expanded in the public realm (fleeting, routinized, quasi-primary, and intimate secondary relationships), these close relationships (as described above) also can be categorized as primary groups, which provide support and nurture and socialize individuals to the norms of society.

The concept of relationship historically has had a central and significant place in social psychology and other social sciences. Some of the founding sociologists, such as Simmel and Marx, were concerned with attraction and interpersonal relationship issues.

Historical Context of Interpersonal Relationships Research

Interpersonal relationshipsIn the 1960s the initial focus of interpersonal relationship research was on the interpersonal attraction process, primarily between strangers meeting for the first time, rather than on the relationships themselves that might develop as a result of attraction. This research developed primarily out of mate selection studies first begun by family sociologists in the 1930s and 1940s (Burgess & Cottrell 1939). Attraction typically is conceptualized as an attitude toward another consisting of feelings, cognitions, and behaviors and can be negative and/or positive in nature. Most of the early research on the interpersonal attraction process relied on self report measures to assess the factors that lead a person (P) to be attracted to another person (O). For example, the bogus stranger paradigm (Byrne 1971) asked respondents (typically, young college students) to rate how much they were attracted to another person after being presented with minimal information about this other person. In these paradigms, respondents were actually participating in an experiment, where the information presented to respondents was manipulated, and the other persons were typically hypothetical others. Walster, Berscheid, and their colleages (e.g., Walster et al. 1966) also conducted numerous “get acquainted interaction” studies in which real respondents were matched with each other and given the opportunity to interact, after which they self reported their attraction to each other.

In the 1980s researchers turned their attention to the more intense sentiments and phenomena that occur within actual interpersonal relationships, and to the social context of various kinds of specific relationships. Although attraction was important, maybe even necessary for P (person) and O (other) to begin an interpersonal relationship, the majority of research started to focus on the “pulse” or quality of these interpersonal relationships and its link to processes inside (e.g., cognitions, depression, physical health) and outside (e.g., work satisfaction, financial strain, family cohesiveness) the individual. In addition, researchers began to examine the influence of factors in P (person) (e.g., depression) and O (other) (e.g., physical attractiveness), along with the combination of those factors (P and O) (e.g., conflict, similarity) on the likelihood that P and O will stay in the relationship and are happy with it.

New Directions in Interpersonal Relationships Research

Even more recently, relationships have received considerable attention in sociology and the other social sciences. An examination of the research since 1980 illuminates several themes. First, an expanding and significant body of literature demonstrates that interpersonal relationships are vital and important to the physical and mental health of individuals. Studies show (House et al. 2003) that individuals are likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, ill health, and other physical problems if they lack interpersonal relationships of high quantity and quality. The interesting finding here is that quality and quantity of relationships are critical for individuals’ overall health and well being.

Second, the current research emphasizes specific relational processes that are relevant at various stages of the life course of a relationship. This literature tends to be organized according to relationship type and focuses on factors that are important to the development of a relationship (attraction, similarity, background factors), the maintenance of a relationship (communication, conflict, family interference and support), and the dissolution of a relationship (legal factors, effects on children, adjustment). There also is strong evidence to suggest that what factors predict divorce or dissolution of a relationship differ depending on the life course stage of the relationship. The age or life course stage of the individual also has been found to be relevant to what relational processes are important to individuals’ evaluations of the relationship (relationship quality). Further, the recent emphasis on the life course of both relationship and individual has focused scholarly attention on the importance of making conceptual distinctions between (1) the intent to maintain a relationship (e.g., commitment) (see Johnson 1991), (2) personal evaluations within a relationship as perceived by individuals (relationship quality), and (3) the status of the relationship (relationship stability) (Veroff et al. 1997).

A third new direction in relationship research has been to concentrate on making the dyad the unit of analysis rather than the individual (Couch 1992). This change is both methodological and conceptual and has become an important contribution to the literature on relationships. Relationship scholars now find it important to collect information from both members of the dyad, rather than only one member, and assess how these reports may differentially affect the well being and stability of the relationship (Duck 1990).

Fourth, given the prominence of symbolic interactionism in sociology (e.g., Mead 1934), another new direction of relationship research has been to apply symbolic interactionist concepts to the study of relationship well being and stability (Burke & Cast 1997). The self is created out of the interactions and feedback from others, and the relational context is even more salient for how individuals view themselves. Further, to understand how adults define and describe themselves to others, relationship scholars turn directly to the context and status of their relationships.

The fifth new direction in relationship research has been to examine the construction of meaning within relationships for relationship quality and stability (Orbuch et al. 1993). In these studies, there is an acknowledgment that individuals may construct meanings of their relationship, based on the social context of that relationship and individual, which in turn has significant influence on individuals’ evaluations and status of those relationships. Many relationship scholars now ask couples/dyads (separately or jointly) to use a narrative or account as stories technique to gain a better understanding of individuals’ meanings of their relationship and relational processes over time (for a review, see Orbuch 1997). This technique allows individuals to have a “voice” in their reports about their relationships and permits variations in reports as a result of the “sociocultural ecology” within which the relationship is embedded. This approach also recognizes that these stories formulate, control, predict, and shape individuals’ relational experiences over time.

Sixth, the larger environment and structural conditions that can be harmful or beneficial for a couple’s well being have been examined. Relationship scholars have begun to link these “sociocultural ecologies,” or what sociologists term the norms, cultural meanings, settings, circumstances, or people outside the relationship, to relationship quality and stability. One specific contextual factor that has received a great deal of attention lately is social networks, or the link between the relationship and people outside the dyad. Specifically, relationship scholars have been interested in the influence of social networks of family and friends on the stability and quality of relationships (for a review, see Felmlee & Sprecher 2000). The majority of this research looks at how social networks can be a potential source of support or reduction of stress for couples, but this direct link has been challenged and revised by many (Kessler et al. 1995). The general notion that social networks are linked to the internal pulse of the relationship was first examined by Bott (1971).

Another important contextual factor that has received attention recently is the context of race/ethnicity for interpersonal relationships (McLoyd et al. 2000). Relationship scholars have begun to highlight the similarities and differences between and within various racial/ethnic groups. Recent studies find that both cultural and structural factors may affect relational processes differentially among various ethnic groups (Orbuch et al. 2002).

Future Directions in Interpersonal Relationships Research

The field of interpersonal relationships has a strong history and vibrant theoretical foundation in social sciences. Critical to social psychology ideas and theories is the notion that individuals interact with others and that these interactions are interrelated and affect each other. Further, the topic of interpersonal relationships is the perfect arena to understand and illuminate many underlying social processes and concepts (e.g., development of self, culture, social networks, commitment, and emotions) that are critical to the discipline.


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