Close Relationships Definition
Why are we attracted to some people? How do people know they are in good relationships? Why do people fall in love? Does good communication really produce successful relationships? Are men really from Mars and women from Venus? These are just some of the intriguing questions that social psychologists attempt to answer. Indeed, the study of close relationships has become one of the most important domains in social psychology over the past several decades.
But what are close relationships? It turns out that answering this question is not as easy as it seems. One key concept, developed by Harold Kelley and John Thibaut in the 1960s and 1970s, describes close relationships in terms of interdependence. Close relationships differ from having acquaintances by the profound way in which the well-being and psychological processes of one individual resonate with, and are tied to, the same processes in another person. Furthermore, close relationships are characterized by relatively high levels of trust, love, knowledge, commitment, and intimacy. However, close relationships themselves divide into two further categories: platonic friendships versus romantic relationships. Romantic relationships differ from close platonic friendships in two major ways. First, romantic relationships contain the elements of sex and passion, and second, individuals are typically involved in just one romantic attachment at one time. Friendships can be intense and are of enormous psychological importance in our lives, but most research in social psychology has been devoted toward understanding romantic relationships. Accordingly, this entry focuses on this domain in this synopsis.
A Brief History of Close Relationships Research
A social psychological approach to close relationships focuses on the interaction between two individuals, paying close attention to both behavior and what goes in people’s minds (emotions and cognitions). Within social psychology, up to the late 1970s, research into relationships concentrated on interpersonal attraction; namely, what factors lead people to be attracted to one another at the initial stages of relationship development? This research tended to be atheoretical and the results read like a shopping list of variables that influence attraction, including similarity, proximity, physical attractiveness, and so forth. In the 1980s the psychological Zeitgeist shifted toward the study of the much greater complexity inherent in the development, maintenance, and dissolution phases of dyadic romantic relationships. This shift was prompted by several key developments in the 1970s. First, John Gottman and others in the clinical area began research that, for the first time, observed and carefully measured the dyadic interchanges of married couples in an attempt to predict who would divorce. Second, Zick Rubin and others became interested in love and devised reliable scales that could measure the concept. Third, Harold Kelley led a team of social psychologists in producing a seminal book published in 1983 (Close Relationships), which presented the first full-blooded treatment of close relationships from an interactional, social psychological perspective.
Social psychological research in psychology over the past two decades has been marked by three major developments. First, there has been an explosion of work concerned with understanding the role that social cognition (beliefs, cognitive processes, etc.) and emotions play in intimate relationships. This work has borrowed theories and methodologies from both social and cognitive psychology. Second, there has been a burgeoning interest in how attachment and bonding processes contribute to adult romantic relationships. Attachment research in adults appropriated the basic theories from the work in the 1960s and 1970s by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth concerning infant-caregiver attachment bonds. Third, the study of interpersonal attraction (in the context of romantic relationships, this is typically labeled mate selection) has once again become a hot topic, but under the new banner of evolutionary psychology. This approach is based on the evolutionary work of Darwin, but it has been honed into modern social psychological guise by figures such as David Buss and Jeffry Simpson.
Thus, as can be seen, social psychologists have freely borrowed from other domains in studying close relationships. However, this process is a two-way street, with social psychological research and theorizing being imported back into and enriching these same domains. Social psychologists have made important contributions in four major domains: how people choose their mates, love and commitment, communication and relationship interaction, and gender differences in the context if romantic relationships. Each of these domains will be discussed here.
Searching for the “Ideal” Mate
In New Zealand, the United States, African hunter-gatherer cultures, indeed around the world, people focus on similar categories in evaluating potential mates: personality factors related to warmth and intelligence, cues related to attractiveness and health, and the possession of status and resources. Moreover, there is remarkable agreement across both gender and cultures concerning which factors are most important in selecting mates for long-term relationships: The winner is warmth and loyalty, a close second is physical attractiveness and general vitality, and down the track is status and resources.
Research suggests that individuals do not differ simply in whether they set their mate standards as demanding or modest. Rather, they attach more or less importance independently across these three categories. Thus, some people (both men and women) are essentially on the hunt for an exciting, passionate relationship, whereas others care relatively little about passion and are preoccupied with the search for intimacy, warmth, and commitment. Yet still others are prepared to sacrifice somewhat on the passion and intimacy front, if they can obtain a partner with considerable status and resources.
Why do people not want it all? Why is Jane’s ideal partner not incredibly kind, handsome, remarkably fit with a wonderful body—and rich? First, such people might be plentiful in TV soap operas, but in real life they are remarkably thin on the ground. Second, even when Jane meets such a male paragon, he will probably not be interested in Jane (who is not a perfect 10 in every category). Third, even if Jane succeeds in striking up a relationship with such a catch, he may be difficult to retain, and Jane may find she needs to invest an exhausting amount of time and resources in maintaining the relationship.
The name of the mating game is to do the best one can in light of the available pool of mates, one’s own perceived mate value, and other prevailing circumstances. What causes individuals to attach different amounts of importance to different ideal categories? Perhaps the major factor is self-perceived mate value. For example, those who perceive themselves as more attractive give more weight to this particular aspect in choosing a mate. This is one major reason why people are strongly similar with their mates on factors such as physical appearance and education level.
Evolutionary-based models of mate selection typically frame their predictions and explanations relative to two different goals: the search for a short-term sexual fling or the search for a mate who would make a suitable partner in a long-term committed relationship. It should be stressed that these goals are not necessarily conscious and typically find their expression in emotions and desires. This distinction in goals is exploited by Steve Gangestad and Jeffry Simpson to argue that humans can, and do, change their mating aims depending on circumstances, but both men and women may adopt a characteristic mate-selection style as a function of their upbringing, personal experiences, situational contingencies, and so forth.
In short-term sexual liaisons, women need to invest heavily in any subsequent offspring resulting from such a union but will not have the benefit of a lifelong mate and father for the children. Thus, in this context, women should be mainly on the hunt for an attractive man (good genes) rather than for a sensitive and supportive mate. In short-term settings, men also should not be much interested in their mate’s suitability as a long-term partner, but, if they have a choice, they should go for the best genes (e.g., the sexiest woman in the bar). However, because the potential investment in subsequent offspring for the woman is vast, compared to the man flitting through town, the woman should be even choosier than the man in this context.
Research has generally affirmed this theorizing. Several studies have found that when men and women are asked about their minimal requirements in a mate for a one-night stand, men typically express more modest requirements than do women on factors associated with warmth, loyalty, intelligence, status, and so forth. Given that men are generally more persuadable than women when it comes to rapid sexual conquests, women can afford to be much choosier than men in such a context. In a famous study, Russell Clark and Elaine Hatfield had (brave) male and female confederates approach members of the opposite gender on the campus at the Florida State University and ask them if they would go to bed with them. Seventy-two percent of the men agreed, whereas none of the women did.
The standards used in evaluating mates are also influenced by local circumstances. James Pennebaker and his colleagues found that, as the hours passed, both men and women perceived potential mates in bars as more attractive. Further research has replicated the finding for both genders, confirmed that the effect is not simply caused by people steadily getting drunk, and shown that the effect only occurs for those who are not involved in an intimate sexual relationship (and who are thus more likely to be monitoring the bar for potential mates).
Overall, however, the standards that are maintained most steadfastly across short-term and long-term relationships are concerned with physical attractiveness, and this is true for both men and women. These findings are consistent with the theory that physical attractiveness and vitality form the primary “good genes” factor: In a short-term relationship all one is getting out of the deal (reproductively speaking) are (potentially) the other person’s genes. In a long-term mating scenario, women should be exceptionally picky about the factors that make for a good parent and a supportive mate, that is, warmth/loyalty and status/resources. They should also be interested in good genes (attractiveness and vitality), but they may be prepared to trade such characteristics against the presence of personal warmth and loyalty or money and status. Men should certainly be more interested in the woman’s ability to be a supportive mate and parent than in the short-term mating context, and they should also maintain their search for a woman with good genes; after all, men make substantial investments as a father and partner in long-term relationships.
However, in evolutionary terms, the woman’s eggs are more or less all in one basket: The success with which she can pass her genes on is dependent on her husband (and wider family). In contrast, the man has more options. He can continue to spread his genes around while he is married, and he will remain fertile with the ability to father children for many more years than women are able to muster. Thus, evolutionary logic dictates that a high level of investment by the man should be more important to the woman than vice versa (although, in absolute terms, high levels of investment should be important to both genders in long-term relationships).
There is a wealth of research that supports the existence of gender differences in what people want in a partner and relationship. In long-term relationships, men tend to attach more importance to attractiveness and vitality than do women, and women tend to give more weight to loyalty and warmth and to status and resources than do men. These findings have been found in many cultures and have been replicated consistently within Western cultures by research using standard rating scales or by analyzing the contents of personal advertisements. An important caveat is that the size and significance of such gender differences are sensitive to the cultural context. Alice Eagly and Wendy Wood found that as women’s empowerment (indexed by their earnings, their representation in legislative government, and their involvement in professional positions) increased relative to men across cultures, women placed increasingly less value on the status and earnings of a mate.
Love and Commitment
One of the most important generalizations established by social psychologists is that the way in which relationships develop is profoundly linked to what people bring with them into the relationship as mental dispositions, that is, expectations, beliefs, and personality traits. As noted previously, individuals select mates (in part) by the extent to which they meet important standards on dimensions such as warmth, attractiveness, and status. Hence, there exist strong similarities between partners on such factors. However, expectations and standards never sleep. As knowledge of the other develops, and individuals and perceptions change, people continue to evaluate their partners and relationships by how they meet expectations and standards. The discrepancies between expectations or standards and perceptions of reality are then used to accomplish four pivotal major goals or functions in intimate relationships: evaluation, explanation, prediction, and control.
Take Fiona, who places huge importance on passion and sex in relationships and, thus, places a premium on vitality and attractiveness in evaluating a mate. Fiona was very attracted to Charles initially, mainly because he was athletic and attractive. Two years into the relationship, Charles has gained a lot of weight, and he has lost interest in going to the gym. Fiona’s evaluations of Charles are, as a result, on the slide, and she is having doubts about the long-term future of the relationship (the evaluation function). Fiona can use the gap between her ideals and perceptions to help provide her with an explanation of why she is dissatisfied with her relationship: Charles is letting himself go (the explanation function). Fiona can also use the gap between her ideals and perceptions to predict the future of the relationship: Unless Charles takes better care of himself, the relationship is doomed (the prediction function). Finally, on the basis of her evaluation, explanation, and prediction, Fiona may actively attempt to change her partner’s behavior, for example, by buying Charles a year’s subscription to a health club for his birthday (the control function).
Research evidence suggests that this story about Fiona and Charles accurately reflects the psychological reality of relationships. Provided prior pivotal expectations are reasonably met in close relationships, the conditions are set for love, commitment, and trust to flourish. However, another important determinant of the capacity to trust and to form healthy adult intimate relationships are what are termed working models, which are composed of beliefs and expectations concerning the behavior of both self and others in intimate settings. This construct was initially developed by John Bowlby in the 1970s (as a part of what is termed attachment theory) as a tool to explain how pivotal interactions that infants have with caregivers continue to influence individuals as they develop into adulthood.
The first application of attachment theory to adult romantic relationships was published by Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver in 1987, triggering a massive surge of theorizing and research dealing with adult attachment. Interestingly, there are many similarities between the love that develops between parents and children and adult romantic love. For example, lovers often use favorite nicknames, slip into singsong cadences, have strong needs to spend a lot of time together, often caress and kiss one another, seem fascinated with each other’s physical appearance, and engage in long bouts of prolonged eye contact. Exactly the same is true of parent-infant interactions. The underlying neurophysiological processes are also similar, with the same “love” hormones, such as oxytocin, involved in both adult-infant attachment and adult-adult romantic love.
The similarity between adult-adult and child-parent forms of attachment supports the argument that evolutionary processes have lifted and reworked the ancient mechanisms that promote mother-infant bonding in mammals to promote pair-bonding between humans. Thus, romantic love consists of an exceptionally strong attachment that inspires strong emotional drives toward commitment and caring, along with the passion and excitement that derives from sexual activity.
Moreover, adult attachment working models come in two broad dimensions or styles similar to those found in infant attachment styles: secure versus avoidant, and anxious or ambivalent. Those who possess secure (nonavoidant) attachment working models are comfortable with intimacy and closeness and are happy to rely on others for support and succor. Ambivalent individuals intensely desire closeness and intimacy but are fearful of rejection and are constantly vigilant for signs that their partners may betray them or leave.
Adult attachment working models are relatively stable, but they are also sensitive to experiences in intimate relationships. Having a successful and happy relationship pushes people into secure working models, whereas relationship breakups move people in the opposite direction. For example, Lee Kirkpatrick and Cindy Hazan reported that 50% of a sample of 177 individuals who were originally secure, and who experienced a relationship breakup, switched temporarily to an avoidant style. Moreover, as infants develop into adults, attachment working models become differentiated across domains. Thus, research has found that an individual may have an avoidant working model for romantic relationships but a secure working model for friends or family.
Working models have the same functions in social interaction (as previously described) concerning discrepancies between standards and perceptions of the partner or relationship; namely, they help people to evaluate, explain, predict, and control their relationships.
For example, Nancy Collins has shown that when secure individuals explain negative behaviors from their partners (e.g., failing to comfort them when they were depressed), they are inclined to produce charitable, relationship-positive attributions (e.g., the partner had a bad cold) apparently designed to retain their belief in the essential warmth and trustworthiness of their partner. In contrast, ambivalent individuals tend to adopt a relationship-negative pattern and emphasize their partner’s indifference to their needs and lack of commitment.
In a pioneering piece of research, Simpson and colleagues tested Bowlby’s hypothesis that attachment systems should kick into action when individuals are under stress. In this research, the female members of dating couples were initially stressed (by being shown some fearsome-looking apparatus they were supposedly about to be hooked up to in an experiment). The chilled women then returned to sit with their partners in a waiting room, during which time the couple’s behavior was surreptitiously videotaped. The more stressed the individual women became, the more their attachment styles (assessed prior to the experiment) seemed to influence their behavior; secure women sought support whereas avoidant women avoided seeking support from their partner, to the point of expressing irritation if their partners asked what was wrong or proffered support. Moreover, secure men offered more emotional and physical support the more anxiety their partners displayed, whereas the avoidant men became less helpful and, again, actually expressed irritation.
Finally, people enjoy thinking, analyzing, writing, and talking about their own and others intimate relationships in a thoroughly conscious fashion. However, research carried out by Mario Mikulincer (and many others) has demonstrated that relationship attachment working models, beliefs, and expectations also automatically and unconsciously influence everyday relationship judgments, decisions, and emotions.
Communication and Relationship Interaction
The belief that good communication produces successful relationships seems close to self-evident. Yet, such unadorned claims are problematic from a scientific perspective, partly because defining and measuring the nature of (good) communication is anything but straightforward. However, there is general agreement that the way in which couples deal with the inevitable conflict or problems that crop up in relationships, and how they communicate their subsequent thoughts and feelings to one another, is a critical element (many have suggested the critical element) in determining the success of intimate relationships. Almost everyone experiences dark or uncharitable emotions and thoughts in intimate relationships. Two general competing accounts have been advanced specifying how individuals should best deal with such mental events: the good communication model and the good management model.
The good communication model is based around three empirical postulates, describing what couples in successful relationships are supposed to do with their negative thoughts and emotions. First, they frankly express their negative feelings and cognitions (albeit in a diplomatic fashion). Second, they deal openly with conflict—they don’t stonewall, withdraw, or go shopping. Third, they honestly attempt to solve their problems. If the problems are not dealt with, then it is believed they will stick around and eat away at the foundations of the relationship over time, or return at a later date possibly in a more corrosive and lethal form.
The good management model is also based around three empirical postulates. First, the regular and open expression of negative thoughts and feelings is posited as corrosive for relationships. Second, it is proposed that exercising good communication skills often involves compromise and accommodation to the partner’s behavior (and not shooting from the hip with uncharitable emotions and cognitions). Third, relationships always have problems or issues that cannot be solved. People in successful relationships supposedly recognize them, accept them as insoluble, and put them on the cognitive backburner. They don’t get obsessive about them or fruitlessly struggle to solve them.
Both models possess some intuitive plausibility. Moreover, each has a body of research evidence to call upon in support. Buttressing the good communication model, studies by John Gottman and others have found that avoidance of conflict and less frequent expression of negative emotions and thoughts in problem-solving discussions are associated with lower relationship satisfaction and higher rates of dissolution. In support of the good management model of relationship success, research has shown that those in more successful relationships tend to sacrifice their own personal interests and needs, swallow hard, and ignore or respond positively to their partner’s irritating or negative behaviors.
This apparent paradox can be solved in several ways. First, extensive research has shown that the way in which people interpret and explain negative relationship behavior plays an important role. If Bill’s partner is short with him, Bill’s causal attributions will determine the end result. If Bill attributes insensitivity to his partner and blames her, he may well yell at her. On the other hand, if Bill attributes her remark to a cold she is suffering from, he is more likely to forgive her lapse and show solicitude. Second, it may depend on the compatibility between partners rather than on the style of communication itself. There is evidence that relationships in which one individual is vainly attempting to discuss a problem (most often the woman) while the other partner withdraws and stonewalls (most often the man) are associated with both short-term and long-term unhappiness. Third, a social psychological approach would suggest that the ability of individuals to adjust their expression of negative thoughts and feelings as a function of the situational requirements might also play a decisive role.
The last point cited (i.e., the ability to strategically alter levels of honesty and expression) is nicely illustrated in the research on anger in relationships. The expression of anger (within bounds) seems to be mildly beneficial for relationships when couples are in conflict-resolution mode. In this context, anger communicates to one’s partner that (a) I am not a doormat; (b) this is important to me, so listen to what I am saying; (c) I care enough about the relationship to bother exhibiting my concerns; and (d) will you “please” alter your behavior! On the other hand, the expression of even mild anger when the partner needs support and soothing is particularly corrosive for relationships. In this context, the lack of support combined with the expression of mild irritation communicates (a) I don’t care for my partner, or (b) I do not love my partner, or (c) I cannot be counted on when the chips are down. Thus, it may well be the ability to adjust communication strategies and behaviors according to the contextual demands that is critical in maintaining close and successful relationships. Partners who adopt either the good communication or the good management strategy as a consistent default option, across time and across social contexts, will have fewer psychological resources to cope with the inevitable relationship hurdles thrown across their paths. Of course there are two people to consider in intimate relationships, so the way in which couples negotiate and harmonize their individual communicative styles will be an important ingredient in determining relationship success. However, one relationship size does not fit all. There exist a range of relationship communication styles that all appear to be successful, but which are strikingly different from one another.
Communication style is important in predicting relationship success, but it is clearly not the only important factor. A large body of research has accumulated that documents the best predictors of relationship happiness and longevity. Perhaps surprisingly, the evidence that similarity is an important factor is mixed, with many studies reporting null results, although (reflecting the power of the relationship mind) a well-replicated finding shows that couples who perceive themselves as more similar are considerably happier with their relationships. The two most powerful predictors of relationship success are more positive perceptions of relationship quality and more positive interactional behavior when problems are being discussed or one partner needs help or support. Measuring just these two factors enables researchers to successfully predict from 80% to 90% of couples who will stay together in marital or premarital relationships.
Gender Differences in Close Relationships
Well-documented gender differences in intimate relationships can be summarized by four propositions. First, women are more motivated and expert lay psychologists than men in intimate relationships (e.g., women talk and think about relationships more than men do and are more accurate at reading emotions and thoughts in their partners than men are). Second, men adopt a more proprietorial (ownership) attitude toward women’s sexuality and reproductive behavior (e.g., men exhibit stronger sexual jealousy at hypothetical or actual sexual infidelities). Third, men possess a stronger and less malleable sex drive and a stronger orientation toward short-term sexual liaisons than do women (e.g., men masturbate more and have more frequent sexual desires than do women). Fourth, women are more focused on the level of investment in intimate relationships than are men (e.g., women rate status and resources in potential mates as more important than do men).
The origin of these gender differences remains a controversial issue. Evolutionary psychologists argue that they are linked to biological adaptations derived from gender differences in investment in children (women invest more), differences in the opportunity to pass on genes (men have greater opportunity), and uncertainty about who is the biological parent of children (for men but obviously not for women). Some theorists, in contrast, posit that culture is the main driving force behind gender differences. Of course, these are not either-or options, the most sensible conclusion being that both factors are important in explaining gender differences in intimate relationships.
Some caveats are in order. First, there are substantial within-gender differences for all four of these aspects that are typically greater than the between-gender differences. This pattern typically produces massive overlap in the distributions of men and women. For example, Gangestad and Simpson estimated that approximately 30% of men are more opposed to casual sex than are average women (in spite of men overall exhibiting more approval of casual sex than women). Second, men and women are often strikingly similar in their aspirations, beliefs, expectations, and behavior in intimate relationships. And, finally, as previously pointed out, gender differences come and go in magnitude depending on the circumstances.
The public is sometimes derisive of social psychologists’ study of love and research questions like “Does good communication make for successful relationships?” They may believe that common sense already provides what people need to know about love. Either that, or they claim that romantic love is a mystery nobody can explain. These common beliefs are false. It does not pay to be overly confident about maxims learned at one’s caregiver’s knee or garnered from the latest column one has read about relationships in a magazine. Some popular stereotypes about relationships are true, others are false, and many are half-truths.
On the other hand, lay beliefs or lay theories should not be dispensed with automatically as unscientific rubbish. After all, laypeople share the same set of aims with scientists, namely, to explain, predict, and control their own relationships. Psychological folk theories and aphorisms concerned with love and relationships have developed over thousands of years. Given that humans are still here and prospering, it is unlikely, to say the least, that such lay theories should turn out to be utterly false and therefore useless as tools for people to use for predicting, explaining, and controlling their own relationships. Moreover, even if commonsense theories or maxims are false, this does not mean that they are not worthy of scientific study. False beliefs cause behavior every bit as much as true beliefs do. Thus, (social) psychologists who wish to explain relationship behavior or cognition are forced to take the existence of commonsense beliefs and theories into account, even if such beliefs are false.
The social psychology of close relationships has a dual role. It increases understanding of intimate relationships while simultaneously contributing to scientific understanding of the basic building blocks of psychology: cognition, affect, and behavior. And this is simply because so much of human cognition, emotion, and behavior is intensely interpersonal in nature.
- Buss, D. M. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. New York: Basic Books.
- Fletcher, G. J. O. (2002). The new science of intimate relationships. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
- Rholes, W. S., & Simpson, J. A. (Eds.). (2006). Attachment theory and close relationships. New York: Guilford Press.
- Vangelisti, A., & Perlman, D. (Eds.). (2006). The Cambridge handbook of personal relationships. New York: Cambridge University Press.