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1. Basics About Relationships
1.1 What Is A Relationship?
What constitutes a relationship? The answer, many relationship researchers will say, is simple. A relationship exists between two people when each person inﬂuences the other’s thoughts, feelings, and/or behavior. In other words, a relationship exists when people are at least minimally interdependent (Kelley et al. 1983). As the frequency, diversity, impact, and/or time span over which people inﬂuence one another increase, the relationship becomes increasingly interdependent or, according to Berscheid et al. (1989), closer.
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1.2 Types Of Relationships
Interdependence takes many forms, a fact reﬂected in the diversity of terms we use to refer to relationships—friends, romantic partners, sibling relationships, business partners, and physician–patient relationships. Most past, and many current, relationship researchers have chosen one of these types of relationships to describe in detail. This has resulted in separate literatures on friendships, romantic relationships, marriages, and sibling relationships, and these literatures continue to expand.
Increasingly, however, researchers are focusing upon conceptual diﬀerences between relationships. Some have identiﬁed conceptual dimensions along which relationships vary. For instance, Wish et al. (1976) ﬁnd evidence for four dimensions underlying people’s ratings of relationships: cooperative/ friendly versus competitive/hostile; equal versus unequal; intense versus superﬁcial; and socioemotional/informal versus task-oriented/formal. Blumstein and Kollock (1988) suggest that relationships vary according to whether they do or do not involve kin, sexual/romantic aspects, cohabitation, diﬀerences in status, and cross-sex participants.
Still others have proposed taxonomies including sets of qualitatively distinct categories. For instance, Fiske (1992) posits that four basic rules direct individuals’ relations with others in all social interactions: people may share a common identity and treat one another equally (communal sharing); people may attend to status diﬀerences and give beneﬁts accordingly (authority ranking); people may weight the utility of their behavior in achieving desired outcomes for themselves (market pricing); and ﬁnally, people may follow a quid-pro-quo principle (equality matching). Clark and Mills (1979, 1993) distinguish between: communal relationships, wherein beneﬁts are given, non-contingently, on the basis of the recipient’s needs; exchange relationships, wherein beneﬁts are given with the expectation of receiving comparable beneﬁts in return; and relationships in which people are simply concerned about their own self-interest. They also emphasize a quantitative dimension relevant to communal relationships—the degree of responsibility that one person feels toward another. The stronger the communal relationship, the greater the costs (in time, eﬀort, money, and foregone opportunities) a person will incur to respond to the other’s needs. Most recently, Bugental (2000) has proposed grouping relationships within an attachment domain, a hierarchical power domain, a coalitional group domain, or a reciprocity domain. In addition to thinking more about the conceptual dimensions and qualities characterizing diﬀerent relationships, many researchers now emphasize understanding the interpersonal processes that inﬂuence relationships.
1.3 On What Types Of Relationships Is Most Psychological Research Currently Focused?
Despite recognition that a variety of conceptually distinct relationships exist, research on processes occurring within relationships is not evenly distributed among these types. Most research has been conducted on intimate, or potentially intimate, relationships (e.g., friendships, romantic partnerships, and marriages). These relationships tend to fall in attachment or reciprocity domains (Bugental 2000). Further, people expect intimate relationships to be cooperative, friendly, equal, intense, social-emotional (Wish et al. 1976), and communal in nature (Clark and Mills 1979, 1993). Increasingly these relationships are being studied longitudinally. A much smaller corpus of research exists on interpersonal processes relevant to competitive (Wish et al. 1976), market pricing (Fiske 1992), authority ranking (Fiske 1992), or hierarchical (Bugental 2000) relationships, and little of it is longitudinal in nature. Hence, just a few comments are devoted to research on competitive and hierarchical relationships here. More extensive comments are included relevant to interpersonal processes within friendships, romantic relationships, and family relationships.
2. Research On Non-Intimate Relationships
2.1 Hierarchical Relationships
Many social relationships exist in which one member has power or authority over the other, and psychologists have reported some interesting ﬁndings relevant to such relationships. Fiske (1993), for instance, found that one’s position in a hierarchical relationship inﬂuences one’s tendency to view one’s partner in stereotypical terms. Those with less power tend to pay careful attention to information about powerful people, especially information that contradicts stereotypes of these individuals. In contrast, in thinking about their underlings, those in more powerful positions rely on stereotypes. Presumably underlings have more time to attend to details about those who have power over them and are motivated to do so by a desire to gain control over the situation. Those in power who oversee many people have less time and, given the control their power aﬀords them, less need to attend to details regarding underlings.
Other researchers have found disturbing links between some men’s ideas of power and their tendencies to view women as attractive. Bargh et al. (1995) used a questionnaire to measure males’ propensity to sexual aggression. Later, these men participated in a study with a woman. Some men were primed to think about power (by sitting behind a large desk), while others were not. Among those prone to sexual aggression, being primed to think about power was associated with seeing the woman as being signiﬁcantly more attractive—a link about which these men were not consciously aware.
2.2 Relationships Between Negotiators
A great deal of work exists on interpersonal processes occurring between people who must negotiate with one another to come to a solution to a problem, most often involving a division of resources. Much early work focused on how individual diﬀerences in personality and gender inﬂuence negotiating, yet it yielded little in the way of ﬁndings. Other early work on how situational factors inﬂuence negotiations was more fruitful. For example, the presence of observers has been shown to lead negotiators to express greater advocacy for previously announced positions, whether or not the observers have a vested interest in the outcome. Later work, falling within a ‘behavioral decision perspective,’ has explored how negotiators deviate from rationality in their decision-making. Findings suggest that negotiators are too inﬂuenced by whether risks are framed positively or negatively, rely too heavily on the most available information, and are too conﬁdent about the likelihood of attaining outcomes that favor themselves. The nature of preexisting relationships between negotiators has also been shown to inﬂuence the process of negotiation. For instance, negotiators prefer equal payoﬀs when the relationship is positive or neutral. In contrast, when the relationship is negative, they prefer inequality—favoring themselves. Other ﬁndings show that when relationships are close there is more information sharing, less coercive behavior, less demanding initial oﬀers, and quicker agreements. Surprisingly, better joint outcomes are not superior overall, however. (See Bazerman et al. 2000 for a summary of this and other work on relationships between negotiators.)
3. Research On Intimate Relationships
3.1 A Very Active Area With Some Well-Established Findings
Psychological research on intimate relationships is ﬂourishing. Twenty-ﬁve years ago, the relevant literature was small and limited almost entirely to studies of initial attraction between people. The research was primarily experimental and conducted within the conﬁnes of a laboratory. When ongoing relationships were examined, the dependent measure of interest was, most often, global satisfaction. Today the relationship literature focuses largely on naturally occurring, ongoing relationships and on speciﬁc interpersonal processes relevant to forming, building, repairing, maintaining, and (sometimes) ending relationships. Although some research remains experimental and laboratory-based, ﬁeld research often involving longitudinal surveys and diary studies of ongoing relationships has taken center stage. The ﬁeld has advanced suﬃciently that there is clear consensus on some facts about close relationships. These topics are discussed next.
3.2 Having Relationships Is Good For You
One fact that highlights the importance of research in this area is simply that, overall, having relationships is associated with good mental and physical health. Having friends and family members with whom one maintains regular contact, and/or a romantic relationship, is associated with greater overall reports of happiness and life satisfaction (e.g., Diener 1984, Myers 1992). Researchers using self-report measures have found that people report feeling best when they are with other people. Being socially involved (as indicated by such diverse indices as one’s network size, the density of that network, simply being married or not (especially for men), and perceiving that one has social support available if needed) is linked to better physical health and a lower risk of death (e.g., Berkman and Syme 1979, Cohen 1988). Indeed, many studies have related social involvement to lower susceptibility to the common cold (Cohen et al. 1997), cancer (Glanz and Lerman 1992), and cardiovascular disease (Berkman et al. 1993).
That having social relationships is linked to better mental and physical health is clear. However, why this is so remains unclear. Personality attributes may predict both good relationships and good health. Thus, having relationships may not necessarily be causally linked to good health. However, most researchers in this area believe that it is. Perhaps our relationship partners encourage good health practices. Perhaps they help us cope with and reduce stress. Perhaps just knowing that our partners are there to support us lessens our anxiety (and its physiological concomitants). Such issues are the subject of current research.
3.3 We Can Predict Who Forms Relationships With Whom
People tend to form relationships with those who are physically or functionally proximal to them. However, we come into proximity with many others. With which of these people will we form relationships? One factor that inﬂuences us is what members of our already existing relationships think. We tend to form relationships with people of whom our present relationship partners approve (Parks et al. 1983). Another factor is similarity. The evidence is clear that ‘birds of a feather ﬂock together.’ People form relationships with those who are similar in attitudes, age, race, and educational background. In the case of romantic relationships, we also tend to form relationships with others whose physical attractiveness matches our own. This may be because we are drawn to situations which attract similar others. Alternatively, we may actively seek out similar others. Evidence suggests we generally assume people are similar to us and that the discovery of dissimilarities may be what drives people apart (Rosenbaum 1986). With one notable exception, there is very little evidence for complementariness in attraction. Opposites do not seem to attract. Even work on masculinity and femininity does not suggest that couples including a masculine male paired with a feminine female get along particularly well. Rather, it appears that compatibility is greater when each member of a couple possess both masculine and feminine traits (Ickes and Barnes 1978, Zammichieli et al. 1988).
Performance domains appear to be the one exception to the rule that ‘birds of a feather ﬂock together.’ Speciﬁcally, there is evidence that when an area of performance is central to one’s self-deﬁnition—say, being good at academic subjects—a close other’s good performance in the same area can be threatening to one’s self-esteem. That, in turn, can drive the relationship apart. In contrast, partners excelling in diﬀerent performance domains can promote the relationship. That way each person can bask in the other’s reﬂected glory, and neither suﬀers from social comparison with the other (Erber and Tesser 1994). Still another important determinant of initial attraction is whether a potential partner likes you. Backman and Secord (1959) have demonstrated this experimentally, and Kenny has demonstrated this in studies of ongoing relationships (Kenny and La Voie 1982).
Finally, we note that there is ample evidence that physical attractiveness is a powerful determinant of initial attraction (e.g., Berschied et al. 1971). Although both males and females seem to value attractiveness in a relationship partner, it seems especially important to males when judging females. Evolutionary theorists suggest that this has resulted from attractiveness being a signal of the health and presumed fertility of that potential mate (Buss 1989). Evolutionary theorists’ work on mate preferences also suggests that women especially value males with good resources (presumably because they can provide for oﬀspring). At the same time, these theorists have found evidence of women placing high value on resources in males and males placing high value on attractiveness in females, they have simultaneously found that both males and females value such attributes as kindness and honesty in one another. Indeed, most people rate these attributes as being more important than resources or attractiveness.
3.4 Responsiveness To Needs Is A Process That Is Important To Good Relationship Functioning
Social psychologists have made considerable strides in identifying interpersonal processes that are important to good relationship functioning once relationships have been established. Responsiveness to one another’s needs is one such process. It has long been recognized, initially by reinforcement theorists, that receiving rewards from one’s partner is important to relationship satisfaction (e.g., Byrne and Clore 1970). However, recent theory and empirical research has demonstrated that the manner in which people meet (or fail to meet) one another’s needs is very important to a person’s sense that his or her partner is truly concerned for his or her welfare. This work suggests that a person needs to receive more than beneﬁts from another person to feel intimate with that person. The person needs to believe that the relationship partner understands, validates, and, ultimately, cares for him or her. This appears to emerge from such things as the other responding appropriately to one’s statements of needs, self-disclosures, and emotional expressions by listening carefully, responding with understanding and acceptance, and, ultimately, by actually helping (Reis and Patrick 1996). It seems likely that these processes, in turn, are facilitated by having a partner who is high in empathic accuracy—that is, by having a partner who accurately perceives one’s thoughts and emotions (Ickes 1997).
Feeling cared for also appears to be enhanced when partners do not seem to be giving beneﬁts to get beneﬁts. For instance, forgoing self-interest to beneﬁt a partner enhances trust in the partner’s caring more than giving a beneﬁt that aids both the recipient and the giver (Holmes and Rempel 1989). People led to desire a close relationship with another want that relationship to be characterized by noncontingent responsiveness to needs (Grote and Clark 1998). That is, they react more positively to beneﬁts given without strings attached than to those given with the expectation of repayment (Clark and Mills 1979), and they do not wish to keep track of just who has contributed what to the relationship in order to allocate beneﬁts (Clark 1984). Giving beneﬁts with strings attached or in exchange for comparable beneﬁts calls the fundamental caring component of relationships into question.
For relationships to be characterized by responsiveness to needs, not only is it important for each person to try to meet the other person’s needs, it is also important for each person to convey their needs to their partner. This greatly facilitates the partner’s ability to respond to those needs. Thus, willingness to self-disclose has been shown to promote relationships (Cohen et al. 1986). So, too, does it appear that freely expressing one’s emotions—which convey needs—is good for relationships (Feeney 1995).
From a personality perspective, it is noteworthy that researchers have found that individual, chronic, ‘attachment styles’ are closely related to perceptions that others will meet one’s needs and hence to a wide variety of behaviors relevant to meeting needs in close relationships. People with a secure attachment style (presumably resulting from having had appropriately responsive caregivers early on) are more eﬀective support-givers and -seekers than are those with insecure attachment styles (e.g., Simpson et al. 1992). Indeed, research on attachment styles has been the fastest-growing area of relationship research over the past two decades (Cassidy and Shaver 1999).
3.5 Other Processes Associated With High S. Low-Quality Close Relationships
Responsiveness to needs is not the only interpersonal process important for maintaining high-quality intimate relationships. A number of studies suggest that viewing one’s partner positively and reconstruing a partner’s faults as virtues is also beneﬁcial for relationships (Murray and Holmes 1993). (Perhaps this aids in maintaining faith that one’s partner really does care about one’s needs.) These same researchers have also found evidence that when people who are satisﬁed with their dating relationships do see faults in those relationships, the negative thoughts tend to be linked in memory to positive thoughts about their partners in what they call a ‘yes but’ manner. For instance, a member of such a couple might say, ‘I think his laziness is actually kind of funny; it gives us a reason to laugh.’ Less-satisﬁed couples tend to link negative thoughts about the partner with other negative thoughts about the partner and the relationship (Murray and Holmes 1999). Seeing one’s partner in a more positive light than one’s partner sees him or herself also seems good for one’s relationship and appears, over time, actually to result in one’s partner living up to one’s ideals (Murray et al. 1996).
Reﬂection and social comparison are two more processes that appear to inﬂuence the quality of intimate relationships. Reﬂection refers to feeling that a partner’s performance reﬂects on you, either positively or negatively. Social comparison refers to the process of comparing one’s own performance in a given domain with a partner’s performance and discovering that one has performed better or worse than that partner. Each process can beneﬁt or harm a relationship. When a performance domain is irrelevant to one’s identity, it appears that a partner’s good performance in that domain enhances one’s own self-esteem (and helps the relationship), whereas a partner’s poor performance decreases one’s self-esteem (and harms the relationship). The closer the relationship, the greater the eﬀects (Erber and Tesser 1994).
Still other processes that appear to inﬂuence the quality of relationships have been identiﬁed. For example, research based on Aron and Aron’s self-expansion model (1996) has demonstrated that when we fall in love our conception of ourselves expands to include aspects of the other person and that doing exciting and novel activities with one another can increase the quality of a couple’s relationship. To give another example of processes that appear to increase the quality of relationships, Rusbult has reported research showing that highly committed couples are especially likely to respond constructively (i.e., to accommodate) in the face of a partner’s poor behavior and that such couples are also likely to engage in such relationship-protective processes as seeing attractive (and therefore threatening) alternative partners as signiﬁcantly less attractive than their less committed peers do (Johnson and Rusbult 1989; Rusbult and Van Lange 1996).
Interdependence theory has been particularly useful in pinpointing factors independent of ongoing interpersonal processes occurring within the relationship that inﬂuence both satisfaction and commitment to a relationship. For instance, although interdependence theorists agree with reinforcement theorists and with those emphasizing responsiveness to needs that rewards received (and costs avoided) are important determinants of relationship satisfaction, they add the important point that the expectations people bring with them to any particular relationship will inﬂuence satisfaction. The higher a person’s expectations (comparison level) are for the relationship, the tougher their standards will be and, potentially, the lower the satisfaction with any given relationship.
Interdependence theorists also emphasize that satisfaction is not the only, nor necessarily even the most important, determinant of the stability of a relationship. Instead, they have identiﬁed a separate variable—commitment to a relationship—as a stronger determinant of relationship stability. Satisfaction does contribute to higher commitment to a relationship, but there are other important determinants of commitment as well. One is ‘comparison level for alternatives.’ The better one’s alternatives, the less committed one will be to the current relationship (independent of satisfaction). This means that one could lack commitment to a relationship which is, in and of itself, satisfying or be committed to a relationship which is, in and of itself, unsatisfying (but more satisfying than one’s alternatives). Investments (anything put into the relationship that cannot be easily retrieved should one exit the relationship) also inﬂuence commitment. Having investments such as joint friends, joint memories, children, a joint house, well-established routines, and so forth all increase one’s sense of having invested in a relationship and, hence, one’s commitment to that relationship. Finally, outside prescriptives, either coming from oneself or one’s social circle, can inﬂuence commitment which, as we have already noted, is an important predictor of relationship stability as well as of partners’ willingness to accommodate one another (Rusbult and Van Lange 1996).
4. Future Directions
It is always diﬃcult to predict the future. However, it seems likely that research on the interpersonal processes that occur in, and aﬀect the quality of, friendships, romantic relationships, and family relationships will continue to occupy center stage for a while. We can also expect to see increasing collaboration between epidemiologists and health psychologists, who have demonstrated links between having relationships and health, and social and personality psychologists, who have investigated interpersonal processes that contribute to high-quality intimate relationships. Many researchers currently are calling for such collaboration, in the hope that the fallout will be an understanding of how and why relationships are beneﬁcial for mental and physical health.
Further, with the increasing emphasis on studying relationships longitudinally, it may be expected that theories and empirical work on interpersonal processes occurring in relationships over time will become more frequent. Right now, we know lots about ﬁrst impressions and some about the very initial stages of relationship deepening. We also know a bit about the dissolution of relationships. However, we know little about long-term trajectories of happy and unhappy relationships. We will know much more in 10 years.
It also seems likely that relationships other than those emphasized in recent research (and hence in this entry) will become the focus of more research—relationships such as teacher–student and physician–patient relationships, relationships between co-workers, and relationships between siblings.
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