Introduction To The Study of Close Relationships
The Towering Importance of Close Relationships
According to a recent Gallup survey (USA Today "snapshot" 4-14-98) of young adults' (ages
18-34) priorities, 83% rated a close-knit family as their highest priority--even moreso than a career (rated highest by 68%). Also, for all adults, 64% say that "relationships
with loved ones always are on their minds" (with "stability/security" rated second at 51%--USA Today "snapshot," 1-6-98). A recent poll of the 16 to 21 age group in the United
Kingdom revealed that "to be happily married with children" was the most popular aspiration, coming out ahead of a successful business career (The Economist, January, 1999, p.
Further evidence about the impact of close relationships on health is rapidly accumulating.
Myers and Diener (1995) report that people look to family and close relationships for the main sources of their happiness. Berkman, Leo-Summers, and Horwitz (1992) showed that the
cahances of survival for more than one year after a heart attack are more than twice as high among men and women at mid-life and beyond the men and women are emotionally supported
by two or more people. Kiecolt-Glaser and associates (1987) found that the immune systems of happily married persons fend off infections more readily than do the immune systems of
unhappily married persons. More generally, Cambell, Converse, and Rodgers (1976) reported that people's feelings about their relationships have a larger impact on their overall
satisfaction with their lives than do their job, income, community, or even physical health. As we will see in the dissolution chapter (Chapter 10), the end of a close
relationship can be quite destructive to a person's psychological and physical health.
Flux is the name of the game in the content of close relationships, and that has been true for
over three decades in the U.S. and much of the Western world. Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) summarize much of their evidence from a large-scale study of American couples conducted
in the late 1970's with this prophetic statement:
"Families are in a significant state of flux, and the uncertainty reverberates throughout
society. One consequence is that people are apprehensive about the future--the future of personal relationships in general, and the future of the specific relationships that
nourish them. They do not know how to design what they want or protect what they have. They are unsure about the future of marriage".
Designing our family and relationship worlds still is a topic of high priority in the part of
the early twenty-first century. Some Census data (Amato & Booth, 1997) regarding the considerable flux in the family and close romantic relationships over the last 3 decades
include the developments presented in Table 1.3.
Demographic Trends for
Since 1960, the number of divorces has tripled. It is estimated that there will be 1 million
divorces in 1998, involving more than 1 million children. There are 70 million people in the U.S. (out of a total population of 260 million) who have been divorced at least
Today the average marriage lasts 7 years, and 10 million children live with a parent who is
separated or divorced.
At least 150,000 divorces, or 1 in 7, will involve custody battles.
The number of single-parent families has more than quadrupled since 1960. There are
approximately 27 million children under 18 living with only their mothers, up from 8 million in 1960.
Several million grandparents in the U.S. now are recycling as parents due to their children's
divorces (and need to have childcare while working) or being in prison, or because of other reasons.
Seven million children live with an alcoholic parent, and almost 1.2 million children run away
from home each year. Not surprisingly, in this context of changing structure and meaning, suicide is the leading cause of death among American teenagers.
Defining A Close
How do we define a CR? One definition of close relationship that will be invaluable to our
attempt to have a working definition was provided by a team of psychologists led by Harold Kelley who wrote one of the first textbooks on close relationships that emphasized a
scientific orientation to the study of relationships. Kelley et al. (1983) defined close relationship as:". . . one of strong, frequent, and diverse interdependence [between two
people] that lasts over a considerable period of time" (p. 38). Kelley et al. conceived interdependence as the extent to which two people's lives are closely intertwined, in terms
of their behavior toward one another and thoughts and feelings about one another. They also viewed the time factor as involving months or years rather than
Characteristics of Relationships
The content of the interactions. What do the people do together? What is their
usually interaction pattern like?
The diversity of types of interaction within the relationship. The more types of
activity the people do together, the more experiences are shared.
The qualities of the interactions. Did the people communicate
constructively, competitively, loudly, softly, lovingly? Both content analysis of speech
and nonverbal behavior will be relevant data. As important is what the people think about the merits and qualities of their relationship.
The relative frequency and patterning of relationships. This category includes the
extent to which interactions of different types are jointly present. This characteristic pertains to the structure of the relationship (e.g., controlling or permissive
The reciprocity vs. complementarily nature of the interactions. This distinction
refers to the need for which satisfaction is sought in a relationship. Do the people reciprocate behaviors or complement one another (e.g., one is introverted and one
extraverted)? Most close relationships involve a complex and idiosyncratic mix of reciprocal and complentarity interactive patterns.
Power and autonomy. Issues of power and autonomy are part of the complementarity
pattern. One partner can be said to have power over the other if he or she can influence the quality of the consequences of other's behavior. How power is exerted may be
assessed by the quality of the interactions (e.g., persuasion vs. command). If one person in a relationship exercises power, that reduces the other's autonomy. But what is
critical is how the power differential is perceived by the other. Lack of agreement about the exercise of power can lead to conflict.
Intimacy-the extent to which the people reveal themselves (emotionally, cognitively,
and physically) to each other. Intimacy requires the person making the disclosure to feel understood, validated, and cared for and is thus related to trust (see
discussion of "minding theory in Chapter 6 on maintenance and enhancement of close relationships).
Interpersonal perception. Does one partner see the other as the other really is?
Does one partner see the other as the other sees self? Does one partner feel understood by how the other partner sees him or her? Does the couple see the world outside the
relationship in similar ways? These are critical questions for closeness.
Commitment. Do the partners strive to ensure the continuation of the relationship
or improve its quality? Does each see the other as committed?
Satisfaction. Do the people perceive the relationship as close to their ideal, or
preferable to other relationship they could be in?
Theory Issues Facing The Field of Close Relationships
What are some of the major theoretical issues facing the relationships field? As part of a
presentation to a meeting of the International Society for the Study of Personal Relationships, Kelley (1995) presented a challenge to the field. He contended that the field lacks
a framework or a broad theory. He suggested that the root of the problem was the absence of a clear concept of "relationship."
After listening to the diverse presentations about relationships at this conference, Kelley said that two images of "relationship" emerged in his interpretation: One visualizes a
fly in the spider's web. "It exists as a smallish, undifferentiated entity at the center of a converging pattern of causal factors-a sort of victim of a network of external
factors" (1995, p. 1).
Kelley said that the second image he derived for "relationship" from the various papers was no explicit representation because it exists ". . . as an invisible wraith in the
background-a sort of 'ghost in the machine' "(p. 1). Kelley saw this machine as some representation of a flow chart of psychological events, typically for one person. If the
relationship had any existence at all, it was in the head of one person or possibly a shared schema with another.
Kelley went on to define a relationship consistent with Kelley et al. (1983) and Kelley (1978) as a state of interaction process among two or more persons. It does not, according
to Kelley, reside in its members' minds. It is a state of interaction, that exhibits some pattern. Kelley used the term "interpersonologist" for the scholar of relationships who
studies these interaction patterns. Such patterns will manifest themselves in the micro-phenomena of the field: giving affection and attention, quarreling, blaming, interrupting,
praising, showing hurt, and so on.
Kelley believes that his view of relationship is fairly radical and offers a different image of relationships compared to terms such as "marriage," "dating," "friendship," "gay,"
and co-worker. His definition speaks to the interaction patterns that fairly clearly define such terms. Kelley also argued that at present the field is too reliant on self-reports
of behavior (see discussion later in this chapter of different methods). He believes that we need to do more observing, coding, and quantifying actual behavior. He believes that
our main job is do more observation of relationship patterns that epitomize events such as loving behavior. Finally, he believes that this approach will allow the field to better
establish reference points for the phenomena that are uniquely interpersonal.
Kelley's points continue to have merit. As we will see, one of the most difficult enterprises we have, however, is the ethical observation of people's private moments-which are
the ones in which "relationship" may be actualized more than in public (or research participation) moments. Further, as suggested in the earlier emphasis on mutual definition and
behavior as defining acts of a "close relationship," we need to combine the study of interaction with the study of what people tell us is in their minds about their interactions
(which may comport to "mutuality" both in thinking and doing). Without the evidence about their thinking about their interaction, we will not be able to know the meaning of the
interaction in its fullest. Nor will we be able to predict future interaction patterns readily unless we know how people interpret their interactions with others and whether those
interactions constitute "closeness" to them. In the end, how we can have a full science of close relationships unless we are both interpersonologists and
Berscheid (1999) also has provided an interesting commentary on the development of the close relationships field. She too argued that the individualistic orientation traditionally
found in psychological studies needed to be replaced by an interpersonal focus for a more telling inquiry into close relationships. Attitudes, traits, skills, genes, and such are
located in individuals, and the study of them does not give us information about interaction patterns.
She notes that studies of human behavior conducted in relationless contexts cannot be expected
to transfer to behavior in the relationship context typical of naturalistic contexts. Berscheid suggests that the rhythm of a relationship is revealed over time and situation;
relationships are temporal not static. Thus, we need to emphasize research that takes into account the time and situation (and to extrapolate from Berscheid, "culture" too), as we
Berscheid contends that the development of relationship science will contribute to the amelioration of human problems (see also Berscheid, 1994, Berscheid & Reis, 1997), from
violence to psychopathology. Further, she believes that an objective for the burgeoning field of the study of close relationships is to better inform public policy (cf. later
discussion of the covenant marriage law). She suggests that the images people in the real world have of relationships is that they are impervious to the events of the world and
their environments, when in truth such events and environmental conditions have enormous impacts on close relationships. Berscheid notes the finding of South and Lloyd (1995) that
the risk of marital dissolution in the U.S. is highest in geographical areas where there is an abundance of potential alternatives to a present spouse. Truisms such as "love
conquers all" are more illusory than accurate depictions of reality.
Berscheid and her colleagues (see Berscheid, Ammazzalorso, Langenfeld, & Lopes, in press)
have obtained data suggesting that people are better able to understand the causes of relationship events in retrospect, after some time has passed-in their "rear view mirror" so
to speak. This type of evidence coheres with the argument divorced people make about learning a great deal from relationship break-down. The essence of Berscheid's comments,
though, is that relationship scholars need to pay more attention to the environments influencing relationships and less to what the relationship participants think and feel at the
time of the events in question. Berscheid concludes her provocative essay by asserting, "The emergence of relationship science represents the flag of a higher truth that has now
been planted in the individualistic soul of our discipline" .
The Economy and Family Life
The relationship between the economy and close relationships increasingly is receiving
attention among scholars and general analysts in this country today. In 1992, the economist Gary Becker of the University of Chicago won a Nobel Prize in economics partially for
his analysis of the relations among marriage and the economy. He argued that love, marriage, and family life respond more quickly to economics than to any manipulations
politicians attempt in the sphere of public policy. In describing his position, Becker said, "People marry when the utility expected from marriage exceeds the utility expected
from remaining single. . . . They expect to maximize the amount of household-produced commodities such as the quality of meals, the quality and quantity of children, prestige,
recreation, companionship, love and health status" (quoted in Clarence Page's column in the October 25, 1992, Chicago Tribune, Section 2, p. 7).
Similarly, Becker suggested that couples divorce when the utility of staying married falls
below the utility expected from getting divorced. Accordingly, good marriages are based on god business decisions. Becker's position definitely sounds a bit simplistic. Such a
conclusion readily could be developed based on the many other perspectives and factors involved in close relationships, some of which will be discussed in this book. Nonetheless,
making-a-living and relating no doubt are vitally related and must be addressed before many other issues with relationships can be tackled.
We all know that part of the burden on contemporary families is the frequent necessity of all
adult family members holding jobs--just to make ends meet. This burden may be particularly daunting for the single-parent family, since the one parent has to make a living, care
for and nurture the children, and try to take care of self. All of these activities simply do not fit into the average week, not to mention the fact that the parent is totally
"wiped out" in energy before the typical week is done. In the two-parent family, this scenario leads to both parents often coming home well after children arrive home from school.
Or various day-care options--that are too commonly marginal in care--are pursued while the parents work long days.
Close Relationships, and The Family: A National Discourse
As we move into the twenty-first century, a national discourse on close relationships and the
family is in full bloom. Many elements are driving this discourse, including demographic data such as the foregoing that have led to calls for national attention to the high,
consistent divorce rate and its negative impacts on families and children.
One answer to the concern about marriage and divorce in the late 1990s was the advent of the
Covenant Marriage Law that as of 1999 has been enacted into law in Louisiana and Arizona. This law requires premarital counseling (that can be done via a couple's religious
organization). Most significantly, it involves a more rigorous set of conditions for divorce than is present under the so-called "no fault" type of divorce that has been the law
since the early 1970s in the United States. Grounds for divorce such as adultery need to be established. After a couple has filed for divorce, there is a two-year waiting period
for the divorce to be final under the Covenant Marriage Law. As of 1999, only a few hundred couples out of thousands getting married in Louisiana had elected to be married under
this law. Critics had thought that many couples would feel pressured to marry under this law, because it implies greater faith in the relationship and its
Strongly involved in the establishment of the Covenant Marriage Law have been certain
conservative religious organizations, including evangelical protestant churches. These organizations and their spokespersons often suggest that marriage is being rendered less
effective by the mores of an overly secular culture in the United States.
Conclusions: Moving into The Twenty-First Century
A vibrant field of work on close relationships exists as we move into the twenty-first century.
The field is broad in representation among different disciplines, including: psychology, sociology, family studies, communication studies, and social work. It encompasses both
experimental and non-experimental methods, scientific and humanistic directions. The nuances and issues of relationship phenomena have inspired hundreds of enthusiastic young
scholars to orient their work toward this field. This trend likely will continue to be pronounced as humans continue to embark on new relationship and family patterns and search
for answers to relationships problems that have pervasive impacts on all aspects of their lives.
As we will see in coming chapters, there are many areas needing work on theory and research in the close relationships field. We will come back to these issues in the final
chapter. At this point, a listing of some of these issues facing the field as we enter the twenty-first century includes:
The need for more research that follows couples and family units across time and
different situations and observes change processes.
The need for stronger theory and research on the deterioration of close
The need for comparison study of different types of close relationships (including
friendships, homosexual and bi-sexual relationships).
The need for further work on how couples succeed in maintaining and enhancing their close
The need for more research on cross-cultural similarities and differences in close
The need for a stronger understanding of links among biological, psychophysiological,
cognitive, emotional, social-environmental, and cultural forces as they affect close relationships.
The need for more research on close relationships at different developmental points,
including especially at mid-life and beyond.
Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at MetroSexual LA