- Define romantic relationships and discuss how this definition has changed over time.
- Describe different couple-types and explain the characteristics of each.
- Describe different ways to select a romantic partner,
- Discuss factors that influence the formation and maintenance of a romantic relationship.
Romance is everywhere in Western culture. We see it depicted in movies, television shows and advertisements. We hear it in music. We read about it in literature, fortune cookies and astrology. We even see romance in sports, when one partner proposes to another on the big screen.
These messages remind us of our basic emotional needs and desires for close interpersonal relationships. Baumeister and Leary (1995) suggest that the need to belong, and develop significant, positive interpersonal relationships is a fundamental human motivation. They further argue that the satisfaction we receive from romantic relationships cannot be obtained through nonromantic relationships (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).
The images and words we are bombarded with in media serve a purpose. To better understand this purpose, let’s begin by exploring the changing definition of a romantic relationship.
Defining romantic relationships
Traditionally a specific event (i.e., a wedding) determined the status of a romantic relationship. Couples were referred to as premarital (if they weren’t married) or marital (if they were). This distinction also described well-defined social norms that dictated acceptable behaviors and interactions for each type of couple. In recent years (and for many reasons), the lines regarding romantic relationships has blurred.
A romantic relationship is defined as mutual, ongoing and voluntary interactions between two partners that is characterized by specific expressions of affection and intimacy (Collins, et al., 2009). This definition reflects contemporary ideas about romantic relationships. For example, marital status and partner gender is ambiguous. Instead this definition focuses on interactions (i.e., mutual, ongoing and voluntary) and expressions (i.e., affection and intimacy).
Types of couples
Fitzpatrick (1988) argued that gender differences played a role in defining a variety of couple-types. Each couple-type’s attitudes and beliefs about their partner and relationship influences communication patterns, responses to conflict and level of relational satisfaction. Let’s take a closer look at four types of couples: traditional, independent, separate and mixed.
Traditional couples are highly interdependent and display relatively conventional ideological values. These couples view gender in a traditional way and often split duties based on gender roles. When conflict arises, they openly engage the issue(s), but avoid using negative communication (Fitzpatrick, 1988).
Independent couples value connection and personal autonomy. They display relatively unconventional values about relational and family life. Gender roles are more fluid. Independent couples are more likely to engage in conflict on both major and minor issues. Each partner operates independently and makes contributions to the relationship based on their personal preferences more so than tradition (Fitzpatrick, 1988).
Separate couples are ambivalent about their values concerning relational and family life. They typically have a conventional orientation toward marriage, but an unconventional orientation toward individual freedom. When conflict arises, they tend to withdraw, however, when they decide to engage in conflict, an argument can turn hostile quickly. In a separate couple, each partner functions autonomously (they do want they want and stay out of each other’s way) (Fitzpatrick, 1988).
Mixed couples occur when each partner has a different definition of the relationship (i.e., one partner is traditional, and the other partner is independent). Mixed couples are more ambiguous in their roles and expectations. Many factors can influence when and how we initiate a romantic relationship. In the next section, we’ll look at some of these factors.
Initiating romantic relationships
When seeking a potential romantic partner, how do we decide who’s the right fit? Researchers believe that two characteristics greatly influence our decision-making: physical attraction and similarity.
We make initial decisions about approaching a potential partner largely based on how physically attractive we perceive that person to be. The matching hypothesis suggests that we generally prefer to date people we view as highly attractive. But we often pair with partners who share a similar level of attractiveness (Walster et al, 1966).
We also tend to select partners who are similar to us (Surra, Gray, Boettcher, Cottle, & West, 2006). These similarities may be based in leisure activities and hobbies. For example, if we enjoy bowling (or another activity), we will likely be more compatible with a partner that also likes bowling (or another activity we like).
This idea also rings true for more significant aspects of self (i.e., how we see the world). If we believe that partners should share in household responsibilities and our partner balks at the idea of vacuuming, we have a problem. What are our options?
We can discuss and negotiate who’s responsible for what (maybe our partner hates vacuuming but has no problem cleaning the bathroom). Or we may find out that our partner views gender roles in a traditional way and doesn’t plan on helping with household chores. In this case, we may need to reconsider our compatibility.
Some researchers believe that we choose one partner over another based largely by chance (Lykken & Tellegren, 1993). Others suggest that attraction is the result of biochemical reactions in the body (Fisher, 1992). Yet others argue that partner selection is an attempt to maximize reproductive value (Buss, 1994).
Selection by chance
When two people meet and begin to develop a romance, the stars must align. The decision to walk into a specific coffee shop on a specific day and begin a conversation with an attractive person about pet food is a matter of luck. This is the basic premise of researchers who believe we choose a romantic partner based on chance.
What if you decided to save your money that day and drink coffee at home? What if you go through the drive thru? From this perspective, timing is everything.
Selection based on biochemistry
No matter what your brain says, your body will not betray how you really feel. When you meet an attractive person, you may experience a sudden shift in your physiology (i.e., your heart may flutter or you may feel like you have butterflies in your stomach). In a different situation, you may be attracted to another person physically, but when you get closer you realize they don’t smell very good and decide to walk away.
Researchers from this perspective argue that we feel specific sensations when we meet potential partners. These physical sensations are biochemical reactions to pheromones. The outcome depends on how we interpret these feelings.
Selection based on maximal reproductive value
One person buys a sports car to exhibit a sense of status. Another person buys expensive clothes and wears makeup to present a certain image. A third person gets a haircut and uses a particular type of cologne or perfume. In each case, the person makes choices about their appearance to attract attention from potential partners. Are these choices simply about displays of attractiveness and status?
Some researchers believe that these choices are made because of biology. Our genes want to be replicated so we search for the fittest partner to carry on our genetics through procreation. Whether we actually want to have children or not is of little importance to our genes. From this perspective, our genes drive our behavior.
Factors influencing relationship formation success
Many factors influence the ways we form romantic relationships and the reasons behind these formations. Segrin and Flora (2019) point to factors such as upbringing, values, attractiveness and interaction patterns, in this section, we’ll take a closer look at each.
A common saying that you might hear is, “If you want to know how your husband/wife will treat you, look at how he/she treats his/her mother/father.”This statement points to the role early familial relationships and upbringing play in selecting a partner. Attachment theory suggests that we enter the world programmed to form attachments. Because our earliest bonds are formed with our primary caregivers, those relationships greatly influence us throughout our lives (Bowlby, 2008).
Many scholars agree that the information we gather through early interactions with a potential partner help us to determine whether to initiate a romantic relationship. This phenomenon is explained by social penetration theory. This theory suggests that trust and intimacy develop as a relationship deepens through self-disclosure (Altman & Taylor, 1973).
When we begin interactions with a romantic partner, we share many (less personal) facts about ourselves through small talk. As the relationship intensifies, our rate of self-disclosure slows but the facts we share become more intimate and personal in nature. This process of self-disclosure is essential to relational development (i.e., whether or not we decided to continue in the relationship). Overall, the formation of a relationship can depend on several factors.
When two people decide to pursue a romantic relationship with each other, many things can happen. The success (or failure) of the relationship is often based on the expectations of each person and the influence others may have on the relationship. Consider the example scenarios below:
You: My date last night was great! He/She was funny and kind, and even paid for dinner. I think he/she could be the one.
Friend: Wow, that’s amazing. I can’t wait to hear about your next date.
....[One week later]…
You: He/She hasn’t called since our date last week.
Friend: Maybe something came up, you should call him/her.
You: But, that’s his/her job!
Taylor and Kelly (who are both Catholic) decide to get married. A year later, Taylor decides s/he wants to join the Church of Scientology. Kelly can’t understand why and wonders if s/he married the right person.
Sloan and Jaylen have dated for years. But Sloan is keeping a secret. He/She is embarrassed to admit to Jaylen that he/she wants to pursue a career as a circus performer. This has been a dream of Sloan’s since childhood, but when he/she shares this dream with his/her parents, he/she was shamed and disciplined into becoming an accountant.Jaylen likes that Sloan is an accountant. It’s a sensible profession and represents their shared values. One day, Sloan arrives at a restaurant a few minutes late for dinner with Jaylen. Sloan is wearing a clown costume. Halloween is months away…an explanation is necessary.
Our expectations shape how we view and interpret the world around us. Our upbringing, interactions with others and value system help us to develop our expectations in both conscious and unconscious ways. In moments of internal discord, we have to decide what is acceptable (or not) and communicate our needs. If we don’t express our feelings on the subject and try to ignore them, resentment can be sown into the shadows of our experience.
Social exchange theory suggests that we interact with others through an exchange process that includes a cost-benefit analysis (Homan, 1958). We weigh the costs and benefits of social relationships and attempt to maximize benefits and minimize costs. If the costs outweigh the benefits, we terminate the relationship.
When our expectations are violated, we may consciously or subconsciously perform a cost-benefit analysis. We may decide that the benefits of the relationship outweigh the costs of an uncomfortable conversation. In this situation, our couple-type will be an important factor in how we resolve the conflict.
Romantic relationships and social networks
Social networks influence all of our relationships including romantic ones. Does your family like your partner? Do you and your partner have friends in common? Research suggests that shared social networks is a strong predictor of the success of long-term romantic relationships (Crozier, 2006).
Network overlap is a term used to describe the number of shared associations a couple has (Milardo & Helms-Erickson, 2000). Researchers believe that network overlap creates many structural and interpersonal elements that positively affect relational outcomes in romantic relationships. Mutual friends are more likely to celebrate the couple’s successes, grant favors, provide emotional support and help the couple to manage common stressors (Milardo & Helms-Erickson, 2000).
Research also suggests that romantic partners that frequently communicate with each other and associate (i.e., friends and family) tend to experience less stress and uncertainty in their relationship (McCornack & Morrison, 2019).
Romantic relationships can be challenging but also rewarding. For many people, romantic relationship fulfills our need for human connection both physically and emotionally.
Health experts claim that participating in a romantic relationship can have many benefits including (Northwestern Medicine, 2020):
- Decrease our stress level,
- Give us a greater sense of well-being and purpose,
- Promote healthier behaviors and
- Improve longevity.
Romantic relationships can also benefit us emotionally by validating our self-concept and improving our self-esteem (Lancer, 2018).
Activity 1: Relationship Desirability
Ask students to answer the following questions:
(1) What qualities are desired in a romantic partner? Write a list of ten traits or qualities that you think make a quality romantic partner.
(2) Do you exhibit the same traits on your list? Write a list of ten traits or qualities that make you a quality romantic partner.
Activity 2: Online Dating – “Catching Catfish”
Ask students to answer the following questions:
(1) Is online dating a desirable option for you? Make two columns (pro and con) for the advantages and disadvantages of online dating.
(2) One of the reasons people are apprehensive about online dating is because of people posting misleading profiles on dating sites (“catfishing”). How can you tell just by looking at a profile that it may be questionable? Make a list of things that may signal “red flags” when examining an online dating profile.
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Segrin, C. & Flora, J. (2019). Family communication (3rd edition). Routledge.
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Independent couples: Display relatively unconventional values about relational and family life, but value connection and personal autonomy.
Mixed couples: Each partner has a different definition of the relationship.
Network overlap: Describes the number of shared associations a couple has.
Romantic relationship: Defined as mutual, ongoing and voluntary interactions between two partners that is characterized by specific expressions of affection and intimacy.
Separate couples: Display a conventional approach to marriage, but each partner operates autonomously.
Traditional couples: Highly interdependent couples that display relatively conventional ideological values.