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8.5: Factors that Define Close Relationships

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    How do attraction and love emerge in sexual or romantic relationships? Some ways in which these types of relationships form and what holds them together is our next focus. In our next chapter, we will extend and expand this initial discussion of relationships, describing a broader assortment of styles, and some more tips on how to keep relationships thriving. We are just getting started!

    Closeness and Intimacy

    Although it is safe to say that many of the variables that influence initial attraction remain important in longer-term relationships, other variables also come into play over time. One important change is that as a relationship progresses, the partners come to know each other more fully and care about each other to a greater degree. In thriving relationships, the partners feel increasingly close to each other over time. The closeness experienced in these relationships is marked in part by reciprocal self-disclosure—the tendency to communicate frequently, without fear of reprisal, and in an accepting and empathetic manner.


    "Couple love" by Shagil Kannur is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

    An intimate relationship can be defined as partners in a relationship that feel that they are close, and when they indicate that the relationship is based on caring, warmth, acceptance, and social support (Sternberg, 1986). Partners in intimate relationships are likely to think of the couple as “we” rather than as separate individuals. People who have a sense of closeness with their partner(s) are better able to maintain positive feelings about the relationship, while at the same time are able to express negative feelings and to have accurate (although sometimes less than positive) judgments of the other (Neff & Karney, 2002). People may also use their close partner’s positive characteristics to feel better about themselves (Lockwood, Dolderman, Sadler, & Gerchak, 2004).

    Interdependence and Commitment

    Another factor that makes long-term relationships different from short-term ones is that they are more complex. When a couple begins to take care of a household together, has children, and perhaps has to care for elderly parents, the requirements of the relationship become correspondingly bigger. As a result of this complexity, the partners in close relationships increasingly turn to each other, not only for social support, but also for help in coordinating activities, remembering dates and appointments, and accomplishing tasks (Wegner, Erber, & Raymond, 1991). The members of a close relationship are highly interdependent, relying to a great degree on each other to meet their goals.

    It takes a long time for partners in a relationship to develop the ability to understand the other person’s needs, and to form positive patterns of interdependence in which each person’s needs are adequately met. The social investment of a significant other is a rich, complex, and detailed one, because we know and care so much about them and because we have spent so much time in their company (Andersen & Cole, 1990). Because a lot of energy has been invested in creating the relationship, particularly when the relationship includes children, breaking off the partnership becomes more and more costly with time. After spending a long time with one person, it may also become more and more difficult to imagine ourselves with anyone else.

    In relationships in which a positive rapport between the partners is developed and maintained over a period of time, the partners are happy with the relationship and they become committed to it. Commitment refers to the feelings and actions that keep partners working together to maintain the relationship. In comparison with those who are less committed, partners who are more committed to the relationship see their mates as more attractive than others, are less able to imagine themselves with another partner, express less interest in other potential mates, are less aggressive toward each other, and are less likely to break up (Simpson, 1987; Slotter et al., 2011).

    Commitment may in some cases lead individuals to stay in relationships that they would otherwise leave, even though the costs of remaining in the relationship are very high. On the surface, this seems puzzling, because most people presumably attempt to maximize their rewards in relationships, and would leave them if they are not fulfilling. But in addition to evaluating the outcomes that one gains from a given relationship, the individual also evaluates the potential costs of moving to another relationship, or not having any relationship at all. We might stay in a romantic relationship, even if the benefits of that relationship are not high, because the costs of being in no relationship at all are perceived as even higher. We may also remain in relationships that have become dysfunctional in part because we recognize just how much time and effort we have invested in them over the years. When we choose to stay in situations largely because we feel we have put too much effort in to be able to leave them behind, this is known as the sunk costs bias (Eisenberg, Harvey, Moore, Gazelle, & Pandharipande, 2012). In short, when considering whether to stay or leave, it is advised to consider both the costs and benefits of the current relationship and the costs and benefits of the alternatives to it (Rusbult, Olsen, Davis, & Hannon, 2001).

    Although the good news about interdependence and commitment is clear—they help relationships last longer—they also have a potential downside. Breaking up, should it happen, is more difficult in relationships that are interdependent and committed. The closer and more committed a relationship has been, the more devastating a breakup will be.

    Sidebar 8.5: On Codependency and Ending the Relationship

    Moving on after a relationship ends is often a painful and lengthy process, especially for people with codependent traits. Codependency is a group of traits or a way of relating to one’s self and others. People-pleasing, caretaking as a source of self-esteem, fear of abandonment, difficulty setting boundaries, a need for external validation, wanting to feel in control and obsessive thoughts make it challenging for us to release our dependency on someone else. People develop these traits in childhood, generally as a result of family dynamics and trauma. Some people carry these traits with them into adult life, and they often negatively impact their romantic life and other adult relationships. Codependent people often have a particularly difficult time moving on after a break-up or the end of a relationship. Even when they know it was an unhealthy relationship, they have a very hard time moving forward with their life. However, it is possible to break the cycle of codependency. Below are some suggestions if you think you may be in a codependent relationship:

    • Start focusing on you; one of the hardest things for someone with codependency to do is to focus on themselves in a positive, loving and supportive way. Taking small steps and working daily to learn about the real you and not the messages you have heard for years from emotionally abusive partners is an essential first step.
    • Work with a therapist. By working with a therapist to uncover the trauma and dysfunction that often formed thoughts about self-worth and control by watching parents interact with each other in unhealthy and codependent ways.
    • Become comfortable single. Learning to be a confident single person is a long-term goal in recovery from codependency. A person has to learn to be comfortable with themselves before trying a new relationship.

    Attachment Styles

    Attachment research suggests that the type of intimate relationship people form are due to the type of attachment formed as a child.  Attachment theory examines the relationship between a person in their early years with at least one primary caregiver, and based on this(ese) relationship(s), we develop our attachment style. Hazan and Shaver (1987) applied attachment theory to adult romantic relationships. See below:

    • Secure: I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
    • Avoidant: I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
    • Anxious/Ambivalent: I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this sometimes scares people away.

    Adapted from Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987) Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524. Page 515

    Bartholomew (1990) took this further and challenged the categorical view of attachment in adults and introduced two dimensions (avoidance and anxiety) for the four attachment styles (secure, dismissing, preoccupied, and fearful- avoidant (see Figure below).  He suggested that adult attachments vary along two dimensions.

    Figure 7.19 Four-Category Model with the Two- Dimensions of Attachment Source: Adapted from Fraley, et al., 2015. p. 355

    Securely attached adults score lower on both dimensions. They are comfortable trusting their partners, and do not worry excessively about their partner’s love for them. Adults with a dismissing style score low on attachment-related anxiety, but higher on attachment-related avoidance. Such adults dismiss the importance of relationships. They trust themselves, but do not trust others, thus do not share their dreams, goals, and fears with others. They do not depend on other people, and feel uncomfortable when they have to do so.

    Those with a preoccupied attachment are low in attachment-related avoidance, but high in attachment-related anxiety. Such adults are often prone to jealousy and worry that their partner does not love them as much as they need to be loved. Adults whose attachment style is fearful- avoidant score high on both attachment-related avoidance and attachment-related anxiety. These adults want close relationships, but do not feel comfortable getting emotionally close to others. They have trust issues with others and often do not trust their own social skills in maintaining relationships.

    Do people with certain attachment styles attract those with similar styles? When people are asked what kinds of psychological or behavioral qualities they are seeking in a romantic partner, a large majority of people indicate that they are seeking someone who is kind, caring, trustworthy, and understanding. These are the kinds of attributes that characterize a “secure” caregiver (Chappell & Davis, 1998). However, we know that people do not always end up with others who meet their ideals. Are secure people more likely to end up with secure partners, and, vice versa, are insecure people more likely to end up with insecure partners? The majority of the research that has been conducted to date suggests that the answer is “yes.” Frazier, Byer, Fischer, Wright, and DeBord (1996) studied the attachment patterns of more than 83 heterosexual couples and found that, if one partner was relatively secure, the other was also likely to be secure.

    One important question is whether these findings exist because (a) secure people are more likely to be attracted to other secure people, (b) secure people are likely to create security in their partners over time, or (c) some combination of these possibilities. Existing empirical research strongly supports the first alternative. A 2010 study by McClure et. al. entitled, A signal detection analysis of chronic attachment anxiety at speed dating: Being unpopular is only the first part of the problem, found that when people have the opportunity to interact with individuals who vary in security in a speed-dating context, they express a greater interest in those who are higher in security than those who are more insecure (McClure, Lydon, Baccus, & Baldwin, 2010). However, there is also some evidence that people’s attachment styles mutually shape one another in close relationships. For example, in a longitudinal study, Hudson, Fraley, Vicary, and Brumbaugh (2014) found that if one person in a relationship experienced a change in security, their partner was likely to experience a change in the same direction.

    Research has found that the attachment styles affect people’s sexual behaviors and levels of sexual functioning. A review of 15 studies by Stefanou and McGabe (2012) uncovered that the high level of anxious attachment leads to more frequent sex and pursuit of sex as a means of getting closer to the partner. On the other hand, high level of avoidant attachment is linked to less frequent sexual activity and pursuit of sex for non-romantic reasons, like to manipulate a partner or to enhance one’s own status. Both anxious and avoidant attachment were linked to lower sexual satisfaction.

    Communal vs Exchange Relationships

    In intimate relationships, the partners can become highly attuned to each other’s needs, such that the desires and goals of the other become as important as, or more important than, one’s own needs. When people are attentive to the needs of others—for instance, parents’ attentiveness to the needs of their children or the attentiveness of partners in a romantic relationship—and when they help the other person meet his or her needs without explicitly keeping track of what they are giving or expecting to get in return, we say that the partners have a communal relationship. Communal relationships are close relationships in which partners suspend their need for equity and exchange, giving support to the partner in order to meet this partner needs, and without consideration of the costs to themselves. Communal relationships are contrasted with exchange relationships, relationships in which each of the partners keeps track of his or her contributions to the partnership.

    Research suggests that communal relationships can be beneficial, with findings showing that happier couples are less likely to “keep score” of their respective contributions (Buunk, Van Yperen, Taylor, & Collins, 1991). And when people are reminded of the external benefits that their partners provide them, they may experience decreased feelings of love for them (Seligman, Fazio, & Zanna, 1980).

    Although partners in long-term relationships are frequently willing and ready to help each other meet their needs, and although they will in some cases forgo the need for exchange and reciprocity, this does not mean that they always or continually give to the relationship without expecting anything in return. Partners often do keep track of their contributions and perceived benefits. If one or both of the partners feel that they are unfairly contributing more than their share, and if this inequity continues over a period of time, the relationship will suffer. Partners who feel that they are contributing more may become upset if they feel that they are being taken advantage of. Partners who feel that they are receiving more than they deserve might feel guilty about their lack of contribution to the partnership.

    Members of long-term relationships focus to a large extent on maintaining equity, and are happiest when all members perceive that they contribute relatively equally (Van Yperen & Buunk, 1990). Interestingly, it is not just our perception of the equity of the ratio of rewards and costs we have in our relationships that is important. It also matters how we see this ratio in comparison to those that we perceive people in similar situations as us receiving in the relationships around us. Buunk and Van Yperen (1991), for example, found that people who saw themselves as getting a better deal than those around them were particularly satisfied with their relationships. When we contrast our own situation with that of similar others and we perceive ourselves as better off, we tend to feel better about ourselves and our lot in life. There are also some individual differences in the extent to which perceptions of equity are important. Buunk and Van Yperen, for example, found that the relationship between perceptions of equity and relationship satisfaction only held for people who were high in exchange orientation. In contrast, those low in exchange orientation did not show an association between equity and satisfaction, and, perhaps even more tellingly, were more satisfied with their relationships than those high in exchange orientation.

    In summary, people generally stay in relationships longer when they feel that they are being rewarded by them (Margolin & Wampold, 1981). In relationships that last, the partners are aware of the needs of the other person and attempt to meet them equitably. Partners in lasting  relationships are also able to look beyond the rewards themselves, and to think of the relationship in a communal way.

    So far, we have discussed the factors of interpersonal attraction, and what is important in close relationships. Now, let’s discuss what it takes to keep the relationship.  It is true that many relationships end, and this number is higher in individualistic cultures, where the focus is on the individual, rather than it is in collectivistic cultures, where the focus is on maintaining group togetherness. (Kreider & Fields, 2000). Successful relationships take work, but the work is worth it. According to Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton (2000) people who are happy with their partner are also happier overall and have better psychological and physical health.

    Making Relationship Last

    Some relationships last for many years and others don’t. In Western cultures, people tend to form relationships with more than one partner throughout their lives, and the majority of these relationships come to an end. As people spend time together, they learn if they are well-matched, and most people learn how to compromise to help build and sustain relationships, communicate better and resolve conflicts in a constructive way. Below are some tips for when conflict arises.

    • Be prepared for squabbles. Every relationship has conflict. This is not unexpected or always bad. Working through minor conflicts can help you and your partner improve your social skills and make the relationship stronger (Pickett & Gardner, 2005).
    • Don’t be negative. Negative cognitions and emotions have an extremely harmful influence on relationships (Gottman, 1994). The research showed that the strongest predictor of whether a given relationship succeeded was the ratio of positive to negative comments during the interaction. Those couples that expressed at least five positive comments for every one negative comment were the most likely to survive. The couples who expressed negative comments more frequently often headed for a breakup.
    • Be fair in how you evaluate behaviors. Many people in close relationships, as do most people in their everyday lives, tend to inflate their own self-worth. They rate their own positive behaviors as better than their partner’s, and rate their partner’s negative behaviors as worse than their own. Try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt—remember that you are not perfect either.
    • Do things that please your partner. The principles of social exchange make it clear that being nice to others leads them to be nice in return.  This can be looked as a willingness to indulge in one of your partner’s sexual fantasies, even if it is not as exciting for you. This type of mutual compromise can help people in intimate relationships achieve sexual satisfaction, while learning the give and take that partnering with another person entails.
    • Have fun. Relationships in which the partners have positive moods and in which the partners do not feel bored tend to last longer (Tsapelas, Aron, & Orbuch, 2009). Human beings have a fundamental need to grow the self over time and in high-functioning relationships both partners fulfill the need for self-expansion. This can be accomplished by sharing self-expansion experiences and doing exciting, novel, and varied things. When romantic partners fall into a routine, they run the risk of the relationship going stale. According to research on couples in long-term relationships, those who engage in novel and exciting activities together continue having the most intense feelings of love for one another (O’Leary et as., 2012). Another research study has found that the difference between couples in long-term relationships whose passion endured is in sexual variety (Frederick et al., 2017). Novelty in sexual encounters helps to fend off habituated desire and we can keep passion alive through maintaining novel sex life.
    "Route 91 "Love" Memorial Rock" by Noah Wulf is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

    Sidebar 8.6: Some Thoughts on Romantic Competence

     Joanne Davila, is a professor of psychology and the director of clinical training at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York. In this TED Talk, Professor Davila discusses the 3 core skills needed for romantic competence. Davilla defines romantic competence as “the ability to function adaptively across all areas or all aspects of the relationship process [including] … figuring out what you need, finding the right person, building a healthy relationship, [and] getting out of relationships that are unhealthy.” More on this here: Skills for Healthy Romantic Relationships | Joanne Davila | TEDxSBU

    Internet and Close Relationship

    Many of us are spending more time than ever connecting with others electronically. Online close relationships are also becoming more popular. However, you might wonder whether meeting and interacting with others online can create the same sense of closeness and caring that we experience through face-to-face encounters. And you might wonder whether people who spend more time on the Internet might end up finding less time to engage in activities with the friends and loved ones who are physically close by (Kraut et al., 1998).

    Despite these potential concerns, research shows that using the Internet can lead to positive outcomes in our close relationships (Bargh, 2002; Bargh & McKenna, 2004). In one study, Kraut et al. (2002) found that people who reported using the Internet more frequently also reported spending more time with their family and friends, and indicated having better psychological health.

    The Internet also seems to be useful for helping people develop new relationships, and the quality of those relationships can be as good as or better than those formed face-to-face (Parks & Floyd, 1996). McKenna, Green, and Gleason (2002) found that many people who participated in news and user groups online reported having formed a close relationship with someone they had originally met on the Internet. Over half of the participants said that they had developed a real-life relationship with people they had first met online, and almost a quarter reported that they had married, had become engaged to, or were living with someone they initially met on the Internet.

    McKenna, Green, and Gleason (2002) studied how relationships developed online using laboratory studies. In their research, a previously unacquainted male and female college student met each other for the first time, either in what they thought was an Internet chat room or face-to-face. Those who met first on the Internet reported liking each other more than those who met first face-to-face—even when it was the same partner that they had met both times. People also report being better able to express their own emotions and experiences to their partners online than in face-to-face meetings (Bargh, McKenna, & Fitzsimons, 2002).

    There are probably a number of reasons why Internet relationships can be so successful. For one, relationships grow to the extent that the partners self-disclose by sharing personal information with each other, and the relative anonymity of Internet interactions may allow people to self-disclose more readily. Another characteristic of Internet relationships is the relative lack of physical cues to a person’s attractiveness. When physical attractiveness is taken out of the picture, people may be more likely to form relationships on the basis of other more important characteristics, such as similarity in values and beliefs. Another advantage of the Internet is that it allows people to stay in touch with friends and family who are not nearby, and to maintain better long-distance relationships (Wellman, Quan Haase, Witte, & Hampton, 2001). The Internet also may be helpful in finding others with shared interests and values. Finally, the major purpose of many Internet activities is to make new friends. In contrast, most face-to-face interactions are less conducive to starting new conversations and friendships.

    Online interactions can also help to strengthen offline relationships. A 2013 study by Fox, Warber, & Makstaller explored the effects of publicly posting one’s relationship status to Facebook, or going “Facebook official” (FBO) on romantic relationships between college students. They found that offline discussions between partners often preceded going FBO, and that once couples had gone FBO, they reported more perceived relationship commitment and stability.

    Overall, then, the evidence suggests that rather than being an isolating activity, interacting with others over the Internet helps us maintain close ties with our family and friends, and in many cases, helps us form intimate and rewarding relationships.

    "Modern love and the art of conversation" by *ry* is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    Sidebar 8.7: The Four Keys to Improving your Relationship - John M. Gotman, Ph.D.

    Arguments do not mean that your relationship is in trouble. Disagreement is inevitable. What matters is how you discuss and solve your disagreements. Use four strategies to break patterns of negativity and take a positive approach to solving problems:                                                         

    • "Calm down" - You can't resolve your differences productively if your heart is racing and you feel overwhelmed. When things start to get out of hand, ask for a "time out." Taking five to 20 minutes off will calm you enough to allow you to listen better and discuss the subject objectively, rather than emotionally. Soothe yourself by taking deep breaths, a short drive, a walk or even a bath. Halt the negative cycle of your thoughts by replacing "distress-maintaining thoughts" with positive ones such as, "They’re frustrated at the moment, but are not always like this," or "They’re not really mad at me. They just had a bad day at work."
    • "Speak non defensively" - Listen and speak to your spouse in a way that does not engender defensiveness but, instead, fosters healthy discussion. Praise and admiration are the best weapons against defensiveness. Remind yourself of your spouse's wonderful qualities to help keep negative thoughts at bay. Empathize with them. Realize that your partner's anger might be an effort to get your attention. Limit yourself to a specific complaint, rather than a multitude of criticisms. Try these approaches: Remove the blame from your comments. State clearly how you feel. Don't criticize your partner's personality. Don't insult, mock or use sarcasm. Be direct. Don’t attempt to mindread.
    • "Validation"- Validate your spouse's emotions by looking at the situation from his or her viewpoint and perspective. Often, simply empathizing is enough. You don't have to solve the problem. Validation foils criticism, contempt and defensiveness. Validate your partner and their perspective by taking responsibility for your words and actions, and by apologizing when you are at fault.                                                       
    • "Overlearning"- Once you learn the techniques of fighting fair, practice them over and over until they become second nature. Your objective is to be able to use these techniques during the heat of a battle, instead of resorting to your old, ineffective ways. Try to rediscover your delight and other positive emotions for each other.

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