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8.6: Relationships in Early Adulthood

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    Erikson: Intimacy vs. Isolation

    Erikson’s sixth stage focuses on establishing intimate relationships or risking social isolation. Intimate relationships can be more difficult if one is still struggling with identity. This does not mean that a sense of identity will not change. Achieving a sense of identity is a life-long process, of course, and there are periods of identity crisis and stability over time. However, once a basic sense of identity is established intimate relationships can be pursued more thoroughly. These intimate relationships include acquaintances and friendships, but also the more important close relationships, like long-term romantic relationships (Hendrick & Hendrick, 2000).


    In our 20's intimacy needs may be met in friendships rather than with partners. This is especially true in the United States today as many young adults postpone making long-term commitments to partners, either in marriage or in cohabitation. The kinds of friendships shared by female identified individuals tend to differ from those shared by male identified individuals (Tannen, 1990). To give a binary example, let's look at the general way men and women are socialized differently in the United States: Friendships between men are more likely to involve sharing information, providing solutions, or focusing on activities rather than discussion problems or emotions. Men tend to discuss opinions or factual information or spend time together in an activity of mutual interest. Friendships between women are more likely to focus on sharing weaknesses, emotions, or problems. Women talk about difficulties they are having in other relationships and express their sadness, frustrations, and joys. You can see how these differences in approaches may lead to problems when men and women communicate on a charged (emotionally) topic. She may want to vent about a problem she is having; he may want to provide a solution and move on to some activity. But when he offers a solution, she thinks he does not care.

    While this is certainly not always the case, friendships between men and women can become more difficult because of the unspoken question about whether the friendships will lead to a romantic involvement. Consequently, friendships may diminish once a person has a partner or single friends may be replaced with couple friends.

    Factors Influencing Attraction

    Because most of us enter into a close relationship at some point, it is useful to know what psychologists have learned about the principles of "liking" and "loving." A major interest of psychologists is the study of interpersonal attraction, or what makes people like, and even love, each other.


    One important factor in attraction is a perceived similarity in values and beliefs between the partners (Davis & Rusbult, 2001). While it is more convenient if the partners like the same general activities, similarity in this context is about supporting one’s values. Having others believe in the same things we do helps us feel validated in our beliefs. This is referred to as consensual validation and is an important aspect of why we are attracted to others.


    Liking is also enhanced by self-disclosure, the tendency to communicate frequently, without constant fear of reprisal, and in an accepting and empathetic manner. Friends are friends because we can talk to them openly about our needs and goals and because they listen and respond to our needs (Reis & Aron, 2008). However, self-disclosure must be balanced. If we open up about our concerns that are important to us, we expect our partner to do the same in return. If the self-disclosure is not reciprocal, the relationship may not last.


    Another important determinant of liking is proximity, or the extent to which people are physically near us. Research has found that we are more likely to develop friendships with people who are nearby, for instance, those who live in the same dorm that we do, and even with people who just happen to sit nearer to us in our classes (Back, Schmukle, & Egloff, 2008).

    Proximity has its effect on liking through the principle of mere exposure, which is the tendency to prefer stimuli (including, but not limited to people) that we have seen more frequently. The effect of mere exposure is powerful and occurs in a wide variety of situations. Infants tend to smile at a photograph of someone they have seen before more than they smile at a photograph of someone they are seeing for the first time, and people prefer side- to-side reversed images of their own faces over their normal (nonreversed) face, whereas their friends prefer their normal face over the reversed one. This is expected on the basis of mere exposure, since people see their own faces primarily in mirrors, and thus are exposed to the reversed face more often (Lally & Valentine-French, 2017).

    Mere exposure may well have an evolutionary basis. We have an initial fear of the unknown, but as things become more familiar they seem more similar and safe, and thus produce more positive affect and seem less threatening and dangerous (Harmon-Jones & Allen, 2001; Freitas, Azizian, Travers, & Berry, 2005). When the stimuli are people, there may well be an added effect. Familiar people become more likely to be seen as part of the ingroup rather than the outgroup, and this may lead us to like them more.

    The Matching Hypothesis

    So - we are attracted to those that share our values, allow us to share ourselves with them, and who are physically near to us. It also seems that we most commonly select our physical and social "match". In other words, we are more likely to select a partner who is equally physically attractive and/or shares our social status.

    Online Relationships

    What impact does the internet have on the pool of eligibles? There are hundreds of websites designed to help people meet. Some of these are geared toward helping people find suitable marriage partners and others focus on less committed involvements. Websites focus on specific populations-curvy, beautiful women, Christian motorcyclists, parents/caregivers without partners, LGBTQ, book enthusiasts,and people over 50, etc. Theoretically, the pool of eligibles is much larger as a result. However, many who visit sites are not interested in marriage or commitment; many are already married or partnered. And so, if a person is looking for a partner online, the pool must be filtered again to eliminate those who are not seeking long-term relationships. While this is true in the traditional marriage/commitment market as well, knowing a person’s intentions and determining the sincerity of their responses becomes problematic online.

    Online communication differs from face-to-face interaction in a number of ways. In face-to-face meetings, people have many cues upon which to base their first impressions. A person’s looks, voice, mannerisms, dress, scent, and surroundings all provide information in face-to-face meetings. But in computer- mediated meetings, written messages are the only cues provided. Fantasy is used to conjure up images of voice, physical appearance, mannerisms, and so forth. The anonymity of online involvement makes it easier to become intimate without fear of interdependence. It is easier to tell one’s secrets because there is little fear of loss. One can find a virtual partner who is warm, accepting, and undemanding (Gwinnell, 1998). And exchanges can be focused more on emotional attraction than physical appearance.

    A man holding a boxed wedding ring
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): First comes attraction - then comes marriage - or does it? (Unsplash license; George Coletrain via Unsplash)

    When online, people tend to disclose more intimate details about themselves more quickly. A shy person can open up without worrying about whether or not the partner is frowning or looking away. And someone who has been abused may feel safer in virtual relationships. None of the worries of home or work get in the way of the exchange. The partner can be given one’s undivided attention, unlike trying to have a conversation on the phone with a houseful of others or at work between duties. Online exchanges take the place of the corner café as a place to relax, have fun, and be you (Brooks, 1997). However, breaking up or disappearing is also easier. A person can simply not respond, or block e-mail.

    But what happens if the partners meet face to face? People often complain that pictures they have been provided of the partner are misleading. And once couples begin to think more seriously about the relationship, the reality of family situations, work demands, goals, timing, values, and money all add new dimensions to the mix. Next we will turn our attention to theories of love.

    Attachment in Young Adulthood

    What's your Attachment Style? (Hazan and Shaver, 1987)

    Which of the following best describes you in your intimate relationships? Note - "intimate" need not be interpreted as physical intimacy.

    • 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: 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.

    Hazan and Shaver (1987) described the attachment styles of adults, using the same three general categories proposed by Mary Ainsworth’s research on young children; secure, avoidant, and anxious/ambivalent. Where do you fit?

    Attachment-Related Anxiety and Avoidance (Bartholomew, 1990)

    Bartholomew (1990) challenged the categorical view of attachment in adults and suggested that adult attachment was best described as varying along two dimensions; attachment-related anxiety and attachment-related avoidance. Attachment-related anxiety refers to the extent to which an adult worries about whether their partner really loves them. Those who score high on this dimension fear that their partner will reject or abandon them (Fraley, Hudson, Heffernan, & Segal, 2015). Attachment-related avoidance refers to whether an adult can open up to others, and whether they trust and feel they can depend on others. Those who score high on attachment- related avoidance are uncomfortable with opening up and may fear that such dependency may limit their sense of autonomy (Fraley et al., 2015). According to Bartholomew (1990) this would yield four possible attachment styles in adults; secure, dismissing, preoccupied, and fearful- avoidant.

    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 have a higher tendency to dismiss the importance of relationships. They trust themselves, but do not trust others, thus do not readily 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.

    Research on Adult Attachment

    Research on attachment in adulthood has found that:

    • Adults with insecure attachments report lower satisfaction in their relationships (Butzer, & Campbell, 2008; Holland, Fraley, & Roisman, 2012).
    • Those high in attachment-related anxiety report more daily conflict in their relationships (Campbell, Simpson, Boldry, & Kashy, 2005).
    • Those with avoidant attachment exhibit less support to their partners (Simpson, Rholes, Oriña, & Grich, 2002).
    • Young adults show greater attachment-related anxiety than do middle-aged or older adults (Chopik, Edelstein, & Fraley, 2013).
    • Some studies report that young adults show more attachment-related avoidance (Schindler, Fagundes, & Murdock, 2010), while other studies find that middle-aged adults show higher avoidance than younger or older adults (Chopik et, 2013).
    • Young adults with more secure and positive relationships with their parents make the transition to adulthood more easily than do those with more insecure attachments (Fraley, 2013).

    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/intimate partner, a large majority of people indicate that they are seeking someone who is kind, caring, trustworthy, and understanding, that is 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.”

    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. For example, 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 (2012) 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.

    Do early experiences as children shape adult attachment?

    The majority of research on this issue is retrospective; that is, it relies on adults’ reports of what they recall about their childhood experiences. This kind of work suggests that secure adults are more likely to describe their early childhood experiences with their parents/caregivers as being supportive, loving, and kind (Hazan & Shaver, 1987). A number of longitudinal studies are emerging that demonstrate prospective associations between early attachment experiences and adult attachment styles and/or interpersonal functioning in adulthood. For example, Fraley, Roisman, Booth-LaForce, Owen, and Holland (2013) found in a sample of more than 700 individuals studied from infancy to adulthood that primary caregiver sensitivity across development prospectively predicted security at age 18. Simpson, Collins, Tran, and Haydon (2007) found that attachment security, assessed in infancy in the strange situation, predicted peer competence in grades one to three, which, in turn, predicted the quality of friendship relationships at age 16, which, in turn, predicted the expression of positive and negative emotions in their adult romantic/intimate relationships at ages 20 to 23.

    It is easy to come away from such findings with the mistaken assumption that early experiences “determine” later outcomes. To be clear: Attachment theorists assume that the relationship between early experiences and subsequent outcomes is probabilistic, not deterministic. Having supportive and responsive experiences with caregivers early in life is assumed to set the stage for positive social development. But that does not mean that attachment patterns are set in stone. In short, even if an individual has far from optimal experiences in early life, attachment theory suggests that it is possible for that individual to develop well-functioning adult relationships through a number of corrective experiences, including relationships with siblings, other family members, teachers, and close friends. Security is best viewed as a culmination of a person’s attachment history rather than a reflection of their early experiences alone. Those early experiences are considered important, not because they determine a person’s fate, but because they provide the foundation for subsequent experiences.

    8.6: Relationships in Early Adulthood is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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