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Close Relationships

16 February, 2016 - 09:24

One of the most important tasks faced by humans is to develop successful relationships with others. These relationships include acquaintanceships and friendships but also the more important close relationships, which are thelong-term intimate and romantic relationships that we develop with another person—for instance, in a marriage(Hendrick & Hendrick, 2000). 1 Because most of us will want to enter into a close relationship at some point, and because close relationships are evolutionarily important as they form the basis for effective child rearing, it is useful to know what psychologists have learned about the principles of liking and loving within them.

A major interest of social psychologists is the study of interpersonal attraction, or what makes people like, and even love, each other. One important factor is a perceived similarity in values and beliefs between the partners (Davis & Rusbult, 2001). 2 Similarity is important for relationships both because it is more convenient (it’s easier if both partners like to ski or go to the movies than if only one does), but also because similarity supports our values—I can feel better a bout myself and my choice of activities if I see that you also enjoy doing the same things that I do.

Liking is also enhanced by self-disclosure, the tendency to communicate frequently, without 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 to and respond to our needs (Reis & Aron, 2008). 3 But self-disclosure must be balanced. If I open up to you about the concerns that are important to me, I expect you 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). 4

Proximity has its effect on liking through the principle of mere exposure, which is thetendency to prefer stimuli (including but not limited to people)that wehaveseen morefrequently. Moreland and Beach (1992) 5 studied mere exposure by having female confederates attend a large lecture class of over 100 students 0, 5, 10, or 15 times during a semester. At the e nd of the term, the other students in the class were shown pictures of the confederates and asked to indicate both if they recognized them and also how much they liked them. The number of times the confederates had attended class didn’t influence the other students’ ability to recognize them, but it did influence their liking for them. As predicted by the mere exposure hypothesis, students who had attended class more often were liked more (Figure 14.1).

Figure 14.1 Mere Exposure in the Classroom
Richard Moreland and Scott Beach (1992) had female confederates visit classrooms 0, 5, 10, or 15 times over the course of a semester. Then the students rated their liking of the confederates. As predicted by the principles of mere exposure, confederates who had attended class more often were also liked more.

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 (Brooks-Gunn & Lewis, 1981), 6 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 (Mita, Dermer, & Knight, 1977). 7 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.

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 (Freitas, Azizian, Travers, & Berry, 2005). 8 In fact, research has found that stimuli tend to produce more positive affect as they become more familiar (Harmon-Jones & Allen, 2001). 9 When the stimuli are people, there may well be a n 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. Leslie Zebrowitz and her colleagues found that we like people of our own race in part because they are perceived as similar to us (Zebrowitz, Bornstad, & Lee, 2007). 10

In the most successful relationships the two people begin to see themselves as a single unit. Arthur Aron and his colleagues (Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992) 11 assessed the role of closeness in relationships using the Inclusion of Other in theSelf Scaleas shown in Figure 14.2. You might try completing the measure yourself for some different people that you know—for instance, your family members, friends, spouse, or girlfriend or boyfriend. The measure is simple to use and to interpret; if people see the circles representing the self and the other as more overlapping, this means that the relationship is close. But if they choose the circles that are less overlapping, then the relationship is less so.

Figure 14.2 The Inclusion of Other in the Self Scale  
This scale is used to determine how close two partners feel to each other. The respondent simply circles which of the seven figures he or she feels best characterizes the relationship. Source: Adapted from Aron, A., Aron, E. N., & Smollan, D. (1992). Inclusion of other in the self scale and the structure of interpersonal closeness. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 63(4), 596–612. 

Although the closeness measure is very simple, it has been found to be predictive of people’s satisfaction with their close relationships, and of the tendency for couples to stay together (Aron, Aron, Tudor, & Nelson, 1991; Aron, Paris, & Aron, 1995). 12 When the partners in a relationship feel that they are close, and when they indicate that the relationship is based on caring, warmth, acceptance and social support, we can say that the relationship is intimate(Reis & Aron, 2008). 13

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 for help in coordinating activities, remembering dates and appointments, and accomplishing tasks. Relationships are close in part because the couple becomes highly interdependent, relying on each other to meet important goals (Berscheid & Reis, 1998). 14

In relationships in which a positive rapport between the partners is developed and maintained over a period of time, the partners are naturally happy with the relationship and they become committed to it. Commitmentrefers to the feelings and actions that keep partners working together to maintain the relationship (Rusbult, Olsen, Davis, Hannon, 2001) 15 and is characterized by mutual expectations that the self and the partner will be responsive to each other’s needs (Clark & Mills, 2004). 16 Partners who are committed to the relationship see their mates as more attractive, are less able to imagine themselves with another partner, express less interest in other potential mates, and are less likely to break up (Simpson & Harris, 1994). 17

People a lso find relationships more satisfactory, and stay in them longer, when they feel that they are being rewarded by them. When the needs of either or both of the partners are not being met, the relationship is in trouble. This is not to say that people only think about the benefits they are getting; they will also consider the needs of the other. But over the long term, both partners must benefit from the relationship.

Although sexual arousal and excitement are more important early on in relationships, intimacy is also determined by sexual and romantic attraction. Indeed, intimacy is also dependent on passion—the partners must display positive affect toward each other. Happy couples are in positive moods when they are around each other; they laugh with each other, express approval rather than criticism of each other’s behaviors, and enjoy physical contact. People are happier in their relationships when they view the other person in a positive or even an “idealized” sense, rather than a more realistic and perhaps more negative one (Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 1996). 18

Margaret Clark and Edward Lemay (2010) 19 recently reviewed the literature on close relationships and argued that their most important characteristic is a sense of responsiveness. People are happy, healthy, and likely to stay in relationships in which they are sure that they can trust the other person to understand, validate, and care for them. It is this unconditional giving and receiving of love that promotes the welfare of both partners and provides the securebase that allows both partners to thrive.