10 Chapter 10 – Intimate Relationships

Ericka Goerling, PhD and Emerson Wolfe, MS

Chapter 10: Intimate Relationships

Learning Outcomes

  • Summarize and analyze evolutionary, biological, social, and psychological perspectives on love and the development of long-term intimate relationships
  • Demonstrate an understanding of how various writers and researchers have attempted to define, describe and measure love
  • Explore the benefits and challenges of consensual non-monogamous relationships
  • Discuss ways to be an ally within romantic relationships and analyze the ways that intersecting identities of partners can be acknowledged in order to address and prevent harm related to imbalances of social power


As we discussed previously, humans are the descendants of a common relatives shared by both chimpanzees and bonobos and, while these two apes differ significantly from one another, humans share many relational and sexual behaviors common in both apes (Prüfer et al., 2012). In terms of mating and relational behaviors, some human males are more protective and aggressive of perceived sexual conquests while others are not and respect the strong women in their lives. Some human societies are more rigid regarding sexuality and believe engaging in sexual behaviors should only be allowed for procreation purposes only while others are accepting and acknowledging of sexual fluidity for pleasure, connection and community. Thus, humans exhibit characteristics of both chimpanzees and bonobos based on evolution, the structure of the given society, and social norms present that shape the development of relationships. As we explore the driving factors that cause humans to seek out long-term intimate relationships with others, evolutionary psychology, social psychology, current evidence-based research on healthy relationships, and the critical theories with a focus on intersectionality will be utilized to help us understand the many perspectives regarding this topic.

Evolutionary Theories

The passing of genes to the next generation and having children might be a factor in what drives certain people to enter into intimate relationships. In a heterosexual/straight dynamic between cisgender individuals, certain behaviors have been developed over time and through behavioral evolution to increase the chances of producing healthy offspring. One critique is that this theoretical perspective can often leave out sexual minorities and gender-diverse perspectives. As you read the following on sexual selection theory and sexual strategies theory, you will see the term “sex” rather than “gender.” Keep in mind that the evolutionary theories are focusing on the binary differences in anatomy and functionality as this relates to sexual behavior.

Sexual Selection Theory

Darwin noticed that there were many traits and behaviors of organisms that could not be explained by “survival selection.” For example, the brilliant plumage of peacocks should actually lower their rates of survival. That is, the peacocks’ feathers act like a neon sign to predators, advertising “Easy, delicious dinner here!” But if these bright feathers only lower peacocks’ chances at survival, why do they have them? The same can be asked of similar characteristics of other animals, such as the large antlers of male stags or the wattles of roosters, which also seem to be unfavorable to survival. Again, if these traits only make the animals less likely to survive, why did they develop in the first place? And how have these animals continued to survive with these traits over thousands and thousands of years? Darwin’s answer to this conundrum was the theory of sexual selection: the evolution of characteristics, not because of survival advantage, but because of mating advantage.

Ali! Ali! Ali!

Modern sports like boxing can be seen as modified/stylized versions of the evolutionary behavior of intrasexual competition. [Image: Dave Hogg, https://goo.gl/fL5U2Z, CC BY 2.0, https://goo.gl/9uSnqN]

Sexual selection occurs through two processes. The first, intrasexual competition, occurs when members of one sex compete against each other, and the winner gets to mate with a member of the opposite sex. Male stags, for example, battle with their antlers, and the winner (often the stronger one with larger antlers) gains mating access to the female. That is, even though large antlers make it harder for the stags to run through the forest and evade predators (which lowers their survival success), they provide the stags with a better chance of attracting a mate (which increases their reproductive success). Similarly, human males sometimes also compete against each other in physical contests: boxing, wrestling, karate, or group-on-group sports, such as football. Even though engaging in these activities poses a “threat” to their survival success, as with the stag, the victors are often more attractive to potential mates, increasing their reproductive success. Thus, whatever qualities lead to success in intrasexual competition are then passed on with greater frequency due to their association with greater mating success.

The second process of sexual selection is preferential mate choice, also called intersexual competition. In this process, if members of one sex are attracted to certain qualities in mates—such as brilliant plumage, signs of good health, or even intelligence—those desired qualities get passed on in greater numbers, simply because their possessors mate more often. For example, the colorful plumage of peacocks exists due to a long evolutionary history of peahens’ (the term for female peacocks) attraction to males with brilliantly colored feathers.

In all sexually-reproducing species, adaptations in males and females exist due to survival selection and sexual selection. However, unlike other animals where one sex has dominant control over mate choice, humans have “mutual mate choice.” That is, all partners typically have a say in choosing their mates. And mates value qualities such as kindness, intelligence, and dependability that are beneficial to long-term relationships—qualities that make good partners and good parents.

Sexual Strategies Theory

Sexual strategies theory is based on sexual selection theory. It proposes that humans have evolved a list of different mating strategies, both short-term and long-term, that vary depending on culture, social context, parental influence, and personal mate value (desirability in the “mating market”).

In its initial formulation, sexual strategies theory focused on the differences between men and women in mating preferences and strategies (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). It started by looking at the minimum parental investment needed to produce a child. For women, even the minimum investment is significant: after becoming pregnant, they have to carry that child for nine months inside of them. For men, on the other hand, the minimum investment to produce the same child is considerably smaller—simply the act of sex.

These differences in parental investment have an enormous impact on sexual strategies. For a woman, the risks associated with making a poor mating choice are high. She might get pregnant by a man who will not help to support her and her children, or who might have poor-quality genes. And because the stakes are higher for a woman, wise mating decisions for her are much more valuable. For men, on the other hand, the need to focus on making wise mating decisions isn’t as important. That is, unlike women, men 1) don’t biologically have the child growing inside of them for nine months, and 2) do not have as high a cultural expectation to raise the child. This logic leads to a powerful set of predictions: In short-term mating, women will likely be choosier than men (because the costs of getting pregnant are so high), while men, on average, will likely engage in more casual sexual activities (because this cost is greatly lessened). Due to this, men will sometimes deceive women about their long-term intentions for the benefit of short-term sex, and men are more likely than women to lower their mating standards for short-term mating situations.

An extensive body of empirical evidence supports these and related predictions (Buss & Schmitt, 2011). Men express a desire for a larger number of sex partners than women do. They let less time elapse before seeking sex. They are more willing to consent to sex with strangers and are less likely to require emotional involvement with their sex partners. They have more frequent sexual fantasies and fantasize about a larger variety of sex partners. They are more likely to regret missed sexual opportunities. And they lower their standards in short-term mating, showing a willingness to mate with a larger variety of women as long as the costs and risks are low.

However, in situations where both the man and woman are interested in long-term mating, both sexes tend to invest substantially in the relationship and in their children. In these cases, the theory predicts that both sexes will be extremely choosy when pursuing a long-term mating strategy. Much empirical research supports this prediction, as well. In fact, the qualities women and men generally look for when choosing long-term mates are very similar: both want mates who are intelligent, kind, understanding, healthy, dependable, honest, loyal, loving, and adaptable.

Nonetheless, women and men do differ in their preferences for a few key qualities in long-term mating, because of somewhat distinct adaptive problems. Modern women have inherited the evolutionary trait to desire mates who possess resources, have qualities linked with acquiring resources (e.g., ambition, wealth, industriousness), and are willing to share those resources with them. On the other hand, men more strongly desire youth and health in women, as both are cues to fertility. These male and female differences initially appeared to be universal in humans. They were first documented in 37 different cultures, from Australia to Zambia (Buss, 1989), and have been replicated by dozens of researchers in dozens of additional cultures (for summaries, see (Perilloux, Easton, & Buss, 2012). Still- there is evidence emerging that these trends are shifting, especially in industrialized western cultures.

As we know, though, just because we have these mating preferences (e.g., men with resources; fertile women), people don’t always get what they want. There are countless other factors which influence who people ultimately select as their mate. For example, the sex ratio (the percentage of men to women in the mating pool), cultural practices (such as arranged marriages, which inhibit individuals’ freedom to act on their preferred mating strategies), the strategies of others (e.g., if everyone else is pursuing short-term sex, it’s more difficult to pursue a long-term mating strategy), and many others all influence who we select as our mates.

Sexual strategies theory—anchored in sexual selection theory— predicts specific similarities and differences in men’s and women’s mating preferences and strategies. Whether we seek short-term or long-term relationships, many personality, social, cultural, and ecological factors will all influence who our partners will be.

Social Psychology: Liking and Loving Over the Long-Term

Previously, we have focused upon the attraction that occurs between people who are initially getting to know one another. But the basic principles of social psychology can also be applied to help us understand relationships that last longer. When good friendships develop, when people get married and plan to spend the rest of their lives together, and when families grow closer over time, the relationships take on new dimensions and must be understood in somewhat different ways. Yet the principles of social psychology can still be applied to help us understand what makes these relationships last.

The factors that keep people liking and loving each other in long-term relationships are at least in part the same as the factors that lead to initial attraction. For instance, regardless of how long they have been together, people remain interested in the physical attractiveness of their partners, although it is relatively less important than for initial encounters. And similarity remains essential. Relationships are also more satisfactory and more likely to continue when the individuals develop and maintain similar interests and continue to share their important values and beliefs over time (Davis & Rusbult, 2001). Both actual and assumed similarity between partners tend to grow in long-term relationships and are related to satisfaction in opposite-sex marriages (Schul & Vinokur, 2000). Some aspects of similarity, including that in terms of positive and negative affectivity, have also been linked to relationship satisfaction in same-sex marriages (Todosijevic, Rothblum, & Solomon, 2005). However, some demographic factors like education and income similarity seem to relate less to satisfaction in same-sex partnerships than they do in opposite sex ones (Todosijevic, Rothblum, & Solomon, 2005).

Proximity also remains important—relationships that undergo the strain of the partners being apart from each other for very long are more at risk for breakup.

But what about passion? Does it still matter over time? Yes and no. People in long-term relationships who are most satisfied with their partners report that they still feel passion for their partners—they still want to be around them as much as possible, and they enjoy making love with them (Simpson, 1987; Sprecher, 2006). And they report that the more they love their partners, the more attractive they find them (Simpson, Gangestad, & Lerma, 1990). On the other hand, the high levels of passionate love that are experienced in initial encounters are not likely to be maintained throughout the course of a long-term relationship (Acker & Davis, 1992). Recall, though, that physical intimacy continues to be important.

Over time, cognition becomes relatively more important than emotion, and close relationships are more likely to be based on companionate love, defined as love that is based on friendship, mutual attraction, common interests, mutual respect, and concern for each other’s welfare. This does not mean that enduring love is less strong—rather, it may sometimes have a different underlying structure than initial love based more on passion.

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 successful relationships, the partners feel increasingly close to each other over time, whereas in unsuccessful relationships, closeness does not increase and may even decrease. 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.

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 (Sternberg, 1986). Partners in intimate relationships are likely to think of the couple as “we” rather than as two separate individuals. People who have a sense of closeness with their partner 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).

Arthur Aron and his colleagues (Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992) have assessed the role of closeness in relationships directly, using the simple measure shown in Figure 10.1, “Measuring Relationship Closeness.” You might try completing the measure yourself for some different people that you know—for instance, your family members, your friends, your spouse, or your girlfriend or boyfriend. The measure is simple to use and to interpret. If a person chooses a circle that represents the self and the other as more overlapping, this means that the relationship is close. But if they choose a circle that is less overlapping, then the relationship is less so.


Figure 10.1 Measuring Relationship Closeness

This measure is used to determine how close two partners feel to each other. The respondent simply circles which of the figures he or she feels characterizes the relationship. From Aron, Aron, and Smollan (1992).

Although the closeness measure is simple, it has been found to be highly predictive of people’s satisfaction with their close relationships and of the tendency for couples to stay together. In fact, the perceived closeness between romantic partners can be a better predictor of how long a relationship will last than is the number of positive feelings that the partners indicate having for each other. In successful close relationships, cognitive representations of the self and the other tend to merge together into one, and it is this tie—based on acceptance, caring, and social support—that is so important (Aron, Aron, Tudor, & Nelson, 1991).

Aron and his colleagues (Aron, Melinat, Aron, & Vallone, 1997) used an experimental design to test whether self-disclosure of intimate thoughts to others would increase closeness. In a laboratory, they paired college students with another student, one whom they did not know. Some of the students were asked to share some intimate thoughts with each other by asking and answering questions such as “When did you last cry in front of another person?” In comparison with control participants who only engaged in small talk with their partners (answering questions such as “What is your favorite holiday?”), the students who disclosed more intimate experiences reported feeling significantly closer to each other at the end of the conversation.

Aron pioneered the 36-question intimacy builder (seen above). For more information on the questions, check out Arthur Aron’s 36 questions.

Communal and Exchange Relationships

In intimate close 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 his or her 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 received benefits. If one or both of the partners feel that they are unfairly contributing more than their fair share, and if this inequity continues over a period of time, the relationship will suffer. Partners who feel that they are contributing more will naturally become upset because they will feel that they are being taken advantage of. But the 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 marriages are happiest when both 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 of the same sex 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. From the perspective of social comparison theory, which we discussed in chapter 3 in relation to the self, this makes perfect sense. When we contrast our own situation with that of similar others and we perceive ourselves as better off, then this means we are making a downward social comparison, which will tend to make us 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.

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

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 representation of a significant other is a rich, complex, and detailed one because we know and care so much about him or her and because we have spent so much time in his or her 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 naturally 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 could leave, even though the costs of remaining in the relationship are very high. On the surface, this seems puzzling because people are expected to attempt to maximize their rewards in relationships and would be expected to leave them if they are not rewarding. 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, we must 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.

What Is Love?

Although we have talked about it indirectly, we have not yet tried to define love itself—and yet it is obviously the case that love is an important part of many close relationships. Social psychologists have studied the function and characteristics of romantic love, finding that it has cognitive, affective, and behavioral components and that it occurs cross-culturally, although how it is experienced may vary.

Robert Sternberg and others (Arriaga & Agnew, 2001; Sternberg, 1986)  have proposed a triangular model of love, an approach that suggests that there are different types of love and that each is made up of different combinations of cognitive and affective variables, specified in terms of passion, intimacy, and commitment. The model, suggests that only consummate love has all three of the components (and is probably experienced only in the very best romantic relationships), whereas the other types of love are made up of only one or two of the three components. For instance, people who are good friends may have liking (intimacy) only or may have known each other so long that they also share commitment to each other (companionate love). Similarly, partners who are initially dating might simply be infatuated with each other (passion only) or may be experiencing romantic love (both passion and liking but not commitment).

The triangular model of love, proposed by Robert Sternberg (1986). Note that there are seven types of love, which are defined by the combinations of the underlying factors of intimacy, passion, and commitment.


Image credit: Lnesa (2006)

Research into Sternberg’s theory has revealed that the relative strength of the different components of love does tend to shift over time. Lemieux and Hale (2002) gathered data on the three components of the theory from couples who were either casually dating, engaged, or married. They found that while passion and intimacy were negatively related to relationship length, that commitment was positively correlated with duration. Reported intimacy and passion scores were highest for the engaged couples.

As well as these differences in what love tends to look like in close relationships over time, there are some interesting gender and cultural differences here. Contrary to some stereotypes, men, on average, tend to endorse beliefs indicating that true love lasts forever, and to report falling in love more quickly than women (Sprecher & Metts, 1989). In regards to cultural differences, on average, people from collectivistic backgrounds tend to put less emphasis on romantic love than people from more individualistic countries. Consequently, they may place more emphasis on the companionate aspects of love, and relatively less on those based on passion (Dion & Dion, 1993).

Individual Differences in Loving: Attachment Styles

One of the important determinants of the quality of close relationships is the way that the partners relate to each other. These approaches can be described in terms of attachment style—individual differences in how people relate to others in close relationships. We display our attachment styles when we interact with our parents, our friends, and our romantic partners (Eastwick & Finkel, 2008).

Attachment styles are learned in childhood, as children develop either a healthy or an unhealthy attachment style with their parents (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978; Cassidy & Shaver, 1999). Most children develop a healthy or secure attachment style, where they perceive their parents as safe, available, and responsive caregivers and are able to relate easily to them. For these children, the parents successfully create appropriate feelings of affiliation and provide a secure base from which the child feels free to explore and then to return to. However, for children with unhealthy attachment styles, the family does not provide these needs. Some children develop an insecure attachment pattern known as the anxious/ambivalent attachment style, where they become overly dependent on the parents and continually seek more affection from them than they can give. These children are anxious about whether the parents will reciprocate closeness. Still other children become unable to relate to the parents at all, becoming distant, fearful, and cold (the avoidant attachment style).

These three attachment styles that we develop in childhood remain to a large extent stable into adulthood (Caspi, 2000; Collins, Cooper, Albino, & Allard, 2002; Rholes, Simpson, Tran, Martin, & Friedman, 2007).  Fraley (2002) conducted a meta-analysis of 27 studies that had looked at the relationship between attachment behavior in infants and in adults over 17 years of age and found a significant correlation between the two measures. A fourth infant attachment style has been identified more recently, the disorganized attachment style, which is a blend of the other two insecure styles. This style also shows some links to adulthood patterns, in this case an avoidant-fearful attachment style.

The consistency of attachment styles over the life span means that children who develop secure attachments with their parents as infants are better able to create stable, healthy interpersonal relationships with other individuals, including romantic partners, as adults (Hazan & Diamond, 2000). They stay in relationships longer and are less likely to feel jealousy about their partners. But the relationships of anxious and avoidant partners can be more problematic. Insecurely attached men and women tend to be less warm with their partners, are more likely to get angry at them, and have more difficulty expressing their feelings (Collins & Feeney, 2000). They also tend to worry about their partner’s love and commitment for them, and they interpret their partner’s behaviors more negatively (Collins & Feeney, 2004; Pierce & Lydon, 2001). Anxious partners also see more conflict in their relationships and experience the conflicts more negatively (Campbell, Simpson, Boldry, & Kashy, 2005).

In addition, people with avoidant and fearful attachment styles can often have trouble even creating close relationships in the first place (Gabriel, Carvallo, Dean, Tippin, & Renaud, 2005). They have difficulty expressing emotions, and experience more negative affect in their interactions (Tidwell, Reis, & Shaver, 1996). They also have trouble understanding the emotions of others (Fraley, Garner, & Shaver, 2000) and show a relative lack of interest in learning about their romantic partner’s thoughts and feelings (Rholes, Simpson, Tran, Martin, & Friedman, 2007).

One way to think about attachment styles, shown in Table 10.1, “Attachment as Self-Concern and Other-Concern,” is in terms of the extent to which the individual is able to successfully meet the important goals of self-concern and other-concern in his or her close relationships. People with a secure attachment style have positive feelings about themselves and also about others. People with avoidant attachment styles feel good about themselves (the goal of self-concern is being met), but they do not have particularly good relations with others. People with anxious/ambivalent attachment styles are primarily other-concerned. They want to be liked, but they do not have a very positive opinion of themselves; this lack of self-esteem hurts their ability to form good relationships. The fourth cell in the table, lower right, represents the avoidant-fearful style, which describes people who are not meeting goals of either self-concern or other-concern.

This way of thinking about attachment shows, again, the importance of both self-concern and other-concern in successful social interaction. People who cannot connect have difficulties being effective partners. But people who do not feel good about themselves also have challenges in relationships—self-concern goals must be met before we can successfully meet the goals of other-concern.

Because attachment styles have such an important influence on relationships, you should think carefully about your potential partner’s interactions with the other people in his or her life. The quality of the relationships that people have with their parents and close friends will predict the quality of their romantic relationships. But although they are very important, attachment styles do not predict everything. People have many experiences as adults, and these interactions can influence, both positively and negatively, their ability to develop close relationships (Baldwin & Fehr, 1995; Scharfe & Bartholomew, 1994). There is also some diversity in the distribution of attachment styles across different groups. For example, in a multicultural sample including people from over 50 different countries of origin, Agishtein and Brumbaugh (2013) found that attachment style varied as a function of ethnicity, religion, individualism-collectivism, and acculturation. For instance, anxious attachment was found to be significantly higher in those whose countries of origin were in East Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, compared with those from nations in South America, the Caribbean, North America, Western Europe, and South Asia. These types of findings clearly remind us of the need to consider cultural diversity when we are reviewing the research on attachment. They also raise the interesting possibility that some types of attachment may be more normative and adaptive in some cultures than others.

As well as showing some cross-cultural diversity, attachment styles within individuals may be more diverse over time and across situations than previously thought. Some evidence suggests that overall attachment style in adults may not always predict their attachment style in specific relationships. For instance, people’s attachment styles in particular relationships, for example those with their mothers, brothers, and partners, although often correlated, can also be somewhat distinct (Pierce & Lydon, 2001; Ross & Spinner, 2001). As well as showing this variability across relationships, attachment styles can also shift over time and with changing relationship experiences. For example, there are some age-related trends in attachment, with younger adults higher in anxious attachment than middle-aged and older adults, and middle-aged adults higher in avoidant attachment than the other two groups (Chopik, Edelstein, & Fralay, 2013). In regards to changing experiences, people with an anxious style who find a very trusting and nurturing romantic relationship may, over time, come to feel better about themselves and their own needs, and shift toward a more secure style (Davila & Cobb, 2003). These findings have many potential psychotherapeutic settings. For example, couples who are attending therapy to address relationship issues can benefit from this process in part by developing more secure attachments to each other (Solomon, 2009). Therapists can also try to help their clients to develop a more secure attachment style, by creating a trusting and supportive relationship with them (Obegi, 2008).

Social Psychology in the Public Interest

Internet Relationships

As we saw in the chapter on Self, many of us are spending more time than ever connecting with others electronically. Online close relationships are also becoming more popular. But 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 Facebook, Twitter, and 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 relate 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 recent study by Fox, Warber, & Makstaller (2013) explored the effects of publically 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.

Making Relationships Last

Now that you have a better idea of the variables that lead to interpersonal attraction and that are important in close relationships, you should be getting a pretty good idea of the things that partners need to do to help them stay together. It is true that many marriages end in divorce, and this number is higher in individualistic cultures, where the focus is on the individual, than it is in collectivistic cultures, where the focus is on maintaining group togetherness. But even in many Western countries, for instance, the United States, the number of divorces is falling, at least for the most educated segments of society (Kreider & Fields, 2001). Successful relationships take work, but the work is worth it. People who are happily married are also happier overall and have better psychological and physical health. And at least for men, marriage leads to a longer life (Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001).

Let’s look at some of the things that enduring couples seem to have done and compare them with what we might expect on the basis of social psychological research.

  • 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). Don’t let a spiral of negative thinking and negative behaviors get started. Do whatever you can to think positively.
  • 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.
  • Have fun. Relationships in which the partners have positive moods and in which the partners are not bored tend to last longer (Tsapelas, Aron, & Orbuch, 2009).

Partners who are able to remain similar in their values and other beliefs are going to be more successful. Partners must also display positive affect toward each other. Happy couples are in positive moods when they are around each other—they laugh together, and they express approval rather than criticism of each other’s behaviors. Partners are happier when they view the other person in a positive or even “idealized” sense rather than in a more realistic and perhaps more negative one (Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 1996).

Next, the partners must share, in the sense that they are willing to express their thoughts about each other. Successful relationships involve individuals self-disclosing their own needs and desires, which allows their partners to become aware of their needs and attempt to meet them if possible. If the partners are not able to express their concerns, then the relationship cannot become more intimate. Successful relationships have successful communication patterns.

Finally, but not least important, are sexual behaviors. Compatibility of sexual preferences and attitudes are an important predictor of relationship success. For instance, it is very important that partners are on the same page about how they feel about pursuing sex outside of the relationship, as infidelity in relationships is linked to increased risk of divorce (Wiederman, 1997).

Even if a partner does not actually have sex with someone else, his or her partner may still be jealous, and jealously can harm relationships. Jealousy is a powerful emotion that has been evolutionarily selected to help maintain close relationships. Both men and women experience jealousy, although they experience it to different extents and in different ways. Men are more jealous than women overall. And men are more concerned than women about sexual infidelities of their partners, whereas women are relatively more concerned about emotional infidelities of their partners (Buss, Larsen, Westen, & Semmelroth, 1992). Men’s concern with sexual cheating is probably due in part to evolutionary factors related to kin selection: men need to be particularly sure that their partners are sexually faithful to them to ensure that the time they spend raising children is spent on raising their own children, not those of others. And women’s concern with emotional fidelity fits with a focus on maintaining the relationship intact. Flirting suggests that the man is not really committed to the relationship and may leave it.


Healthy Communication and Conflict Resolution:

Relationship Growth:


Abuse can occur in multiple forms and across all family relationships. Breiding, Basile, Smith, Black, & Mahendra (2015) define the forms of abuse as:

  • Physical abuse, the use of intentional physical force to cause harm. Scratching, pushing, shoving, throwing, grabbing, biting, choking, shaking, slapping, punching, and hitting are common forms of physical abuse;
  • Sexual abuse, the act of forcing someone to participate in a sex act against his or her will. Such abuse is often referred to as sexual assault or rape. A marital relationship does not grant anyone the right to demand sex or sexual activity from anyone, even a spouse;
  • Psychological abuse or aggression is the use of verbal and non-verbal communication with the intent to harm another person mentally or emotionally and/or to exert control over another person.
  • Stalking is a pattern of repeated, unwanted attention and contact by a partner that causes fear or concern for one’s own safety or the safety of someone close to the victim.

Abuse between partners is referred to as intimate partner violence (IPV); however, such abuse can also occur between a parent and child (child abuse), adult children and their aging parents (elder abuse), and even between siblings (family violence).

IPV is common.  It affects millions of people in the United States each year. Data from CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) indicate:

  • About 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men have experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime and reported some form of IPV-related impact.
  • Over 43 million women and 38 million men have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

IPV starts early and continues throughout the lifespan. When IPV occurs in adolescence, it is called teen dating violence (TDV). TDV affects millions of U.S. teens each year. About 11 million women and 5 million men who reported experiencing contact sexual violence, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime said that they first experienced these forms of violence before the age of 18.


Image credit: CDC (2021)

What are the consequences?

IPV is a significant public health issue that has many individual and societal costs. About 35% of female IPV survivors and more than 11% of male IPV survivors experience some form of physical injury related to IPV. IPV can also result in death. Data from U.S. crime reports suggest that about 1 in 5 homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner. The reports also found that over half of female homicide victims in the U.S. are killed by a current or former male intimate partner.

There are also many other negative health outcomes associated with IPV. These include a range of conditions affecting the heart, digestive, reproduction, muscle and bones, and nervous systems, many of which are chronic. Survivors can experience mental health problems such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. They are at higher risk for engaging in behaviors such as smoking, binge drinking, and sexual risk behaviors.

Although the personal consequences of IPV are devastating, there are also many costs to society. The lifetime economic cost associated with medical services for IPV-related injuries, lost productivity from paid work, criminal justice and other costs, was $3.6 trillion. The cost of IPV over a victim’s lifetime was $103,767 for women and $23,414 for men.

How can we stop it before it starts?

Promoting healthy, respectful, and nonviolent relationships and communities can help reduce the occurrence of IPV. It also can prevent the harmful and long-lasting effects of IPV on individuals, families, and communities. CDC developed a technical package, Preventing Intimate Partner Violence Across the Lifespan: A Technical Package of Programs, Policies, and Practices, that includes multiple strategies and approaches to prevent IPV. It also includes approaches that provide support to survivors and lessen harms. The strategies and approaches are meant to be used in combination with each other at many levels of society to prevent IPV.

When Relationships End

Inevitably, some relationships do break up, and these separations may cause substantial pain. When the partners have been together for a long time, particularly in a relationship characterized by interdependence and commitment, the pain is even greater (Simpson, 1987). The pain of a breakup is in part due to the loneliness that results from it. People who lose someone they care about also lose a substantial amount of social support, and it takes time to recover and develop new social connections. Lonely people sleep more poorly, take longer to recover from stress, and show poorer health overall (Cacioppo et al., 2002).

The pain of a loss may be magnified when people feel that they have been rejected by the other. The experience of rejection makes people sad, angry, more likely to break social norms, and more focused on self-concern. The ability to effectively self-regulate is lowered, and people are more likely to act on their impulses (Baumeister, DeWall, Ciarocco, & Twenge, 2005). But people who have been rejected are also more motivated by other-concern; they are particularly likely to try to make new friends to help make up for the rejection (Gardner, Pickett, & Brewer, 2000). Although people who have been rejected are particularly hurt, people who have rejected others may feel guilty about it.

Breaking up is painful, but people do recover from it, and they usually move on to find new relationships. Margaret Stroebe and her colleagues (Stroebe, Hansson, Schut, & Stroebe, 2008) found that people adjusted to the loss of a partner, even one with whom they had been with for a long time, although many did have increased psychological difficulties, at least in the short term.

Monogamy Alternatives

While 90% of people in Western cultures will marry by age 50, the divorce rate in the United States ranges between 40% and 50% of all first marriages (APA, 2021). Serial monogamy, engaging in a series of monogamous sexual relationships, is often very common. Cheating, also known as non-consensual non-monogamy, is when someone within an agreed-upon closed sexual and romantic relationship engages in sexual and romantic behavior with a person outside the relationship without the permission of the partner. Kruger et al. (2013) discuss how certain behaviors are viewed as more clearly cheating, such as engaging in sexual intercourse, whereas romantic and emotional connections were rated as more ambiguous and unclear by most participants. Women, on average, rated infidelity on the basis of dating and spending time with another while keeping secrets about it while men, overall, gauged that it was infidelity based on if the partner was engaging in sexual behaviors with someone else (Kruger et al., 2013). Mark et al. (2011) found that almost 25% of men and 20% of women had perceived their own behaviors as cheating within their current heterosexual/straight relationship.

The idea of “true love” or finding our “soul mate” places a lot of pressure on one person to meet all of our needs emotionally, sexually, romantically, spiritually, intellectually, etc. With friends, we can recognize that we go to certain people when we want to have deep intellectual conversations and someone else perhaps when we want to get advice or support when we are upset. Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is an umbrella term that encompasses relational flexibility in which sexual and romantic behaviors involving others are permitted and agreed upon by people within primary relationships. Boundaries are established and each relationship will have particular rules around what is permitted and what is not permitted. If behaviors break what is agreed-upon, then this would be considered non-consensual. Thus, effective and healthy communication around boundaries, needs, wants, and limits are of the greatest importance. As with any relationship, feelings of jealousy and self-esteem can evoke strong emotions, but navigating this space with compassion and openness allows for resolution and transformation. As with monogamy, open relationships require work and dedication to maintaining the relationships. If you are considering being in a CNM relationship, review Is Consensual Non-Monogamy for You? by the American Counseling Association (2019). Consensual non-monogamy is becoming more accepted within American culture, but stigma and shame can still lead to minority stress and stigma (Schechinger, 2017). 20% of Americans surveyed indicated that have participated in CNM relationships at some time in their life while 5% indicated they are currently in CNM relationships. A growing body of research is also exploring how animals and humans are more non-monogamous by nature and are seeing evolutionary benefits to increased relational and mating opportunities (Orion, 2018).

Intersecting Identities and Power Dynamics

“I am not racist because I am married to a Black man.” This quote reflects the view that merely being in a relationship with someone means that love can transgress all socialization, internalization of stereotypes, and power inequalities within a society. The reality is that loving someone with differing intersecting identities involves intentionality and mindfulness around hierarchies of power that exist within the greater society and how that can influence power dynamics within relationships. Some examples of dominant identities would be white, male, cisgender, straight, Christian, etc. “Systemically non-dominant refers to membership outside of the dominant group within systems of oppression. Systems of oppression are created to provide benefits and assets for members of specific groups. The recipient groups are referred to as dominant groups because such advantages grant impacting levels of power, privilege, and status within social, economic, and political infrastructures of a society” (Jenkins, 2015). When a romantic partner, or even a friend, is of the dominant group in terms of one identity and the other partner or friend is of a systemically non-dominant group, then microaggressions can intentionally or unintentionally be inflicted upon the person from the non-dominant group. Thus, the greatest amount of work must be done by the person of the dominant group to not inflict harm upon the other.

Gender, race, and class are just a few identities that intersect to create power imbalances within relationships (Viveros Vigoya, 2015). Through colonization in many parts of the world, modernity has been associated with whiteness and patriarchy which invades relationships by privileging the voices of the members of families and the community that more closely resemble whiteness and maleness (Viveros Vigoya, 2015). This is then internalized and comes out within interpersonal dynamics between romantic partners. The biggest amount of strain is then inflicted upon sexual minorities, gender non-conforming people and cisgender women, especially when they are BIPOC and have access to fewer available financial resources because of additional social constructs acting as barriers (Viveros Vigoya, 2015).

Relationships as a Protective Factor

Relationships can shield partners from the destructiveness of marginalization through social support and countering the dominant narrative. Intersecting identities exist in a way in which one partner may have a privileged and dominant identity in one context but a different marginalized and oppressed identity in another context or partners may both have marginalized identities but in different ways. If a partner, who is a member of the dominant culture, uses this power differential against a partner with a marginalized culture, then the relationship will not serve as a protective factor against the harms incurred by the larger society.

Queering Straight Relationships

Ober (2020) argues that all relationships can benefit from utilizing the tools found within queer (LGB+) relationships from a queer critical theory lens. For instance, within many queer relationships, gender roles are questioned and more egalitarian practices between partners are utilized, leading to healthier relationships (Ober, 2020). Within heterosexual/straight dynamics, some men can value their status and seek sexual conquests because of the way other males will perceive them, which devalues the pleasure of women and relegates them to objects (Ober, 2020). This causes women within these straight relationships to be unhappy and unsatisfied, which is normalized within a patriarchal and heteronormative society (Ober, 2020). Thus, straight people, especially straight men, can learn a lot from queer relationships from this perspective. “This does not necessarily mean embracing common queer practices such as nonmonogamy, kink, or chosen families. It means straight people can learn to desire, objectify, satisfy, and respect their partners all at the same time, as well as have hot sex and equitable relationships in the way that most queer couples strive to do” (Ober, 2020).

Being an Ally within Romantic Relationships

While intersecting identities are incredibly complex and cause shifting power dynamics within relationships, returning once again to the concept of allyship can help to alleviate the minority stress and strain experienced by partners. By practicing allyship in general and within relationships, community change and developing dynamics that are protective rather than harmful are possible. Here are some tips on ways to be an ally and think about how you can incorporate these techniques within intimate, romantic relationships as well as with friends and acquaintances:

Final Remarks: Out of Complexity Comes Simplicity

As Part 1 of the textbook comes to an end, we want to highlight once again that human sexuality is incredibly complex and each person has a unique perspective based on the way their multiple identities come together and shape their development. Human experience exists on continuums of possibilities and even labels can mean different things to different people. However, out of all this complexity comes simplicity–humanity is about connection.

If you are ever stuck in understanding something, simply ask questions and explore with curiosity and humility. We do not know all of the answers, and that is okay and beautiful. By educating ourselves and constantly researching the world around us while also creating space for people to share their perspectives and identities, we let the complexity of human experience unfold without putting pressure on ourselves to find predetermined labels or operate off of our assumptions. At the end of the day, creating safe environments through our actions and statements, listening to and honoring the experiences of others, and sharing our life’s stories with others are all that matters.

Licenses & Attributions

Sexual Selection Theory and Sexual Strategies Theory were taken from Evolutionary Theories in Psychology by David M. Buss is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available in our Licensing Agreement.

The Social Psychology: Liking and Loving Over the Long-Term section was taken from the Principles of Social Psychology – 1st International Edition by Rajiv Jhangiani & Hammond Tarry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available in our Licensing Agreement.

Hood, K. (2019, April). The difference between healthy and unhealthy love [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/katie_hood_the_difference_between_healthy_and_unhealthy_love Creative Commons BY–NC–ND 4.0 International.

Perel, E. (2013, February). The secret to desire in a long-term relationship [Video]. TEDSalonNY. https://www.ted.com/talks/esther_perel_the_secret_to_desire_in_a_long_term_relationship. Creative Commons BY–NC–ND 4.0 International.

Seafret (2015, December 18). Wildfire: Official video [Video]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHhkd2B87Q8.  License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.

The Family by Joel A. Muraco is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available in our Licensing Agreement.

Adaptations: Reformatted. Added learning objectives. Modified content for language, application to subject and cohesion. Updated sources. Added links to resources for further enagement.


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Buss, D. M. (2021). Evolutionary theories in psychology. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. Retrieved from http://noba.to/ymcbwrx4

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (2020). Preventing intimate partner violence. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/fastfact.html

Hood, K. (2019, April). The difference between healthy and unhealthy love [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/katie_hood_the_difference_between_healthy_and_unhealthy_love

Jenkins, D. R. (2015). Women of color experiences and intercultural developmental strategies constructing community college leadership: A case study. Dissertation in progress. Phoenix, AZ: University of Phoenix

Jhangiani, R., & Tarry, H. (2014). Principles of social psychology – 1st international edition licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Retrieved from https://opentextbc.ca/socialpsychology/chapter/close-relationships-liking-and-loving-over-the-long-term/

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Muraco, J. A. (2021). The family. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. Retrieved from http://noba.to/3htscypq

Ober, H. (2020). Queer lessons for straight couples. UC Riverside. https://news.ucr.edu/articles/2020/09/21/queer-lessons-straight-couples

Orion, R. (2017). A therapist’s guide to consensual nonmonogamy: Polyamory, swinging, and open marriage. Routledge: New York, NY.

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Introduction to Human Sexuality by Ericka Goerling & Emerson Wolfe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.



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Introduction to Human Sexuality by Ericka Goerling, PhD and Emerson Wolfe, MS is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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