Relationships

What is love? Psychologists studying relationships might argue it is the result of thousands of years of evolution that ensures successful reproduction. Others would say partners that are similar and complementary to who you are and your lifestyle makes for a successful romantic relationship. Let's explore relationships within the realm of psychology, including how sexual selection affects partner preferences, the theories of romantic relationships, and virtual relationships.

Relationships Relationships

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Table of contents
    • First, we will define a romantic relationship.
    • Next, we will discuss the different types of relationships in psychology.
    • Then, we will explore relationship stages.
    • Finally, we will look at the function of virtual and parasocial relationships.

    Relationships, couple holding hands in front of the sun, StudySmarterFig. 1: Relationships are important in human behaviour.

    Relationship Meaning

    How we define relationships today is very different from how we defined them 50 to 100 years ago. They can be between people of any gender or gender-non-conformity or race and include more than two people. They can be established online or in person. In the context of romantic partners, a relationship can be defined as:

    Passionate, affectionate and intimate exchanges between people, typically involving a level of commitment to one another.

    But what makes us choose our partners?

    Types of Relationships in Psychology

    While platonic family relationships, friendships and acquaintanceships are largely researched through different approaches in psychology, romantic relationships are also examined. Let's discuss what motivates attraction in romantic and sexual relationships.

    Psychologists disagree about what motivates sexual relationships. Some believe attraction is an innate, evolutionary process of sexual selection, motivated by the biological human reproductive behaviour and the need for genes to survive by reproducing.

    Others believe attraction is based on self-disclosure, an exchange of personal information leading to trust between partners. Of course, physical attractiveness also plays a part.

    Physical attractiveness may be the primary motivator for sexual attraction.

    • Filter theory suggests that people go through several filters when selecting a partner, starting with social demography (physical proximity), and ending with similarity in moral values and complementarity in lifestyle and behaviour.
    • The matching hypothesis suggests that people are more likely to commit to a romantic relationship with others who they believe are equally as attractive as themselves.

    What factors do you think are important in choosing a romantic partner and pursuing a relationship?

    Stages of a Relationship

    People can be in different stages of a romantic relationship, from the initial attraction when meeting to the maintenance of the relationship and perhaps then the relationship breakdown. Let's find out what psychological theories can teach us about different aspects of romantic relationships.

    How are Relationships Maintained?

    There are a few models of relationship maintenance that can be mentioned here. They consider relationships to be an economic exchange of investment, benefit, and cost. There may be a constant struggle between parties, but the exchange should be equitable for a relationship to last.

    • Social exchange theory comes from Thibault & Kelly (1959), who suggests people try to get the subjective maximum benefit for the minimum cost in a romantic relationship. If the costs are perceived to be greater than any reward, people will leave.
    • Equity theory in relationships states that relationships must be equitable to be satisfactory. If both partners do not give and take equally, the relationship will break down due to feelings of guilt if benefitting more and dissatisfaction from the person who gives more.
    • The Investment Model of relationships from Rusbult (2001) develops on the social exchange theory by suggesting that commitment comes from satisfaction, comparison with alternatives and the level of investment perceived about the relationship. High levels of reward, low cost and a lot of investment in the relationship through money, possessions, adventures or happy memories lead to a longer commitment.

    Why do Relationships Break Down?

    Duck (1988) stated that relationships break down in four stages, called the phase model of relationship breakdown:

    1. The Intra-psychic phase involves thinking about the negative aspects of the relationship and perhaps starting to think about breaking up.
    2. The Dyadic phase involves speaking about any negative aspects, perhaps leading to arguments.
    3. The Social phase involves friends and family becoming involved in the problems of the relationship, perhaps taking sides and encouraging a breakup.
    4. The Grave dressing involves partners attempting to make themselves look better post-breakup for reputation's sake, perhaps by implying the breakdown is no fault of their own.

    Heartbreak is tough. It can even result in physical symptoms such as chest pains and shortness of breath, also known as Broken Heart Syndrome.

    Relationships, two paper hearts torn in the middle, StudySmarterFig. 2: Relationships break down for a variety of reasons.

    Functional Relationships

    Who is to say what a functional relationship looks like; it is a widely subjective concept. But how can some relationships diverge from aspects of filter theory (such as proximity/demographic distance) and potentially still be successful? Here we will briefly look at virtual and parasocial relations

    Virtual Relationships

    There are thousands of dating websites worldwide, but not all virtual relationships are romantic. Nevertheless, it remains the case that online dating accounts form a large number of new relationships these days, but how are virtual relationships formed?

    Self-disclosure (sharing personal information) is important in this process. It helps to build trust towards partners.

    Joinson (2001) suggested people disclose more of their personal information when they are able to talk over a computer, rather than face to face.

    Sharing things with a potential partner in the absence of gates (characteristics that may impede attraction when people meet in person, e.g., the way someone smells or how they look in person) may speed up the formation of a relationship.

    The absence of gating (barriers to a relationship) also help in the formation of a virtual relationship, often making them stronger. Seeing someone in person can result in seeing things that can reduce attraction, such as appearance or mannerisms, that probably won't be noticed in an online relationship.

    Parasocial Relationships

    Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, such as a fan's adoration of a celebrity. These relationships are explained by psychologists using attachment theory and the absorption-addiction model.

    • Attachment theory on the development of parasocial relationships suggests people with insecure and anxious parental attachment styles are more likely to have a parasocial relationship in the form of an obsession with a celebrity or fictional character.
    • The absorption addiction model of parasocial relationships suggests that people develop this form of one-sided worship to fulfil some dissatisfaction in their personal lives. The relationship can help provide a sense of purpose or identity.

    Relationships, crowd cheering on a band on stage, StudySmarterFig.3: Parasocial relationships exist between fans and their favourite celebrities.

    Symbiotic Relationships

    Although not relevant for an exam, symbiotic relationships refer to two different organisms interacting in a way that is usually mutually beneficial. For example, sharks and pilotfish have a symbiotic relationship.


    Relationships - Key takeaways

    • Psychological theories of romantic and sexual relationships generally see them as evolutionary, economic, or social. Physical attractiveness, for instance, can affect the development of a relationship.

    • Many theories of relationship maintenance see relationships as an exchange of cost and benefit (social exchange theory, equity theory, and the investment model).

    • Theories of relationships use stage models to explain how relationships are formed and broken down (Duck, 1988).

    • Virtual relationships rely on self-disclosure and the absence of gates.

    • Parasocial relationships are one-sided and can be explained through absorption-addiction and attachment theories.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Relationships

    What is relationship in psychology?

    Psychologists differ in how they define relationships. Some think they are an exchange of benefits and costs. Others think that they are motivated by a mutual need to reproduce, but ultimately a relationship is a partnership between two or more people. 

    What are the 4 types of relationships?

    Family relationships, friendships, acquaintanceships, and romantic relationships

    What psychology deals with relationships?

    Relationship psychologists study romantic relationships. 

    Is sex important in a relationship?

    According to some psychologists, sex is very important to a relationship as they are motivated by a a mutual desire to reproduce. 

    What is a polyamorous relationship?

    A polyamorous relationship is when one or both of the partners in a relationship engage in other relationships. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Psychological theories of relationships are mainly based on 

    Which of the following is the preferred mating strategy for males?

    Which sex is more likely to engage in intra-sexual selection?

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