Interpersonal relationships

ATL: Essential understandings

Biological, psychological and sociocultural factors play a role in the origin of human relationships.

Communication plays a key role both in the maintenance and the end of relationships.

Many of the theories that explain how people develop relationships, can also be used to explain why relationships change or end.

The humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow claims that there is a basic human need to belong and to be accepted by others. People live in groups and families and they define themselves in terms of important others. Relationships are one of the most significant sources of happiness and unhappiness in people’s lives. Close relationships—whether with a family member, partner, or friend—influence not only our emotional state but our health as well. Consider the following research findings, which all indicate the importance of social support on people’s well-being.

  • A meta-analysis of 148 studies found that those with stronger social relationships had a 50% lower risk of health problems.  (Holt-Lunstad et al, 2010).
  • A study of nearly 300 women with heart disease found that marital stress tripled the risk of heart surgery, heart attacks, or death in the following five years. (Orth-Gomer, 2001).
  • Studies of the elderly in nursing homes indicate that a lack of social relationships is as strong a risk factor for mortality as are smoking, obesity or lack of physical activity (Luo et al, 2012).
  • Cole (2007) found that chronic loneliness increased gene activity linked to inflammation, and reduced gene activity associated with antibody production and antiviral responses. These patterns of gene expression were specific to loneliness, not to other negative feelings such as depression. Inflammation is associated with diseases such as arthritis and heart disease.

Personal relationships come in many forms but in this chapter, the focus will be on close relationships that involve intimacy, i.e. romantic love. A romantic relationship is defined as a relationship involving strong and frequent interdependence in many domains of life. Interdependence means that there is closeness and sharing of thoughts and emotions, as well as commitment. Usually, a romantic relationship is also characterized by an intimate physical bond. 

ATL: Thinking critically

One of the difficulties of studying romantic relationships is the very definition of "love." Hatfield & Rapson (1994) distinguish between passionate and compassionate love.  Passionate love is a complete absorption in another person that includes sexual feelings and intense emotion. Hatfield defined passionate love as a state of intense longing for union with another person; it is a mix of cognition, emotion, behaviour, and physiological functions. 

Compassionate love is warm, trusting, tolerant affection for another whose life is deeply intertwined with one’s own. These may coexist, but not necessarily. In a long-term partnership, passionate love is gradually replaced by compassionate love.

Before we begin our study of relationships, think about the following questions:

  • How would you define "love?"  To what extent do you think that it is a cultural construct?
  • What other variables or term do you think we would need to operationalize in order to have a meaningful discussion about relationships?
Whereas passionate love is often what sparks “romantic relationships,” friendships are usually based on compassionate love and commitment.  In this chapter, we are going to focus on the formation of romantic relationships as an example of personal relationships, but you should know that social psychologists study a whole range of relationships, including friendships, parent-child relationships, work collegial relationships and now even digital relationships. 

It all begins with attraction when animals or humans choose a mate and form a relationship. All animals, including humans, display much of the same behaviour when they are attracted to each other. Evolutionary theories argue that the purpose of attraction is to procreate, that is to ensure that an individual’s genes are passed to the next generation. This can be seen in the animal world where the males fight to have access to the females to ensure that only their own genes are passed on. In the animal kingdom, it is often the females who take care of the next generation on their own and the male will continue fighting for his access to fertile females. However, in the animal kingdom there are examples of males who share the burden of bringing up the next generation and even lifelong relationships; for example, Canadian geese or prairie voles.

When it comes to understanding the nature of human relationships, it is not enough to look at biology alone because human behaviour is more complex. There is clear evidence that the formation of pair bonding in humans is not only related to reproduction, but also to the creation of group structures, social organisations and interactions with the ultimate goal of providing a safe environment where newborns can be protected until they can take care of themselves.

All materials on this website are for the exclusive use of teachers and students at subscribing schools for the period of their subscription. Any unauthorised copying or posting of materials on other websites is an infringement of our copyright and could result in your account being blocked and legal action being taken against you.