Relationships Photo courtesy of Fearless SoulOpens in new window

A relationship is an association or connection between two or more people. It may be brief or long term and may be based on kinship, affinitiy (e.g., love or liking), business, or social commitment. There are many types of interpersonal relationships, including family (e.g., parents, siblings, children), romantic or intimate (e.g., marriage), roommates, employer-employee, student-teacher, social, friends, and acquaintances.

People in relationships influence each other, sharing thoughts, feelings, and rituals. Interdependence in relationships is shaped by individual experience and temperament, family background, culture, gender, and role expectations. For example, one man’s ideas about roles (e.g., husband and father, wife and mother) will influence his behaviors, feelings, and expectations within a relationship with his spouse and children.

While primarily individualistic societies (as in the United States) may focus on independence and individual autonomy, many cultures (e.g., some Asian and Hispanic cultures) are more collectivist, stressing interdependence of family members and responsibility to the family. Lack of understanding about culture may lead to inappropriate judgments about dynamics within a family (or other relationships) being overly dependent.

Many theories about interpersonal relationships cite the importance of early childhood experiences, including behaviors and dynamics modeled within one’s family of origin. British psychiatrist John Bowlby proposed that attachment—the early bond between a baby and its primary caregiver (parents and others who care for the baby)—sets the stage for future emotional relationships, especially intimate relationships (Fraley & Shaver, 2000). People raised in families with patterns of detrimental behavioral interactions may repeat these behaviors in future relationships.

People may experience negative emotionsOpens in new window when a relationship is threatened by interpersonal conflict.

Emotions enable humans to respond to basic challenges in living in several ways: emotionsOpens in new window produce adaptive physiological changes, the experience of emotion guides behavior, and emotional expression facilitates social communication and interaction.

Psychologist Keith Sanford of Baylor University (Waco, Texas) has researched emotions and interpersonal conflict (2007). Emotions can be classified as selfish or pro-social.

  • Selfish emotions, which focus on self-preservation, conflict, completion, and fighting, appear to be associated with activation of the right hemisphere of the brain and the amygdale (a brain structure associated with emotion, especially fear).
  • In contrast, pro-social emotions, which focus on interpersonal relationships, cooperation, and attachment, appear to be associated with the left hemisphere of the brain (Sanford, 2007).

Negative emotionsOpens in new window have been described as “hard” (e.g., selfish emotions such as feeling angry or aggravated) or “soft” (e.g., pro-social emotions such as feeling sad or hurt).

Hard (selfish) emotions are associated with exerting power and control, while soft (pro-social) emotions are associated with experiencing or expressing vulnerability. The type of negative emotion expressed during conflict may predict communication and conflict resolution in the relationship.

Hard emotions (e.g., anger) may signal a potential attack, putting the recipient of the anger on the defensive. Expression of hard emotions may be destructive to a relationship. The expression of emotion (e.g., sadness) may indicate a need for social support, elicit helping or comforting behaviors, or facilitate resolution of conflict.

A study examining hard and soft emotion expression during conflict in different types of relationships (peers and married couples) found that the expression of hard emotions was predictive of increased negative communication, decreased positive communication, and less relationship satisfaction (Sanford, 2007).

Emotional expression in intimate (romantic) relationships change across the life span of the relationship and is influenced by cultural display rules.

Display rules, learned by an individual within the context of culture and family, dictate appropriate ways to express emotions. When the relationship is new, it may be considered more appropriate to express mostly positive emotions and emotions that produce harmony.

As a relationship evolves toward increasing intimacy, it may be considered more acceptable to express intense or negative emotions. This may explain why some people but more effort into controlling or suppressing the expression of negative emotions early on in a romantic relationship (Strzyzewski Aune, & Buller, 1994).

Features of some mental health disorders include difficulties with interpersonal dynamics. Individuals with borderline personality disorderOpens in new window often experience a fear of abandonment. They have very unstable (roller coaster) interpersonal relationships, often alternating between extremes of expressing positive and negative emotions toward (and about) others. Individuals with schizoid personality disorderOpens in new window tend to be aloof and are uninterested in and unresponsive to interpersonal relationships.

See also:
  1. Fraley, R.C., & Shaver, P. R. (2000). Adult romantic attachment: Theoretical developments, emerging controversies, and unanswered questions. Review of General Psychology, 4, 132 – 154.
  2. Sanford, K. (2007). Hard and soft emotion during conflict: investigating married couples and other relationships. Personal Relationships, 14, 65 – 90.
  3. Strzyewski Aune, K., Aune, R.K., & Buller, D.B. (1994). The experience, expression, and perceived appropriateness of emotions across levels of relationship development. Journal of Social Psychology, 134, 141 – 150.