An intimate relationship is a particularly close interpersonal relationship. It can be defined by these characteristics: enduring behavioral interdependence, repeated interactions, emotional attachment, and need fulfillment.
Intimate relationships play a central role in the overall human experience. Humans have a universal need to belong and to love which is satisfied when an intimate relationship is formed. Intimate relationships consist of the people that we are attracted to, whom we like and love, romantic and sexual relationships, and those whom we marry and provide and receive emotional and personal support from. Intimate relationships provide people with a social network of people that provide strong emotional attachments and fulfill our universal need of belonging and the need to be cared for.
The systematic study of intimate relationships is a relatively new area of research within the field of social psychology that has emerged within the last few decades. Although the systematic study of intimate relationships is fairly recent, social thought and analysis of intimate relationships dates back to early Greek philosophers. Early scholarly studies were also interested in intimate relationships but were limited to dyads or small groups of people in the public and narrowly examined behaviours such as competing and cooperation, negotiation and bargaining, and compliance and resistance.
Intimacy generally refers to the feeling of being in a close personal association and belonging together. It is a familiar and very close affective connection with another as a result of a bond that is formed through knowledge and experience of the other. Genuine intimacy in human relationships requires dialogue, transparency, vulnerability and reciprocity. As a verb "intimate" means "to state or make known". The activity of intimating (making known) underpins the meanings of "intimate" when used as a noun and adjective. As a noun, an "intimate" is a person with whom we have a particularly close relationship. This was clarified by Dalton (1959) who discusses how anthropologists and ethnographic researchers access 'inside information' from within a particular cultural setting by establishing networks of intimates capable (and willing) to provide information unobtainable through formal channels. As an adjective, "intimate" indicates detailed knowledge of a thing or person (e.g. "an intimate knowledge of engineering" and "an intimate relationship between two people").
In human relationships, the meaning and level of intimacy varies within and between relationships. In anthropological research, intimacy is considered the product of a successful seduction, a process of rapport building that enables parties to confidently disclose previously hidden thoughts and feelings. Intimate conversations become the basis for 'confidences' (secret knowledge) that bind people together. Developing an intimate relationship typically takes a considerable amount of time (months and years, rather than days or weeks) and both anthropologists and zoologists have tracked the subliminal changes in body language as rapport develops between two or more people.
To sustain intimacy for any length of time requires well developed emotional and interpersonal awareness. Intimacy requires an ability to be both separate and together participants in an intimate relationship. This is called self-differentiation. It results in a connection in which there is an emotional range involving both robust conflict, and intense loyalty. Lacking the ability to differentiate oneself from the other is a form of symbiosis, a state that is different from intimacy, even if feelings of closeness are similar.
From a center of self knowledge and self differentiation intimate behavior joins family, close friends as well as those with whom one is in love. It evolves through reciprocal self-disclosure and candor. Poor skills in developing of intimacy can lead to getting too close too quickly; struggling to find the boundary and to sustain connection; being poorly skilled as a friend, rejecting self-disclosure or even rejecting friendships and those who have them.
Scholars distinguish between different forms of intimacy, principally: emotional intimacy and physical intimacy. Emotional intimacy, particularly in sexual relationships, typically develops after physical bonds have been established. 'Falling in love', however, has both a biochemical dimension, driven through reactions in the body stimulated by sexual attraction (PEA), and a social dimension driven by 'talk' that follows from regular physical closeness and/or sexual union.
It is worth distinguishing intimate (communal) relationships from strategic (exchange) relationships. Physical intimacy occurs in the latter but it is governed by a higher order strategy, of which the other person may not be aware. One example is getting close to someone in order to get something from them or give them something. That 'something' might not be offered so freely if it did not appear to be an intimate exchange and if the ultimate strategy had been visible at the outset. Mills and Clark (1982) found that strategic (exchange) relationships are fragile and easily break down when there is any level of disagreement. Emotionally intimate (communal) relationships are much more robust and can survive considerable (and even ongoing) disagreements.
In new relationships, sexual intimacy may develop slowly and in a predictable way. Research by Desmond Morris, a behavioral psychologist, found that most new relationships followed 12 predictable steps on the path to sexual intimacy. Couples that rushed through the steps or skipped steps were most likely to break up. The 12 steps he identified (in order) are: Eye to Body, Eye to Eye, Voice to Voice, Hand to Hand, Arm to Shoulder, Arm to Waist, Mouth to Mouth, Hand to Head, Hand to Body, Mouth to Breast, Hand to Genitals, and finally, Sexual Intercourse.
Physical and emotional intimacy
Love is an important factor in physical and emotional intimate relationships. Though the term is notoriously difficult to define, any thoughtful inquiry into the subject will show it to be qualitatively, not only quantitatively, different than liking, and the difference is not merely in the presence or absence of sexual attraction. There are two types of love in a relationship; passionate love and companionate love. With companionate love, potent feelings diminish but are enriched by warm feelings of attachment, an authentic and enduring bond, a sense of mutual commitment, the profound knowledge that you are caring for another person who is in turn caring for you, feeling proud of a mate's accomplishment, and the satisfaction that comes from sharing goals and perspective. In contrast, passionate love is marked by infatuation, intense preoccupation with the partner, strong sexual longing, throes of ecstasy, and feelings of exhilaration that come from being reunited with the partner.
People who are in an intimate relationship with one another are often called a couple, especially if the members of that couple have ascribed some degree of permanency to their relationship. Such couples often provide the emotional security that is necessary for them to accomplish other tasks, particularly forms of labor or work.
History of intimate relationships
Ancient philosophers: Aristotle
Ancient philosophers mused over ideas of marital satisfaction, faithfulness, beauty and jealousy although their concepts and understandings were often inaccurate or misleading.
Over 2,300 years ago, interpersonal relationship were being contemplated by Aristotle. He wrote: "One person is a friend to another if he is friendly to the other and the other is friendly to him in return" (Aristotle, 330 BC, trans. 1991, pp 72–73). Aristotle believed that by nature humans are social beings. Aristotle also suggested that there were three different types of relationships. People are attracted to relationships that provide utility because of the assistance and sense of belonging that they provide. In relationships based on pleasure, people are attracted to the feelings of pleasantness and that they are engaging. However, relationships based on utility and pleasure were said to be short lived if the benefits provided by one of the partners was not reciprocated. In relationships based on virtue, we are attracted to others' virtuous character. Aristotle also suggested that relationships based on virtue would be the longest lasting and that virtue based relationships were the only type of relationship that each partner was liked for themselves. Although Aristotle put forth much consideration about relationships, as like many other ancient philosophers, did not use systematic methods and therefore could not conclude that his thoughts and ideas were correct. The philosophical analysis used by Aristotle dominated the analysis of intimate relationships until the late 1880s.
1880s to early 1900s
Modern psychology and sociology began to emerge in the late 19th century. During this time theorists often included relationships into their current areas of research and began to develop new foundations which had implications in regards to the analysis of intimate relationships. Freud wrote about parent-child relationships and their effect on personality development. Freud's analysis proposed that people's childhood experiences are transferred or passed on into adult relationships by means of feelings and expectations. Freud also founded the idea that individuals usually seek out marital partners who are similar to that of their opposite-sex parent.
In 1891, James wrote that a person’s self concept is defined by the relationships we endure with others. In 1897, Durkheim's interest in social organization led to the examination of social isolation and alienation. This was an influential discovery of intimate relationships in that Durkheim argued that being socially isolated was a key antecedent of suicide. This focus on the darker side of relationships and the negative consequences associated to social isolation were what Durkheim labeled as anomie. Simmel wrote about dyads, or partnerships with two people, and examined their unique properties in the 1950s. Simmel suggested that dyads require consent and engagement of both partners to maintain the relationship but noted that the relationship can be ended by the initiation of only one partner. Although the theorists mentioned above sought support for their theories, their primary contributions to the study of intimate relationships were conceptual and not empirically grounded.
The Rise of Empiricism
The use of empirical investigations in 1898 was a major revolution in social analysis. A study conducted by Monroe, examined the traits and habits of children in selecting a friend. Some of the attributes included in the study were kindness, cheerfulness and honesty. Monroe asked 2336 children aged 7 to 16 to identify "what kind of chum do you like best?" The results of the study indicate that children preferred a friend that was their own age, of the same sex, same in size physically, a friend with light features (hair and eyes), friends that did not engage in conflict, someone that was kind to animals and humans and finally that they were honest. The two characteristics that children reported as least important included wealth and religion.
The study by Monroe was the first to mark the significant shift in the study of intimate relationships from analysis that was primarily philosophical to those with empirical validity. This study is said to have finally marked the beginning of relationship science. However, in the years following Monroe's influential study, very few similar studies were done. There were limited studies done on children’s friendships, courtship and marriages and families in the 1930s but few relationship studies were conducted before or during World War II. Intimate relationships did not become a broad focus of research again until the 1960s and 1970s when there was a vast amount of relationship studies being published.
1960s and 1970s
An important shift was taking place in the field of social psychology that influenced the research of intimate relationships. Up until the late 1950s, the majority of studies were non-experimental. By the end of the 1960s more than half of the articles published involved some sort of experimental manipulation. The 60’s was also a time when there was a shift in methodology within the psychological discipline itself. Participants consisted mostly of college students, experimental methods and research was being conducted in laboratories and the experimental method was the dominant methodology in social psychology. Experimental manipulation within the research of intimate relationships demonstrated that relationships could be studied scientifically. This shift brought relationship science to the attention of scholars in other disciplines and has resulted in the study of intimate relationships being an international multidiscipline.
1980s to 2000s
In the early 1980s the first conference of the International Network of Personal Relationships (INPR) was held. Approximately 300 researchers from all parts of the world attended the conference. In March 1984, the first journal of Social and Personal Relationships was published. In the early 1990s the INPR split off into two groups, however in April 2004 the two organizations rejoined and became the International Association for Relationship Research (IARR).
Today the study of intimate relationships (relationship science) uses participants from diverse samples and examines a wide variety of topics that include family relations, friendships and romantic relationships usually over a long period of time. The current study of intimate relationships includes the both the positive aspects of relationships as well as negative or unpleasant aspects.
Current research being conducted by John Gottman and his colleagues involves inviting married couples into a pleasant setting, in which they revisit the disagreement that caused their last argument. Although the participants are aware that they are being videotaped, they soon become so absorbed in the interaction that they forget they are being recorded. With the second-by-second analysis of the observable reactions as well as emotional reactions, Gottman is able to accurately predict with 93 percent accuracy the future fate of the couples relationship.
Another current area of research within the intimate relationships is being conducted by Terri Orbuch and Joseph Veroff (2002). They are monitoring newlywed couples using self-reports over a long period of time (longitudinal). Participants are required to provide extensive reports about the nature and the status of their relationships. Although many of the marriages have ended since the beginning of the study, this type of relationship study allows researchers to track marriages from start to finish by conducting follow-up interviews with the participants in order to determine what factors are associated with marriages that last and those that do not. Although the field of relationship science is still relatively young, research is being conducted by researchers from many different disciplines that continues to broaden the scope of intimate relationships.
The intimate partners
Terms for partners in intimate relationships include:
- Confidant or confidante
- Family member
- Life partner/Partner
- Significant other
- Free Union
- Sexual partner
- Human sexuality
- Significant other
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- Dalton, M. (1959) Men Who Manage, New York: Wiley.
- Ridley-Duff, R. J. (2007) Emotion, Seduction and Intimacy: Alternative Perspectives on Organisation Behaviour, Bracknell: Men's Hour Books, ISBN 978-0-9754300-1-9
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- Hatfield, E., & Rapson, R. L. (1993). Historical and cross-cultural perspectives on passionate love and sexual desire. Annual Review of Sex Research, 4, 67-97
- Vangelisti, A. L., & Perlman, D. (2006). The Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
- Monroe, W. S. (1898). Discussion and reports. Social consciousness in children. Psychological Review, 15, 68-70.
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