Relationships

Love is one of the most profound emotions known to human beings. There are many kinds of love, but most people seek its expression in a romantic relationship with a compatible partner. For some, romantic relationships are the most meaningful element in their lives, providing a source of deep fulfillment. The ability to have a healthy, loving relationship is not innate. A great deal of evidence suggests that the ability to form a stable relationship begins in infancy, in a child's earliest experiences with a caregiver who reliably meets the infant's needs for food, care, protection, stimulation, and social contact. Those relationships are not destiny, but they appear to establish patterns of relating to others. Failed relationships happen for many reasons, and the failure of a relationship is often a source of great psychological anguish. Most of us have to work consciously to master the skills necessary to make them flourish.

relation1In our everyday conversations, we often use the word "relationship" in that one specific way. So when you ask someone whether they are in a relationship, they will answer "no" as long as they are not in a coupled relationship. "Relationship," though is a great big word. It covers all sorts of human connections, including ties to friends, parents, children, siblings, other family members, coworkers, neighbors, mentors, and more.

There is a lively academic field of personal relationships, complete with multiple journals, annual conferences, funded research projects, and stacks of books. Asked for a formal definition of "relationship," no scholar would limit the description only to connections that might include sex. Yet, that's how academics use the word in their talks and even in their scholarly publications.

Articles published in relationship-relevant journals have titles such as these:

"Theories of relationships"
"Reciprocity in relationships"
"Aspects of interpersonal relationships"
"Relationship quality and self-other concepts"
Yet these articles, and many others like them, aren't actually about relationships, in the big, broad, accurate sense of the word; they are only about couples' relationships.

Decades ago, when scholars did studies that included (say) only men, they could publish titles and summaries that referred to people in general, giving readers the impression that their research was about all of humanity. Only when readers got to the methods section would they realize that there were no women included in the research. These days, that's not allowed. First, unless you are studying something like prostate cancer, you can't include only men in your research and still get federal funding. Second, if you have a compelling reason to study just one group, you need to acknowledge that limitation in the abstract (summary). It is time for relationship researchers to do the same.

There's something much more troubling than the use of the word "relationship" in a way that excludes all relationship types except one. All of the other adult relationships are not just excluded in the wording, they are absent from the studies.

In 2002, Karen Fingerman and Elizabeth Hay searched through all of the articles published over the course of six years in the six academic journals that most often publish relationship-relevant research. They found 976 relevant studies. Then, for each relationship type, they counted the number of studies that included that relationship. Here I'll highlight the findings that show the contrast in attention paid to couples' relationships compared to other adult relationships (there were other results in addition to these):

432 studies of spouses
245 studies of romantic partners
12 studies of best friends
124 studies of friends
40 studies of siblings


The field of adult relationships research is dominated by the study of coupled relationships. Yet, if you were to ask people, all through their adult lives, if they have a romantic partner, a friend, or a sibling, you would find at every age that more people have a friend and more have a sibling than have a spouse or partner.

For now, my bottom line is this: If you have a friend, a sibling, a parent, a child, a cousin, a coworker, a neighbor, or just about any other person in your life, and you maintain a connection with that person, you have a relationship. You are in a relationship.