Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

How to Make Your Close Relationship Closer

12 ways to measure, and improve, your close relationships

For many of us, the quality of our close relationships determines how good we feel about ourselves, and about life in general. Though we usually think about closeness to mean the same as intimacy, there are important distinctions. You may be “close” to your co-workers but not be intimate. In a close relationship, you and your partner have a strong emotional bond, know a lot about each other, and feel connected. The quality of interdependence characterizes a close relationship. Intimacy implies that you have closeness and commitment and often involves a physical or sexual bond as well. 

Looked at in this way, people can have close relationships with a range of people with whom they are not “intimate.” Best friends, parents and children, and co-workers, to take a few examples, can be close in the sense of being interdependent.  University of Hawai’i psychologist Jayson Dibble and coauthors Timothy Levine and Hee Sun Park decided to create a measure to assess this unique quality of close relationships.  Interdependence in a close relationship can be experienced along three dimensions: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. Cognitively, emotional closeness means that you think about this other person. Emotionally, you miss this person when you’re apart.  Behaviorally, you actually find ways to be with the other person and make the relationship a priority.

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Although other measures of relationship quality exist, what’s new about the approach taken by Dibble and colleagues is that it is short (12 items) and that it focuses specifically on how the respondent feels about the relationship under scrutiny. Other measures don’t have this first-person point of view, take longer to complete, are outdated, or focus only on romantic, but not other, types of close relationship.  Dibble and colleagues tested their scale on college students (and therefore eventually should be tested beyond this population).  To their credit, they looked beyond the romantic relationship and asked participants to answer questions about best friends, “friends with benefits,” family members, or casual friends.  Some participants also completed the questionnaire in reference to a stranger who took the test at the same time as they did (pairs of participants took the test together in this condition).  Compared to other studies on college students, this had the advantage of including a relatively diverse sample with one component of the study involving only 44% Caucasians, far fewer than the usual study in psychology..

Now let’s take a look at the actual measure.  To take the test yourself, rate each item on a 1 to 7 scale (1= strongly disagree to 7= strongly agree). Think of the same person for each question.

  1. My relationship with ________ is close.
  2. When we are apart, I miss __________ a great deal.
  3. My ________and I disclose important things to each other.
  4. My ________and I have a strong connection.
  5. My ________and I want to spend time together.
  6. I’m sure of my relationship with my ________
  7. My ________is a priority in my life.
  8. My ________and I do a lot of things together.
  9. When I have free time I choose to spend it alone with my________.
  10. I think about my ________a lot.
  11. My relationship with my ________is important in my life.
  12. I consider my ________when making important decisions.

 

Now add up your scores and compare them to these findings from the study. These numbers represent the totals, with mean per item in parentheses:

84 (6.75)=Spouses

72 (6-6.15)= Engaged partners, best friends, and serious dating partners

50-66 (4.2-5.5)= Family members (female family members higher than male)

60-64 (5-5.3)= Good same-sex friends, casually dating

40-50 (3.8-4.3)= Casual friends

7-8 (1.18)= Strangers

Obviously, there is some overlap among these scores. Noteworthy was that fathers and brothers received lower closer relationship scores than did mothers and sisters, accounting for the wide range in those scores. It is also interesting that some people rated their relationships with strangers as higher than 1; suggesting that even in a brief contact, people can start to form minor interdependencies among people they do not know at all. For the most part, the closer the relationship, the more satisfaction the participants reported with that relationship.  

Now that you’ve scored your closest relationship, see where it compares with these totals. If your relationship with the person you “should” be closest to (a spouse or serious dating partner), this suggests that there may be missing elements from your feelings, behavior, or thoughts about that relationship.

If you scored lower than the category of person you were rating, you can look back at the items to see where your relationship could be improved in terms of its overall quality.  This is particularly true for the relationships that are most important to you. 

Dibble and collaborators noted that the close relationship scores do not necessarily remain stable over time. Reflecting the fact that our romantic, friendship, and family situations can change for any number of reasons as the days, months, or years go by, so can our feelings of closeness. This also means that you can change your scores by changing elements of your relationship that are causing you to receive the lowest scores.

In the area of emotional closeness, or how you feel about your partner, it may not be that easy to raise your closeness ratings by simply trying to miss your partner more, or force a sense of connection between the two of you. The items tapping behavior seem, in contrast, more likely to respond to conscious effort. You can, for example, realize that you’re not spending enough time together, particularly when there is time that you could choose to spend together.

You can also work on making your relationship achieve a higher priority in your life, if that in fact has started to slip. Considering your partner when making decisions or simply deciding to value the relationship more will also bring up your overall closeness scores. You don’t have to hit a 7 on each item, but by making a commitment to working on these behavioral items, you can raise your scores by 1 point or more. The test only has one dimension (total closeness). Therefore, any increases on any items can move you up the closeness scale by a noticeable amount. As your closeness goes up, so can your satisfaction.

This study also shows us that relationships with friends and family can be just as important to our satisfaction with relationship as can relationships with spouses or close dating partners. If it’s happiness you’re looking for in relationships, you can benefit from broadening your horizons  beyond the narrow scope of romantic partners.

To keep a close relationship close takes some effort. However, with these 12 items to use as a guide, you can map out your own action plan to make yours both closer and more rewarding.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Reference:

Dibble, J. L., Levine, T. R., & Park, H. (2012). The Unidimensional Relationship Closeness Scale (URCS): Reliability and validity evidence for a new measure of relationship closeness. Psychological Assessment24(3), 565-572. doi:10.1037/a0026265

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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