With the number of theories about relationships proposed by psychologists, not to mention poets, philosophers, and playwrights, it may seem impossible to come up with anything approaching a reasonable number. Boldly going where few psychologists may venture, Northwestern University’s Eli Finkel and colleagues (2014) have done just that by proposing that there are just 14 basic principles underlying all of psychology's relationship theories. The 14 gets reduced further, actually, because they fall into 4 categories of questions concerning different aspects of relationships, from their formation to their end.
The underlying basis for this work is relationship science, which the authors refer to as “an interdisciplinary field that employs diverse empirical methods to understand the initiation, development, maintenance, and dissolution of interpersonal relationships” (p. 384). These aren’t just any relationships, but the ones people consider their closest. Yours is most likely to be the one with your romantic partner, or the person you’re in a committed relationship with.
Finkel and his collaborators approached the classification of relationship principles as they would a “culinary” task in which “each theory is a dish (e.g., a curry) composed of discrete ingredients (e.g., a grain, a protein, a vegetable, several spices).” They set for themselves “the task of extracting the core principles" — the basic ingredients — and then determining which principles cut across theories.
As you consider these 14 principles, try applying them to your own close relationships, particularly those that have meant the most to you over the course of your life. We’ll look at these principles according to the set into which they fit in the Finkel et al. scheme:
Set 1: What is a Relationship?
1. Uniqueness: A close relationship isn’t just a combination of the qualities that each partner possesses; it reflects the special interaction that occurs when you’re with your partner. You behave differently with your partner than you do with other people, and so does your partner. Perhaps you’re rather quiet and a bit of an introvert, and so is your partner, but when the two of you are together, you can talk nonstop about the slightest thing. Your relationship reflects, then, something special that happens when you’re in each other’s presence.
2. Integration: Your sense of self is deeply embedded in that of your partner. Each of you has your own identity, but sometimes it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. People think of you as a couple, and it’s hard for anyone, including yourselves, to imagine you not being together.
3. Trajectory: Your relationship with your partner has a history that has evolved over your time together, so that it’s not the same as it was when it started. On a day-to-day basis, you may not notice those changes, but when you think back on even a couple of years ago, you realize it’s developed from there. The chances are good, as well, that your relationship will continue to evolve in the future. Relationship theories have at times proposed that there are fixed stages, such as those that occur with the birth and development of children, but many theories propose instead a more fluid set of dynamic changes.
Set 2: How do relationships operate?
4. Evaluation: You and your partner often think about how you feel about both your relationship and each other. Some theories divide these feelings into simple positive and negative dimensions, but others propose a more complex set of evaluations, such as the triangular theory of love, which suggests that relationships vary according to intimacy, passion, and commitment. In any case, you bring these evaluative lenses to your relationship, whether you realize it or not.
5. Responsiveness: The way you respond to your partner influences the relationship quality that both of you feel. Is your partner sensitive to your needs and feelings? How do you respond to your partner’s? The more this occurs, Finkel et al. propose, the better your relationship will function.
6. Resolution: How do you and your partner resolve conflict? It’s well-known from research on couple conflict that there are constructive and destructive patterns of getting through difficulties. The constructive ones, as the term implies, promote or at least don’t detract from the relationship; the destructive ones condemn it to a less positive fate.
7. Maintenance: A long-term close relationship is one that both partners want to see continue. You will therefore work with your partner to keep it alive, even if it has problems. Sometimes outsiders look at a couple and wonder how it is that they remain together, but from inside the relationship, these problems don’t seem all that significant.
Set 3: What Tendencies Do People Bring to Their Relationships?
8. Predisposition: You and your partner each have personalities that lead you to behave in certain ways within your relationship. Attachment theory, for example, proposes that people’s early childhood experiences shape the views of close relationships that they carry into adulthood. Those with an insecure attachment style will be clingy or perhaps dismissive, and those more securely attached will be able to relate in a more even-keeled manner.
9. Instrumentality: You and your partner each have goals that you wish to pursue, and in an ideal world, you are both able to fulfill those goals. At times, you may rely on your partner to help you achieve your personal goals. Perhaps you wish to adopt a healthier lifestyle, eating fewer carbs or exercising more. Does your partner work with you to help achieve these changes or fight you every step of the way by, say, bringing home fresh bread every night? At a deeper level, everyone has a need for intimacy and connection, and your partner can also help you fulfill this basic goal.
10. Standards: Everyone has a certain set of standards or values that they hold about what a relationship should be and provide. You may expect, for example, that a close relationship involves you and your partner being faithful to each other. You might also have a certain standard about how smart, attractive, and successful a good partner should be. Relationship theories propose that you constantly monitor the reality against your standards, and when they come close to each other, you’re more satisfied, all other things being equal. However, if your relationship is gratifying in general, you’ll be willing to adapt your standards to meet your partner’s reality.
Set 4: How does context affect relationships?
11. Diagnosticity: Some situations will give you a very clear view of your partner and your relationship. A number of theories in social psychology examine the way we make attributions about others. If you see someone cheating, stealing, or lying, you’ll think less of that person, unless you know about mitigating circumstances. In a relationship, you’ll also see your partner in a variety of situations. The critical ones allow you to see your partner’s true qualities: For example, when you really need your partner to be there for you, will your partner rise to the occasion? If so, this willingness of your partner to act on your behalf will help cement your relationship.
12. Alternatives: Is there someone else who presents an attractive option to your current partner? Or might you rather not be in a relationship at all? The existence of these alternatives will threaten the quality of your relationship, or perhaps lead to its demise.
13. Stress: When a situation challenges your ability to cope, you’ll experience stress. In a relationship, couples must cope together with situations that test their resources. How well do you and your partner handle these exigencies? If you do it well, that is a sign of a healthy relationship.
14. Culture: Looking more broadly outside the relationship, the social context of your family, cultural traditions, and beliefs help shape who you and your partner are and how you relate to each other. Some of these are theoretically quite obvious, such as celebrating holidays and getting together for reunions. Others might not be so apparent, such as the state of the economy, social attitudes toward monogamy, or historical trends in divorce rates, employment of women outside the home, and even needs for self-expression. You don’t usually pay attention to these factors, but they influence your relationship nevertheless.
Now answer the question of how well you thought your relationship stacked up when evaluated according to each principle. There’s no such thing as a perfect relationship, but seeing whether yours has the 14 “ingredients” may be just what’s needed to help yours be as fulfilling as possible over time.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Finkel, E. J., Simpson, J. A., & Eastwick, P. W. (2017). The Psychology of Close Relationships: Fourteen Core Principles. Annual Review of Psychology, 68(1), 383-411. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010416-044038