The Meaning of 'Relationship': Notes from a Party

What relationship scholars don't seem to know about relationships

Posted Mar 13, 2010

Yesterday, I listened to an eminent relationship scholar talk about the research he has been conducting for decades. It is great work, and the talk was impressive. Except for one thing: When he talked about "relationships," he was actually referring to just one kind of relationship - a romantic one.

In 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.

When I first wrote about the Fingerman and Hay study for this post, I did it from memory (except for looking up the exact numbers), since it is a study I've talked about many times before. Then when I searched for a link to include here, I reread the abstract and was reminded of something else that seems significant. In a second study, the authors asked relationship scholars and other people without advanced degrees to indicate how important they thought various kinds of relationships were. They found that "less-educated individuals rated many social ties as more important than did researchers who study relationships." Interesting, isn't it?

If you were to open the various child development journals and shake out all of the relationship research, you would be buried in an avalanche of studies of children's friendships. But among the scholars of adult relationships, it is as if they have decided that friends are for kids.

At a party held after the talk, as I was holding forth about how we should not use the word relationship to refer only to coupled relationships, an Asian scholar pointed out that the American obsession with the couple relationship is hardly universal. Where she grew up, it is the mother-child bond that is most central. Then another question was raised: Why is it that academics studying relationships have focused so overwhelmingly on couples' relationships? I don't know the answer, and will save my guesses for some other time. (Post yours here.)

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.

I feel the same way about love. As I explained here, it is a word with big, broad meanings. Let's celebrate all of them.