Intimate Relationships Across the Lifespan

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"Romantic relationships are embedded in fundamental human motivations to form and maintain close relationships and in a meaningful progression of relational forms across the life course" (Collins & Sroufe, 1999).


Despite the significant personal and societal impact of intimate relationships, these pair bonds were largely ignored in psychological research for the first half of the 20th Century. Harlow (1958) reported:

“Love is a wondrous state, deep, tender, and rewarding. Because of its intimate and personal nature it is regarded by some as an improper topic for experimental research. But, whatever our personal feelings may be, our assigned mission as psychologists is to analyze all facets of human and animal behavior into their component variables. So far as love or affection is concerned, psychologists have failed in this mission. The little we know about love does not transcend simple observation, and the little we write about it has been written better by poets and novelists. But of greater concern is the fact that psychologists tend to give progressively less attention to a motive which pervades our entire lives. Psychologists, at least psychologists who write textbooks, not only show no interest in the origin and development of love or affection, but they seem to be unaware of its very existence.”

The latter half of the century brought increased empirical attention to the cognitive, behavioral, affective, and biological underpinnings of relationships. Focus was placed on issues such as:
  • Attachment
  • Mate Selection
  • Marital Satisfaction
  • Physical Attraction
  • Societal Role of Friendship/Kinship
  • Divorce/Decline of Intimate Relationships

What does Develop

There are common relational components that form the fabric of romantic relationships. These common threads are the experiences that support intimacy development. According to attachment theorists, "earlier and later forms of closeness reflect processes linking distinct relational experiences across time" (Collins & Sroufe, 1999). The critical period for developing the capacity for intimacy is infancy. During this time, three components of intimacy develop:
  1. Expectancies about interactions with others. When caregivers are both available and responsive to the needs of infants, they are able to play a role in comforting and affect regulation. According to Bowlby (1973), children will seek out similar interactions with others.
  2. Reciprocity in relationships. When caregivers are responsive and comforting, children learn empathic relating, which can be applied in later relationships, with peers and romantic partners.
  3. Self-worth and efficacy. A history of responsiveness and autonomy from caregivers paves the way for children to develop a strong sense of self-worth. Those who believe they are worthy of respect and care present themselves as self-confident, curious, and enthusiastic. Children also learn to expect and accept certain reactions to the externalized characteristics of self-worth and efficacy.

What happens when attachment doesn't happen in infancy? ‍Watch the video below to find out.

Here is another video regarding attachment. Note to viewer: My apologies that you have to listen to the narrator but some interesting information nonetheless.

Mechanisms of Development

Attachment history plays a large role in predicting the development of intimate relationships. Children with early histories of secure attachment typically display great reciprocity and utilize more effective strategies in conflicts with preschool peers. Children with avoidant attachment styles form relationships that are ‍less deep and more hostil‍e than others. In one study, Troy & Sroufe (1987) looked at 19 pairs of children. Five of the pairs involved repetitive patterns of physical or verbal abuse by one child of the other. In each of the five pairs, the "exploiter" was a child with an avoidant attachment history, and the victim was a child with another anxiously attached child. The children with secure attachment were never victims or exploiters. Please see the picture below, for more information about attachment styles:

Common Methodology

‍Longitudinal studies, typically utilizing surveys,‍ are common when looking at the development of intimate relationships. Typically, researchers employ multivariate statistics because there are many factors that contribute to the development of intimate relationships. "Most studies have examined variables reflecting the quality and the social exchange of relationships" (Felmlee, Sprecher, & Bassin, 1990). Factors that have been found to contribute to the development of intimate relationships are:
  • Relationship factors (relationship quality, commitment, sexual involvement, time spent together)
  • Social exchange variables (equity, investments, comparison level for alternatives)
  • Social network factors (social support of relationship from friends and family)
  • Individual factors (self-esteem, self-esteem dependency, demographics (in particular, race))

Relevant Developmental Outcomes

In general, participating in a long-term, stable, intimate relationship in which both partners are relatively satisfied buffers one against both psychological and physical stressors, resulting in an increased lifespan and decreased risk of mental and physical health problems (Diamond, Fagunes, & Butterworth, 2010).

Psychosocial Health Outcomes


Adolescents are just beginning to negotiate intimate relationships. Although these relationships are typically less committed and lack the mature character of adult romantic relationships, they too confer both benefits and risks. Becoming involved in a romantic relationship affords adolescents with opportunities to master strong emotions, regulate impulses, and practice interpersonal skills. However, romantic relationships during adolescence have also been linked to increased rates of sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and relationship violence. Early involvement in dating relationships (i.e., during the preteen or tween years) is correlated with substance use and delinquency, lower educational aspirations, lower self-esteem, and generally, with negative psychosocial adjustment. Because adolescents are still learning to regulate strong emotions, the dissolution of adolescent relationships can result in depressive symptoms and even suicidality (Diamond et al., 2010).

Intimate partner violence is a significant problem among adults, but it is also common in adolescent relationships, as illustrated by the following video.

Emerging Adulthood

‍Emerging adulthood is a relatively new developmental stage that encompasses the years between ages 18 and 25, approximately. It is a time of exploration and experimentation for young adults‍. Although they begin to develop stable patterns of interpersonal functioning, they are also involved in a protracted process of transferring attachments from parents to friends and peers. Despite being involved in intimate relationships, 60% of college-aged adults still report that they view a parent as their primary source of emotional security (Diamond et al., 2010). According to Arnett (2000), however, emerging adults' romantic relationships are more mature than those of adolescents in several ways. Emerging adults' relationships are characterized by an increased emphasis on emotional intimacy and greater commitment. They are also more likely to include cohabitation as well as physical and sexual intimacy.


During adulthood, individuals have typically established independence from parents and intimate connections with peers, which often lead to committed relationships and marriage. Among adults, committed, long-term relationships have been found to result in better health, longer lifespans, and greater overall well-being. However, if relationships do not function optimally, infidelity and/or divorce can result. Indeed, approximately 50% of marriages in the United States end in divorce. Moreover, studies have revealed that adult relationships do not exhibit stable patterns of satisfaction and stability, but instead follow dynamic trajectories. After a "newlywed peak," adults' marital satisfaction does tend to decline over time, particularly among couples with children (Diamond et al., 2010).

The graph below illustrates marital satisfaction across time for couples with children. As you can see, satisfaction declines steadily during the child-rearing years, but begins to increase after children leave the home.


Physical Health Outcomes

Above and beyond the effect of social support, involvement in committed, intimate relationships has been found to promote improved health and well-being. These positive health benefits are hypothesized to occur because of the cumulative physiological effects of daily positive and negative interactions with intimate partners. As a result, studies in this field have focused on the effect of hostile and affectionate interactions on the autonomic nervous system. Interactions that trigger negative emotions and activate attachment fears have been found to activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which negotiates stress reactions (Gunlicks-Stoessel & Powers, 2009). During a negative interaction with a partner or spouse, the hypothalamus is activated, resulting in a chain reaction that results in the release of cortisol, the primary stress hormone in humans (see image below). Over time, multiple negative interactions with a spouse can lead to chronic secretion of cortisol, which weakens the immune system and ultimately results in increased risk of disease and mortality. Conversely, repeated positive interactions with partners are hypothesized to minimize the activation of the HPA axis, thus buffering the effects of stress and protecting individuals from health problems.


In keeping with this model, both same-sex and opposite-sex committed couples who express high relationship satisfaction have been found to exhibit lower physiological reactivity than non-committed couples and single individuals (Roisman et al., 2008; Saxbe & Repetti, 2010). Spouses' reports of their tendency to express affection can predict their partners' salivary cortisol levels (Floyd & Riforgiate, 2008), suggesting that affection and emotional intimacy can have a direct effect on physiological stress reactions. On the other hand, negative interactions among married couples in laboratory settings have been found to increase cortisol levels, blood pressure, heart rate, and other circulatory factors that are indicative of potential cardiac health risks (Nealey-Moore et al., 2007; Smith et al., 2009).

However, some of the health benefits of committed relationships may also result from simple behavior changes. For example, spouses tend to adopt each others' health behaviors. In particular, men have been found to adopt their female partners' preventative health behaviors, such as obtaining flu vaccinations, screening for cholesterol problems, and exercising (Falba & Sindelar, 2007). Over time, adopting such behaviors minimizes the risk of lifestyle-related health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

As with other areas of research in this field, models of‍ cumulative biopsychosocial adversity and advantage are used to guide research and to understand connections between close relationships during childhood and adult relationships and longitudinal patterns of health and illness. According to these models, some children may be born with a genetic predisposition to high physiological reactivity, whereas some may develop high physiological reactivity during early childhood as a result of insecure attachments with parental figures (Roisman, 2007). Children who exhibit high physiological reactivity are thought to have difficulty regulating emotions, which may result in difficulty negotiating close relationships during childhood and adolescence. As adults, these individuals also are less successful in developing secure, committed romantic relationships. Furthermore, if these adults do establish committed relationships, they tend to be characterized by high levels of conflict and negative interaction, which result in increased physiological reactivity. Over time, the cumulative effects of the individual's physiological predisposition to reactivity and self-selection into reactive relationships result in an increased risk of physical and mental health difficulties.

This video provides two examples of the physical and psychosocial benefits of long-term relationships.

Current Issues

Development of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in the Military (Marshall, Panuzio, & Taft, 2005)
Factors that could lead to IPV:
  • Pychopathology- Alcohol and substance use; mood disorders; antisocial personality traits; PTSD symptoms
  • Childhood trauma- Family of origin violence among Active Duty (AD)
  • Military service- Length of deployment; rank; combat exposure
  • Relationship adjustment- relationships satisfaction and adjustment
  • Demographics- Among AD, non-Caucasian, younger age; among veterans, younger age
  • Rates across veteran and AD populations range from 13.5% to 58% ; rates reported, investigated, and substantiated via military police (MP) and judicial processes are approximately 1%
  • Under-reporting due to consequences: loss of financial benefits including pay, retirement, housing, VA benefits; loss of rank; extra duty; jail; discharge
  • Under-reporting could also be due to bureaucratic red-tape that soldiers, veterans, and spouses have to get through in order to get the help they need. As you will see in the videos below, there are many factors that lead to violence in the military. The first video is an abused spouse discussing the hoops she attempted to jump through to get help when her husband returned from combat. The second video is a former soldier who killed his wife after returning from combat.

‍Diversity Issues

Until recently, research has focused almost exclusively on same-sex friendships, opposite-sex romantic relationships, and heterosexual marriages. Neglecting diversity in age, culture, and sexual orientation certainly left a gap in the literature. However, new research seeks to compare previous work involving opposite-couples with more diverse populations.

Roisman, Clausell, Holland, Fortura & Elieff (2008) compared relationships of gay male and lesbian couples with both younger and older heterosexual couples in committed and noncommitted, dating relationships. Researchers compared these couples in terms of quality, affect, and attachment security by self- and partner-reports, as well as physiological reactivity, and laboratory observation. Results indicated that the groups were “indistinguishable” from one another on these dimensions. One exception was lesbian couple’s ability to work particularly well together during lab observations.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Knowledge and Methodology

  • Fast growing, influential branch of psychological research
  • Extensive research integrating physiological and biological processes with emotional and behavioral aspects of relationships
  • Cascade models of predisposition help to explain why some individuals are more at risk for difficulties with intimate relationships throughout the lifespan
  • Links between close attachment relationships in infancy and capacity to develop secure relationships during adulthood have been explored and delineated
  • Both physiological and cultural aspects of gender differences in relationship development have been taken into account
  • Increased interest in more diverse forms of relationships in recent years

  • "Relationship satisfaction" is a weak, atheoretical construct that has many different operational definitions--some behavioral, some emotional, some focused on partner responsiveness
    • Relationship satisfaction probably comprises some combination of these definitions, but studies typically focus on only one aspect of satisfaction
  • Lack of longitudinal research: many studies are examining retrospective data or data from individuals whose relationships are short-lived
  • Atheoretical examination of relationship development
    • Using a development framework, such as dynamic systems theory, would help to guide researchers' hypotheses and facilitate the integration of disparate findings
  • Researchers have primarily focused on married, heterosexual couples
    • Excluded stable, cohabiting couples
    • Excluded LGBT couples, until recently
  • Differing conceptualizations/operational definition of terms such as:
    • Love
    • Intimacy
    • Conflict
    • Support

Further Reading

Falba, T.A., & Sindelar, J. L. (2007). Spousal concordance in health behavior change. Health Services Research, 43, 96-116.

O'Sullivan, L. F., Cheng, M. M., Harris, K. M., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2007). I wanna hold your hand: The progression of social, romantic, and sexual events in adolescent relationships. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 39, 100-107.

Roisman, G. I., Clausell, E., Holland, A., Fortuna, K., & Elieff, C. (2008). Adult romantic relationships as contexts of human development: Multimethod comparison of same-sex couples with opposite-sex dating, engaged, and married dyads. Developmental Psychology, 44, 91-101.


Diamond, L. M., Fagunes, C. P., & Butterworth, M. R. (2010). Intimate relationships across the lifespan. In R. M. Lerner, M. E. Lamb, & A. M. Freund (Eds.), Handbook of lifespan development (Vol. 2) (pp. 379-433). New York, NY: Wiley, John, & Sons.

Falba, T.A., & Sindelar, J. L. (2007). Spousal concordance in health behavior change. Health Services Research, 43, 96-116.

Felmlee, D., Sprecher, S., & Bassin, E. (1990). The dissolution of intimate relationships: A hazard model. Social Psychology Quarterly, 55, 13-30.

Floyd, K., & Riforgiate, S. (2008). Affectionate communicate received from spouses predicts stress hormone levels in healthy adults. Communication Monographs, 75, 351-368.

Gunlicks-Stoessel, M, & Powers, S. I. (2009). Romantic partners' coping strategies and patterns of cortisol reactivity and recovery in response to relationship conflict. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 28, 630-649.

Marshall, A. D., Panuzio, J., & Taft, C. T. (2005). Intimate partner violence among military veterans and active duty servicemen. Clinical Psychology Review, 25, 862-876. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2005.05.009

Nealey-Moore, J. B., Smith, T. W., Uchino, B. N., Hawkins, M. W., & Olson-Cerny, C. (2007). Cardiovascular reactivity during positive and negative marital interactions. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 30, 505-519.

Roisman, G. I. (2007). The psychophysiology of adult attachment relationships: Autonomic reactivity in marital and premarital interactions. Developmental Psychology, 43, 39-53.

Roisman, G. I., Clausell, E., Holland, A., Fortuna, K., & Elieff, C. (2008). Adult romantic relationships as contexts of human development: Multimethod comparison of same-sex couples with opposite-sex dating, engaged, and married dyads. Developmental Psychology, 44, 91-101.

Saxbe, D., & Repetti, R. L. (2010). For better or worse? Coregulation of couples' cortisol levels and mood states. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 92-103.

Smith, T. W., Uchino, B. N., Berg, C. A., Florsheim, P., Pearce, G, Hawkins, . . . Olsen-Cerny, C. (2009). Conflict and collaboration in middle-aged and older couples: II. Cardiovascular reactivity during marital interaction. Psychology and Aging, 24, 274-286.