What is the key difference between romantic relationships – which are valued and respected and pondered and studied and celebrated and, well, romanticized – and all of the other close and meaningful relationships in our lives? Relationships with our closest friends, that may have outlasted most marriages. Relationships with parents and children, and the kin and chosen kin we hold most dear. They key difference is sex – or at least the potential for sex to have an important place in the relationship.
I wonder whether we’ve taken that difference and made way too much of it. I read a lot of psychology books (and review many of them for Psych Central). My preference is to read singles-relevant books, but when I venture into the realm of marriage and coupling and romantic relationships, I find myself asking the same question: Why did this author address his or her book only to couples or to people seeking romantic relationships?
For example, when I reviewed Marty Babits’ book, I’m Not a Mind Reader: Using the Power of Three-Dimensional Communication for a Better Relationship, I ended my review with this:
Many self-help books overstate the scope of their relevance. I’m Not a Mind Reader does the opposite. It is framed as a book for couples, and couples are the only people we hear about. In fact, though, the three-dimensional model Babits describes and the many insights he conveys along the way strike me as relevant to just about any significant adult relationship. I hope that in the future, authors who consider writing books only about couples will reconsider, and will expand their scope to encompass more of our meaningful relationships. Now that Americans are spending more years of their adult lives unmarried than married, people such as friends and family may be more important to us than ever before.
Similarly, when I reviewed Sophia Dembling’s book, Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After, I said:
I’m what I call “single at heart.” For me, living single is how I live my best, most authentic, most meaningful life. So when I read a book about coupling, such as Introverts in Love, I expect an anthropological experience: Oh, so that’s what it’s like in Couple Land.
Much to my surprise, that was not how I felt about Introverts in Love. First, much of what Dembling has to say about the role of introversion and extroversion in romantic relationships also applies to friendships. Most of her advice about finding romantic partners, for instance, applies equally well to finding friends.
I have a similar reaction to many of the articles I read in academic journals. The study of relationships is now a scholarly juggernaut. There are special journals, conferences, textbooks, courses, and teaching positions. In theory, this interdisciplinary field is about all relationships, but in fact, the overwhelming focus is on romantic relationships. But is there really a good reason to focus just on romantic relationships even within the studies designed to do just that?
I just looked at the first half-dozen articles in the most recent issue of the journal Personal Relationships. Here are the titles:
- “It’s my partner, deal with it: Rejection sensitivity, normative beliefs, and commitment.” The article is about other people disapproving of your romantic partner, and whether that affects your commitment to your partner. The people in our social networks sometimes disapprove of our friends as well; why not also ask how that affects our commitment to those friends?
- “The impact of social constraints on adjustment following a romantic breakup.” This article is also about unsupportive people in your social network. Those kinds of people can make you feel constrained and inhibited from talking to them about certain things. What impact does that have on your adjustment after you break up with a romantic partner? Friends break up with each other, too, and the emotional consequences can be shattering. Why not also ask about unsupportive social network members in those situations? Because friendships are not taken as seriously as romantic relationships, the potential for social network members to be unsupportive may be even greater.
- “Communication with former romantic partners and current relationship outcomes among college students.” In this instance, I think a case can be made for focusing specifically on romantic relationships. One of the ways romantic relationships differ from other relationships such as friendship is that, to many people, committed romantic relationships are supposed to be exclusive, one-at-a-time kinds of relationships, whereas friendships are not as constrained. Still, comparable dynamics with friends are still possible, especially since the study is about college students. Current friends at college, for example, could feel competitive or jealous about each other’s closeness to former friends from high school.
- “Behavioral and emotional responses to diet-related support and control among same-sex couples.” Friends, too, can important to one another’s dieting and related behaviors and emotions.
- “How work spills over into the relationship: Self-control matters.” This title illustrates the bias and narrowmindedness in relationship research: The word “relationship” is used to mean only a romantic relationship. And once again, there was no need for the study to focus solely on romantic relationships. Work spills over into friendships (and other relationships), too, as, for example, when one person talks about work a bit too often, or can’t find time for the friendship because of the demands of work.
- “Spousal conflict resolution strategies and marital relationships in late adulthood.” This is the easiest one to extend to other relationships such as friendships: “Friendship conflict resolution strategies and friendship relationships in late adulthood.”
Many years ago, far too many studies (not just in psychology, but in other fields, too, such as medicine) included only men. The folly in that became evident. Heart disease, for example, might not be the same in women as it is in men. Many granting agencies instituted a new policy: No funding for studies of just men (or just women – though that rarely happened) unless that focus could be clearly justified. Maybe the same should happen in studies of relationships: No more studies focusing solely on romantic relationships unless that narrow focus can be clearly justified.