Relationships, Types of

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In general, researchers in communication define close or intimate interpersonal relationships as "friendships," "romantic relationships," "marital relationships," and "family relationships." These types of relationships are often characterized by interdependence (i.e., doing things together and feeling like part of a relationship) and mutual definition (e.g., introducing someone as "my friend").


Friendships are social relationships in which the participants feel comfortable engaging in activities together and generally define their participation on an equal basis. Friendships are based on self-disclosure in which the participants feel free to share their thoughts and feelings about a variety of issues. Self-disclosure in friendships is particularly significant for women. For men, however, friendships may revolve around mutual activities such as sports or game playing.

In general, people assume that their friends will "be there" for them in a crisis or at other times when they need social support. Since friendship is voluntary, people are able to choose their friends and to decide when the friendship is no longer worth maintaining. People can maintain friendships over long distances through mediated contact such as telephone calls. Long-distance friendship is made even easier through electronic forms of communication such as e-mail.

William Rawlins (1992) has developed a dialectical theory of friendships that helps to explain how people can remain individuals while still being part of a friendship and loyal to the other person in the relationship. He believes that friendships involve tensions between competing responsibilities. For example, teenagers in certain situations may feel a conflict between remaining an individual and being a good friend. If a teenager's friend engages in a behavior that is not supported by the teenager, a tension may arise between loyalty to oneself as an individual and loyalty to the friendship. He also notes that friendships change as people grow older.

Romantic Relationships

Simply put, romantic relationships involve love. Romantic relationships are intimate (i.e., individuals feel connected to each other) and exhibit shared values (i.e., individuals agree on a number of important issues).

The individuals in this type of relationship may feel that they are getting more from the relationship than they are contributing. For example, the popular phrase "you complete me" may characterize the feelings of an individual in a romantic relationship. Dating has become more egalitarian over the years as it has become increasingly acceptability for women to ask men for a date and to pay at least their share of the dating expenses.

Leslie Baxter and William Wilmot (1984) have identified several "secret tests" that people in romantic relationships may use to test their partners. These tests include indirect suggestion (e.g., flirting to see if the partner responds), public presentation (e.g., introducing the other person as "my boy/girlfriend" to see how the person reacts), separation (e.g., spending time apart to test the strength of the relationship), and third-party questioning (e.g., asking a friend to find out the other person's feelings).

Romantic relationships may become institutionalized through marriage, dissolve, or remain as an intense connection between people.

Marital Relationships

Mary Ann Fitzpatrick (1988) has conducted extensive research on communication in marriage and divides marital relationships into three types: traditional marriages, independent marriages, and separate marriages.

Traditional marriages involve individuals who hold traditional views about the roles of men and women in relationships. The participants are highly interdependent and believe in concepts such as the man as breadwinner and woman as caretaker of the children. Companionship is important to traditional couples, and they tend to follow regular daily schedules that contribute to consistency in the relationship (e.g., the wife cooks dinner at approximately the same time each night).

Independent marriages are characterized by more nontraditional values in which the participants maintain a high degree of autonomy. Although there is an emphasis on companionship, the spouses may maintain independent spaces and not follow regular daily schedules. There is a great deal of negotiation in this type of relationship as the spouses continually negotiate their roles (e.g., whose turn it is to cook dinner on a given night).

Separate marriages are composed of individuals who may have a fairly traditional view of marriage but are not particularly interdependent. There is less sharing and companionship in separate marriages than in either traditional or independent marriages. The spouses in a separate marriage may try to persuade each other to do something, but they drop the idea if it looks like further attempts at persuasion will lead to conflict.

According to Fitzpatrick, 60 percent of married couples fit into one of these three categories. This means that both people in the relationship share the same characteristics. If the individuals in the relationship have different orientations, their union is categorized as a mixed-type marriage, such as separate-traditional, independent-sepa-rate, or traditional-independent. It should be kept in mind that the purpose of this scheme is to categorize couple types, not to determine the likelihood of marital happiness. Fitzpatrick maintains that no one type of marital relationship is more satisfactory than another type and that she has found satisfied individuals in all types of relationships.

Family Relationships

Family relationships are those relationships created among parents and children by birth, adoption, marriage, or life partnering. This means that unlike the other relationships discussed in this entry, family relationships, from a child's perspective, are not voluntary.

Many communication theorists have contended that the communication patterns people learn from their families are maintained throughout their lives. These families, according to Kathleen Galvin and Bernard Brommel (1999), are systems that need communication in order to adapt to their environments, including the communities in which they live, the educational systems they may be a part of, and the political and legal systems in which they exist. Because of the systemic nature of families, individuals in families adapt to their family, and the family, in turn, is influenced by their behavior. Galvin and Brommel contend that most families have sets of "rules" about behavior. These rules govern, among other things, what can and cannot be discussed (e.g., it is not appropriate to discuss a family member's tendency to abuse alcohol), how various topics are discussed (e.g., it is more important to tell the truth than to worry about hurting someone's feelings), and who can be told what (e.g., children should not be involved in discussions of their parents' health problems).

Because the rules can vary from one family to the next, conflict or other difficulties may occur when people from families with very different sets of rules get married and try to establish their own family.


This discussion has focused on the types of relationships that are typical of North American cultures. Although these types of relationships can be found in most other cultures, the specific norms and rules for conducting these relationships may vary—particularly in terms of appropriate communication behavior within a particular relationship type.

Understanding the types of relationships that characterize human experience is important to all people given the relational nature of human existence. It would be impossible to function in the world without these types of relationships. Most children are born into a family structure and are significantly affected by it throughout their lives. Friendships play a major role in the social activities of many individuals. Romantic relationships are important sources of interpersonal satisfaction throughout the life course. Knowing some of the sources of tension in these relationships, as well as the commonalities across relationship types, will foster individual growth and satisfaction.

See also:Interpersonal Communication; Relationships, Stages of.


Baxter, Leslie A., and Wilmot, William W. (1984). "'Secret Tests': Social Strategies for Acquiring Information about the State of Relationship." Human Communication Research 11:171-201.

Fitzpatrick, Mary Ann. (1988). Between Husbands and Wives: Communication in Marriage. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Galvin, Kathleen M. and Brommel, Bernard J. (1999). Family Communication: Cohesion and Change, 5th ed. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Rawlins, William K. (1992). Friendship Matters: Communication, Dialectics, and the Life Course. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Lea P. Stewart

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Relationships, Types of

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