Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Close Relationships Research: A Resource for Couple and Family Therapists

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Close Relationships Research: A Resource for Couple and Family Therapists

Article excerpt

This article describes the relatively new field of close relationships research, offering a representative list of topics studied by relationship researchers. Some of the common interests shared by both close relationships researchers and couple and family therapists are described, with the shared emphasis on relationships as an anchor for both fields. Some representative love theories are discussed, and Love Styles theory and research are presented in considerable detail. A clinical case example indicates how love styles research may be employed to advantage by couple therapists, and the utility of other close relationships theories and measures for therapy is briefly discussed.

As a counseling psychologist, close relationships researcher, and marriage and family therapist, I feel a natural affinity for both the close relationships and couple and family therapy fields. Topical areas and findings in the close relationships area are so relevant to the research and practice of couple and family therapy that I want to share my experiences in both worlds.

The close relationships area, referred to more recently as relationship science (Berscheid, 1999), is an interdisciplinary research area emerging largely during the last two to three decades. Several research traditions coalesced to form this new field, including the interpersonal attraction work of social psychologists, the emphasis on the family unit from family studies and family sociology, and the focus on interpersonal communication from communication studies. These largely separate tributaries have formed a single strong and ever-widening stream of research and applications (e.g., books, articles, two journals, organizations, and conferences) to the varied forms of close relationships, including but not limited to the romantic couple (dating, cohabiting, and married couples), parent-child relationships, same-gender and cross-gender friendships, relationships in the workplace, and under-studied relationships, such as gay and lesbian, and multiracial/multiethnic relationships.


The close relationships area has much in common with the couple/marriage and family therapy field. First, both fields have a substantial interest in the relationship as a primary unit of focus. To be sure, many couple therapists work with only one member of a dyad, because that partner requires individual attention before the couple can be treated, because the nonattending partner refuses therapy, or because of some other reason. Close relationships researchers frequently focus on individual participants, because individuals' emotions, cognitions, or behaviors are of primary interest, because couple samples are more difficult to secure than samples of individuals, and so on. Yet the attuned therapist always views the individual as part of a dyad/system (as well as of a larger social network). The relationship partner is often in the therapy room, either explicitly through an intervention, such as an empty chair, or implicitly through the power of a relationship to surround and penetrate the individual. For the researcher, the proximal focus may be one partner in a relationship, yet the distal focus is always the relationship. The effort for the researcher is to understand and perhaps predict the relationship, whereas the effort for the therapist is to improve and perhaps shape the relationship. Both description and prediction are of interest to the couple/marital therapist and to the close relationships researcher.

One recent review by a practicing clinician and active researcher (Johnson, 2003) keys in on the utility of relationship research for the couple and family therapist and scholar. Susan Johnson does this by referring to relationship science as "evolving and supporting a renewal of the discipline of couples therapy" (p. 182) and by singling out work on attachment (e.g., Cassidy & Shaver, 1999), especially adult attachment, which she believes provides a particularly elegant and applicable overarching theory for love and other phenomena in couple relationships. …

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