The Connection Between Closeness and Relational Health is More Complicated Than We Think
By David M. Frost (Columbia University) & Cat Forrester (San Francisco State University)
Romantic relationships are an integral part of how we organize our understanding of both our world and ourselves. One crucial component of romantic relationships is closeness: How close are romantic partners? How close should they be? Is more closeness necessarily better than less closeness, or does it depend on the individuals involved? What impact does closeness have on the health of a relationship and the mental health of each member of a couple?
The prevailing sentiment in studies of closeness is that greater closeness between two partners leads to a stronger relationship and better mental health for both partners. Psychological research on close relationships often measures closeness by how much people include aspects of their partners within their own self-concept: a term coined by Aron et al. as Inclusion of Other in Self, or IOS (Agnew, Loving, Le, & Goodfriend, 2004; Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992). Including qualities of one’s partner in one’s self-concept (e.g., their identities, resources, experiences) is thought to produce beneficial outcomes for both the relationship and the individual (Aron, Norman, & Aron, 2001). The majority of psychological research therefore indicates that closeness—or more overlap between one’s sense of self and one’s partner—is a key marker of quality, healthy relationships. However, people vary a great deal in the amount of closeness they desire within their relationships (Aron et al., 2004; Mashek & Sherman, 2004).
In light of these potentially conflicting views on the optimal experience of closeness, we sought to identify what matters most for mental health and well-being in long-term relationships: how close people actually feel to their partners, or whether people’s actual experiences of closeness in their relationships match how close they would like to feel to their partners. To investigate these questions, we analyzed longitudinal data from an online survey that took place in yearly intervals over the course of three years. The survey was focused on understanding predictors of relational well-being and health among a diverse sample of partnered individuals living in the United States and Canada. We used Aron and colleagues’ (1992) IOS scale to measure how individuals conceptualized their own experiences of relational closeness. This pictorial scale depicted six sets of two circles in which one circle represented the participant’s “self” and the other represented the participant’s “partner.” The sets were presented with varying degrees of overlap ranging from completely separate to almost completely overlapping. We used two sets of the IOS scale: the first one asked participants to select their actual (i.e., “current”) levels of IOS and a second version assessed participants’ ideal levels of IOS (Mashek & Sherman, 2004). We then calculated IOS discrepancy scores, wherein a negative score indicated feeling “not close enough” to one’s partner, positive scores indicated feeling “too close” to one’s partner, and scores of zero indicated no discrepancy between actual and ideal experiences of IOS.
In part, our findings resonated with the current psychological literature which indicates that closeness is indicative of greater relational well-being, including increased satisfaction, commitment, and fewer thoughts about ending one’s relationship. However, we also found that individuals’ actual experiences of IOS in their relationships are only part of a more nuanced experience of the association between closeness and health. Specifically, optimal levels of relational well-being and mental health were achieved at times when individuals’ actual experiences of closeness in their relationships matched their idealized levels of closeness with their relationship partners, regardless of whether their experience of actual closeness was high or low (Figure 1).
Even further, if actual experiences of closeness with a partner became aligned with ideal experiences of closeness over time, participants experienced significant and substantial increases in relational well-being and mental health. However, the opposite was true when experiences of closeness moved further away from ideal levels of closeness over time. When this happened we observed concomitant decreases in relational well-being and mental health (Figure 2). Finally, those participants who reported closeness discrepancies at baseline were more than twice as likely to break up with their partners during the course of the 3-year study than those who had no closeness discrepancy at baseline. Interestingly, the effects of participants’ closeness discrepancies on changes in relational well-being, dissolution, and mental health persisted regardless of how close they actually felt to their partner.
Understanding people’s experiences of closeness in their romantic relationships via their reports of actual–ideal closeness discrepancies has tremendous potential not only for future research on closeness, IOS, and health and well-being in close relationships, but for clinical and counseling work with couples and individuals as well. Having couples reflect on their current and ideal levels of closeness on multiple occasions can assist clinicians and counselors in their abilities to target interventions aimed at eliminating closeness discrepancies and problematic experiences of enmeshment and intrusiveness, thereby improving the health and well-being of their patients and clients. Furthermore, the present findings suggest that efforts focused on improving relational well-being and mental health in couples should not limit themselves to the promotion of closeness but instead focus on the alignment of individuals’ experiences of closeness and their ideal levels of closeness with their partners. Future theory and research should emphasize the role of subjective experiences of desired closeness and avoid prescriptively perpetuating a “more = better” approach in efforts to more fully understand the role that closeness plays in determining health and well-being in long-term romantic relationships.
David M. Frost, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Population and Family Health at Columbia University. His research lies at the intersection of sexuality, close relationships, and health. He is currently engaged in several projects examining the effects of intimacy and closeness on couples’ mental and sexual health and relational well-being.
Cat Forrester, M.A. is a recent graduate of the Sexuality Studies program at San Francisco State University. Her research interests include closeness in romantic relationships and modes of sexual orientation and gender identity expression in the online dating realm.
Agnew, C. R., Loving, T. J., Le, B., & Goodfriend, W. (2004). Thinking close: Measuring closeness as perceived self-other inclusion. In D. J. Mashek & A. Aron (Eds.), Handbook of closeness and intimacy (pp. 103-116). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Aron, A., Aron, E. N., & Smollan, D. (1992). Inclusion of Other in the Self scale and the structure of interpersonal closeness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 596-612.
Aron, A., Norman, C. C., & Aron, E. N. (2001). Shared selfexpanding activities as a means of maintaining and enhancing close romantic relationships. In J. Harvey & A. Wenzel (Eds.), Close romantic relationships: Maintenance and enhancement (pp. 47-66). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Aron, A., McLaughlin-Volpe, T., Mashek, D., Lewandowski, G., Wright, S. C., & Aron, E. N. (2004). Including others in the self. European Review of Social Psychology, 15, 101-132.
Mashek, D. J., & Sherman, M. D. (2004). Desiring less closeness with intimate others. In D. J. Mashek & A. Aron (Eds.), Handbook of closeness and intimacy (pp. 343-356). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.