Yesterday, I listened to an eminent relationship scholar talk about the research he has been conducting for decades. It is great work, and the talk was impressive. Except for one thing: When he talked about “relationships,” he was actually referring to just one kind of relationship – a romantic one.
In our everyday conversations, we often use the word “relationship” in that one specific way. So when you ask someone whether they are in a relationship, they will answer “no” as long as they are not in a coupled relationship.
“Relationship,” though is a great big word. It covers all sorts of human connections, including ties to friends, parents, children, siblings, other family members, coworkers, neighbors, mentors, and more.
There is a lively academic field of personal relationships, complete with multiple journals, annual conferences, funded research projects, and stacks of books. Asked for a formal definition of “relationship,” no scholar would limit the description only to connections that might include sex. Yet, that’s how academics use the word in their talks and even in their scholarly publications.
Articles published in relationship journals have titles such as these:
- “Theories of relationships”
- “Reciprocity in relationships”
- “Relationship quality and self-other concepts”
Yet these articles, and many others like them, aren’t actually about relationships, in the big, broad, accurate sense of the word; they are only about couples’ relationships.
Decades ago, when scholars did studies that included (say) only men, they could publish titles and summaries that referred to people in general, giving readers the impression that their research was about all of humanity. Only when readers got to the methods section would they realize that there were no women included in the research. These days, that’s not allowed. First, unless you are studying something like prostate cancer, you can’t include only men in your research and still get federal funding. Second, if you have a compelling reason to study just one group, you need to acknowledge that limitation in the abstract (summary). It is time for relationship researchers to do the same.
There’s something much more troubling than the use of the word “relationship” in a way that excludes all relationship types except one. All of the other adult relationships are rarely studied.
In 2002, Karen Fingerman and Elizabeth Hay searched through all of the articles published over the course of six years in the six academic journals that most often publish relationship research. They found 976 relevant studies. Then, for each relationship type, they counted the number of studies that included that relationship. Here are a few of their findings:
- 432 studies of spouses
- 245 studies of romantic partners
- 12 studies of best friends
- 124 studies of friends
- 40 studies of siblings
The field of relationships research is dominated by the study of coupled relationships. Yet, if you were to ask people, all through their adult lives, if they have a romantic partner, a friend, or a sibling, you would find at every age that more people have a friend and more have a sibling than have a spouse or partner.
At a party held after the scholar’s talk, as I was holding forth about how we should not use the word relationship to refer only to coupled relationships, someone asked why academics have focused so overwhelmingly on just this one relationship type. I don’t know the answer, and will save my guesses for some other time.
For now, my bottom line is this: If you have a friend, a sibling, a parent, a child, a cousin, a coworker, a neighbor, or just about any other person in your life, and you maintain a connection with that person, you have a relationship. You are in a relationship.
I feel the same way about love. As I explained here, it is a word with big, broad meanings. Let’s celebrate all of them.