Relationship Science: The Study of Interpersonal Relationships

Relationship Science: The Study of Interpersonal Relationships
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 15 January, 2023

We often see human relationships as ethereal and spiritual. Indeed, elements like affinity, affection, loyalty, and romance seem too abstract to be measured and explained logically and scientifically. However, the truth is that all relationships are mediated by biological reactions and cognitive patterns. Relationship science studies these phenomena.

The majority of studies in this discipline focus on intimate relationships, particularly family and partner relationships. However, psychologists, sociologists, biologists, and other professionals in this field also study the kinds of relationships that aren’t so close. For instance, those between professional colleagues or acquaintances.

Relationship science (the empirical study of human relationships) began at the beginning of the 20th century. Since then, it’s generated valuable contributions to the understanding of how we interact with others.

Couple looking at each other
Intimate relationships are shaped by sexual passion and frequent, strong, and diverse interdependence.

Relationship science and its main contributions

This field of study has multiple ramifications. In fact, it’s given rise to extremely solid theories with important applications. In effect, it provides clarity on the definition of relationships. It defines what they are and what they consist of as well as how they vary. Moreover, it distinguishes between the various degrees of connection that can be established :

  • For there to be a relationship between two people at the most basic level, both parties must be interdependent. In other words, they’re interconnected and influence each other in some way.
  • When both parties consider each other to be unique and irreplaceable, it constitutes a personal relationship. These include acquaintances, colleagues, and relatives.
  • Close relationships are formed when interdependence is strong, frequent, and diverse and lasts over time. In this category, more significant ties such as friendships or certain family connections are included.
  • When, in addition to the above, sexual passion exists, these are intimate relationships. They include marriages, courtships, and other sexual-affective ties.

As well as these distinctions (which, although they seem obvious, are key to understanding the different types of relationships), the field of relationship science also provides further information.

One of the first areas to be studied by relationship science was family bonds and parent-child experiences. For example, contributions such as those made by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in respect of attachment theory have been crucial in understanding human connections.

Thanks to these works and subsequent research, it’s now established that our primary bonds shape our personalities, self-esteem, and trust in others. Even more importantly, these attachments acquired in childhood tend to remain stable and influence our adult relationships. Indeed, we build our connections based on our relationships with our parents.

Relationships are transactional

Another interesting finding concerns the transactional nature of relationships. This means the way in which they constitute a social exchange. In fact, we’re continually evaluating the gains or losses that they represent for us. We analyze the positives and negatives of our relationships and compare them with our ideals and alternative options.

For example, the feelings of satisfaction in a couple may depend on how responsive one partner is to the emotions and needs of the other, or their ability to communicate and resolve conflicts. If the overall assessment yields negative results, the abandonment of the relationship is highly likely.

Biological beings

There’s one branch of relationship science that seeks to understand how our behavior is related to our past and how it influenced our evolution and survival. Among other aspects, evolutionary theories explain the processes of sexual selection and the formation of couples.

Relationship science reminds us that we’re conditioned by our biology. For example, research has proved that in many different cultures, men prefer younger and more attractive female partners (fertility symbols). On the other hand, women seek older male partners with financial stability (to help ensure the safety of their offspring).

Environment is important

One last relevant contribution of the discipline is the study of how the environment influences and affects relationships. In fact, not everything is in our hands: stressful situations outside relationships can make it difficult to maintain high-quality bonds.

For instance, financial or work stress, illness, and other adverse situations tend to predict dissatisfaction in relationships and breakups. This is especially the case if the demands of the environment exceed the resources and capacities of the members of the couple.

In addition, the cultural context in which a couple is immersed (with its norms, customs, and traditions), as well as the family and the immediate environment, exert an undeniable influence on the trajectory of a relationship. As a matter of fact, these can either contribute to the failure or the flourishing of a bond.

Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law arguing
Stressful and complicated situations outside of a relationship can negatively influence it.

Practical applications of relationship science

The above are just some of the insights concerning human connections derived from relationship science. Ultimately, this approach explores the construction, maintenance, and dissolution of ties, as well as the biological, psychological, and cultural reasons underlying these processes.

However, in addition to allowing a greater understanding of why we connect and how our relationships work, this discipline also has practical applications. Most importantly, its findings can help us recognize which attitudes and behaviors we need to change and invest in if we want to enjoy successful relationships. 

Since relationships have a profound influence on health, psychological well-being, and quality of life, taking care of them is a priority. In this regard, relationship science may provide many answers and guidelines.

It might interest you...
How Relationships Change Over Time
Exploring your mind
Read it in Exploring your mind
How Relationships Change Over Time

Relationships change over time. People change, their relationships mature, and they move toward more stability.



  • Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and brain sciences12(1), 1-14.
  • Finkel, E. J., Simpson, J. A., & Eastwick, P. W. (2017). The psychology of close relationships: Fourteen core principles. Annual Review of Psychology68, 383-411.
  • Karney, B. R., & Neff, L. A. (2013). Couples and stress: How demands outside a relationship affect intimacy within the relationship. In J. A. Simpson & L. Campbell (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of close relationships (pp. 664–684). Oxford University Press.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.