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The Sociology and Anthropology of Romantic Relationships

Man is understood in various fields of study, most especially in sociology and

anthropology, to be a social being. Admittedly, he has characteristics about himself that identifies
him as a particular individual, such as his preferences, ideological and religious beliefs, and
social identifiers such as nationality, race, religion, and ethnicity all of these are explained by
the field of anthropology in order to make sense of the complexities ensconced within human
beings. However, it must also be acknowledged that there is another facet to his being: he exists
simultaneously with other people in varying degrees of interrelation. Given that interaction is
inevitable, it has become a point of the field of sociology to understand the way people interact
through various arrangements or relationships in order to form the wider framework of society.
The lives of various individuals are shaped by their personal characteristics, and catalysed by
their interactions with other social beings that compose the environment in which they exist. In
order to fully understand either the individual or his relationship to the society and explain the
phenomena that affect them, either must be understood in the context of its relation to the other
(Newman, 2004).
It is with this understanding that the concept of human romantic relationships is analysed.
The term relationship can be defined as an ongoing pattern of association and interaction
between two individuals who acknowledge some connection with each other (Furman, Brown,
& Feiring, 1999). For the purposes of this paper, the scope of the discussion only covers
relationships in the dating or courtship stages, which means there is an explicit understanding
between the couple that there is an association between them that is more complex than family
ties, as this is a result of their personal choice, or than friendship, which is understood to be
platonic. To further limit the scope, this would not include married couples, who have already

passed over the dynamics of relationships which will be discussed later, and those who are in
undefined relationships in which the commitment is not explicitly stated, whether it is to each
other or to other people with which they also interact. Fundamentally, this specific type of
relationship would involve elements of commitment, choice, exclusivity, sexual desire, and in
best-case scenarios friendship and love, although the degrees in which these elements exist
differ from a given relationship to another. These tendencies towards ambiguity and variability
makes it hard to establish definite parameters with which to identify romantic relationships,
especially what makes them different from other social arrangements such as blood relations,
friendships, work relationships, etc. That they require quite complex definitions in the first place
makes it challenging to evaluate them further, in the framework of sociological and
anthropological concepts.
In 1960, an American sociologist named Ira Weiss developed his wheel theory of love,
which is meant to explain the development of human relationships in general, but can be used to
explain the progression by which love develops in romantic relationships specifically. He
asserted that these stages are gradual and sequential, leading to the deepening of the relationship
in this case, through courtship. First, a mutual feeling of rapport is established between the two
parties after the initial acquaintance. This can be explained using various factors in either one or
both of the persons involved. For example, one side might discover a quality in the other person
that he finds interesting, either because he also holds that or wishes to acquire that quality in
himself. Whatever the reason, there is a link established that makes it easier for the two people to
transcend the distance that comes with lack of acquaintance. When this is accomplished, the
couple now ventures into self-revelation. This can be seen as a deepening of the initial rapport
that was established through a sharing of the self with the other: one of them would entrust

details about himself, as would the other person, conversely. Depending on the culture in which
this is situated, the personal preferences of the couple, as well as the intensity of the relationship
at this point, this information would range from basic, nearly trivial facts to the sharing of
experiences and ideas. In this stage, open communication is key in order to set the stage for a
condition of mutual dependency. Although this does not mean that the couple is in an established
relationship yet, the constant presence of the other, whether virtually or in reality, has
conditioned the person to cultivate a reliance due to the closeness that has developed through
time. This is not merely based on the idea of having another, but having that specific other and
expecting him to fulfil the needs of the person. Once this is confirmed, the idea of making
permanent the relationship will lead to the final stage of intimacy need fulfilment, wherein each
decides to settle down with the other person into an official relationship (Owens, 2007).
Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist, developed an understanding of the notion of
romantic love in the context of burgeoning modernization. He understood this phenomenon to
have developed at the onset of the late eighteenth century, when the ideals of individualism
began to make itself felt, especially in European culture. In order to make sense of this
development, he introduced the idea of a narrative into an individuals life a formula which
radically extended the reflexivity of sublime love (1992). In his understanding, the experience
of romantic love created a storyline within the life of the person that placed him in the center,
and emphasized his autonomy and ability to forge his own path through his decision-making
abilities. However, there is an apparent disconnect between his idea of romantic love and the one
that is now deemed acceptable and prevalent in society today. Nowadays, there is a less selfcentred view of romantic relationships, placing it not only in a dyadic point of view, but also in
the context of the wider society. It is not only the people directly involved in the relationship who

are affected by it, but others who are linked to them as well through social conventions. The
couple should be able to act accordingly, keeping their relationship in terms that would make it
acceptable to society while of course determining the course of action that would enable them to
carry out that relationship in a humanistic manner: in other words, that the notion of romantic
love should be able to create a space for two people to grow and mature with each other.
However, it cannot be assumed that all human relationships develop as the
aforementioned sociologists theorized, as though romance were a systematic concept that could
be mapped out by specifically-delineated stages or by an overarching theory that would
immediately resolve all the inconsistencies and complexities that a relationship introduces. Thus,
a multitude of other theories and frameworks have been put forth by various philosophers,
psychologists, and sociologists in order to nuance the explanation of the phenomenon of
romantic relationships that has been evading these thinkers since the beginning of time. In order
to fully explain these theories, there is a shift from a social viewpoint to a more personal,
individualistic one.
One focus is on the phenomenon of human emotions, specifically ones relevant to the
subject of romantic relationships. There have generally been two groups of scholars that attempt
to construct a theory that would comprehensively explain human emotions. The first one deals
with the biological perspective of the issue, which takes a practical viewpoint on the existence of
emotions. Theorists cite survival instincts, as well as the need for social regulation, as answers to
the question of the development and necessity of emotions in individuals, that they may become
effective and functional members of the society. Romantic emotions can easily be fit into these
conceptions of emotional capacity, especially in the framework of evolutionary theory. For
example, attraction and sexual desire almost directly contributes to the procreative need of

human beings, and helps establish the necessary prerequisites in becoming involved in a
relationship in order to be able to fulfil that need. Negative emotions also help individuals decide
the best track to take regarding these relationships, warning them of possibly developing an
attachment to the wrong persons (Furman et al., 1999).
On the other hand, there are those who believe that emotions stem from culturallydeveloped traits, and that they are concretized through scripts that human beings carry out in
their everyday social interactions. In the case of the current discussion, there are differing views
on the appropriateness of certain romantic behaviours, depending on the culture of the society
being identified. Most Western nations hold very liberal views on relationships, if the prevalence
of sexual activity in relationships involving young adults and even adolescents is any indication.
In fact, contraception, especially during cases of premarital sex, has become a commonly
accepted practice, as are cases of brief, casual sexual encounters with partners whom they are not
intimately acquainted with (Jones & Furman, 2011). However, in more conservative nations
especially those who hold to their religious beliefs tightly with regards to the notion of romantic
involvement with another in the context of courtship and dating even innocent interactions in
between members of opposite sexes are banned, much less situations of intimacy outside of
marriage. This is true of Muslim countries, for example, whose Islam beliefs hold very strict
teachings regarding sexuality, even in the context of romantic relationships.
These drastic differences between cultures show that romantic behaviour differs among
various cultures, which often dictates the individual conduct of the human person in society. It
would affect how he reacts to social situations, and if he could express his feelings and motives
without fear of judgment or censure. This would then affect how he carries out his social
obligations and creates relationships with other people, especially romantic ones. The cultural

context of the actors shape the way they conduct themselves, and how they interact with the
other members that coexist with them within the society in which they are situated.
On a more humanistic and anthropological perspective, we can take the ideas of Scott
Peck, an American psychiatrist who created an understanding of love not in the context of
feelings and desires, but of a more active nature of decision and activity. He defines love as the
will to extend ones self for the purpose of nurturing ones own or anothers spiritual growth
(Peck, 1992). This brings into the discussion a point of view on the notion of romantic
relationships: the concept of selflessness towards the other, in order that there might be growth
and maturity for the couple in the situation. Instead of looking at the context of wider society, the
couple decide to look to themselves and each other instead, displaying their capacity for human
agency that is exigent in an anthropological understanding of the topic.
Certain conventions have been established regarding the social norms that should be held
regarding issues related to romantic relationships. One such topic was brought up earlier: the
question of sexual activity outside the context of marriage. The short answer to the question of
whether this situation is socially acceptable is: it depends on the culture being taken into account.
As mentioned beforehand, Western cultures are more receptive to these liberal notions that more
religious and conservative nations would disagree with and even condemn. A more nuanced
answer would take into consideration other factors such as the views of each individual
concerned with the question. The same goes for other issues problematized by a majority of
societies regarding romantic relationships such as the also aforementioned contraception, and
homosexuality. The ultimate assertion would take into account a wide array of factors that mirror
the vastness of the notion of human society in the lens of sociology and anthropology. This
means that it is improbable that an all-encompassing framework can be constructed that would

explain in a universal manner the notion of romantic relationships in the context of human
societies. However, with the help of sociological and anthropological studies, there can emerge a
more nuanced and helpful understanding of this social phenomenon that has its roots in
evolutionary biology. With this ever-expanding body of knowledge, there can be a better
understanding of the thinking and decision-making processes that an individual employs that
dictate his actions the way he exists in his society and interacts with other inhabitants of that
society. Using this more sophisticated worldview, scholars also have a better tool for predicting
the actions people will take in situations involving romantic relationships, and the effect these
will have in shaping society.

Furman, W., Brown, B. B., & Feiring, C. (1999). The development of romantic relationships in
adolescence. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Giddens, A. (1992). The transformation of intimacy: sexuality, love, and eroticism in modern
societies. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Jones, M. C., & Furman, W. (2011). Representations of romantic relationships, romantic
experience, and sexual behavior in adolescence. Personal relationships, 18(1), 144-164.
Newman, D. M., & Harper, D. A. (2004). Sociology: exploring the architecture of everyday life
(5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press.
Owens, E. (2007). The sociology of love, courtship, and dating. In C.D. Bryant & D.L. Peck
(Eds.), 21st century sociology: a reference handbook (pp. 266-271). Thousand Oaks:
SAGE Publications.
Peck, M. S. (1978). The road less traveled: a new psychology of love, traditional values, and
spiritual growth. New York: Simon and Schuster.