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Intimate Relationships:

Personality Development through


Interaction during Early Life
Maren Cardillo
Northwestern University

Abstract
This paper reveals a theory of personality based on the formation of intimate relationships
during the early stages of a person's lifetime. During infancy, childhood, adolescence, and
young adulthood, new needs and tensions arise in the individual. In attempt to seek ways of
adapting to these newfound stresses, people develop different kinds of intimate
relationships that ultimately form their personality. Relationships formed during each stage
of life serve as a prototype for interactions in later stages. For this reason, there exists a
continuum of relationships formed throughout a lifetime that shape and mold specific
personality traits.

Neither intimacy nor individual development can exist alone. The birth of a child initiates a
human being into a life-long process of mutual adaptation between the child, his or her
intimate relationship partners and the broader social environment. Intimate interactions and
relationships affect adaptations to the changing needs and stresses that evolve with each
stage of development throughout one's lifetime. Intimate interactions from early life serve
as the basis upon which relationships later in life are formed. Environmental contingencies
to which individuals must adapt are rooted in these relationships. In an attempt to adapt to
other people's styles of relating, one must adjust his or her own behaviors (Baldwin, 1992).
Based on the fact that human development is a product of complex interplay of forces that
reside within the individual human being and the environment by which he or she is
surrounded, it can be proposed that interpersonal interactions and relationships shape
individual personality and coping styles. Psychological maturity involves integrating intimacy
into a life framework that encompasses all parts of the self.

Relationships Formed during Infancy and


Childhood
Dimensions of Temperament
From the time of birth, every individual is biologically predisposed to approach the world
with his or her own personal style. Studies of infants suggest that some variability in human
behavior may result directly or indirectly from genetic differences. Developmental
psychologists term these differences as dimensions of temperament. Based on chemical,
biological, experiential, interpersonal, and social factors, different dimensions of
temperament manifest themselves over time and across different situations. Psychologists
Buss and Plomin have proposed the existence of four basic temperament dimensions
present in human beings (McAdams, 1989):

1. Emotionality is the tendency to express negative emotions such as anger and fear
frequently and vigorously.
2. Activity is the degree of physical movement that a person characteristically shows.
3. Impulsivity is the degree to which a person acts quickly without deliberation, moves
from one activity to the next, and finds it difficult to practice self-control.
4. Sociability is the tendency to be outgoing and friendly and to enjoy the company of
others (McAdams, 1989, pp. 136-137).

According to this theory, persons are inherently born with tendencies to develop these four
temperaments to different levels. These dimensions are present in infancy and continue to
grow throughout childhood and adulthood. The social environment reacts to these
tendencies, modifying and shaping them in different ways. Such modifications are the
results of interpersonal relationships that begin to form during early life. The development of
a unique interpersonal style is a function of temperament (McAdams, 1989).

The Mother-Child Relationship


A human being's first intimate relationship is the mother-child relationship. According to
Freud (1949), a human being's first encounter with intimate behavior is with his or her
mother during the act of breast-feeding. "The act of sucking is the most primitive manner of
knowing the innermost self of another, and to suck the other into one's innermost"
(McAdams, 1989, p. 139). During infancy, the baby obtains nourishment and pleasure from
sucking at the mother's breast, thus reducing tension caused by the hunger drive.
Engagement in such a tension-relieving activity during this early stage serves as the
prototype for relationships that develop later on in life. Life-stage-related changes in stress,
tension, and needs are based on the outcome of such coping attempts formed during
infancy. The need for security and comfort play an important role in shaping the interactions
with caregivers (McAdams, 1989, pp. 71-81).

Attachment
According to the Bowlby and Ainsworth (1991), the love between a mother and an infant is
the result of an attachment bond formed during the first year of life. Interactions between a
child and his or her mother form behavioral patters that are reflected in later relationships.
An example of the development of personality as a result of this bond can be seen in the
securely attached infant. As a result of sensitivity and responsiveness on the part of the
caregiver, an infant may develop a "secure" attachment style (Rothbard & Shaver, 1994).
Infants who develop "secure" personality types feel confident and at ease when relating to
others. They learn how to take turns, how to lead and follow, and how to express and
receive. The attachment bond serves as a prototype and provides the earliest pattern for
warm and close relationships (McAdams, 1989, pp. 140-143).

Interactions with Peers


During preschool years, a child's need for autonomy and individuation influences his or her
intimate interactions with peers. Children look to share and communicate while enjoying the
company of their peers. These interactions are based on the quest for coexistence between
their newfound independence and the love they experienced during infancy.

Aspects of the parent-child relationship affect the efficacy of children's adaptations.


Competencies acquired through interactions with parents are reflected in children's
interactions with peers. In laboratory studies, children who show more self-reliance and
control are found to have parents who are nurturing. In contrast, children who are less
autonomous are found to have parents who are more permissive (Prager, 1995, p. 89). In
nursery school and kindergarten, children who had developed a secure attachment bond
during infancy are described by their teachers as more socially competent and popular. They
are observed to show more dominance and initiative (McAdams, 1989, p. 143).

Such peer interactions characterized by autonomy, sensitivity, empathetic concern, and


ability to verbalize emotions reflect the formation of intimate friendships later on (Prager,
1995, p. 87). It is thus apparent that behavioral patterns resulting from relationships formed
during infancy are reflected in peer interactions. In turn, these interactions serve as a basis
for relationships that develop in the next stage of life.

Relationships Formed during Adolescence


and Early Adulthood
Maturity
Children entering adolescence must begin to adapt to the adult world and its institutions
while coming to terms with emerging parts of themselves. They discover themselves as
having new emotional and sexual needs. As they make these discoveries, adolescents begin
to realize the limitations of their parents. Taking responsibility for aspects of their own
character requires distancing from authoritative figures (Graham & Lafollette, 1989, p. 223).

Friendships
Over the course of social development, the role of friends and parents changes significantly.
During early adolescence, the amount of time that North American children spend with their
family drops roughly in half (Westen, 1996, p. 547). As an adolescent undergoes physical
and emotional changes, he or she seeks out relationships that enhance efforts to adapt to
new needs and stresses. Adolescents seek to share their thoughts and feelings with those
who are experiencing similar changes. Intimate interactions increase between friends during
this stage in life because they provide teens with opportunities for self-clarification. Through
the formation of coconstructive dialogues between friends, teens can participate together in
exploring and constructing selves.

Referring back to the example of the securely attached infant, it can be inferred that the
ability to construct such dialogues directly stems from earlier interactions. The secure
infant's sensitive and autonomous personality traits were reflected in relationships with
peers. These traits reappear in the dialogues formed with friends during adolescence. The
egalitarian authority structure of friendship lends itself to such exchanges and relieves the
pressure adolescents might feel to yield to the views of adult supremacy (Youniss, 1980).

Multiple Selves
During late adolescence, one must first confront the problem of multiple selves. For the first
time, an adolescent realizes that his or her personality changes from one situation to the
next. This is the stage of life during which one looks to craft a narrative of the self that
provides a sense of sameness and continuity. The desire to discover how one is the same
from one situation to the next dominates the desire to discover how one is the same as
other people. The importance of intimate friendship and romance formed during early
adulthood stems from the valuable and adaptive contribution dialogues made with friends
during adolescence. Personality differences can be identified by capacities to form intimate
relationships characterized by commitment, depth, and partner individuation based on
interactions of early life (Prager, 1995, pp. 131-133).

Self Definition through Story


During the transformation from adolescence to early adulthood, a person seeks to discover
the self through story in historical and biographical terms. Whereas the child views his or her
past as a simple series of factual events, a curiosity is invoked in a young adult who seeks to
uncover the meaning and the validity of these facts. For the first time, one does not search
for oneself in others, but rather confronts the other as a separate person with whom one
longs to connect (McAdams, 1989, pp. 156-159). The ability of an individual to combine his
or her multiple selves and to create a well-articulated life story results in the ability to guide
one's actions, emotions, and personality traits.
Conclusion
Intimate relationships formed during infancy, childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood
give rise to continuing relationships, and ultimately to individual development. These life
stages are associated with richer bodies of knowledge about intimacy than any other (Savin-
Williams & Berndt, 1990). Relationships are formed as adaptive measures necessary for
coping with adjustments and transitions. Concerns with the self and with one's ability to
adapt cause people to seek identity through intimacy. Children seek to develop autonomy
while maintaining the ability to retreat to their caregiver for support. Adolescents are
concerned with developing individuation while still seeking acceptance of those around
them. Young adults confront the challenge of molding an adult identity. Relationships
provide context in which children, adolescents, and young adults can resolve life-stage-
related preoccupations about their individual personality.