Knowledge Base of Psychology

Connecting Perspectives and Theories to Relationships

Introduction of Psychology and Social Psychology

Psychology, as defined by the American Psychological Association (2014), is the scientific study of normal and abnormal human thoughts and behaviors. Psychologists seek to analyze and treat individuals with mental and emotional problems. They also promote the importance of mental and physical well-being as well as emotional resilience (APA, 2014). The development of psychological science traces back to 1879, when German professor Wilhelm Wundt, sought to create an apparatus to measure “atoms of the mind” (Myers, 2013). From there, different branches of psychology were developed, each seeking to analyze behaviors using different perspectives.

The field of social psychology analyzes how individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by others and specifically examines the social context of the situation (Kassin, Fein, & Marcus, 2012). Social psychologists apply the scientific method to study observable behaviors in different types of social interactions and relationships, and also study factors that affect individuals’ private beliefs and attitudes (Kassin et al., 2012). The development of social psychology has been credited to three individuals: William McDougall, Edward Ross, and Floyd Alpert (Kassin et al., 2012). Because social psychology delves into the world of interpersonal relationships and examines how individuals influence one another in different situations, this particular field can be applied to the study of couples’ relationships in marriage and family therapy.

What sets the field of social psychology apart from other disciplines such as sociology, clinical psychology, personality psychology, and cognitive psychology? Although sociologists and social psychologists study similar issues such as cultural differences, marriage, and violence, sociologists focus on the group, while social psychologists focus on the individual In addition, social psychologists are more likely to conduct experiments with variables that may be manipulated to study relationships and determine effects. Whereas clinical psychologists attempt to analyze and treat individuals with behavioral or mental disorders, social psychologists to not focus on disorders and instead, study individuals’ normal thoughts, feelings, behaviors and how people influence one another (Kassin et al., 2012). Personality psychologists and social psychologists both study individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, however, social psychologists try to understand how social factors affect individuals regardless of their personalities and personality psychologists try to understand individuals’ differences which remain stable across different situations. Lastly, like social psychologists, cognitive psychologists are interested in studying mental processes in individuals, however social psychologists tend to focus on how individuals think, learn, and reason while taking into consideration how social information affects thoughts and how they affect social behavior (Kassin et al., 2012).


In studying individuals’ interpersonal relationships, social psychologists have used various approaches such as the cognitive developmental perspective, the psychodynamic perspective, cognitive learning perspectives, systems perspectives, and biological perspectives. All of the previously mentioned perspectives attempt to explain individuals’ behaviors in different ways and with the application of the scientific method, many theories have been developed. Three such theories from the cognitive developmental, and psychodynamic perspectives may be applied toward the understanding of couples’ relationships: Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, Freud’s psychodynamic theory, and Erikson’s psychosocial theory.

Cognitive Developmental Perspective: Lev Vygotsky's (1978) Sociocultural Theory Applied to Relationships

The cognitive developmental perspective attempts to explain children’s development by assessing their social environment and cognitive development. Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory is an example of the cognitive development perspective and places an emphasis on norms and culture and how they affect an individual (Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2011). According to Vygotsky (1978), young children gain much of their knowledge from social interactions with their environment and a skillful, “more knowledgeable other (MKO)” such as a parent, teacher, or other role model. Children attempt to understand the skilled other’s behaviors and beliefs, and in turn, they model and regulate their behavior based on what they have observed (McLeod, 2013). This process of learning may help to assess how behaviors developed in childhood affect the relationships of individuals in their later years. For example, in the United States, common expectations of a marriage include love, stability, and monogamy (Culhane, 2012). Consider a child who observes his/her parents (MKO) in a marriage which violates the norms and cultural expectations of a stable, loving marriage. When the child witnesses his/her parents engaging in frequent arguments and violent behaviors towards one another, the child may learn and internalize their behaviors, and apply the knowledge to his/her future relationships. In such cases, researchers have found that the child learns inappropriate behaviors from his partnership with his models and is at greater risk of suffering from aggressive behaviors, difficulties with relationships, poor emotion regulation, and emotional insecurity as adults (Cummings et al., 2006 as cited in Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2011).

Psychodynamic Perspective: Sigmund Freud's Psychodynamic Theory Applied to Relationships

The psychodynamic theory which was developed by Sigmund Freud, asserts that development and growth are controlled by unconscious biological drives which are shaped by encounters in the environment. According to Freud, the process of development occurs in five stages: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. Children must satisfy their needs in each stage to prevent the development of negative behaviors. For example, a child who fails to satisfy needs for oral stimulation in infancy are more likely to smoke, talk, or kiss a lot in adulthood, which may affect their relationships. In addition, according to Freud’s theory, a child who has been toilet trained early with strict parents may become demanding adults who expect cleanliness and orderliness from their partners in relationships (Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2011).

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Psychodynamic Perspective: Erik Erikson's Psychosocial Theory and its Application to Relationships

Like Freud's psychodynamic theory, Erik Erikson developed the psychosocial theory. His theory asserts that development occurs in eight stages in which certain tasks must be completed and is affected by interactions with the environment. In Erikson’s first stage, a child must acquire trust in others, which is related to the idea of the development of secure attachments. Numerous studies have suggested that attachments to parents in infancy are related to romantic relationships in adulthood; that is, adult styles of romantic love resemble secure and trusting attachments, insecure and anxious attachments, or avoidant attachments (Feeney & Noller, 1990; Rholes & Simpson, 2002; Shaver & Mikulincer, 2007 as cited in Myers, 2013). For example, infants with a secure attachment were found to have better conflict management and positive relationships with their romantic partners in adulthood (Roisman et al., 2005) and were more securely attached to their relationships in their 20's (Grossmann et al., 2002, 2008 as cited in Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2011). Furthermore, Hazan and Shaver (1987, 1990) have found that securely attached adults placed a higher value on relationships than their careers, adults with ambivalent attachments emphasized love but claimed that love often interfered with job performance, and avoidant adults regarded work to be more important than love and relationships (as cited in Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2011).

Lastly, problems which arise in any of Erikson’s stages may affect an individual’s relationship in adulthood. For example, as previously mentioned, problems arising in the first stage may lead to mistrust in relationships and perhaps, a lowered sense of importance on love and relationships. In addition, if problems arise in later stages such as the development of an identity or achieving intimacy with others, an individual may avoid developing a relationship with others or may “shut” a significant other out. Furthermore, an individual who fails at their of those stages may also have an unstable romantic relationship which lacks intimacy and/or sex (Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2011).

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