Can being physically close be “too close” for some individuals in intimate romantic relationships, leading to relationship dysfunction? Recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology provides new evidence that the value of closeness in intimate romantic relationships is subjective and nuanced. A recently published set of studies attempts to shed light on proximity.
For older adults, the concept of being together but living apart in separate residences (LAT, or living-apart-together), is not unheard of for romantic partners who meet later in life—such as in a senior living community. Although co-residing in the same household (COR, or coresidence) is the norm for many young couples, individuals who do not desire to raise a family, or those who are later in life, may decide to enter a long-term romantic relationship with a partner who they do not plan to live with.
Differing desires for communal living arrangements between individuals—and within individuals over time—presents an interesting avenue and environment for researchers to further understand what it means to be “close” to another person—especially in older adults—and how desires for individual agency and yearnings for dyadic intimacy can coexist in romantic partnerships.
One of the main hypotheses that the researchers put forth is that individuals with stronger agentic motives (e.g., desire for personal freedom, greater need for privacy, etc.), were predicted to display a preference for LAT over COR relationships—especially in the case of older adults. One of the other major notions tested was the prediction that those individuals with high levels of agentic needs would experience more relationship problems if they were currently in a COR compared to individuals with similar levels of agentic motives in LAT relationships.
The authors analyzed data from 548 heterosexual German couples ranging in age from 18 to 73. Study participants completed measures designed to address a variety of important variables including both direct and indirect assessments of individuals’ agentic motives, which gauged differences in desire to create distance from one’s partner. In addition, frequency of conflict between partners and sources of conflict were also collected.
After controlling for relationship duration and additional household members or roommates, findings supported the notion that older couples were more than twice as likely to be LAT as younger couples. What’s more, strong agentic motives were associated with an increased probability of being in a LAT partnership. Thus, there is support for the idea that LAT relationships are an attractive option for older adults. Above and beyond age, this study provides support for the notion that certain individual differences, such as having agency-related motivations, may make LAT arrangement a more attractive option for some individuals compared to the more hetero-normative COR route.
To test their other main hypothesis—that individuals with stronger agentic motives would experience more relationship conflict if they were in a COR compared to similar individuals in LAT relationships—the authors analyzed dyadic conflicts. Specifically, they tested the data to determine how the amount and type of agentic motives influenced the experience of conflict in both COR and LAT couples. Results supported they general hypothesis: explicitly, men’s agentic motives tended to have a more substantial impact on conflict in COR than in LAT relations. What’s more, women’s explicit agentic motives were found to be predictive of less conflict in LATs, but not in CORs.
These results suggest that agentic motives may have beneficial effect for couples if the contextual conditions are “right” (i.e., the living arrangement fits the agentic needs of both individuals). In other words, there needs to be a complementary relationship between individuals’ motivations of closeness and independence in order to increase the likelihood of both members perceiving the relationship in a positive manner. Beyond that, having a living arrangement that supports needs for closeness and agentic motives may serve to further bolster relationship quality.
Generally, being in close physical proximity to one’s partner is seen as a positive element of romantic relationships; however, the results of this research shed light on the fact that this seemingly beneficial effect may become diminished or even become negative if partners hold strong agentic motives. This provides new insight and food for thought for older adults who are considering whether or not to live separately or together with romantic partnerships formed later in life.
Hagemeyer B, Schonbrodt FD, Neyer FJ, et al. When “together” means “too close”: Agency motives and relationship functioning in coresident and living-apart-together couples. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2015); 109: 813–835.