Care-giving refers to an individual’s behaviors aimed at providing support and protection for a partner. The care-giving system is parallel and complementary to the attachment system. In effect, care-giving can be thought of as an individual’s attempt to serve as an attachment figure for a romantic partner—to be a safe haven or a secure base.


Communication skills such as sensitivity and responsiveness are essential to providing competent support for a romantic partner (Reis & Patrick, 1996). Such skills are clearly important because good care-giving and high levels of emotional support are associated with relationship satisfaction (Carnelley et al., 1996; Feeney, 1996) and well-being (Burleson, 2003). Our anecdotal impression is that most—though not all—young people enjoy being a caregiver to their boyfriend or girlfriend.

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Relationship Care-giving

In romantic relationships, support seeking behaviors that characterize the attachment system frequently elicit supportive behaviors that also characterize the care-giving system, and vice versa, such that attachment and care-giving systems in healthy relationships interact harmoniously (Bowlby, 1982).

Thus, most of the comments about the attachment system are equally applicable to the care-giving system; that is, care-giving is characteristic of and valued in these relationships (Feiring, 1996; Hand & Furman, forth.), and the frequency and amount of care-giving or providing support in romantic relationships increases with age (Furman & Buhrmester, 1992).

Eventually, a romantic partner is likely to be perceived as the most supportive person in the social network, although typically not until early adulthood (Furman & Buhrmester, 1992).]

Having said this, attachment and care-giving are not always reciprocal. Throughout childhood, the parent is expected to have the care-giving role, and the child is the one who seeks out the safe haven or uses the parent as a secure
base. In most circumstances, especially in Western societies, the child or adolescent is not expected to be a major care-giving figure for the parent.

It is not until  adolescence that teens begin to serve as care-giving figures for friends and romantic partners. In these relationships, young people not only begin turning to peers for emotional support, but also reciprocally provide care-giving for the other.

In fact, a close friendship is often the first time that an individual has the opportunity to develop and use care-giving skills. Being able to provide support is likely to require substantial development in communication.

After these skills are learned and implemented with close friends, young people may begin to use these skills in their romantic relationships—particularly when these relationships move beyond affiliation, and care-giving and attachment become more prominent.

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The negotiation of romantic relationships We believe a behavioral systems approach to adolescent romantic relationships permits an examination of some of the major functions that communication serves in these relationships.

We also have discussed how developmental changes in behavioral systems relate to changes in the characteristics of adolescent romantic relationships and in the functions of communication. A critical issue to address is how young people negotiate these changes in the context of relationships.

Transitioning from a primarily affiliate relationship to a partnership that involves attachment, care-giving and sexual components requires interpersonal negotiation, because partners’ desires and expectations do not always coincide.

In fact, it is inherent in all romantic relationships that individuals’ needs will differ at some points, and these differences call for them to negotiate conflict.

In the following two sections, we discuss: (a) how young people communicate about the status of their romantic relationships and (b) how they manage conflict.

These topics are important events in the course of relationships because they have the capacity to bring partners closer together or to push them apart.

Conflict and relationship negotiation also have implications for the functioning of the behavioral systems. For instance, it is commonly understood that open and successful communication about relationship issues is central to maintaining a secure attachment, providing supportive care-giving, talking openly about sexual behavior, and enjoying each other’s companionship.

Relationship status

We refer to communication about relationship status as discussions that directly or indirectly address the nature of the relationship with a romantic partner.

Of course, in the earliest stages of sexual or romantic interest, these conversations involve communicating sexual or romantic interest in the other person. Among younger teenagers, this communication often takes place via a third party informant (Schofield, 1982).

For example, a middle school student may ask a friend to ask someone if she likes him. Also, friends may pass notes in class about who has crushes on whom, or who is being dropped as a partner.

For younger teenagers with little or no relationship experience, communicating romantic interest may be particularly awkward.

This task is probably even more challenging for young lesbian and gay people, who face the additional difficulty of communicating romantic desires within an environment that still harbors discrimination against same-sex relationships [see O’Flynn—chapter 9, this volume].

After having some experience in interacting with romantic peers, young people may communicate sexual or romantic interest using a variety of other means, ranging from sexual advances to asking the person to go somewhere or
do something.

If two people are successful at communicating about a mutual romantic or sexual interest, often the next step is determining the extent of each partner’s investment in the emerging relationship and their expectations about the relationship.

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When goals correspond between two persons in a romantic relationship, it is easier to achieve desirable outcomes such as fulfilling attachment and care-giving needs (Wieselquist et al., 1999). A failure to communicate clearly may lead to misunderstandings that disrupt the relationship. For instance, one person might consider spending a lot of time with a third person to be acceptable, whereas the partner may label it as cheating.

In the middle or later stages of young people’s relationships with romantic partners, communication about status might also involve discussing a number of issues pertaining to the ongoing relationship:

feelings about each other (e.g., ‘Are we in love?’), satisfaction with the current state of the relationship (e.g., ‘I really enjoy being with you.’), the partners’ level of commitment (e.g., ‘It’s important that we make time to see each other.’), or expectations about the future status of the relationship (e.g., ‘I could see myself marrying you.’).

Like adults, young people also need to communicate a sense of where the romantic relationship falls in their social network. Conflicts may occur around the amount of time spent with friends, rather than with a partner (Zani, 1993).

For heterosexual young people, other-sex friends can sometimes trigger feelings of jealousy (Roth & Parker, 2001). Obviously, the process of trying to end any relationship is often very difficult, especially when the partner wants to continue the relationship.

Although young people’s communication about relationship status shares some commonalities with adults’ communication about these issues, significant differences exist as well. Compared to adult relationships, the romantic relationships of many young people are typically much shorter in duration and less committed.

Thus, issues that arise in longer-term relationships in adulthood may not be as applicable to many adolescent romantic relationships. For example, communication in the process of relationship dissolution is likely to be quite
different for a long-term adult commitment, such as a marriage, versus a shorter-term adolescent relationship.
Young people’s communication about relationship status with romantic partners also differs from their negotiation of relationship status in other types of relationships.

They may have multiple friendships, but romantic relationships are typically exclusive. As a consequence, it appears that there is more attention to and communication about the nature of a romantic relationship; friendships may wax and wane without explicit discussion or decisions being made.

Conflict resolution

Conflict is an issue that arises in all relationships, and adept communication plays a key role in its resolution. The capacity of young people to constructively resolve occasional conflicts and quarrels is linked to maintaining and solidifying friendships and romantic relationships (Laursen & Collins, 1994).

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Not surprisingly, the specific communication skills involved in conflict negotiation in adolescent romantic relationships parallel those found in adult relationships. Young people report using compromise most often, distraction second most often, and avoidance third most often (Feldman & Gowen, 1998).

Overt anger, violence, and social support are used less frequently. The use of compromise may be a particularly adaptive conflict negotiation strategy because it constructively addresses and resolves conflict, and serves the function of maintaining and perhaps even strengthening aspects of the relationship (Laursen & Collins, 1994).

The frequency of conflict in romantic relationships rises slightly over the course of adolescence (Furman & Buhrmester, 1992). During adolescence, conflict with romantic partners is less frequent than with parents, but similar in frequency to that with friends. In early adulthood, conflict with romantic partners is as common as with parents, and more frequent than with friends (Furman & Buhrmester, 1992).

We know less about developmental changes in particular strategies of conflict resolution, although there is some suggestion that using compromise with romantic partners increases with age (Feldman & Gowen, 1998).

This increase in compromise may occur because these relationships are likely to be longer in length and more intimate later on. Thus, young people in more serious relationships may rely on compromise more often because they
have more at stake to lose.

The development of communication skills in conflict resolution may first begin to develop in the context of conflict negotiation with friends and parents;

for instance, young adults’ patterns of conflict resolution with parents and romantic partners are related to one another (Reese-Weber & Bertle-Haring, 1998). If anything, we might also expect the link between conflict resolution in
friendships and romantic relationships to be stronger, as these are both voluntary, egalitarian relationships with peers.


In this chapter, we have presented a behavioral systems approach to examining the primary functions of adolescent romantic relationships. We believe that this is a promising and valuable framework because it anchors an exploration of communication to the underlying functions that it serves in these relationships.

Considering communication in the context of behavioral systems also facilitates comparisons of communication with parents, friends, and romantic partners. Similarly, it moves beyond an effort merely to describe characteristics of adolescent romantic relationships and, instead, encourages us to think about adolescent romantic communication from a developmental perspective.

Although we know that communication is perhaps the most critical component of adult romantic relationship satisfaction, we know almost nothing about how communication abilities and values develop from early adolescence to adulthood.

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