Interpersonal Relationships: Types & Functions

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we'll look at the interpersonal relationships we experience in life. In particular, we'll explore the four most common types, what these relationships do for us, and how some relationships come to an end.

Relationships are a Part of Life

Except in the extreme case of hermits living alone in their mountain shacks, we all have a circle of people we interact with on a regular basis. You have family, friends, perhaps a significant other, and maybe even co-workers you talk with regularly. This is common for all humans because we are a social species. Imagine your life if you didn't interact with any of these people.

What Relationships Do for Us

Our social relationships are formed for more reasons than just the nature of our species. Given the amount of effort required to form and maintain these bonds, we must benefit in some way. For most of us, these relationships allow both parties to help fulfill the emotional and physical needs of one another. People with strong, healthy interpersonal relationships tend to be healthier and experience less stress from life challenges. When people refer to a circle of interpersonal relationships as a support network, they are quite accurate with the description.

Emotional Support

Attachment Theory

Theoretically, our need to form these bonds may be explained by attachment theory. This concept defines attachment as a deep and lasting bond connecting people across distance and through time. Adaptively, attachment enhances survival, especially in infancy when the child is completely dependent on its mother and other caregivers. The caregivers' bond with the child encourages them to fulfill the infant's needs and thus provides continuation of the species. We don't grow out of this bonding behavior and continue to benefit throughout our lives from our relationships.

Types of Interpersonal Relationships

However, not all interpersonal relationships are the same. These bonds are defined by different expectations between the individuals and the context of their relationships. There are four basic categories of these relationships, separating our bonds into family, friends, romantic partners, and colleagues. These may also be defined under other terms but those will be synonymous with what we have listed. Let's look now at each category, what differentiates them, and how they serve to meet our needs.


This is the first type of interpersonal bond we form, beginning in infancy as we depend on our caretakers. There are many different roles within the family category of relationships, including mother, father, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and more. The importance and nature of these relationships vary from person to person and the roles are defined by a combination of biological kinship and cultural norms.


Families are responsible for protecting children and meeting their physical needs for survival while also providing emotional support and education. In healthy family relationships, the emotional needs and the physical needs should be met for the child. As a person grows into adulthood, the relationships with family members change and the child can increasingly provide emotional and physical support for their caretakers. It is important to note that this is the only category of interpersonal relationship that is not voluntary.


Friendships often share the same, or sometimes greater, level of intimacy as family relationships. The major difference being that friendship is a voluntary bond entered into by both parties rather than formed as a byproduct of biology. People are free to enter into friendships with anyone but the initial attachment usually forms through shared interests, experiences, and attitudes. As the friendship develops into a stronger relationship, intimacy of emotion and knowledge of one another grows. There is little to no formality, support is unconditional, and both parties derive enjoyment from their interaction. Good friends are often treated as members of the family with fictive kinship titles, such as calling them an aunt or uncle to their friend's child. Do you have anyone in your life like that?


Romantic Partners

These relationships are often the most intimate in a person's life, emotionally and certainly physically. Healthy relationships with romantic partners are characterized by a deep attachment, passion, trust, and respect. Emotionally, these relationships are as close as the best of friends with the personal support and impact of family. Romantic relationships can often lead to a concurrent familial relationship if the partnership undergoes cultural marriage rituals or bears children, or both.

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