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Intimate Relationships: Personality Development Through Interaction During Early Life

Maren Cardillo
Northwestern University

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).


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


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).


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.


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.

Peer Commentary

Building on the Foundations of Attachment Theory

Patricia Pendry
Northwestern University

In Cardillo's "Intimate Relationships: Personality Development Through Interaction During Early Life," she introduces the reader to the concept that intimate relationships that one develops in infancy form the basis of relationships throughout a lifetime, and form the basis of people's personality. Cardillo identifies a number of developmental stages and gives examples of factors that directly and indirectly influence the development of an individual's personality traits. She has thoroughly researched each stage and is able to relate to the reader the essential changes a person experiences on the road to adulthood and fully developed personality. Her proposed theory is well outlined and well written and derives strength from its strong roots in attachment theory, on which it is based. Attachment theorists have discovered years ago what developmental scientists and researchers from around the world have come to see as the most acceptable perspective on attachment, that of ethological theory. And this is where Cardillo's first weakness comes to light.

Although references are made to "adaptations to changing needs and stresses," Cardillo does not discuss the ethological nature of attachment theory. Ethologists believe that children's behaviors can be best understood in terms of their adaptive value. Therefore, ethologists seek a full understanding of the entire organism-environment system, including physical, social, and cultural aspects (Hinde, 1989). Although ethology emphasizes the genetic and biological roots of development, learning is also considered important because it lends flexibility and adaptiveness to behavior. This would certainly challenge Cardillo's summary statement that "development of a unique interpersonal style is a function of temperament." Although the interaction between a child's temperament and environment certainly plays an important role in the development of a "personal style," we cannot ignore the influence learning has on each individual's development, and it deserves some attention as a factor important to the development of personality.

Cardillo goes on to introduce us to both psychodynamic and behaviorist factors that potentially play an important part in the development of intimate relationships. "During infancy, the baby obtains nourishment and pleasure from sucking at the mother's breasts thus reducing tension caused by the hunger drive." Cardillo states that engagement in such tension relieving activity (relieving the hunger drive) during this early stage of intimacy serves as the prototype for relationships that develop later on in life. However, I tend to disagree.

We need only to remember Harlow's monkey experiment with the mesh-wire mothers (Harlow & Zimmerman, 1959) to remind us that it seriously challenged the view of social learning theorists and psychoanalysts who viewed attachment mainly as a function of feeding. In the development of attachment, contact and comfort appeared to be most important, not feeding. Although Carillo does hint that comfort too plays an important role, she does not seem to challenge or question McAdams' opinions and references on the subject of sucking and intimacy (McAdams, 1989, pp. 71-81) by comparing them with opposing empirical evidence.

What is most lacking in this paper is a thorough discussion of empirical evidence supporting attachment theory. This is important because the author agrees that intimate relationships formed during infancy form the basis of individual development. Throughout Cardillo's argument she refers back to the importance of secure attachment and the role it plays in the development of intimate relationships throughout a person's life. It seems clear that Cardillo is a proponent of attachment theory and that she has taken the essential arguments of attachment theory as a basis of her own theory. That is why this paper requires a thorough discussion and overview of attachment theory as well as a critical review of evidence to support it.

It is simply not possible to discuss the essence of attachment theory in one paragraph as Cardillo has done. We are introduced to Bowlby and Ainsworth in three sentences even though Bowlby and Ainsworth are the pioneers of attachment theory. What Cardillo should have done is provide the reader with a good understanding of attachment theory by identifing how Ainsworth measured attachment and how she identified the different forms of attachment. Also, it would be helpful to highlight how the development of secure attachment in infancy influences a person's intimate relationships in later life. In addition, because so much of Cardillo's theory is based on attachment theory, it would have been helpful if she had discussed the strengths and weaknesses of attachment theory in general by looking at recent research.

We simply cannot ignore the extensive body of research, generated by the work of Ainsworth and Bowlby, focused on understanding the social, emotional, and interpersonal development of children. There is substantial empirical evidence that questions, challenges, and supports the existence of the core elements of attachment theory. This type of review and highlight of research in support of the foundations of attachment theory should have been used to strengthen Cardillo's proposed theory and would have shed a much brighter light on Cardillo's hypothesis, which the hypothesis deserves.

Peer Commentary

Does Intimacy Truly Affect Personality Development?

Eileen Pizzurro
Northwestern University

Cardillo's arguments in "Intimate Relationships: Personality Development Through Interaction During Early Life" discuss how the intimate relationships one has in the early stages of one's life (such as mother-child, friendships, and peer interaction) form one's personality. They do so through their influence on the ways one adapts and reacts to new stages and environments in one's young life.

Cardillo's assertion that intimate relationships formed during the early stages of life ultimately gives rise to an individual's personality development is an insightful and well-supported theory. She states that these relationships are formed as adaptive measures necessary for coping with the adjustments and transitions that come with the various stages of maturation in one's early life. I agree with the majority of her points, and even those that seem to be on rather shaky ground are based in relevant psychological theory.

The divisions in the article, both those of the stage divisions, and the different theories present in psychology that are applicable to her apparent theory, are well defined. I take issue, however, with her neglect of the final stage of life, adulthood. There are many new relationships that occur only in adulthood that have great influence in continuing to form an individual's personality. An example of these would be that of one's life-mate, and that of the adult's relationship with his or her own children. Evidently both of these are among the most intimate relationships one can experience in life, and their absence in this article somewhat weakens Cardillo's work.

The author asserts that, "Neither intimacy nor individual development can exist alone." Her theory goes on to prove this point by identifying the effects of an individual's social environment on his or her adaptation to each stage of life. This creates the need for each type of intimate relationship. The only problem that exists in her theory is its lack of testability. Her inclusion of manners through which to test her theory would add much more substance and credibility to her article. Cardillo does a good job of addressing the issues of multiple selves, but her section regarding the topic of self-definition is somewhat lacking. She neglects to go into sufficient detail about one's "self-concept." Self-concept is defined by Carlson and Buskist (1997) as one's knowledge, feelings, and ideas about oneself--in short, one's self identity (p. 486).

Cardillo has written a well-supported and intriguing article linking the important topic of intimate relationships with that of personality development. Also, except for a few minor flaws, it succeeds in producing a great theory in personality.

Peer Commentary

Attachment Theory: More Than Just Security

Barbara M. Trzop
Northwestern University

I agree with Cardillo that the mother-child relationship is an important first step in determining how the child will learn to perceive his or her relationships with other people. Early bonding with the mother not only teaches the baby warmth and affection, but it also seems to have a physiological effect. Although it is an extreme example, some babies who are separated from their mothers for a long period of time may be at risk for a type of depression known as "anaclitic depression," (Carson, Butcher, & Mineka, 1996) which, in severe cases, causes the baby to literally waste away and die. The lack of human contact during the first few months of life is critical, not only to mental development, but to physiological development as well. To support this idea, Cardillo uses Freud's "sucking" theory, in which the baby derives pleasure from "sucking the innermost" of his mother's self. Yet, there are plenty of mothers who do not breast-feed for various reasons, and their children grow up just fine; this suggests that there are other factors involved in developing an attachment bond between mother and child, factors that do not involve breast-feeding.

Cardillo nicely explains the secure attachment style. However, I would have liked to see more empirical evidence backing up the existence of such an attraction between people. I am surprised that Cardillo does not mention the other two attachment styles--namely, avoidant and ambivalent. These attachment styles are important as well, and there seem to be implications involved when two people with different attachment styles attempt a relationship. Within a science that stresses the importance of comparing differences between groups, I am surpised that only one of the attachment styles was elaborated on, and neither of the others mentioned.

More detail might have been offered when describing the nature of childhood peer interaction. Again, Cardillo only seems to describe children on a continuum of autonomy, from "less" autonomous to "more" autonomous, based on a continuum of "security" as related to attachment style. However, there is more to security than that. Cardillo also only describes two types of parents--"nurturing" and "permissive." Obviously, there are many more kinds of parents, such as overprotective, abusive, negligent, etc. Insecure children will obviously exhibit vastly different qualities than their "secure" counterparts. However, there is no way of knowing this from reading Cardillo's paper, because she has no other attachment style descriptions with which to compare!

Cardillo makes a nice attempt to explain what goes on in adolescence and early adulthood in terms of intimate relationships. However, her paper seems to have an abrupt ending, and leaves me wondering if she thinks that adults have everything figured out. Is it true that once one hits adulthood, one stops "searching for oneself"? Is is true that one stops seeking one's identity in the people one dates? Is it true one stops yearning for compassion from one's ambivalent family? Adulthood is not a time of complete security in one's intimate relationships. Throughout life there are plenty of ups and downs, and even adults must learn how to deal with new people and new situations in their lives, while still keeping track of the old ones. I would have liked to see some closure in this paper regarding the growth process that adults experience, as they continue their search for intimacy.

Author Response

A Proposed Theory of Personality: Stressing the Fundamental Elements

Maren Cardillo
Northwestern University

The commentaries made by my peers in reference to my paper entitled, "Intimate Relationships: Personality Development Through Interaction During Early Life," refer to the general lack of major components concerning certain aspects of my theory. Pendry argues the necessity of more background information concerning the attachment theory. Pizzurro and Trzop both suggest the inclusion of interactions that take place during adulthood and their affects on personality development. I retort that these suggestions would certainly support the paper's credulity but contradict my purpose in writing it. I propose that this paper serves the purpose of describing the fundamental elements of early life interactions and how they develop individual personality. To fully elaborate on each of these elements would take away from my basic description of a new idea of personality.

In response to Pendry's argument concerning the lack of background information on the attachment theory, I agree that the inclusion of such factual information might have been helpful for the general comprehensiveness of the paper. Perhaps I should have included a discussion of Bowlby and Ainsworth's attachment theory explaining the development of security from infancy to adulthood and how it affects personality. I should have explained how immature dependent security is developed during infancy so that the infant can explore the external world while having the safety of retreating to his or her parents. The reader could then understand how the attachment theory lends itself to theories of security and the manner in which a person forms bonds throughout his or her lifetime (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991).

Trzop comments about the omission of a reference to the avoidant or ambivalent infant. I must retort that the securely attached infant is emphasized as an "example of the development of personality" as a result of the bond formed between the mother and the child during infancy. I use this example to represent one of the three attachment styles and to illustrate how this specific type of infant may develop personality traits that are a reflection of the intimate relationships formed throughout his or her lifetime. I chose the "secure" infant to serve as an example of an individual who relates to others with confidence and ease as a result of a sensitive and responsive caregiver. For comparative purposes, I could have included a description of an "avoidant" infant to serve as an example of an individual who rejects the closeness of others in intimate relationships as a result of an unresponsive caregiver. An "ambivalent" infant could represent an individual who has difficulty relating to others as a result of inconsistent responsiveness or availability on the part of the caregiver (Rothbard & Shaver, 1994). To elaborate on such aspects of attachment theory would indeed be helpful, but the purpose of this paper is to simply lay the foundation of a new theory by combining only certain aspects of old ones.

Pendry also argues that development of a unique interpersonal style is not a function of temperament alone. She says that the influence of learning plays a significant role in individual development. I agree that this form of interaction plays a significant role in the development of personal style, but only as a direct result of an individual's temperament. As I have stated in my paper, the social environment reacts to the different dimensions of temperament, modifying and shaping them in different ways (McAdams, 1989). This "social environment" includes learning situations. Although learning plays a role in individual development, it is still a function of temperament. Taking into consideration the many factors, such as learning, that come between temperament and the development of personality, perhaps I should restate my argument: The foundation for the development of unique interpersonal style is a function of temperament.

Pizzurro and Trzop bring up the significance of interactions during adulthood and their affects on personality development. I agree that romantic, familial, and friendly relationships with other adults affect the way one views oneself, although, this is not the foundation of my paper. My goal is to elaborate on early life interactions and how they form the basis for an individual's personality as an adult rather than on adult interactions themselves. I argue that the way one interacts in early life will reflect the way one interacts with a romantic lover, a family member, or a friend later in life. This is the essence of the theory proposed in, "Intimate Relationships: Personality Development through Interaction during Early Life."


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