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Significance of intimacy in lives of college students

In this review of the literature, I will explore the emerging significance of intimacy in the day-to-day lives of college students by discussing how social intimacy is logically related to the formation of emotional self-regulation by discussing the basic tenets of self-regulation theory; contrasting the requirements of emotional self-regulation from academic self-regulation; discussing the personality and situational factors that correlate with academic self-regulation skills; and developing a hypothesis that illustrates the correlation between emotional self-regulation of intimate relationships, academic self-regulatory capacities, and academic performance..

The desire to discover, develop and maintain intimate relationships is one of the most significant social milestones of the college experience and is actually one of the most influential of all human desires. A significant percentage of college students are between the age of 18-25 and are navigating through the developmental period of adolescence; the bridge between childhood and adulthood where intimate social relationships confer status, emotional support, and vicarious sources of self-efficacy (Fraley & Davis 1997). Further, many developmental theorists (Chickering 1993 & Bowlby 1969) agree that intimate relationships are a central part of the developing self-concept, so it is perplexing that the influence of intimacy during college attendance is not given greater attention in research on college student achievement and adjustment.

Generically, relationships are necessarily complex to navigate and can be especially tumultuous to the adolescent. Specifically, intimate relationships are one of the most delicate types of relations amongst college students, and often vary as to their respective degree of closeness, with liking on one end of the continuum and passionate loving and romanticism on the other (Dwyer 2000). It is these intimate romantic relationships that will be the focus of this investigation, illuminating how these intimate relations correlate with academic performance measures. The rationale for this pursuit is that by determining how intimacy factors into the overall college experience for students, those who study and work in institutions of higher learning can adjust social and learning environments to: (1) better compensate for these under-developed student qualities; (2) develop programs to enrich the intimate lives of college students; and (3) better prepare student affairs personnel to work with these students.

Intimate Relationships (as a social need)

College life can be stressful, but it is surely one of the most memorable experiences in the lives of many people. It typically represents a critical developmental period for late adolescents and young adults (Chickering 1993). The daily hassles of college range from choosing when to sleep and eat to increased workloads and new responsibilities. College students, especially first-year students, are particularly prone to stress due to the transitional nature of college life (Tinto 1987 & Towbes and Cohen 1996). They must adjust to being away from home, in most cases for the first time, while maintaining a high level of academic achievement and adjusting to a new social environment.

Clearly, intimate relationships with others are important to human beings as social animals. Having successful intimate relationships takes on added significance during the college years, having left our families of origin, and is often our first serious attempt at autonomous social commitments.

Research suggests that student persistence and level of achievement is statistically related to the quality of social support networks that they experience (D’Zurilla & Sheedy 1991; Romano 1992). As a component of social support networks, the quality of intimate relationships, whether originating within the students’ family of origin or with a romantic partner, has also been linked to the level of positive student adjustment in college (Ginter & Dwinell 1994). How a person navigates or participates in a relationship is known as Emotional Self-Regulation (the process whereby individuals learn to identify, modify, and control their affect in order to minimize negative emotional states and to maximize positive emotional states).

Many students entering college are bound to experience dating and involvement in romantic relationships. The growing concern among students, and those who study them, is the possible ill effects of dating that affect the students’ emotional health. Although having a romantic partner may provide benefits to emotional health, getting too involved could also have negative effects, particularly on the students’ emotional well-being and academic performance. College students too often place socio-emotional obligations far before academic deadlines and commitments (e.g. class attendance) that can lead to difficulties including academic probation and dismissal.

The Role of Intimacy in the Lives of College Students

Social Intimacy refers to the sharing of one's personal identity (Fitzsimons & Kay 2004). This sharing and disclosure make these relationships unique and are usually expressed in the form of nurturing behaviors and, for intimacy to be sustainable and nourishing, it also requires trust, transparency and rituals of connection (Brehm, et al. 2001).

The need to belong is an intrinsic motivation to affiliate with others and to be socially accepted (Baumeister & Leary 1995). Most people, to some extent, require interconnection and social intimacy (Brehm, et al. 2001). Living in relational communities does have its costs though; as such persons have to tolerate shared rules, customs, and social norms. Evolutionary studies suggest that the benefits of intimate relationships are adaptive, and people have a deep need to belong that drives them towards forming and joining families, groups, and communities (Baumeister & Leary 1995).

Intimacy requires empathy and differs from more casual associations in at least six specific ways: knowledge (intimate partners have extensive personal information about each other), caring (intimate partners feel more affection for one another than they do for most others), inter-dependence (intimate partners have strong, diverse, and enduring influence on each other), mutuality (intimate partners think of themselves as a couple instead of two entirely different individuals), trust (intimate partners expect treatment from one another that is fair, honorable and responsive to their needs) and commitment (intimate partners expect their relation to continue, and they work to realize that goal) (Parks & Floyd 1996).

Often we learn that it is in or through intimate relationships that our sexual, romantic, companionship, and intimacy needs are met. It is no wonder then, that we find ourselves preoccupied or consumed with pursuing, maintaining, ending, and recovering from the loss of such relationships during our collegiate years. While the early months of a relationship are often effortless and exciting, successful long-term relationships involve ongoing efforts by both partners. Because relationship skills are rarely taught in college (nor are they acquired before students arrive), many times partners may not have the emotional regulatory skills necessary to establish and maintain a healthy and mutually satisfying relationship.

Many students enter their first committed relationship during college, and it may be true that romantic relationships can be wonderful bringing out the best in people; however, even the formation of a positive intimate relationship might result in the unintentional distraction in academic behavior. Another scenario is that even the healthiest relationship will have times when things are complicated, confusing, and challenging. Problems arise when people have conflicting expectations of what their relationship should be like, are distracted by other academic or personal issues, or have difficulty communicating intimately. According to Paul and White (1990), being behaviorally intimate involves acting in a trustworthy way, being sensitive and responsive to the other’s feelings, being able to make a commitment to the relationship, striving for equity and mutuality, and working to communicate effectively. Zimmer-Gimmbeck, Siebenbruner, and Collins (2001) found that participation in dating relationships in college has some positive effects on emotional health for adolescents; yet, these very relationships may also complicated student’s lives by introducing the responsibility of maintaining the relationship.

Commonly, the college years suggest academic and extra-curricular pursuits that lead to student’s learning and subsequent career development. Often, these years are complexly interwoven with intimate relationships that reduce student motivation for academics and class attendance, and may lead to other unwanted behavioral issues. Likely, many students share the same group of friends and a disruption in a relationship between two members disrupts virtually all associated with these two individuals and may lead to a social environment that is not likely to be supportive of academic endeavors (Zimmerman 1995).

Self Regulation Theory: Basic Theory and Applications to College Students

Academic self-regulation processes include planning and managing time; attending to and concentrating on instruction; organizing, rehearsing, and coding information strategically; establishing a productive work environment; and using social resources effectively (Patrick 1997; Schunk & Zimmerman 1997; Zimmerman 1994). Self-regulation also incorporates motivational processes such as setting performance goals and outcomes; holding positive belief’s about one’s academic capabilities; valuing learning and its anticipated outcomes; and experiencing positive effects (e.g. satisfaction with one’s efforts (McCombs 1989; Schunk 1994).

As a specific sub-category of self-regulation, academic self-regulation seeks to explain how individuals are motivated to perform well academically. Researchers agree that the term academic self-regulation can be used to describe learning that is guided by meta-cognition (awareness of one’s knowledge and beliefs), strategic action (planning, monitoring, and evaluating personal progress against a standard), and a motivation to learn (Butler & Winne 1995; Winne & Perry 2000; Perry, Phillips, & Hutchinson 2006; Zimmerman, 1990). Thus, academic self-regulation has three distinct dimensions or components: cognitive, behavioral, and emotional. Indicators of the cognitive dimension of academic self-regulation are measures of academic self-concept (defined as a student’s perception of their academic competence). The behavioral component is indicated by measures of academic self-efficacy (defined as the ability or capability to perform designated behaviors toward academic progress; e.g. study effectiveness, maintaining an academic schedule and adhering to it, etc.). The affective component of academic self-regulation is indicated by measures of academic self-esteem (defined as a students’ subjective and generalized judgment of their own worth or merit).

Working from Bandura’s social cognitive theory (1986), Zimmerman suggests that students’ self-regulatory abilities are significantly enhanced by social relationships where one can model positive academic behaviors from close, similar others, and from the verbal emotional support of significant others. These sources of self-efficacy suggest that the impact of intimate relationships may affect academic self-regulation in a number of ways. Thus, intimate relationships may have direct and indirect effects on the formation of positive academic behaviors, and these relationships may perpetuate positive or negative impacts on academic outcomes (Zimmerman 1989; Puustinen, M. & Pulkkinen, L. 2001). It is important to note that by the time many individuals have reached college age, it is necessary to have internalized these self-regulatory processes in order to achieve maximum academic success (McCombs, 1989).

Further, those with a higher capacity for self-regulation show a higher level of academic success (Patrick 1997; Bouffard, Boisvet, Vezeau, & Larouche 1995; Tangney & Baumeister 2004). In the Bouffard, et al. (1995) study, college students completed a questionnaire that measured orientation toward learning and performance goals and had the participants report any self-regulatory strategies for studying. The researchers found a positive correlation between self-regulation and academic achievement. Furthermore, those subjects that reported a higher concern with learning and performance goals also reported a higher use of self-regulatory strategies and a higher level of academic performance. This study provides us with two useful pieces of information. First, that higher levels of self-regulation lead to higher levels of academic achievement, and second, that those more concerned with academic goals, in contrast to other distracting factors, show higher levels of self-regulatory strategies and a higher level of academic performance. Theoretically, a student's ability to compartmentalize or separate the events that occur in both academia and romantic relationships through the process of self-regulation allows for a limitation of the negative impact of intimate relationships and dating on academic achievement.

Self-regulated learners are cognizant of their academic strengths and weaknesses, and they have a repertoire of strategies they appropriately apply to tackle the challenges of academic life. These students hold incremental and adjustable beliefs about intelligence (as opposed to fixed views of intelligence) and attribute their successes or failures to factors (e.g., effort expended on a task, effective use of strategies) within their internal control (Dweck & Leggett 1988; Dweck 2002). Finally, students who are self-regulated learners believe that opportunities to take on challenging tasks, practice their learning, develop a deep understanding of subject matter, and exert effort will give rise to academic success (Perry et al. 2006). In part, these characteristics may help to explain why self-regulated learners usually exhibit a high sense of self-efficacy (beliefs about one’s capacity to learn) (Pintrich & Schunk 2002). In the educational psychology literature, researchers have linked these characteristics to success in the undergraduate years and beyond (Pintrich 2000; Winne & Perry 2000).

Emotional Self-Regulation in College Students

Emotional self-regulation is significantly related to academic achievement along with numerous social and personal factors that contribute to the social-cognitive functioning of college students (Patrick, Hicks, & Ryan 1997). Like many other human dynamics, being intimate is not merely good; there are possible negative consequences. Being partners in an intimate relationship can be dynamic and mystical, but also mundane, dull, and uninteresting, if not outright belligerent.

Peer influences are also significant factors in the adolescents’ academic achievement. Those who are popular in school are more likely to perform better (Ekstrom et al. 1986; Magdol 1992). Likewise, students with few close friends who have school problems are also influenced and at risk for poor performance. They incur more absences, lower grades, and less positive attitudes towards school; they are less popular and likely not to plan to go to college. Although some peers do the opposite as they act as the moral support to their friends who may have problems in self-confidence or who lack family support; unfortunately, many do not (Mahan & Johnson 1983; Magdol 1992).

Furman and Wehner (1998) suggest that self-concept (a composite view of oneself that is formed through direct experience and evaluations adopted from significant others) is directly related to the current status of an intimate relationship; being in a romantic relationship gives a person more responsibilities and leads them to feel more important. With the many challenges students face in college, it is good to have close friends to help them cope with these pressures. Students who had a strong sense of community on campus perceived a high degree of support, involvement, and achievement at the university (Berger 1997), while their counterparts that are less connected feel a lesser sense of belonging. The better connected students may form relationships with many or a few individuals, and for the most part these relationships tend to be beneficial. These intimate relations, therefore, are connected in significant ways to student’s self-concept and abilities to behave efficaciously, which are themselves indicators of emotional self-regulation.

Self-regulation theorists have also pointed to self-efficacy (an individual’s belief that she is capable of the specific behavior required to produce a desired) as being a key component contributing to the use of self-regulatory strategies affecting relationships (Zimmerman, 1989; Zimmerman 1995; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997; Kitsantas 2000; Kitsantas & Zimmerman 2002). This is not thought to be a direct relationship between the two, but rather, due to the effects of self-efficacy on learning. When an individual has academic success s/he tends to experience an increase in self-efficacy as well as an increase in behavioral performance. Similarly, when one is met with an academic failure, a decrease in self-efficacy and in behavioral performance is evident. Therefore, students’ self-efficacy influences behavioral performance while behavioral performance affects self-efficacy. This reciprocal relationship suggests that if students engage in the use of self-regulatory strategies and meets with success, they will have an increase in self-efficacy, increase in behavioral performance, and, therefore, a greater likelihood of using self-regulatory strategies in the future.

Jakubowski and Dembo (2002) looked at the relation between academic self-regulation, academic achievement and social self-efficacy. The study sought to find this relationship through four social-cognitive functions: self-efficacy, anxiety, stage of change and identity style and its subsequent effect on academic achievement. The study concluded that social-cognitive functions were significantly related to academic self-regulation and that academic-self regulation processes have significant effects in levels of academic achievement. Self-efficacy, stage of change, and identity style were not directly related with academic achievement but were significantly related to self regulation. Academic self-regulation served as a mediator to the relationship between academic achievement and social cognitive functions (Jakubowski & Dembo 2002).

Herten-Greaven (2004) examined the prevalence, experience, and impact of a variety of developmental transitions during adolescence. The author found that those transitions revolving around intimate relationships and individuation (autonomy) were considered the most positive and important. To assess the importance of intimate relationships for college students other researchers administered the Scale of Central Issues (SCI) questionnaire in an effort to measure the central issues effecting college life (Santiago-Rivera, Gard, & Bernstein, 1999). Among these, the researchers found that students placed the most importance on intimacy, achievement, and autonomy (with intimacy and autonomy indicators of emotional self-regulation). These results support the notion that intimacy is a central issue to college students, and that it might be related to academic achievement and persistence. However, in order for this connection to be transparent, the relative influence of a student’s ability to manage social relations by way of emotional regulation tendencies deserves consideration.

Tangney and Baumeister’s (2004) research examined the relationship between self-control (emotional self-regulation) and academic achievement, intimate relationships and interpersonal skills, and emotional responses. They defined self-control as the ability to override or change one's inner response, to interrupt undesired behavioral tendencies, and to refrain from acting on them. This definition is markedly similar to that of emotional self-regulation and can be used for comparative purposes as these all related to various self-regulating abilities.

The researchers found statistically significant positive relationships between self-control (emotional self-regulation) and the following: grade point average, self-esteem, perspective taking, and a healthy family environment among others. The researchers also indicated negative correlations with the EDI (lack of impulse control), self-oriented personal distress, and outward and self-directed aggression as these all related to various self-regulating abilities.

Tangney and Baumeister's (2004) research sheds some light on many of the issues in this investigation. Not only is the impact of emotional self-regulation on academic achievement demonstrated, it is also associated with intimate relationships. First, those high in self-regulation show an overall higher level of academic achievement and a higher degree of impulse control than those that are low in self-control. This demonstrates that those high in emotional self-regulation are able to over-ride internal impulses do to circumstances outside of academics (e.g. partying, romance) in order to complete their school work. Furthermore, it is evident that self-regulation can impact intimate relationships, and intimate relationships can impact self-regulatory processes.

Additionally, there appears to be a relationship between self-concept and efficacy (measures of emotional self-regulation), self-esteem and academic achievement. Essentially, self-esteem and achievement feed each other (Gatto 1992). Considerable empirical evidence suggests that low self-esteem influences achievement in school, from the primary grades through the college years. Ultimately, a certain level of self-esteem is required in order for a student to achieve academic success. As the level of self-esteem increases, so do achievement scores and as self-esteem decreases, so does achievement (Gatto 1992).

The Relationship between Emotional and Academic Self-Regulation

There is sufficient evidence to suggest that a link exists between self-regulatory abilities, factors relating to self-concept and personal self-efficacy tendencies, and outcomes relevant to academic achievement. For example, Quatman, Sampson, Robinson, and Watson (2001) studied dating status and academic achievement and motivation in high school students. They included these areas as well as academic motivation, depression, and self-esteem and found a relationship between students who dated more frequently and lower academic performance. Concerns about dating are prevalent and often related to serious problems among college students (Prisbell 1986). While having a romantic partner may have benefits on emotional health, it appears that being overly involved in dating relationships is associated with more negative affects on psychosocial functioning and physical health (Baumeister & Leary 1995). These studies support the contention that a significant negative relationship exists between an active dating status and academic achievement.

Through meta-analysis, Patrick (1997) finds much evidence for this viewpoint. In her review she found significant relationships between the following: school performance outcomes and student’s peer relationships, social competence and academic competence, and social-emotional self-regulation and academic self-regulation. This supports the notion that regulating both academics and intimate relationships allows for the highest degree of academic success. Those students who are unable to prevent these events from their personal lives from inculcating their academic lives typically have lower levels of academic achievement and tend to be representative of many collegians.

Zimmerman’s (1994) definition of the concept of academic self-regulation is the students’ ability to regulate their own engagement in educational tasks. Johnson’s (2005) explanation linking sexual abstinence to character traits such as impulse control, perseverance, resistance to peer pressure and respect to parents and societal values are factors of academic self-regulation. Sexual abstinence therefore is one trait in self-regulation that was found to have significant effect on academic achievement.

Pham (2007) found that the physical distance between partners has a significant relationship with the students’ study habits - an indicator of academic self-regulation. A possible reason could be that time spent dating interfered with time spent studying. Therefore, students who have their partners living far away can give more time to studying, in effect, produce better grades. Pham’s study was based on the study conducted by Quatman, Sampson, Robinson and Watson (2001) on the relationship between dating status, academic achievement and academic motivation, depression and self-esteem. Quatman and his team’s study revealed that there was a significant relationship between dating status and academic performance and that frequent dating led to lower academic achievement. Although Pham’s research did not support Quatman’s theory directly, Pham’s findings that romantic partners’ proximity affects grades and therefore partially confirms Quatman’s findings (Pham 2007) and suggest further clarification between the challenges that separation imposes on those in college.

Potential Implications of Study for Student Development Leadership

Undoubtedly, a more dynamic understanding of the way intimate relationships impact college students is significant in that it this understanding may lead to more sophisticated training for student affairs staff along with the implementation of key policies to ensure faculty, staff, and students have adequate knowledge to deal with students in crisis.


Essentially, intimacy is linked with feelings of closeness, safety, trust and transparency among partners in a collaborative partnership. This is especially true for young adults developing through adolescence and the college years. However, the research presented indicates that there are many unanticipated and undesired consequences to these relationships.

The results of these studies suggest that the quality and satisfaction of intimate relationships may be a predictor of both student adjustment to the college environment and the level of academic achievement of these students. Specifically, the major hypothesis of this study is that academic achievement can be predicted by measuring how students emotionally self-regulate their intimate relationships. This, in turn, implicates emotional self-regulation in the level of academic achievement in students. The nature of intimate relationships can be varied and complex, therefore I propose a non-directional hypothesis to account for the variation in self-regulation. In sum, measurement of student’s emotional self-regulation as it relates to intimate relationship management will partially explain academic achievement outcomes even after one has measured and accounted for the academic self-regulation efforts of these students.

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