Cell-matrix adhesions are central mediators of mechanotransduction, yet the interplay between force and adhesion regulation remains unclear. Here we use live cell imaging to map time-dependent cross-correlations between vinculin-mediated tension and adhesion complex area, revealing a plastic, context-dependent relationship. Interestingly, while an expected positive cross-correlation dominated in mid-sized adhesions, small and large adhesions display negative cross-correlation. Furthermore, although large changes in adhesion complex area follow vinculin-mediated tension alterations, small increases in area precede vinculin-mediated tension dynamics. Modelling based on this mapping of the vinculin-mediated tension-adhesion complex area relationship confirms its biological validity, and indicates that this relationship explains adhesion size and lifetime limits, keeping adhesions focal and transient. We also identify a subpopulation of steady-state adhesions whose size and vinculin-mediated tension become stabilized, and whose disassembly may be selectively microtubule-mediated. In conclusion, we define a plastic relationship between vinculin-mediated tension and adhesion complex area that controls fundamental cell-matrix adhesion properties.