Developing Relationships

Sandra Metts & Chris R Morse. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Editor: Harry T Reis & Susan Sprecher. 2009. Sage Publication.

When asked to list the most important things in their lives, most people list their relationships. Good health, money, and career success eventually make the list, but friends, family, and romantic partners are typically at the top. This is no surprise. Close relationships are a source of social and emotional support, self-validation, identity expansion, encouragement, and affection. Therefore, understanding the process by which relationships develop is important and has been of interest to relationship scholars for several decades. Of course, scholars who study the process of relationship development face a formidable task. They seek to explain how a jointly constructed, mutually enacted, and highly coordinated behavioral and emotional connection between two people emerges from the ordinary circumstances of social interaction. This entry summarizes several approaches to explaining relationship development found in the scholarly literature, particularly the phase or stage models and turning-points analysis.

Phase or Stage Models of Relationship Development

Phase or stage models of relationship development recognize that romantic couples and friendships move through and between phases at different rates of speed. Some romantic couples, for example, describe their relationship as beginning with love at first sight and accelerating quickly to a committed relationship or marriage. Others describe their relationship development as more gradual, developing a friendship first, entering a prolonged courtship, and moving slowly to marriage. And some couples that had romantic potential do not progress beyond relatively superficial interactions; they remain at the level of casual acquaintances if professional or social networks keep them in contact or they terminate the relationship entirely if no external factors necessitate continued interaction. Thus, the goal of scholars who offer models of relationship development is not to specify how soon into the relationship any particular transition is likely to occur. Rather, their goal is to identify patterns of emotions, attitudes, and behaviors that distinguish one phase of development from the previous and the subsequent phase. The three models summarized below are widely accepted illustrations of the phases or stages of development.

One of the first models concerned with the phases of development in friendships and romantic relationships was published by George Levinger in the early 1970s. His model of pair relatedness describes levels of increasing connection, interdependence, affection, and commitment as the dimensions of relationship development. The four levels of relatedness include: (1) zero contact and zero relatedness, (2) unilateral awareness where the individuals are aware of each other but have not had an interaction, (3) surface contact during which there is some interaction but individuals are still independent rather than interdependent, and (4) mutuality beginning with minor intersection, moving to major intersection, and ending with total unity. During the period of mutuality, partners develop a widening range of shared rules and norms, deeper knowledge of each other, greater responsibility for each other’s outcomes, and experience deepening affection and commitment. Levinger illustrates the increasing connection during mutuality as two circles moving from slight to complete overlap.

Interestingly, Levinger notes that in arranged marriages, much of what occurs during the early phases in mutuality is accomplished by the parents who assess similarity, resources, compatibility, and so on. In arranged marriages, therefore, commitment is established at the time of the marriage; knowledge of partner, affection, and love emerge later.

The important theme in Levinger’s description of relationship development is his analysis of what the increasingly diverse connections mean to partners. He explains that the connections eventually become causal links in which one person’s actions or emotions literally cause a change in the other person’s actions or emotions. For example, a bad day at work may cause John to act more distracted or contentious than usual when he talks with Mary; his behavior may cause Mary to feel an emotional response, perhaps sympathy or irritation (depending on previous interactions). Mary is then motivated to ask what’s wrong, and a conversation emerges from and is shaped by the causal links between John and Mary. When causal links help partners attain their goals, satisfaction tends to be high. When they constrain goal attainment, satisfaction tends to be low. In the latter case, partners may respond by limiting the number and extent of the causal links.

A second stage model of relationship development was offered by Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor, also in the early 1970s. This model was also concerned with interdependence but placed its emphasis on communication, particularly breadth and depth of self-disclosure. The model was aptly termed Social Penetration Theory to highlight the process of moving beyond the public self to a deeper understanding of the private self. Altman and Taylor used the now classic metaphor of the onion to represent layers of increasingly personal information about the self: surface, peripheral, intermediate, and central. Like peeling layers off the onion to reach its inner core, people in developing relationships typically reveal superficial information about their background, interests, habits, and so forth before they reveal intimate information that makes them vulnerable to criticism, rejection, or exploitation.

The Social Penetration Model describes four stages distinguished by the breadth and depth of disclosure: (1) Orientation refers to initial interaction when a relatively narrow range of topics is discussed and depth is at the surface level; (2) exploratory affective exchange includes a wider range of topics with some depth, although mostly at the peripheral level; (3) affective exchange includes increasingly personal and risky disclosure involving a wide range of topics at the intermediate levels and a few at the central layer (although some information is still guarded); and (4) stable exchange is characterized by open communication at all levels—surface, peripheral, intermediate, and central.

Movement through these stages is influenced by four overlapping processes. First, the uncertainty that characterizes initial interactions is an uncomfortable mental state because it is difficult to predict what the other person might say or do. In role relationships guided by interaction scripts, predicting the other person’s actions is easy to do (e.g., a grocery clerk rings up the items, announces the total cost, processes the payment, and says, “Have a good day”). In developing relationships, self-disclosure allows people to reduce their uncertainty by learning more about each other—at first, basic demographic information (e.g., hometown and occupation) and then increasingly personal information (e.g., values and attitudes). Second, the norm of reciprocity encourages people to reciprocate both the valence of self-disclosure (positive or negative) and the level of intimacy. By matching valence and level of intimacy in self-disclosure, people feel that their interactions are equitable or balanced, and this contributes to relational satisfaction. Third, self-disclosure tends to increase liking, and liking tends to increase self-disclosure, a cycle that facilitates attraction and continued relationship growth, unless initial disclosures reveal significant incompatibility. Fourth, the manner in which a recipient responds to the other’s self-disclosure (called responsiveness) underlies the first three processes described above. Research indicates that when a person responds with perspective taking and valuing (i.e., trying to understand the disclosure and validate the discloser’s feelings without being judgmental or changing the topic), the discloser feels accepted, rates the conversation as warm and comfortable, likes the recipient better, and expresses a greater desire to develop the relationship.

Of course, Altman and Taylor are careful to remind readers that people are more complicated than onions. Developing relationships do not simply move in a linear path of increasing breadth and depth of disclosure. In actual practice, relationships cycle though periods of relatively superficial interactions and periods of more intimate interactions. In addition, the social penetration process may reveal differences as well as similarities, topics that cause conflict, and past behaviors that make partners less secure about the future of the relationship. Potential friends or romantic partners may be able to work through the differences, may learn to avoid problematic topics, or may decide to reduce the level of involvement by not reciprocating the other person’s breadth and depth of self-disclosure.

Finally, Altman and Taylor acknowledge the challenge for couples to manage the tensions they feel as they reveal more about themselves and become increasingly interdependent. These tensions are called dialectics because they are seemingly opposite needs that can be desired at the same time. For example, a person might want to be fully open with a close other while wanting to protect his or her privacy or to be fully connected to a close other while wanting to retain autonomy. Successfully managing dialectical tensions such as openness-closedness, autonomy-connection, and novelty-predictability is an important aspect of relationship development. Too much openness and connection can eventually lead partners to feel like they have lost their individual identities; too much predictability can lead to boredom, and too much novelty can lead to chaos and relational insecurity.

Recent investigations have identified the strategies that members of close relationships use to manage dialectical tensions and their association with relationship quality. Selection involves choosing one side of the dialectic over the other (e.g., deciding to be fully open about everything and have no secrets or being very private with personal information). Separation involves moving from one side of the dialectic to the other depending on circumstances or topic (e.g., being completely open about relationship issues but closed about politics and religion). Neutralization involves choosing a middle ground between the extremes (e.g., being somewhat interdependent in social activities but also retaining some autonomy or being moderately open and expressive). Finally, reframing is a sophisticated strategy that involves viewing the poles as complementary rather than as contradictory (e.g., interpreting a partner’s occasional desire for time apart as a way to make time together more special). Reframing is generally found to be the most effective management strategy for maintaining relationship satisfaction, and selection is found to be the least effective strategy.

Mark Knapp proposed a third model of relationship development in the early 1980s called the Staircase Model. This model presents five stages or steps, with higher steps representing increased levels of intimacy and commitment. The coming-together stages include (1) initiating, which involves superficial communication and exchange of basic information (greetings, polite conversation, introductory information) in an attempt to make a positive first impression and reduce initial uncertainty; (2) experimenting, in which individuals begin to discover each other’s likes and dislikes in order to determine if they want to pursue a relationship (small talk with moderate self-disclosure); (3) intensifying, in which both breadth and depth of communication increase and commitment and affection are expressed (nicknames, using we rather than you and I; saying “I like” or “I love you”); (4) integrating, which involves a merging of individual identities into a relational unit as romantic partners or best friends and being recognized as such by the social network; and (5) bonding, in which individuals publicly commit to each other, usually through some type of cultural ritual (such as marriage). Knapp notes that not all relationships progress through the steps in the model. Some stabilize at a low step or move back down the stairs and terminate.

An important contribution of the Staircase Model is its emphasis on how dimensions of communication change as relationships develop or alternatively, reverse as relationships decay. Specifically, the amount and depth of self-disclosure are not the only changes in communication. According to Knapp, other changes include movement along the dimensions of communication that he labeled stylized to unique (i.e., formal-conventional to relationship-specific), difficult to efficient, rigid to flexible, awkward to smooth, and hesitant to spontaneous. In addition, communication moves from overt judgment suspended to overt judgment given. For example, few people on a first date would criticize the other person’s hair style or driving but would be comfortable doing so at later stages of development. Studies of romantic couples and college student friends indicate that their conversations are indeed characterized by efficient, unique, personal, and spontaneous communication compared to conversations of strangers. Inside jokes, nicknames, teasing insults, and unfinished but fully understood comments are all manifestations of the idiosyncratic and personalized communication that develops in close relationships.

In sum, although these phase or stage models use different terms, they share the view that relationship development involves change on several dimensions. First, emotional investment develops as the range and intensity of both positive and negative emotions experienced and expressed increase. Second, independence yields to interdependence as each partner’s thoughts, decisions, emotions, and actions increasingly influence the other person’s thoughts, decisions, emotions, and actions. Third, each partner’s public self is adapted to a relational self as generalized social competence during interaction becomes a relationally specific competence that reflects the particular needs and expectations of both people in the relationship. Fourth, social norms evolve into relational norms as couples develop their own standard for appropriate and expected behavior, which defines them as a romantic couple or best friends. Finally, public communication moves to interpersonal communication and eventually to relational communication as couples reveal more personal information and construct unique communication practices.

Turning-Points Approach to Relationship Development

The turning-points perspective shifts the focus from models characterizing progression through phases or stages of development to relationally significant events that prompt one or both members of a relationship to (re)evaluate the strength of their commitment to the relationship and each other. Some events make one or both partners realize how much they care about each other, and commitment increases. Other events make one or both partners question whether the relationship is worth continuing, and commitment decreases, at least temporarily. Couples who stay together work through the negative event, and eventually their commitment returns to its previous level or rises to a level higher than it was prior to the turning point.

Leslie Baxter and her colleagues have identified a number of turning points by asking couples to look back over their time together and to describe an event that caused a change in their relationship. In some studies, romantic couples are also asked to mark on a graph how much commitment they felt at the time of that event, a method that measures increases or decreases in commitment. The turning points most often reported include get-to-know time (e.g., first meeting, first date), quality time (e.g., time away from others, a deeply meaningful conversation), physical separation (e.g., business trip or separate vacations), reunion, external competition (e.g., a romantic rival or external demands from work, school, family), passion (e.g., first kiss, first sex, “I love you”), conflict (e.g., first big fight), making up, disengagement (e.g., considering or actually breaking up for a time), relationship talk (e.g., explicit conversations about relationship norms, quality, definition, or direction), positive psychic change (e.g., realizing strong positive emotions toward partner or relationship), negative psychic change (e.g., realizing strong negative emotions toward partner or relationship), exclusivity (e.g., agreement to not date others), serious commitment (e.g., living together, marital plans), sacrifices (e.g., crisis help, special favors), and network interaction (e.g., including partner in functions with family, friends, and coworkers).

Research offers several insights into how turning points are related to other relationship dimensions and processes. For example, when romantic couples identified the passion turning point as a significant transition in their relationship, they also reported a greater need to balance three dialectics: openness-closedness, autonomy-connection, and novelty-predictability. In other research on the passion turning point, individuals who reported saying “I love you” prior to their first sexual involvement reported greater commitment, satisfaction, and relationship stability compared with those who did not.

Turning-points analysis has not been limited to romantic relationships. Friends also report transitional events within their relationships, such as the first big fight and quality time. Platonic friends sometimes realize that they would like to redefine the relationship as romantic based on the positive psychic-change turning point. Finally, blended families that are navigating the sometimes difficult process of integrating previously separate family units into one new family often report that turning points such as get-to-know time, quality time, and network interaction facilitate the integration process. Turning-points analysis of blended families indicates that when changes in feeling like a family are graphed in the same way that commitment is graphed for romantic relationships, five trajectories emerged: accelerated (rapid development based on numerous positive turning points), prolonged (slow but steady development with more positive than negative turning points), turbulent (a roller coaster pattern of positive and negative turning points), stagnating (consistent low feelings like a family with few turning points), and declining (more negative than positive turning points).


Although phase models and turning-points analysis are presented separately in this entry, these approaches to relationship development overlap. Turning points occur within stages and sometimes function to alert partners that they have progressed to a more advanced stage. Research in both approaches has contributed substantially to the field’s understanding of relationship development in friendships, romantic relationships, and blended families. Together they provide a framework for integrating research on factors that affect the development process. For example, personality characteristics, such as shyness, introversion or extraversion, self-monitoring, love styles, attachment styles, and fear of intimacy, may shape the direction or pace of relationship development. Likewise, cultural norms for appropriate sex-role behavior may lend characteristic differences in the same-sex friendships of men and women. For example, more intimate self-disclosure is evident in women’s friendships compared to men’s except in friendships that men consider to be their closest friend. Finally, these approaches are useful guides for recent investigations of online relationship development in which face-to-face interactions may occur after, rather than before, substantial self-disclosure.