Initiation of Relationships

Susan Sprecher & Lindsey Guynn. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Editor: Harry T Reis & Susan Sprecher. 2009. Sage Publication.

Relationships go through many stages of development, but the first stage is always initiation. Although people (and scientists) do not usually refer to an initiation stage for family relationships, this stage is particularly relevant for voluntary relationships, such as romantic relationships and friendships. People select their friends and lovers, and therefore such relationships need to be initiated in order to exist. This entry summarizes several important aspects of the initiation stage of relationships, including the meaning of relationship initiation; how common relationship initiation is; diverse settings in which relationship initiation may occur; involvement of the social network in relationship initiation; the emotions, beliefs, and behaviors associated with relationship initiation; and the negative side to relationship initiation.

What Does Relationship Initiation Look Like?

Generally, relationship initiation refers to the beginning period of relationship development for voluntary relationships such as romantic relationships and friendships. Some theorists, such as George Levinger and Mark Knapp, have developed stage models of relationship development and argue that the first stage of the relationship includes such phases as first awareness of each other, first superficial contact, and the first communication behaviors, which express that the two are developing a connection or potential for a relationship. The relationship initiation stage is probably more distinct as well as more clearly recalled later for those whose relationships blossom quickly. For example, consider one hypothetical couple: Abby and Alex meet in a bar, e-mail and phone for a week after this brief meeting, and then begin dating. For them, first awareness, first superficial contact, and first communication of a connection occurred quickly and without too much time between each phase. Another hypothetical couple, Kate and Samuel, were in a class together their freshman year in college and talked occasionally, but then forgot about each other until they frequented the same coffee shop their senior year. It was months of running into each other at the coffee shop and chatting briefly before they realized their attraction for each other; another month passed before one suggested to the other that they should go to dinner. When was their relationship initiated? Months and even years spanned between their first awareness, first superficial contact, and the early communicative behaviors that expressed a desire to begin a relationship. Relationship initiation refers not only to the first time two people meet, but can also refer to the process of the relationship transitioning from one type of relationship (casual friendship) to another type (romantic). Laypeople, as well as experts on relationships, would likely consider the time period in which a pair transitions from casual acquaintances to dating partners as the initiation of the relationship.

In defining relationship initiation, Dan Perlman distinguished between “initiating interactions” and “initiating relationships.” As he notes, “initiating interactions” may lead to a relationship, but in many cases may fail to do so. Many pairs experience attraction for each other and initiate interactions that never develop into a relationship. More research is needed to explore why some initiating interactions lead to a relationship and others do not.

How Common is Relationship Initiation?

Compared with the time that people spend maintaining and nurturing their existing relationships (including family relationships), the time spent engaged in relationship initiation is relatively brief. Because there is a norm of exclusivity and monogamy associated with romantic relationships, most adults have only one such relationship at a time. Therefore, people who stay in a romantic relationship for a long period generally do not enter the initiation stage of a romantic relationship again unless their long-term romantic relationship comes to an end, either through dissolution or death of the other. Adolescence and young adulthood, however, is a time of experimentation with short-lived romantic relationships, and therefore relationship initiation behaviors are quite common at that time.

In contrast to the limited number of romantic relationships that may develop over a lifetime, friendships may begin at any time regardless of how many friends one already has. Friendship generally has a less clearly defined initiation stage compared with romantic relationships. Two people may move slowly from nodding acquaintances to casual acquaintances to good friends, and possibly on to best friends. Friendship initiation may be more common when there are life transitions or changes, such as in geographical location, job, or marital status. The number of new friendships that are initiated is also influenced by the desire for and capacity (e.g., resources) to have a large social network. Some people prefer to have many friends and are often expanding their social network (although perhaps at the same time allowing friendships at the periphery of their social network to fade away). Others may prefer only a few close friends.

Socioemotional Selectivity Theory, developed by Laura Carstensen, states that the desire to initiate new friendships varies across the life course. This theory argues that as people approach the end of their life, they become more selective in regard to with whom they spend time. When time is running out, resources (including time) are devoted to intimate others, rather than to developing new relationships. At younger ages, however, when focusing on the future and when new contacts are important, relationship initiation is likely to be much more common.

Where Does Relationship Initiation Occur?

There are a variety of settings in which relationships begin, including bars, classes, work, parties, church, and on the Internet. Although the most common settings for meeting potential partners vary somewhat as a function of age, according to several studies, the most common locations for meeting romantic partners are parties, classes or work, and settings centered around hobbies or sports. Many years ago, social psychologist Bernard Murstein distinguished among settings in which people meet others by the degree to which they involve different degrees of voluntariness of interaction. A closed field (e.g., a small college seminar) is characterized by the presence of a small group of people who are all likely to interact with one another. In contrast, in an open field (e.g., a singles bar), there is no structured interaction and therefore more choice about one’s interactions. Some have speculated that the factors that lead to attraction and the desire to initiate relationships differ in these two types of settings. For example, physically attractive people are more likely to be noticed in an open-field setting. In closed fields, however, attraction to others can be influenced by less superficial characteristics, such as the person’s honesty, integrity, or sense of humor.

Regardless of the particular setting in which two people meet, one of the major predictors of the likelihood of two people initiating a relationship is physical proximity. Physical proximity increases the likelihood that two people will be in the same setting at the same time. Furthermore, within a particular setting (e.g., an apartment, a classroom, a workplace), two people are more likely to initiate interaction the closer in proximity they are. Proximity contributes to the initiation of a relationship for a number of reasons, including the high rewards and low costs associated with interacting with someone who is near (relative to those who are at a distance) and the familiarity that derives from “mere exposure” to the other (such as seeing that person in class repeatedly). Another type of proximity, social proximity, also influences the likelihood of two people initiating a relationship. As noted by Malcolm Parks and other experts of social networks, the closer two people are in a network of relationships (e.g., if they have mutual friends), the greater their likelihood of meeting.

Advances in communication technologies have reduced at least somewhat the importance of physical proximity for initiating interaction with others. Although there has been considerable media attention given to online relationship initiation, recent studies with representative samples indicate that only a small proportion of committed, romantic relationships began online (3 percent according to one study, 6 percent according to another). Nonetheless, this translates to millions of relationships, and most experts agree that online relationship initiation is here to stay and is likely to become more common.

Although online dating is generally a homogeneous concept to the general public, differences exist among types of Internet relationship initiation. Katelyn McKenna, a pioneer in the study of relationship initiation on the Internet, has distinguished among three types of online relationship initiation: naturally forming relationships, networked relationships, and targeted relationships. Naturally forming relationships occur in those venues in which people congregate online because of an interest or hobby. For example, although the goal for participating in newsgroups and interactive online games is not relational, relationships can form from interaction on these sites. Networked relationships may also be initiated online through social network sites such as Facebook, Friendster, and MySpace. These social network sites provide opportunities to meet others who are linked to one’s friends and acquaintances.

Targeted relationships are those that develop from interactions in online dating sites. People go to dating Web sites (e.g., eHarmony) for the specific purpose of initiating a romantic relationship with a compatible match. Such sites can facilitate relationship initiation by offering a large pool of potential partners, an easy way to search for compatible others who are interested in starting a relationship, and a legitimate and relatively safe format for initiating communication, such as by sending anonymous preprogrammed messages. Individuals meeting on the Internet often disclose personal information sooner and deeper than they might in face-to-face conversation.

Long before the Internet, there were newspaper personal want ads, video-dating services, singles functions, and professional matchmakers. These services, along with Internet dating sites, have been described as commercial marriage market intermediaries. Another recent type of commercial service to assist in relationship initiation is speed-dating. These are events that often occur in bars and involve brief “dates,” 3 to 8 minutes long, for participants who attend for the purpose of meeting a date.

Self-Initiation versus a Little Help from Friends and Family

The first meeting or superficial contact between two people is a big step in the relationship initiation process and is sometimes planned and schemed even if only in the minutes after first awareness of the other. According to research on dating relationships conducted by Charles Berger, people use any of three general techniques to meet another person, particularly in open fields. One way is to introduce oneself to the other. A second technique is to give nonverbal cues and wait for the other to introduce him or herself. Third, one could have a mutual friend make the introduction. Berger found that men were more likely to engage in the first strategy, whereas women were more likely to engage in the other two strategies.

The strategy of friends facilitating the initiation of relationships is common. Many relationships begin through an introduction by a friend or through other types of assistances from the social network. Research conducted with college students and with national, representative, samples of adults indicates that 25 to 50 percent of people meet their current partner through another person. Most often this is a friend, but family members, coworkers, and others also make introductions. Besides assisting in first meetings, friends and family members contribute to the relationship initiation process through supportive behaviors, such as inviting the two to social gatherings and encouraging the relationship. Research indicates that these supportive behaviors from the social network have a positive effect on the likelihood that the relationship develops.

In some cultures, traditionally, parents were instrumental in orchestrating the relationship initiation process through arranged marriages. This still occurs in some areas of the world, such as in subcultures in India.

Emotions, Beliefs, and Behaviors Associated with Relationship Initiation

Regardless of the type of relationship, the setting in which the relationship begins, relationship initiation consists of many specific emotions, behaviors, and beliefs.


Attraction is the emotion or catalyst behind relationship initiation in most voluntary relationships. People initiate relationships with others because they are attracted to them. Considerable research beginning in the 1960s examined the factors that lead to attraction. These include proximity, perceived similarity, reciprocity of liking, and the degree to which the other person is physically attractive. In addition, a host of other desirable characteristics—including wealth, status, sense of humor, and warmth/kindness—can lead to attraction primarily by increasing the perceived probability of having rewarding experiences. Although people may be attracted to those who have desirable characteristics, in real life, matching often occurs by the pairing of individuals with equally desirable characteristics.

Behaviors to Demonstrate Interest

In open fields (such as single functions), people can send nonverbal signals to show their interest in developing a relationship, which can have a significant impact on the likelihood that other(s) will return relationship-initiating-type behaviors. Observational studies of men and women flirting in singles bars suggest that successful flirtation involves one person approaching the other. In a unique observational study, Monica Moore record ed the nonverbal acts that women engage in that seemed to result in a man’s attention within a few seconds after the behavior. Some of the more common flirting behaviors were the smile, laugh, room-encompassing glance, short darting glance, head nod, primp, lean, and solitary dance. In follow-up research, she found that the average number of flirting acts engaged in by women was much greater in singles bars than in other settings, such as a snack bar or library, suggesting that women strategically use flirting behaviors in settings in which the behaviors may have an effect on attraction. Of course, heterosexual men (and homosexual men and women) are likely do the same, but the focus of the research has been on women as flirters and men as onlookers.

The first communication in an open setting is often called “the opening line.” Three types of opening lines have been identified: direct (a direct statement of interest), innocuous (a pleasant statement, such as about the setting), and cute-flippant (humor, often with sexual overtones). Although all three types of opening lines may be used in the get-acquainted process, cute-flippant lines (e.g., “Your place or mine?”) are rated as least desirable, especially by women.


There are various beliefs that can influence the relationship-initiation process, for example, by influencing the information to which a person attends and how that information is processed. Some general schemas and beliefs that people bring to a relationship come from the larger culture, including the family, peer group, and the media. Romanticism (or romantic attitudes) is a general focus on relationships that emphasizes love as a basis for entering a relationship. People who have strong romantic beliefs are likely to approach relationship initiation in different ways than those who endorse romantic beliefs to a lesser degree. For example, in a study by Sandra Metts, a belief in love at first sight was associated positively with commitment to one’s partner following first intercourse. In addition, greater romanticism was associated with recalling that one was more in love sooner in the relationship. Another example of a general belief that influences relationship initiation is relational ideals, which are beliefs about what makes a good relationship and an ideal partner. For example, a person may believe humor is important in an ideal partner, and therefore may be drawn to partners who make them laugh. These relational ideals will influence the type of partner sought and how one approaches a potential relationship.

People also develop specific beliefs about the person or the relationship, which can influence the initiation process. First impressions can be based on the other’s appearance, demographic characteristics (e.g., age), and their initial communication. These first impressions can, in turn, influence behavior toward the other, which may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, the other can become more like the person we think they are based on our first impressions.

The Negative Side of Relationship Initiation

If a person desires to enter a new romantic relationship or a friendship, has the requisite social skills to engage in relationship initiating behaviors, and the other person is also interested and responds with his or her own initiating behaviors, the result can be an exciting and positive event. The successful start to a new relationship is associated with enhanced positive mood and self-esteem. However, the initiation stage of relationships, as is true of all stages of relationships, also has a dark side. Even in the most successful initiation attempts, there are times of awkwardness, embarrassment, and miscommunication.

Beyond the typical awkwardness of two strangers meeting for the first time, interest in developing a relationship is not always mutual. Although the disinterested partner may be flattered, he or she is likely to reject the attempt to initiate the relationship. Rejection, even mild rejection, feels bad and has potentially important emotional consequences. The person being sought may, in some cases, be exposed to unwanted and unrelenting relationship pursuit, such as stalking in extreme cases. The person who does not want the relationship, who is the victim of unwanted relational pursuit, can experience anger, guilt, and perhaps some fear.

Another negative experience of relationship initiation occurs when a person desires to enter a relationship, but fails to do so because of fear of rejection, social anxiety, or a lack of social skills (i.e., not knowing how to communicate with the potential target). People who have an insecure attachment style find it more difficult to initiate and maintain close relationships. Another negative experience is loneliness, which is a discrepancy between the number of relationships one initiates and maintains and the number that is desired.

In summary, the initiation stage is an essential stage of the voluntary relationship. It has been a relatively neglected topic of study in the field of personal relationships. The how, where, and when are equally important as the who is when it comes to relationship initiation. The manner and the setting in which an initiation takes place often influences the relationship’s potential to prosper.