Relationships, Stages of

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William B. Gudykunst and his colleagues (1995) have argued that a stage model of relationship development is built on the assumption that relationships are characterized by patterns and regularities that are relatively consistent across relationships. This type of model helps to explain the general patterns that are involved in developing intimacy with others.

The model presented by Mark Knapp and Anita Vangelisti (2000) has gained wide acceptance in the field of communication. This model of relationship development consists of five stages of "coming together" (initiating, experimenting, intensifying, integrating, and bonding) and five stages of "coming apart" (differentiating, circumscribing, stagnating, avoiding, and terminating) and can be applied to both friendships and romantic relationships. It is important to remember that this model is descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, this model does not describe what should happen in a relationship; it merely describes what researchers have observed in numerous studies of interpersonal relationships. Some relationships skip stages, while others move back and forth between two or more stages. Thus, this stage model of relationship development focuses on the consistent overall pattern that tends to occur as interpersonal relationships develop and potentially deteriorate over time.

Coming Together

The coming together stages usually begin with initiating, in which the participants in a potential relationship first meet and interact with each other. Most people tend to follow the "scripts" they have learned for meeting people at this stage. This is the "hello, how are you, it's nice to meet you" stage in which the participants make initial judgments about each other, such as "he seems friendly" or "she seems interesting."

In the experimenting stage, the participants try to reduce their uncertainty about each other. Small talk is the predominant form of communication, and a wide variety of topics may be covered in a superficial way. Knapp and Vangelisti consider small talk to be an "audition for friendship" in which the participants identify topics of mutual interest that they feel comfortable talking about. These topics help people identify areas of similarity that can form the basis for a developing relationship.

During the intensifying stage, the participants increase the information they disclose to each other. This step may make the participants feel more vulnerable because their disclosure can potentially be rejected by the other person. For example, one person may be ready to say "I think I'm falling in love with you," but the other person may not have reached this level of feeling, yet. Forms of address become more informal at this point, and generally affectionate terms may be used.

The intensifying stage is followed by the integrating stage, in which the participants begin to arrange their daily lives around each other and become involved in each other's social networks. The relationship begins to become visible to others. Interaction increases in frequency (e.g., daily telephone calls instead of weekly ones), and references to past conversations increase ("Remember when we…").

Finally, the bonding stage involves a public ritual that signifies a formal commitment to the relationship. This involves actions such as getting engaged, moving in together, or getting married.

Coming Apart

Although many relationships remain at the bonding stage, some relationships do come apart. The coming apart stages begin with differentiating, in which the partners begin to recognize their differences and are unhappy with the realization. Fighting or conflict may occur as the partners begin to feel a growing interpersonal distance.

Constricted communication occurs during the circumscribing stage. Partners restrict their communication to "safe areas" in which they know they can agree. Controversial topics are avoided, and there is little depth to the conversations. The partners may exchange little personal information during their interactions with each other, but they are still able to maintain the public facade of a healthy relationship.

Stagnating occurs when the expectation of unpleasant conversations begins to emerge, along with the feeling that there is little to say to the other person. The partners avoid talking about the relationship at this point because they believe there is nothing to gain by further discussion.

In the avoiding stage, partners reorganize their lives so that they can minimize interaction with each other. Sometimes the partners try to avoid each other, or they directly state their desires, such as "I don't want to talk to you anymore."

Finally, the terminating stage involves physically and psychologically leaving the relationship. This stage may occur very quickly, or it may take a number of years for it to be accomplished. One partner may decide to move out, or both people may agree to stop contacting each other. Messages at this stage of a relationship are designed to create distance between people ("Please don't call me.") or to prepare for life without the other person (saying "I" or "me" instead of "we" when talking about certain topics with others).

Movement Between Stages

Knapp and Vangelisti argue that movement through the stages of relationship development tends to be systematic and sequential. That is, coming together or coming apart occurs in the order in which these stages are described above. Nevertheless, participants can skip stages in either coming together or coming apart.

In addition, movement through the stages may be either forward toward greater intimacy or backward toward less intimacy. Movement forward or backward may also increase in speed if both participants in the relationship want it to change. In other words, if both participants want to become more intimate, the relationship will change faster than if one participant is unsure of his or her feelings.


Understanding the ways in which relationships develop and potentially disintegrate is extremely important for people who live in a world that is based on interpersonal relationships. Individuals spend a significant amount of their time thinking about, being involved in, and attempting to maintain their relationships with others. Understanding how these relationships develop helps clarify ways in which relationships can be improved or terminated if necessary. In addition, it is important to realize the patterned nature of relationships so individuals may understand the commonalities among their relationships and those of others.

Terminating relationships is often a painful task but a common occurrence in the world of interpersonal communication. Understanding that others have gone through this experience in similar ways may help individuals cope with this distressing event. In addition, individuals who are contemplating ending a relationship may derive help by knowing what to expect as a relationship enters its terminating stages.

Understanding interpersonal communication, and especially the stages of interpersonal relationships, is a complex task, but one that may result in more fulfilling interpersonal relationships.

See also:Interpersonal Communication; Interpersonal Communication, Conversation and; Relationships, Types of.


Conville, Richard L., and Rogers, L. Edna, eds. (1998). The Meaning of "Relationship" in Interpersonal Communication. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Gudykunst, William B.; Ting-Toomey, Stella; Sud-weeks, Sandra; and Stewart, Lea P. (1995). Building Bridges: Interpersonal Skills for a Changing World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Knapp, Mark L., and Vangelisti, Anita L. (2000). Interpersonal Communication and Human Relationships, 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Montgomery, Barbara M., and Baxter, Leslie A., eds.(1998). Dialectical Approaches to Studying Personal Relationships. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Nussbaum, Jon F. (2000). Communication and Aging,2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lea P. Stewart

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Relationships, Stages of

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