Romantic relationships and marriages have to start somewhere. People need to meet, find one another attractive and interesting, and decide to move further into a relationship.
Why do people initiate relationships in the first place? Research suggests that four reasons are especially important. First, individuals initiate relationships with those they see as attractive. Physical appearance is a critical cue in forming first impressions. When people are in social settings where they are likely to meet a potential partner, they worry a great deal about their appearance. Some evidence in the field of evolutionary psychology suggests that males view the physical attractiveness of potential partners as more important than do females (Buss 1989; Sprecher, Sullivan, and Hatfield 1994), but it is clear that both men and women see appearance as an important criterion for meeting others (Berscheid and Walster 1974; Hatfield and Sprecher 1986). Second, individuals tend to develop relationships based on proximity. People are far more likely to meet, date, and marry someone who is geographically close to them than someone who lives a great distance away. Third, individuals often initiate relationships with partners who are useful to them. For instance, someone may pursue a relationship with a medical specialist not because of her attractiveness or proximity, but because she knows things that individual needs to know. Finally, people develop relationships with others because humans are naturally social. Being alone, for long periods of time, is not appealing to most people. Indeed, most individuals see solitary confinement as a particularly cruel form of punishment.
Theories of Relationship Initiation
More than thirty years ago, Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor (1973) explored how people come to know one another. Their explorations led them to develop Social Penetration Theory. Social Penetration Theory portrays relationship development as like an onion—suggesting that when individuals "peel off" one layer of information about a relational partner, there is always another layer. Altman and Taylor noted that as people become acquainted, their relationship becomes broader and deeper. When individuals first meet, they exchange very impersonal information and limit the number of different topics they discuss. As they come to know and trust one another more, they will explore more topics (breadth) and share more intimate information about those topics (depth). An enduring romantic relationship would be marked by both breadth and depth. A "spring break fling" typically is one that has great depth but little breadth. Long-term neighbors might share much breadth but little depth.
How do people decide to move from acquaintanceship to an enduring, deep relationship? Drawing from Social Exchange Theories (Burgess and Huston 1979; Homans 1961; Thibaut and Kelley 1959), Altman and Taylor tell us that people move further into a relationship as long as the perceived rewards associated with the relationship exceed the costs. Individuals first meet. If the exchange is pleasing, they continue the relationship. If it is not, they stop. People are constantly calibrating their ratio of rewards and costs. In some relationships, one or both partners may reach a point where they say "that's far enough; this is fun, but if we get any closer, bad things might happen." At that point, partners will not move to deepen or broaden their relationship any further. According to Social Exchange Theories, in addition to assessing how rewarding their relationships are, individuals also consider what other alternative relationships might be available to them and how those potential relationships compare to their current one.
In 1975, Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese expanded Altman and Taylor's notion of social penetration. Berger and Calabrese suggested that during acquaintanceship people try to reduce their uncertainty about one another. When individuals first meet, they discuss relatively innocuous items—the weather, where they are from, what they do for a living (Berger et al. 1976). Normally, people do not discuss highly charged personal matters such as their fears, anxieties, or fantasies. As their relationship progresses, individuals begin exchanging more intimate information because they have come to "know" each other. Their uncertainty about each other has faded.
Gerald Miller and Mark Steinberg (1975) added to these ideas by suggesting that in relationships individuals make predictions about each other based on three types of information: cultural, sociological, and psychological. Cultural information typically provides only a very general level of prediction: People anticipate how an individual will act based upon his or her culture. There is still a great deal of uncertainty at this level. Sociological information emphasizes a person's group memberships. Someone may make predictions about a person based on the knowledge that the individual is a college freshman, came from a large city, is majoring in mathematics, and plays the violin. Sociological information offers better predictability than cultural information, but it is still stereotypic. Most people who are acquaintances know each other at the sociological level. When individuals know someone at the psychological level, they know him or her so well as to understand how that person differs from the groups he or she belongs to. Thus, for example, someone might know that one of his or her friends plays the violin, loves math, and comes from a big city, but also that the friend is only happy when he is hiking in the wilderness. The fact that the friend is devoted to hiking shows how he is unique or different from individuals in most of the social groups he belongs to. People know relatively few individuals at the psychological level because to know someone at this level requires a great deal of communication. It is important to note that relationships, over time, can exist at different levels of prediction. A college senior may discover that her parents really only know her at the sociological level when once they knew everything about her (i.e., they knew her at the psychological level).
The theories of Altman and Taylor, Berger and Calabrese, and Miller and Steinberg are helpful in understanding the underlying processes involved in relationship development. People meet and try to reduce their uncertainty about each other; they continue to get to know each other as long as their interactions are more pleasurable than punishing, and as long as the alternatives available to them are not as palatable as what they currently have.
Stages of Relationship Development
Other specialists have taken a different tack in describing relationship development. Mark Knapp and Anita Vangelisti (2000) have proposed that relationships go through certain stages from first meeting to deep intimacy. The first stage is labeled the initiating stage. This is when people initially meet and assess each other's attractiveness and availability. At this point in the relationship, people work very hard to present themselves as likeable and interesting. They tend to select their words with caution, knowing that a single mistake (e.g., asking someone about a sensitive topic) may spoil their chances to continue a conversation.
The second stage in Knapp and Vangelisti's formulation is the experimenting stage. This is the time people attempt to reduce their uncertainty about one another. In this stage people may begin testing one another. Indeed, some researchers have argued that people use "secret tests" to evaluate the other's interest in them and in the relationship (Baxter and Wilmot 1984). Is she polite to me? Does he laugh at my jokes? Does she respect the limits I put on intimacy? At the start of any relationship individuals have certain expectations about what should, and should not, happen. Others need to meet those expectations or people often decide not to spend more time with them. For instance, in the early stages of a relationship most individuals expect the other person to be upbeat and positive (not morose and depressed), to look good (not dress sloppily), and to be polite (not boorish). If, on a first date, a person is depressed, sloppy, and boorish, that individual is unlikely to get a second date.
Assuming the other person passes the initial tests, one moves on to the intensifying stage. In this stage, partners start disclosing extremely personal information to one another, they develop nicknames for each other, and often talk using the word "we." Couples develop routines and private symbols (e.g., "our special place," a nonverbal cue that means we like each other) and become more willing to make direct verbal statements of commitment. It is at this stage when couples move from saying "I really like you" to "I really love you." The intensifying stage is often a very passionate time in the relationship. Partners are highly attracted to each other and they find themselves thinking about each other all the time. They often idealize each other, even finding flaws in the other person particularly attractive (e.g., "I love those little handlebars that wrap around your tummy").
The fourth stage in Knapp and Vangelisti's model is called the integrating stage. This is the time when the two individuals become a couple. They emphasize to themselves, and others, how much they share in common—they are certain that they share similar attitudes, interests, and opinions. Their network of friends begins to merge and they often develop friendships with other couples. They start sharing property: The CD player is no longer "mine" but is now "ours." They also start to share what scholars call intimacy trophies (e.g., the room key to the first hotel they stayed at together).
If all goes well, at some point, couples move to the fifth, and final, stage of relationship development, that of bonding. The bonding stage is marked by a public ritual, typically marriage. Couples' willingness to engage in this sort of public commitment signifies their desire to obtain social and sometimes even institutional support for their relationship. After bonding, the two people are publicly tied to one another.
Obviously, the five-stage model offered by Knapp and Vangelisti simplifies what is a very complex process. In fact, Knapp and Vangelisti argue that in real life, people in relationships may skip stages, repeatedly move back and forth between stages, or even move backwards from a more advanced stage to one that appears to be less advanced. Throughout the development of their relationship, couples make decisions about whether to stay at one stage, move forward, or end the relationship.
Some of the more interesting work done on the early stages of relationship development has highlighted the "pick-up" process. Sociologist Murray Davis (1973) suggests that there are several steps in the typical "pick up." First, people assess how "qualified" the other is. Individuals hoping to meet a potential partner try to show their qualifications. Davis breaks qualifications into two sorts: extraordinary and esoteric. Extraordinary qualifiers are special objects or characteristics people have that make them both attractive and different from others. For instance, a young man might walk into a party wearing a lapel pin of the Olympic gold medal that he won a year ago. Very few people have such a pin, yet most people know what it signifies. Esoteric qualifiers are a bit different. While they are distinctive, like extraordinary ones, they are not recognizable by most people. Only those who share a common interest, knowledge base, or experience would recognize how impressive an esoteric qualifier is. For example, a woman may enter a social environment in her military uniform, wearing a prestigious ribbon that signifies exceptional bravery. Few people in the room would have any idea what the ribbon signifies, but for the few who do, it is an important qualifier.
The next step noted by Davis is that the two people have to assess each other's availability. A man who is wearing a wedding ring and who enters a social situation with his arm around a woman probably is not available for a romantic encounter. Similarly, a woman who is involved in a serious conversation with two or three close friends may not be perceived as interested in starting a romantic relationship.
After assessing the availability of a potential partner, Davis suggests that people have to find opening lines—they have to figure out a way to begin a conversation. Psychologist Chris Kleinke (1981) collected hundreds of "pick-up" lines and categorized them into three clusters: (1) cute/flip (e.g., "You know, all my friends think you'll never spend the night with me. Want to help me out by showing them how wrong they are?"); (2) innocuous (e.g., "Excuse me, do you know what time it is?"); and (3) direct (e.g., "Hi, I happened to notice you coming in. Do you come here often?"). Kleinke found that both men and women prefer the latter two sorts of lines to the cute/flippant sort. Most opening lines do not really reveal what the person uttering them actually is thinking. Asking someone for the time, or querying them about how frequently they come to the bar, is not what people really want to know. What they are trying to do is start a conversation.
Assuming that the opening line works, Davis notes that the next step is finding an integrative topic—something that both individuals can easily discuss (e.g., the weather, the entertainment, the traffic). If people cannot find an integrative topic, the conversation quickly grinds to an uncomfortable halt. Davis's final step in first meeting someone is the scheduling of a second encounter. This is when individuals see whether the other person would like to meet again and ask if they can have the other person's phone number.
Strategies that Influence Relationship Initiation
Davis's description of the steps people take to "pick up" a relational partner suggests that individuals actively engage in behaviors to initiate relationships. Relationships, in other words, do not just happen. People encourage relationships to develop by observing potential partners, approaching them, and starting conversations with them.
Robert Bell and John Daly (1984) further suggest that people intentionally engage in strategies to generate affinity. That is to say, individuals do things to make themselves attractive and likable to others. Traditionally, attraction had been seen as a passive variable: People were either attractive or unattractive; others either were drawn to them or they were not. By contrast, Bell and Daly argued that there are a number of strategies individuals employ to get others to like them. Using a four step conceptual model (antecedent factors, constraints, strategic activity, target response), these researchers identified strategies people typically use to actively initiate relationships. The many strategies clustered into seven: focusing on commonalities (e.g., highlighting similarities, demonstrating equality), showing self-involvement (e.g., finding ways of regularly "running into" the other), involving the other (e.g., participating in activities the other person enjoys, including the other in activities), demonstrating caring and concern (e.g., listening, being altruistic), displaying politeness (e.g., letting the other have control over plans, acting interested), encouraging mutual trust (e.g., being honest, being reliable), and demonstrating control and visibility (e.g., being dynamic, looking good). The formulation Bell and Daly offer provides a catalog of rules for the active initiation of relationships. For instance, people beginning a relationship should be polite, demonstrate interest in the other person, try to look attractive, and so on. Indeed, later work by Vangelisti and Daly (1997) on relationship standards suggests that people are dissatisfied when their partners fail to meet their expectations. Like Bell and Daly's affinity seeing strategies, expectations or standards provide information about rules for relationships.
The communication processes people go through in meeting and engaging the interest of another are a vital part of any relationship. If social interaction is rewarding and successful, a relationship may progress into permanency. If it is awkward and uncomfortable, what might have been a promising relationship may not happen.
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anita l. vangelisti john a. daly