North Hennepin Community Relational Developmental Perspective Discussion
A Developmental Perspective
One of the best-known models of relational stages was developed by communication researcher Mark Knapp. It breaks the rise and fall of relationships into ten stages, contained in the two broad phases of “coming together” and “coming apart.” Other researchers have suggested that any model of relational communication ought to contain a third phase of relational maintenance—communication aimed at keeping relationships operating smoothly and satisfactorily (we’ll discuss relational maintenance in detail later in this chapter). Figure 9.1 shows how Knapp’s ten stages fit into this three-phase view of relational communication.
Figure 9.1Stages of Relational Development
This model seems most appropriate for describing communication between romantic partners, but in many respects it works well for other types of close relationships. As you read the following section, consider how the stages could describe a long-term friendship, a couple in love, or even business partners.
Looking at Diversity
Rakhi Singh and Rajesh Punn: A Modern Arranged Marriage
Photo by Rakhi Singh
My husband Raj and I are married because our parents thought we might be right for one another.
The term “arranged marriage” has different meaning for Indians today than it did in previous generations. My grandparents in a rural village were matched by their parents, and married at ages 12 and 13. They had little or no say in the matter. Their children—my parents—were also matched, but not until they were in . After being introduced, they had a 3-hour meeting before deciding whether to go ahead with their engagement.
It was very different for Raj and me. Our parents back in India published profiles of each of us, and after reviewing possible candidates, they decided together that we might be a good match. They put us in touch, and from there it was up to us to decide whether we were right for one another.
Because we lived in the USA, we were a little resistant to this sort of matchmaking, but we were still willing to give it a try. Thankfully, our parents chose well: We hit it off, and after 18 months we married. Thirteen years and three kids later, we are very happy.
The notion of parents choosing prospective spouses may seem odd at first, but there are some reasons why the approach works as well as it does. Parents match people from similar backgrounds—cultural values, education, and age, for example. That can help insure a good fit. Also, knowing that the family approves takes away a big area of potential stress and conflict.
In some ways, parental matchmaking resembles computer dating. The searchers plug in the qualities they’re seeking, and out comes a list of people who fit the profile. I think the key variable is whether the parents are willing to limit their role to finding prospective partners, and to let their children make the final call.
The goals in the first stage of a relationship are to show that you are interested in making contact and that you are the kind of person worth talking to. Communication during this initiating stage is usually brief, and it generally follows conventional formulas: handshakes, remarks about innocuous subjects like the weather, and friendly expressions. These kinds of behavior may seem superficial and meaningless, but they are a way of signaling that we’re interested in building some kind of relationship with the other person. They allow us to say without saying, “I’m a friendly person, and I’d like to get to know you.”
Initiating relationships—especially romantic ones—can be particularly difficult for people who are shy. Making contact via social media can be helpful in cases like this. One study of an online dating service found that participants who identified themselves as shy expressed a greater appreciation for the system’s anonymous, nonthreatening environment than did more outgoing users. The researchers found that many shy users employed the online service specifically to help overcome their inhibitions about initiating relationships in face-to-face settings. This helps explain why many young adults—shy or not—use social media sites such as Facebook to initiate relationships.
Keep in mind that initiating is the opening stage of all relationships, not just romantic ones. Friendships start here, and so do business partnerships. In fact, some have compared employment interviews to first dates because they have similar properties. As you read about the stages that follow, consider how the communication involved could be true of landing a job, connecting with a roommate, or joining an organization—as well as forming a romantic relationship.
After we have made contact with a new person, the next stage is to decide whether we are interested in pursuing the relationship further. This involves uncertainty reduction—the process of getting to know others by gaining more information about them. A usual part of uncertainty reduction is the search for common ground, and it involves the conversational basics such as “Where are you from?” or “What’s your major?” From there we look for other similarities: “You’re a runner, too? How many miles do you do a week?”
The hallmark of the experimenting stage is small talk. Even though we may dislike it, we tolerate the ordeal of small talk because it serves several functions. First, it is a useful way to find out what interests we share with the other person. It also provides a way to audition the other person—to help us decide whether a relationship is worth pursuing. In addition, small talk is a safe way to ease into a relationship. You haven’t risked much as you decide whether to proceed further.
For communicators who are interested in one another, the move from initiating to experimenting seems to occur even more rapidly online than in person. One study found that people who develop relationships via email begin asking questions about attitudes, opinions, and preferences more quickly than those engaged in face-to-face contact. It probably helps that emailers can’t see each other’s nonverbal reactions; they don’t have to worry about blushing, stammering, or looking away if they realize that they asked for too much information too quickly.
Social networking sites may change the nature of this stage of relational development. students in one study said that experimenting in romantic relationships used to involve securing a person’s phone number; now it often involves a Facebook friend request. Once access is given, communicators can look over each other’s site, allowing them to “chug” rather than “sip” information about the other person. Photos and mutual friends are also important factors in deciding whether to continue developing a relationship. And of course, gathering this information online is less face-threatening (for both parties) than doing so in person.
In the intensifying stage, the kind of truly interpersonal relationship defined in Chapter 1 begins to develop. Several changes in communication patterns occur during intensifying. The expression of feelings toward the other becomes more common. Dating couples use a wide range of communication strategies to describe their feelings of attraction. About one-quarter of the time they express their feelings directly, openly discussing the state of the relationship. More often they use less direct methods of communication: spending an increasing amount of time together, asking for support from one another, doing favors for the partner, giving tokens of affection, hinting and flirting, expressing feelings nonverbally, getting to know the partner’s friends and family, and trying to look more physically attractive. In developing friendships, intensifying can include participating in shared activities, hanging out with mutual friends, or taking trips together.
The intensifying stage is usually a time of relational excitement and even euphoria. For romantic partners, it’s often filled with starstruck gazes, goosebumps, and daydreaming. As a result, it’s a stage that’s regularly depicted in movies and romance novels—after all, we love to watch lovers in love. The problem, of course, is that the stage doesn’t last forever. Sometimes romantic partners who stop feeling goosebumps begin to question whether they’re still in love. Although it’s possible that they’re not, it’s also possible that they’ve simply moved on to a different, less emotional stage in their relationship—integrating.
This remake of the 1986 rom com About Last Night traces the rise and decline of the relationship between Danny (Michael Ealy) and Debbie (Joy Bryant). The story illustrates the developmental model from initial attraction through emotional and physical intensifying into integration, and ultimately to the stages of coming apart. How closely have your relationships followed the stages in Knapp’s model?
Sony Pictures Releasing/Allstar
As a relationship strengthens, the parties begin to take on an identity as a social unit. In romantic relationships, invitations begin to come addressed to the couple. Social circles merge. The partners begin to take on each other’s commitments: “Sure, we’ll spend Thanksgiving with your family.” Common property may begin to be designated—our apartment, our car, our song. Partners develop unique, ritualistic ways of behaving. Close friends may even begin to speak alike, using personal idioms and sentence patterns. In this sense, the integrating stage is a time when individuals give up some characteristics of their old selves and develop shared identities.
In contemporary relationships, integrating may include going “Facebook Official” (FBO) by declaring publically that the couple is “in a relationship.” Of course, problems can arise when one partner wants to be “FBO” and the other partner doesn’t. And the meaning of FBO can be different for each partner. One study found that in heterosexual relationships, women tend to perceive FBO declarations as involving more intensity and commitment than men do. As a result, women may connect FBO status with the rights and restrictions normally associated with bonding—a stage we’ll look at now.
During the bonding stage, the parties make symbolic public gestures to show the world that their relationship exists. What constitutes a bonded, committed relationship isn’t always easy to define. Terms such as common-law, cohabitation, and life partners have been used to describe relationships that don’t have the full support of custom and law but still involve an implicit or explicit bond. Nonetheless, given the importance of bonding in validating relationships and taking them to another level, it’s not surprising that the gay and lesbian communities have fought hard to have legally sanctioned and recognized marriages.
For our purposes here, we’ll define bonded relationships as those involving a significant measure of public commitment. These can include engagement or marriage, sharing a residence, a public ceremony, or a written or verbal pledge. The key is that bonding is the culmination of a developed relationship—the “officializing” of a couple’s integration. We’ll talk more about the role of commitment in relationships in Chapter 10.
Bonding marks a turning point in a relationship. Up until now the relationship may have developed at a steady pace. Experimenting gradually moved into intensifying and then into integrating. Now, however, there is a spurt of commitment. The public display and declaration of exclusivity make this a distinct stage in the relationship.
Relationships don’t have to be romantic to achieve bonding. Consider, for example, the contracts that formalize a business partnership or the initiation ceremony in a fraternity or sorority. As one author notes, even friendships can achieve bonding with acts that “officialize” the relationship:
Some Western cultures have rituals to mark the progress of a friendship and to give it public legitimacy and form. In Germany, for example, there’s a small ceremony called Duzen, the name itself signifying the transformation in the relationship. The ritual calls for the two friends, each holding a glass of wine or beer, to entwine arms, thus bringing each other physically close, and to drink up after making a promise of eternal brotherhood with the word Bruderschaft. When it’s over, the friends will have passed from a relationship that requires the formal Sie mode of address to the familiar du.
Bonding is the peak of what Knapp calls the “coming together” phase of relational development, but people in even the most committed relationships need to assert their individual identities. This differentiating stage is the point where the “we” orientation that has developed shifts, and more “me” messages begin to occur. Instead of talking about “our” weekend plans, differentiating conversations focus on what “I” want to do. Relational issues that were once agreed upon (such as “You’ll be the breadwinner and I’ll manage the home”) may now become points of contention (“Why am I stuck at home when I have better career potential than you?”). The root of the term differentiating is the word different, suggesting that change plays an important role in this stage.
Differentiating is likely to occur when a relationship begins to experience the first, inevitable feelings of stress. This need for autonomy and change needn’t be a negative experience, however. People need to be individuals as well as parts of a relationship, and differentiation is a necessary step toward autonomy. Think, for instance, of young adults who want to forge their own unique lives and identity, even while maintaining their relationships with their parents. As Figure 9.1 illustrates, differentiating is often a part of normal relational maintenance, in which partners manage the inevitable changes that come their way. The key to successful differentiating is maintaining a commitment to the relationship while creating the space for being an individual as well. (This is a challenge that we will describe in more detail later in this chapter when we discuss dialectical tensions in relationships.)
In the circumscribing stage, communication between members decreases in quantity and quality. Restrictions and restraints characterize this stage. Rather than discuss a disagreement (which requires energy on both sides), members opt for withdrawal—either mental (silence or daydreaming and fantasizing) or physical (people spend less time together). Circumscribing doesn’t involve total avoidance, which may come later. Rather, it involves a shrinking of interest and commitment—the opposite of what occurred in the integrating stage.
The word circumscribe comes from the Latin meaning “to draw circles around.” Distinctions that emerged in the differentiating stage become more clearly marked and labeled: “my friends” and “your friends”; “my bank account” and “your bank account”; “my room” and “your room.” As you’ll soon read, such distinctions can be markers of a healthy balance between individual and relational identity—between autonomy and connection. They become a problem when there are clearly more areas of separation than integration in a relationship, or when the areas of separation seriously limit interaction, such as “my vacation” and “your vacation.”
If circumscribing continues, the relationship enters the stagnating stage. The excitement of the intensifying stage is long gone, and the partners behave toward each other in old, familiar ways without much feeling. No growth occurs; relational boredom sets in. The relationship is a hollow shell of its former self. We see stagnation in many workers who have lost enthusiasm for their job, yet continue to go through the motions for years. The same sad event occurs for some couples who unenthusiastically have the same conversations, see the same people, and follow the same routines without any sense of joy or novelty.
When stagnation becomes too unpleasant, parties in a relationship begin to create physical distance between each other. This is the avoiding stage. Sometimes they do it indirectly under the guise of excuses (“I’ve been sick lately and can’t see you”); sometimes they do it directly (“Please don’t call me; I don’t want to see you now”). In either case, by this point the relationship’s future is in doubt.
The deterioration of a relationship from bonding through circumscribing, stagnating, and avoiding isn’t inevitable. One of the key differences between marriages that end in separation and those that are restored to their former intimacy is the communication that occurs when the partners are unsatisfied. Unsuccessful couples deal with their problems by avoidance, indirectness, and less involvement with each other. By contrast, couples who repair their relationship communicate much more directly. They confront each other with their concerns (sometimes with the assistance of a counselor) and spend time and effort negotiating solutions to their problems.
Not all relationships end. Many career partnerships, friendships, and marriages last for a lifetime once they’ve been established. But many do deteriorate and reach the final stage of terminating. Characteristics of this stage include summary dialogues of where the relationship has gone and the desire to dissociate. The relationship may end with a cordial dinner, a note left on the kitchen table, a phone call, or a legal document. Depending on each person’s feelings, this stage can be quite short, or it may be drawn out over time.
PEARLS BEFORE SWINE © 2011 Stephan Pastis. Reprinted by permission of Universal Uclick for UFS. All rights reserved.
Relationships don’t always move toward termination in a straight line. Rather, they take a back-and-forth pattern, where the trend is toward dissolution. Regardless of how long it takes, termination doesn’t have to be totally negative. Understanding each other’s investments in the relationship and needs for personal growth may dilute the hard feelings. In fact, many relationships aren’t so much terminated as redefined. A divorced couple, for example, may find new, less intimate ways to relate to each other.
In romantic relationships, the best predictor of whether the parties will be friends after reaching the terminating stage is whether they were friends before their emotional involvement. The way the couple splits up also makes a difference. It’s no surprise to find that friendships are most possible when communication during the breakup is positive (expressions that there are no regrets for time spent together, other attempts to minimize hard feelings). When communication during termination is negative (being manipulative, complaining to third parties), friendships are less likely.
After termination, couples often engage in “grave-dressing”—retrospective attempts to explain why the relationship failed. The narrative each partner creates about “what went wrong” has an impact on how the couple will get along after their breakup (imagine the difference between saying and hearing “We just weren’t right for each other” versus “He was too selfish and immature for a committed relationship”).
Scholars have begun to investigate the role technology can play in relational termination. Thousands of respondents in one survey admitted they had broken up with someone via text message (men were far more likely than women to use this method).