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.
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