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Relationship Initiation

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.


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