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Relationship Development Stages

 

Explanations > Relationships > Relationship Development Stages

Before meeting | Getting to know you | Getting close | Stabilizing | Making commitments | So what?

 

Relationships developed through a number of stages. Presented here is a comprehensive generic model, based on a wide review of other models. Note that it focuses on growth of the relationship and does not include subsequent breakdown stages. Also note that these stages are not all sequential. Phases 3 to 5 in particular are likely to have some overlap.

The duration of each phase may vary significantly, from moment to years, based on opportunity and motivation of the parties.

Phase 1: Before meeting

Before the people in a relationship ever meet, there are a number of activities that may happen, leading up to the first meeting. If the meeting is by chance (or design of others) then this stage is effectively skipped.

Knowing about them

The first step is to know that they exist. One person usually knows first and the second person may not know until the first meeting.

Knowing about them may happen in various ways, for example a man may see a woman in a bar or a sales person hears of a possible customer from a colleague.

Learning about them

More information is often needed to motivate a desire for contact. This may be done by first-hand research, where the person actively looks for information by the other party. If there is a third person helping out, they may volunteer information, for example where a friend is 'match-making' or a company researches prospects for a salesperson.

Wanting to meet

With enough information, the motivation for a relationship begins. This can range from a cautious interest to early strong desire, such as when a woman sees a man she does not know at a party and is immediately attracted to him.

Seeking contact

With the motivation to meet, the next (and sometimes difficult) step is figuring out how to get to meet them. This may be through friends who will enquire if the other person is interested (and help them through this phase).

In sales, cold calling is a difficult and often unrewarding activity and other methods of prospecting may also be used to connect with possible customers.

Phase 2: Getting to know you

In this phase, contact is made with the other person and early negotiations lead either to departure or continuation of the relationship.

First contact

First contact with the other person is an important and difficult stage as early impressions are important although this is easy to get wrong. When we meet others we seek to classify them, typically using global or personal stereotypes which are often inadequate for the decisions made at this time.

Typically, greeting between strangers is highly formalized, with handshakes, exchange of names and simple pleasantries such as discussing the weather, local sports or other safe topics.

Basic exchange

Possibly within the first contact and possibly in subsequent meetings there is an exchange of information which allows each person to refine their impression of the other person and decide whether they want to continue with the relationship.

Exchange at this level typically includes a seeking of common factors such as origins, hobbies, families, friends, work and so on. There is also information exchange which helps with the next stage of deciding where to take the relationship. A typical question to help this is 'What do you do?', which effectively translates as 'how could you help me'.

Deciding desired relationship

From the information gained so far, the possibilities for the nature of an ongoing relationship should be clear, whether it is one of friendship, convenience, exchange or romance.

Acquaintance

If the relationship is not going to get any closer, then its development stops here. This is quite common and most people have many acquaintances with relatively few good friends.

The state of acquaintance is a safe position whereby there is no obligation between the two people and it is easy to refuse any request. Interaction is functional with a clear and simple request/response structure.

Phase 3: Getting close

When both parties want to develop the relationship further, then there is more activity to get to a stronger closeness.

Seeking more contact

Getting closer means spending more time with the other person. This starts with proposals and continues with 'dates' in which pre-planned activities are jointly carried out.

Revealing secrets

A common part of developing intimacy is in revealing things about yourself that you would not easily tell others. This says 'I trust you' and encourages a reciprocal exposure of vulnerabilities.

Dancing to and fro

Coming together is seldom a single movement and often appears as a dance with one approaching, the other retreating then moving back in and so forth. This tests the determination and commitment of the other person in seeking a lasting relationship.

Intensifying the relationship

As the people get closer, the things that they do together show increasing commitment and sharing. The speed and depth of this stage will vary greatly with the relationship.

Romantically, this goes from touching to kissing to petting and intercourse. In sales it would include courting the customer, serious consideration of products and final sales. After sales the relationship may well continue with ongoing support and loyalty into referrals and future sales.

Phase 4: Stabilizing

Even when the relationship seems to have reached its peak, there is more work to do to create a stable, longer-term relationship.

Honeymoon

After first getting together there is often a 'honeymoon' period when everything goes wonderfully well and each person cannot imagine not being in the relationship.

In studies of romantic relationships, it has been show that can last up to two years. However, in the end, reality bites, the wings dissolve and the parties either find a working 'normal' relationship or otherwise drift apart.

Storming

After having a close relationship with someone for a while, those endearing little affections can turn into annoying habits as the little things that you once forgave become major irritations.

The relationship may also become rather one-sided as one person does much more of the running and the other sits back and lets it happen. Again, for the person putting in the effort this can be rather annoying.

The relationship can consequently turn from being relatively harmonious to being marked with regular disagreement and acrimonious argument.

This is another stage at which the relationship may break up if the challenge to ongoing stability is not met.

Sometimes relationships can remain in the storming stage for a long period, resulting in a long journey along a very rocky road which bumps and grinds and wears everyone down.

Stabilizing

If there is still sufficient commitment for the relationship to continue, differences need to be resolved or at least moved to an acceptably workable footing.

If storming has been particularly acrimonious then the partners may have hurt one another deeply. This may require deliberate reconciliation with support from a third party mediator or counselor of some sort.

Acceptance, understanding and heartfelt apology are common in this stage, as is constructive dialog that works towards an effective long-term relationship in which neither is overly dominant and where each puts effort into meeting the needs of the other.

Phase 5: Developing commitments

Alongside and within the previous two phases commitments may be made to the relationship and to one another.

Internal commitment

Along the way and at particular times, the individual person mulls over the relationship and its importance and makes personal decisions to commit time and effort to making the relationship work.

Trust is an important driver of this - if I do not trust you, then I would put myself at risk if I made commitments.

Demonstrating commitment

When a commitment is demonstrated to the other person, it encourages them to also show their commitment in return and so deepen the relationship. Demonstration of commitment includes such as:

  • Giving one's time to the other
  • Keeping appointments (and arriving on time)
  • Talking up the partner in conversations with other people
  • Providing emotional support in times of distress
  • Giving gifts and otherwise transferring resources to the other

Socializing

Demonstrating commitment also sends a message to other people that this is an important relationship. When we make something public, it becomes harder to go back on the commitment.

Formalizing the commitment

There are a number of ways in which a commitment may be formalized, and so making it harder for either party to renege on the agreement. In a commercial situation, contracts are commonly used. In romantic relationships, commitments include moving in together, getting married and having children.

So what?

Understand these stages and see if they make sense in your own relationships. Where it works for you, facilitate the relationship forward to the point where you want it go go.

See also

Learning stage theories

 

 

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