How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
Devito's Relationship Stages
Relationships often develop through a series of stages, as described by Devito (1993).
The first stage of a relationship is where the people become aware of one of one another's existence. This may be very brief and very distant. It may be formal, as in a job relationship or more informal, such as seeing a person on a train.
The first step occurs when one person becomes aware of the other's existence. This may be asymmetric, where I see you but you do not see me, or may be mutual, where we see each other at the same time.
At this early stage there may be some interaction between the people, but this is usually brief, superficial and impersonal. It may also be ritualized, such as saying hello and talking about bland subjects such as work or the weather.
Whenever we meet with new people we quickly make some assessment of them (in a few minutes or even seconds) as we try to categorize them. If I know what sort of person you are, then I know how to interact with you.
Of course this 'putting people in a box' approach is an approximation and may possibly be very inaccurate. It is surprising, however, how many people resist changing their early assessment of others even when faced with significant evidence to the contrary.
In the next stage, the people engage more with one another, forming a light bond of friendship.
The interaction becomes more frequent and the balance of giving and receiving is sustained. A sense of mutuality and connectedness develops such that when one person sees another, pleasant feelings (but seldom as strong as love) are engendered.
At this stage the individuals may be wondering whether to move towards intimacy. Many relationships do not go that far as it involves a significant commitment. People may hence informally test the other person to see if they are also committed.
Tests may first be around the level of involvement at this stage that the other person is seeking, and then whether they want to move to the more intimately engaged next stage. Typically this asks them to do something that demonstrates whether they are ready to move to the next stage.
In this stage the relationship is at its deepest and most committed.
Personal commitment is the felt connection with the other person and the time and effort that the individual is prepared to put into the relationship. This can be a problem if it is asymmetrical, with one person feeling more committed than the other.
Interpersonal commitment takes personal commitment and makes it explicit in both directions. This is where the two people declare their affection for one another. A part of this process is in agreeing the depth of commitment that they want from one another, for example staying as good friends or getting married.
Beyond the personal and interpersonal levels, communicating the depth of their relationships to others makes it more difficult for either to back out. This may include a formal ceremony, from signing joint declarations to marriage.
Social bonding demonstrates to one another their longer-term commitment and should strengthen the relationship. Having formalized the arrangement. any dissolution will also need a formal process.
Relationships are not all sweetness and light and even after public commitment, each person may be worried about possible issues. In particular:
As the relationship progresses, and reality bites, problems may arise that test the longer-term commitment that each person has made.
Specific things may happen to damage the relationship, from simple broken promises to major betrayal. Arguments may break out, even over small things, in which hurtful things are said. Minor hurts may then be aggregated into major grievances which can fester and increase the divide.
Even without major damage, the initially-strong bond may be eroded as the passion of the early relationship gives way to the humdrum of everyday existence. Living together or just seeing one another too often can result in having less and less to say. Familiarity may breed contempt, which is a major predictor of relationship breakdown.
Bonds may also be weakened by distractions such as work, hobbies and other relationships, no matter how harmless. When a person has less time for their partner and spends less time in maintaining the relationship then the strength of that relationship will wane.
When damage is done, all is not necessarily lost and if the people want the relationship to continue then there is opportunity for repair.
Each person alone can work on their own perceptions, perhaps with the help of friends and counselors, seeking to identify and draw out the poison within and so healing imagined wounds.
A part of this may include reflection on how the relationship used to be so good and how it has gone wrong. A difficulty here is in accepting one's own part in the breakdown, what reparation may be made and how the person may make permanent changes in how they behave.
The repair process may well also involve joint action that has to go beyond damaging blame and involve joint acceptance of responsibility. Done well, this may be cathartic and enlightening and can lead to an even stronger relationship. Done less well and the repair may only be temporary as one or each agrees to changes but does not engage in the intrapersonal repair that is needed to make it effective.
Eventually at some point the relationship may dissolve (or perhaps return to a more platonic level).
A part of this process is an internal separation where each person psychologically distances themselves from the other person, detaching their identity and seeing the other person as more distinct and individual.
This can be troublesome if not done well and hanging onto even a small part of the relationship can cause problems if this is not mutually agreed.
As well as the intrapersonal separation there is a joint agreement to separate, creating psychological and physical distance. If one person does not want to separate they may appear 'clinging' and this can lead to conflict.
In a reversal of the intimacy stage, the separation occurs not only at intrapersonal and interpersonal levels, but also at an external social level, where friends and acquaintances are told of the separation and are asked to collaborate with this, for example in not inviting both people to the same party. Formal separation may mean divorce, moving out of the same accommodation, etc.
When forming or dissolving relationships, pay attention to these stages. In particular considering how the individual elements of each stage are completed and also the transition between stages.
DeVito, J.A. (1993). Messages : Building Interpersonal Communication Skills, New York, HarperCollins
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