4 It Takes Two

Meet Danielle & Grayden

As the second fall semester of her college career began, Danielle was filled with excitement for the long-awaited dinner with her friends. She had been looking forward to catching up with them and hearing about their summer experiences. When she arrived at the restaurant, her friends greeted her warmly before taking her seat at the reserved table. To her surprise, she found herself seated next to a stranger, Grayden, who was a mutual friend of the group and also starting his second year of college. Despite the initial awkwardness, Danielle introduced herself, and the two quickly hit it off, exchanging stories and engaging in a friendly conversation throughout the evening.

Danielle and Grayden exchanged numbers before parting ways that night, and soon after; they started texting each other frequently. As they self-disclosed personal information to one another, their communication intensified, and they started spending more time together. Before long, they saw each other daily and developed strong feelings for each other. Finally, they went on a romantic date, and Grayden formally asked Danielle if she would like to make their relationship more serious and become a couple. Danielle agreed, and they officially became exclusive.

Danielle and Grayden were practically attached at the hip throughout their second year of college. They were always doing things together, and it was clear to everyone that they were meant to be. They just clicked so perfectly, with their shared interests and hobbies making it seem like they were made for each other. As they spent more and more time together, they became more than just a couple; they became best friends.

They shared so many laughs and made countless memories as they explored new places and tried new things together. They always cherished each other’s company. As their relationship grew stronger, they knew they had found something special in each other. It was more than puppy love; it was a deep and meaningful connection where they could truly be themselves with one another.

Do you remember the beginning stages of one of your close relationships?
How has your relationship grown over time?

Interpersonal Relationships Go Through Relational Stages

Interpersonal communication is the foundation of our everyday interactions and plays a vital role in how we establish and maintain relationships with others. Effective communication serves as the footing for creating and sustaining healthy relationships. As we navigate through different relationships with strangers, friends, family, and coworkers, we undergo various relational stages, each characterized by unique communication patterns and behaviors. By recognizing and understanding these different relational stages, individuals can better navigate their interpersonal interactions and build stronger, more meaningful relationships.

Interpersonal communication is a two-way process that involves developing our interpersonal skills. How we communicate in various relationships differs based on our interpersonal skills. The key to being an effective communicator requires constant improvement in our communication abilities, considering the other person’s culture, gender, and personal experiences. It is important to recognize that every individual we communicate with, and progress through different relationship stages which will have unique characteristics and communication styles.

In order to comprehend the fundamental aspects of our interpersonal relationships, it is essential to recognize the different stages that these relationships undergo. Researchers have proposed several models to identify these distinct stages, which we encounter as we progress through our relationships. By examining these models presented in this chapter, we can achieve insight into how our relationships are formed and how they develop as we experience relational progression.

4.1 Relational Progression Through Self-Disclosure 

As relationships develop, interpersonal communication progresses to deeper and more intimate levels. These further relational stages we experience in our relationships are predominately achieved through the act of self-disclosure. When we think about the relationships we have formed in our lives, much of our communication has had self-disclosure within the conversations we have with others. Self-disclosure is the process of revealing information about yourself to others in a relational context. The more we become comfortable with those we interact with, the more we begin to self-disclose information about ourselves to acquire a deeper connection with someone.

Social penetration theory, developed by Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor (1973), is based upon the central idea that as relationships progress, they tend to evolve and deepen through increased disclosure. This means that as we share more information with someone, we gain a deeper understanding of who they are and how they relate to us. With each new piece of information shared, the relationship can be viewed from a new and advanced level.

Altman and Taylor (1973) assert that human beings are similar to onions because we have multiple layers. We can progress through these different layers when we share information about ourselves and continue to self-disclose at a deeper level which takes place when we begin to peel back the different layers of the onion.

What information is in your metaphorical “outermost layer”? Your “innermost layer”? 

The superficial layer is the outer layer and represents the superficial aspect of our communication which revolves around the surface-level low-cost information we disclose about ourselves, such as our taste in music and film, fashion preferences, and general interests. The middle layer differs from the outer layer because this is when we tend to disclose more information about ourselves, such as perceptions of the world regarding our political and religious beliefs. The inner layer contains more information about ourselves, such as the experiences that we have had, our personal goals and ambitions, and our self-reflexive interpretations of ourselves. The core personality is the deepest layer and consists of the most private and intimate details of our lives. These different layers of social penetration theory can be more easily identified by the five stages: the orientation stage, exploratory affective stage, affective stage, stable exchange, and de-penetration.

The Five Stages of The Social Penetration Theory

The process of self-disclosure in our communication progresses on a deeper level when we transition through the different stages of the social penetration theory (Carpenter & Greene, 2015).

Orientation Stage: During the first stage, individuals tend to disclose relatively superficial information about themselves to others they have not previously established a relationship with. In addition, impersonal conversations characterize this stage; typically, more intimate, and personal details are not shared during these initial interactions. When interacting with strangers, we typically avoid disclosing personal details about our lives. Instead, we interact by conversing about safer topics, such as the weather or popular films we enjoy.

Exploratory Affective Stage: The second stage begins when individuals feel more at ease, allowing for more meaningful conversations. At this stage, individuals begin to share information about themselves that is less superficial and more personal but still within the bounds of the relatively new relationship. The degree of information shared is carefully considered, considering the level of trust established between the individuals involved. During this stage, individuals become more comfortable with one another and more inclined to discuss shared beliefs and values.

Affective Exchange: The third stage marks a significant shift. During this stage, individuals tend to feel more comfortable and less inhibited, leading to greater openness in their interactions. As a result, they may begin to share more intimate and personal details about themselves. In addition, the increased comfort level between the individuals involved allows for a deeper level of trust and is commonly experienced by friends that we are close to or our romantic partners.

Stable Exchange: The fourth and final stage of the progression of our self-disclosure is when individuals have developed a deep sense of comfort and trust in their relationship, which allows for a higher level of openness and intimacy in their communication. During this phase, individuals are likely to engage in more frequent and substantial disclosure of personal and intimate information. As a result, the depth of their relationship has been solidified, resulting in a stable and secure exchange of personal information.

De-penetration: The fifth stage pertains to the reduced intimacy that occurs when there is a decrease in self-disclosure within an interpersonal relationship. This reduction in self-disclosure can result from individuals drifting apart and communicating less frequently. This stage can lead to a deterioration of the relationship and ultimately result in its dissolution.

4.2 Relationship Escalation Model

Interpersonal relationships undergo various stages and are characterized by dynamic communication patterns. Scholars have conducted extensive research on the process of navigating through these stages. Earlier in this chapter, we discussed the social penetration theory, which explains self-disclosure progression in interpersonal relationships and the stages involved. This section will explore the relationship escalation model (coming together), part of Mark Knapp and Anita Vangelisti’s Model of Interaction Stages (2005). This model aims to deepen our understanding of relational development.

The Five Stages of The Social Penetration Theory

Coming together is the process within the Model of Interaction Stages that deals with relationship escalation (Knapp, 1978; Knapp et al., 2005). The first five stages of the interaction model represent the foundational building blocks of relationship development. However, it is important to acknowledge that not all relationships will progress through these stages similarly. Therefore, this model also is based upon the assumption that some relationships may not experience all of the stages, and the order in which they occur may also differ between relationships because movement between the different stages can be forward or backward (Knapp & Vangelisti, 2005). The five stages discussed below are initiating, experimenting, intensifying, integrating, and bonding.

Initiating: The initial stage of relationship development is characterized by the desire to make a positive impression on the other person. During this stage, interactions are brief and focused on establishing a favorable image. These interactions may involve simple gestures such as greeting the other individual and engaging in light conversation.

Experimenting: The second stage of relationship development often called the probing phase, is primarily focused on exploration. During this stage, both individuals are actively analyzing their communication patterns to identify common interests and determine whether to continue the relationship. Self-disclosure plays a critical role in this stage, as individuals seek to gauge the level of reciprocity from the other person. The goal is to learn more about the other person and assess whether the relationship should progress to the next stage. This stage represents a critical testing phase for the relationship’s boundaries, with both parties seeking to determine whether to move forward.

Intensifying: The third stage of relationship development is indicated by increased openness and higher levels of self-disclosure between both parties. Conversations become more serious and intimate, with individuals sharing personal information about themselves. The intimacy that develops during this stage is often linked to confirmation and reciprocity. This is the stage where the relationship can begin to explore labels such as a mutual agreement of being close friends or, in the case of a romantic relationship, the status of a couple.

Integrating: In the fourth stage of relationship development, identity is merged, where the relationship’s identity is solidified as a couple or a pair. This stage is characterized by an increase in the amount of time the individuals spend together and the public acknowledgment of their relationship. Furthermore, social circles, verbal behavior, opinions, and interests of the individuals may merge, leading to the development of a shared identity.

Bonding: In the fifth stage of relationship development, the couple announces their deep commitment to others, indicating that the relationship has reached a significant level of seriousness. This bonding stage often involves formal rituals such as a wedding or a commitment ceremony, which can change how the couple communicates and perceives their relationship. Although this stage is typically associated with romantic relationships, it can also occur in non-romantic relationships, such as those between best friends or business partners.

Reflection Questions

What are some moments in your life where you have experienced these different relational stages?

How have these different relational stages affected your relationships?

In this TED Talk, Shasta Nelson discusses was she calls “frientimacy.”
In what ways does self-disclosure encourage increased intimacy between friends?

4.3 Danielle and Grayden’s Relational Development

The relationship between Danielle and Grayden at the beginning of the chapter can be related to the concept of relational development in interpersonal communication. Relational development refers to the process through which a relationship progresses. Danielle and Grayden’s initial meeting can be seen as the initiation stage since they were introduced to each other by a mutual friend. As they spent more time together, they engaged in self-disclosure and got to know each other on a deeper level, which is characteristic of the experimenting stage. Finally, their communication became more frequent, and they spent more time together, indicating that they had progressed to the intensifying stage. The integrating stage is denoted by the romantic date and the decision to become a couple that is dating.

Overall, the relationship between Danielle and Grayden is an example of relational development and the stages that a relationship typically goes through in interpersonal communication. As their relationship progressed, they experienced the different stages of the relationship escalation model. Consequently, this chapter provides valuable insights into the dynamics of our interpersonal relationships and the various stages of their development.

The Chapter 4 MixtapeA tape player with headphones resting on top sits under the words "chapter 4 mixtape."

    • Berlin – “Take My Breath Away”

    • Foreigner – “I Want to Know What Love Is”

    • The Cure – “Lovesong”

    • Tears for Fears – “Head Over Heels”

    • The Police – “Every Breath You Take”

Chapter References

Altman, I., & Taylor, D. A. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Carpenter, A., & Greene, K. (2015). Social penetration theory. The international encyclopedia of interpersonal communication, (1st ed., pp. 1-5). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118540190.wbeic0160

Knapp, M. L. (1978). Social intercourse: From greeting to goodbye. Allyn & Bacon.

Knapp, M. L., & Vangelisti, A. L. (2005). Relationship stages: A communication perspective. In M. L. Knapp, A. L. Vangelisti, & J. P. Caughlin (Eds.), Interpersonal communication and human relationships (5th ed., pp. 36-49). Pearson.

Knapp, M. L., Vangelisti, A. L., & Caughlin, J. P. (2005). Interpersonal communication and human relationships (5th ed.). Pearson.



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In Your Eyes: Communicating in Close Relationships Copyright © 2023 by Sydney Brammer; Ryan Martinez; and Narissra Punyanunt-Carter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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