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8.3: Stages of Relationships

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    Learning Outcomes
    • Describe the coming together stages.
    • Discern the coming apart stages.
    • Realize relationship maintenance strategies.

    Every relationship goes through various stages. Mark Knapp first introduced a series of stages through which relationships can progress.9 This model was later modified by himself and coauthor Anita Vangelisti to create a model of relationships.10 They believe that we come together and we can come apart in stages. Relationships can get stronger or weaker. Most relationships go through some or all of these stages.

    Figure 1: Knapp and Vangelisti Model of Relationships

    Coming Together

    Do you remember when you first met that special someone in your life? How did your relationship start? How did you two become closer? Every relationship has to start somewhere. It begins and grows. In this section, we will learn about the coming together stages, which include: initiating, experimenting, intensifying, integrating, and then bonding.


    At the beginning of every relationship, we have to figure out if we want to put in the energy and effort to talk to the other person. If we are interested in pursuing the relationship, we have to let the other person know that we are interested in initiating a conversation.

    There are different types of initiation. Sustaining is trying to continue the conversation. Networking is where you contact others for a relationship. An offering is where you present your interest in some manner. Approaching is where you directly make contact with the other person. We can begin a relationship in a variety of different ways.

    Communication at this initiating stage is very brief. We might say hello and introduce yourself to the other person. You might smile or wink to let the other person know you are interested in making conversation with him or her. The conversation is very superficial and not very personal at all. At this stage, we are primarily interested in making contact.


    After we have initiated communication with the other person, we go to the next stage, which is experimenting. At this stage, you are trying to figure out if you want to continue the relationship further. We are trying to learn more about the other person.

    At this stage, interactions are very casual. You are looking for common ground or similarities that you share. You might talk about your favorite things, such as colors, sports, teachers, etc. Just like the name of the stage, we are experimenting and trying to figure out if we should move towards the next stage or not.


    After we talk with the other person and decide that this is someone we want to have a relationship with, we enter the intensifying stage. We share more intimate and/or personal information about ourselves with that person. Conversations become more serious, and our interactions are more meaningful. At this stage, you might stop saying “I” and say “we.” So, in the past, you might have said to your partner, “I am having a night out with my friends.” It changes to “we are going out with my friends tonight.” We are becoming more serious about the relationship.


    The integrating stage is where two people truly become a couple. Before they might have been dating or enjoying each other’s company, but in this stage, they are letting people know that they are exclusively dating each other. The expectations in the relationship are higher than they were before. Your knowledge of your partner has increased. The amount of time that you spend with each other is greater.


    The next stage is the bonding stage, where you reveal to the world that your relationship to each other now exists. It might be as simple as a Facebook post. For others, the bonding stage is where they get engaged and have an engagement announcement. For those that are very committed to the relationship, they might decide to have a wedding and get married. In every case, they are making their relationship a public announcement. They want others to know that their relationship is real.

    Coming Apart

    Some couples can stay in committed and wonderful relationships. However, there are some couples for whom, after bonding, things seem to fall apart. No matter how hard they try to stay together, there is tension and disagreement. These couples go through a coming apart process that involves: differentiating, circumscribing, stagnating, avoiding, and terminating.


    The differentiating stage is where both people are trying to figure out their own identities. Thus, instead of trying to say “we,” the partners will question “how am I different?” In this stage, differences are emphasized and similarities are overlooked.

    As the partners differentiate themselves from each other, they tend to engage in more disagreements. The couples will tend to change their pronoun use from “our kitchen” becomes “my kitchen” or “our child” becomes “my child,” depending on what they want to emphasize.

    Initially, in the relationship, we tend to focus on what we have in common with each other. After we have bonded, we are trying to deal with balancing our independence from the other person. If this cannot be resolved, then tensions will emerge, and it usually signals that your relationship is coming apart.


    The circumscribing stage is where the partners tend to limit their interactions with each other. Communication will lessen in quality and quantity. Partners try to figure out what they can and can’t talk about with each other so that they will not argue.

    Partners might not spend as much time with each other at this stage. There are fewer physical displays of affection, as well. Intimacy decreases between the partners. The partners no longer desire to be with each other and only communicate when they have to.


    The next stage is stagnating, which means the relationship is not improving or growing. The relationship is motionless or stagnating. Partners do not try to communicate with each other. When communication does occur, it is usually restrained and often awkward. The partners live with each other physically but not emotionally. They tend to distance themselves from the other person. Their enthusiasm for the relationship is gone. What used to be fun and exciting for the couple is now a chore.


    The avoiding stage is where both people avoid each other altogether. They would rather stay away from each other than communicate. At this stage, the partners do not want to see each other or speak to each other. Sometimes, the partners will think that they don’t want to be in the relationship any longer.


    The terminating stage is where the parties decide to end or terminate the relationship. It is never easy to end a relationship. A variety of factors can determine whether to cease or continue the relationship. Time is a factor. Couples have to decide to end it gradually or quickly. Couples also have to determine what happens after the termination of the relationship. Besides, partners have to choose how they want to end the relationship. For instance, some people end the relationship via electronic means (e.g., text message, email, Facebook posting) or via face-to-face.

    Final Thoughts on Coming Together

    Not every relationship will go through each of the ten stages. Several relationships do not go past the experimenting stage. Some remain happy at the intensifying or bonding stage. When both people agree that their relationship is satisfying and each person has their needs met, then stabilization occurs. Some relationships go out of order as well. For instance, in some arranged marriages, the bonding occurs first, and then the couple goes through various phases. Some people jump from one stage into another. When partners disagree about what is optimal stabilization, then disagreements and tensions will occur.

    In today’s world, romantic relationships can take on a variety of different meanings and expectations. For instance, “hooking up” or having “friends with benefits” are terms that people might use to describe the status of their relationship. Many people might engage in a variety of relationships but not necessarily get married. We know that relationships vary from couple to couple. No matter what the relationship type, couples decided to come together or come apart.

    Relationship Maintenance

    You may have heard that relationships are hard work. Relationships need maintenance and care. Just like your body needs food and your car needs gasoline to run, your relationships need attention as well. When people are in a relationship with each other, what makes a difference to keep people together is how they feel when they are with each other. Maintenance can make a relationship more satisfying and successful.

    Daniel Canary and Laura Stafford stated that “most people desire long-term, stable, and satisfying relationships.”11 To keep a satisfying relationship, individuals must utilize relationship maintenance behaviors. They believed that if individuals do not maintain their relationships, the relationships will weaken and/or end. “It is naïve to assume that relationships simply stay together until they fall apart or that they happen to stay together.” 12

    Joe Ayres studied how individuals maintain their interpersonal relationships.13 Through factor analysis, he identified three types of strategies. First, avoidance strategies are used to evade communication that might threaten the relationship. Second, balance strategies are used to maintain equality in the relationship so that partners do not feel underbenefited or overbenefited from being in the relationship. Third, direct strategies are used to evaluate and remind the partner of relationship objectives. It is worth noting that Joe Ayers found that relationship intent had a major influence on the perceptions of the relationship partners. If partners wanted to stay together, they would make more of an effort to employ maintenance strategies than deterioration strategies.

    Laura Stafford and Daniel Canary (1991) found five key relationship maintenance behaviors (Figure 1). First, positivity is a relational maintenance factor used by communicating with their partners in a happy and supportive manner. Second, openness occurs when partners focus their communication on the relationship. Third, assurances are words that emphasize the partners’ commitment to the duration of the relationship. Fourth, networking is communicating with family and friends. Lastly, sharing tasks is doing work or household tasks. Later, Canary and his colleagues found two more relationship maintenance behaviors: conflict management and advice.14

    Additionally, Canary and Stafford also posited four propositions that serve as a conceptual framework for relationship maintenance research.15 The first proposition is that relationships will worsen if they are not maintained. The second proposition is that both partners must feel that there are equal benefits and sacrifices in the relationship for it to sustain. The third proposition states that maintenance behaviors depend on the type of relationship. The fourth proposition is that relationship maintenance behaviors can be used alone or as a mixture to affect perceptions of the relationship. Overall, these propositions illustrate the importance and effect that relationship maintenance behaviors can have on relationships.

    Relationship maintenance is the stabilization point between relationship initiation and potential relationship destruction.16 There are two elements to relationship maintenance. First, strategic plans are intentional behaviors and actions used to maintain the relationship. Second, everyday interactions help to sustain the relationship. Talk is the most important element in relationship maintenance.17

    Mindfulness Activity

    Learning how to use mindfulness in our interpersonal relationships is one way to ensure healthy relationships. Lauren Korshak recommends using the RAIN method when interacting with one’s relational partners:

    • Recognize: Nonjudgmentally recognize and name emotions you feel in the present moment.
    • Allow: Acknowledge, accept, and allow your emotions to be as they are without trying to change them. Allowing does not mean you like what is happening, but that you allow it, dislike and all.
    • Investigate with kindness: Ask yourself, “What am I experiencing inside my body? What is calling my attention? What does this feeling need from me?”
    • Non-identification/nurture with self-compassion: Observe thoughts, feelings, and sensations without attaching to them. If you notice painful feelings, nurture them by placing a hand over your heart or speaking words of kindness, reassurance, and compassion, such as “I see you’re suffering,” or “I’m sorry,” or “I love you, I’m listening.”18

    For this activity, we want you to use the RAIN method in a conversation with your romantic partner. As an alternative variant, both of you can engage in the RAIN method and discuss a recent conflict you had. The goal is not to establish fault or a win-lose attitude, but rather to learn to empathize with your partner and their perspective.

    Key Takeaways
    • The coming together stages include: initiating, experimenting, intensifying, integrating, and bonding
    • The coming apart stages include: differentiating, circumscribing, stagnating, avoiding, and terminating.
    • Relationship maintenance strategies include positivity, openness, assurances, sharing tasks, conflict management, social networks, and advice.
    • Find video clips online that illustrate each of the coming together/coming apart stages. Show them to your class. Do you agree/disagree?
    • Do a self-analysis of a relationship that you have been involved with or have witnessed. How did the two people come together and come apart? Did they go through all the stages? Why/why not?
    • Write down an example of each of the relationship maintenance strategies. Then, rank order in terms of importance to you. Why did you rank them the way that you did? Find a peer and compare your answers.

    This page titled 8.3: Stages of Relationships is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jason S. Wrench, Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter & Katherine S. Thweatt (OpenSUNY) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.