Relationships and Families in Adulthood

Several theories examine how interpersonal relationships form and develop during adulthood.

LEARNING OBJECTIVE

  • Summarize Levinger’s and Knapp’s theories of relational development in adulthood

KEY POINTS

    • An interpersonal relationship is a strong, deep, or close association or acquaintanceship between two or morepeople that may range from brief to enduring in duration.
    • Interpersonal relationships are dynamic systems that change continuously during their existence. Like living organisms, relationships have a beginning, a lifespan, and an end.
    • One of the most influential models of relationship development was proposed by psychologist George Levinger. His model consists of five stages: acquaintanceship, buildup, continuation, deterioration, and termination.
    • M. L. Knapp developed a model of relational development, consisting of two main stages: the coming-together stage and coming-apart stage.
    • Coming together consists of five phases—initiating, experimentation, intensifying, integration, and bonding. Similarly, coming apart consists of differentiating, circumscribing, stagnation, avoidance, and termination.

TERMS

Interpersonal Relationships in Adulthood

Positive relationships with significant others in our adult years have been found to contribute to a state of well-being (Ryff & Singer, 2009). Most adults in the United States identify themselves through their relationships with family—particularly with spouses, children, and parents. An interpersonal relationship is a strong, deep, or close association or acquaintanceship between two or more people that may range from brief to enduring in duration. Like people, relationships change and grow; they may either improve or dissipate over time. The association between two people can be based on various factors—love, solidarity, business, or any other context that requires two (or more) people to interact.

A Nepali Hindu couple in a marriage ceremony

Interpersonal relationships take many forms in many different cultures.

Interpersonal relationships are dynamic systems that change continuously during their existence. Like living organisms, relationships have a beginning, a lifespan, and an end. They tend to grow and improve gradually as people get to know each other and become closer emotionally, or they gradually deteriorate as people drift apart.

Levinger’s Model of Relationships

One of the most influential models of relationship development was proposed by psychologist George Levinger. This model was formulated to describe heterosexual, adult romantic relationships, but it has been applied to other kinds of interpersonal relationships since then. According to the model, the natural development of a relationship follows five stages:

  1. Acquaintance and Acquaintanceship: Becoming acquainted depends on previous relationships, physical proximity, first impressions, and a variety of other factors. If two people begin to like each other, continued interactions may lead to the next stage, but acquaintance can continue indefinitely. Another example is association.
  2. Buildup: During this stage, people begin to trust and care about each other. The need for intimacy, compatibility, and such filtering agents as common background and goals will influence whether or not interaction continues.
  3. Continuation: This stage follows a mutual commitment to strong and close long-term friendships, romantic relationship, or even marriage. It is generally a long, relatively stable period. Nevertheless, continued growth and development will occur during this time. Mutual trust is important for sustaining the relationship.
  4. Deterioration: Not all relationships deteriorate, but those that do tend to show signs of trouble. Boredom, resentment, and dissatisfaction may occur. Individuals may communicate less and avoid self-disclosure. Loss of trust and betrayals may take place as the downward spiral continues, eventually ending the relationship. Alternately, the participants may find some way to resolve the problems and reestablish trust.
  5. Termination: The final stage marks the end of the relationship, either by breakup, death, or spatial separation and severing all existing ties of either friendship or romantic love.

Knapp’s Theory of Relational Development

Another theory, developed by M. L. Knapp, is known as the model of relational development. This theory consists of two main stages, each with several parts. The first stage is known as the coming together phase, and the second stage is known as the coming apart phase.

Coming Together

Coming together consists of five phases—initiating, experimentation, intensifying, integration, and bonding. 

  1. During initiating, first impressions are made; physical factors play a large role in this phase. People often want to portray themselves as easy to talk to, friendly, and open to discussion. This phase tends to be superficial as people are trying to make a good first impression.
  2. During experimentation, the two people attempt to find some common ground between each other’s lives, such as common interests and hobbies. People start to open up more and ask more personal questions as they get to know one another.
  3. During the intensifying phase, people open themselves up fully in the hope of being accepted by the potential mate. During this phase, people may reveal secrets about themselves or others in order to test the trust level of potential partners.
  4. The integration phase involves people merging their lives together and solidifying a relationship status.
  5. Finally, during the bonding phase, people recognize a commitment to one another (traditionally through marriage, though many alternative forms of commitment exist) and the relationship lasts until death, breakup, or divorce.

Coming Apart

Coming apart consists of five stages as well—differentiating, circumscribing, stagnation, avoidance, and termination. 

  1. Differentiation involves focusing more on differences rather than similarities. This can lead to an increasing emotional distance between the parties involved.
  2. During circumscribing, the primary focus of the relationship shifts from differences to setting limits and boundaries on communication between the two people. This further pushes two people apart.
  3. Stagnation is when two people have reached a “stand-off” phase—nothing changes and neither party is willing to change.
  4. Avoidance occurs when people engage in limited communication and take steps to distance themselves from one another.
  5. Finally, during termination, the relationship is ended.