Coming together - the pattern of friendship and love

June 12, 2018

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Making and keeping our connections to others remains one of the fundamental arts we learn in life. And having a stickybeak into other people's relationships is one of the fundamental past times. But if there's one thing psychologists are good at, it's identifying patterns in the way people behave. In that spirit, this model describes the process of people coming together used in the counselling office and by counsellors people-watching over coffee that's quite beautiful.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


Making and keeping our connections to others remains one of the fundamental arts we learn in life. And having a stickybeak into other people's relationships is one of the fundamental past times. Of course, relationships aren't a static phenomenon, which can make it hard to be nosey. But if there's one thing psychologists are good at, it's identifying patterns in the way people behave. In that spirit, Mark Knapp developed quite a beautiful model that describes the process of people coming together used in the counselling office and by counsellors people-watching over coffee.

1. Initiation: why small talk is so awkward

The initiation stage might be my favourite. It's the easiest to spot, and the most awkward by far. According to Knapp, small talk is so awkward because we aren't particularly interested in what people are saying so much as evaluating whether the other person is a threat. We spend this time feeling out whether the other person can do simple human tasks like follow social rules and scripts. Saying 'good' when someone asks how you are, regardless of your actual feelings. Asking the usual run of 'what do you do?', 'how do you know so-and-so?', and so on. He suggests that we don't care so much what the answers are which leaves us often with nothing to talk about after we've run out of our usual test questions. The initiation phase is characterised by:

  • Pleasantness and politeness
  • Warmth and openness, at least superficially
  • An avoidance of talking about controversial topics (like politics and religion)
  • A lack of idiosyncrasies – people in this stage haven’t known each other to feel out what the other person’s rules are and so develop any uniqueness to the relationships.

2. Experimenting: I'm not sure about you

This stage is where most of our relationships live. We go into more detail about the things we like to do, but many of the characteristics of the first stage remain:

  • we still stay away from controversial issues
  • we typically don't disclose anything that's too deep or negative about ourselves
  • remnants of social scripts remain, dictating the way we act and so But we do beging to develop some little idiosyncrasies. Not many, and often superficial, but as we get more a feeling for the person, we start to develop patterns that are more or less unique. It's the start, and often the end, of something special.

3: Intensifying: I like you

This is the first stage in Knapp's model in which we see some serious relational closeness develop. People tend to really start to enjoy a relationship here. We aren't throwing caution to the wind, but we are starting to share some quite intimate things. We can start to feel comfortable stepping away from the social scripts that often constrain us, and move away from those topics of conversation that are dictated to us by society. We develop more those patterns that are unique; ways of interacting and communicating that are exclusive to the relationship. We'll still tend to interact with caution here, but that caution is born of the particular relationship rules that we have created between us. We don't want to tread on each other's toes, but don't mind bending the rules of wider society. These relationships are characterised by:

  • Idiosyncratic rules and patterns of interacting
  • Conversations about deeply personal things
  • The search for mutual emotional depth (wanting to know if we like each other the same)
  • Methods of communication that exclude others, like a nickname or that 'look' your mom gives you that speaks volumes to you but perhaps not everyone else (i.e. paralanguage)
  • We start to do favours for each other, paying for each other's coffee. This is important because it shows that we feel as though these things will be reciprocated into the future. It also indicates that the two people feel comfortable with each other's relationship rules enough to ask and oblige.
  • We start to reveal values and other things that we might not share with strangers. Now we truly do have something special, and these people are our friends.

4. Integration: the creation of something unique

Now we're more actively creating a relationship that excludes others. Not consciously perhaps, but a process of creating something unique in the world becomes more central to the relationship. We might get a matching tattoo. We might refer to ourself by some kind of portmanteau. We might get one of those necklace sets that's a key and a matching lock, or two halves of a heart. We're setting ourselves apart. This relationship is characterised by:

  • the creation of a new circle of friends (or the merging of old friends)
  • engaging in similar activities and hobbies
  • favours - the reciprocal doing of things one expects to have returned, like lending each other clothes or not worrying about who buys dinner
  • our sense of style, and our values will start to coelesce. Opinions will start to merge on controversial topics
  • 'ownership' behaviours develop, like adjusting clothes or labelling our friends or partners in front of others to display that 'we're a unit'
  • we also see an increase in coordinated movement. People finish each other's sentences, or walk in step. A function of spending so much time together. These people are our closest friends and family. And with some of these relationships we'll want to do something truly special, which brings us to the next and final stage.

5. Bonding: let's show the world

The bonding phase describes when a couple decide to explicitly announce publicly in some way that they are one, to the exclusion of others. This describes marriages, civil unions and defacto relationships. It's not particularly common to see this in platonic relationships (although it happens). It's a stage where the couple attempt to garner social support for the relationship. This public ceremonial process is an announcement that 'we are one, we are forever, come celebrate with us'. This is thought to explain why marriages with larger wedding parties tend to be correlated with more satisfaction and longevity.

No model of relationships is perfect, but Knapp's model is beautiful in its simplicity. Whether you're watching others, or looking at those you surround yourself with, using this lens makes people watching a uniquely satisfying experience.

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