Coming together - the pattern of friendship and love cover image

Coming together - the pattern of friendship and love

Dorian Minors • June 12, 2018

This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and make it intelligible. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. This article was fun enough to keep.

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:

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:

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:

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:

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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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.