Relational Development Theories

The content from this section is curated by Emily McWorthy from the following open textbook authors:

Pamela J. Gerber & Heidi Murphy, Central New Mexico Community College

” Relationship Development” by Daniel Usera & contributing authors, LibreTexts is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA .


In intimate relationships, such as friendships and romantic relationships, communication is key, as it is through communication that we begin, develop, maintain, and dissolve relationships. In this section, we will describe four stages of intimate relationships and present communication theories that help us better understand our communicative interactions during these stages.

Uncertainty Reduction Theory

Uncertainty Reduction Theory, also known as Initial Interaction Theory, can help us better understand the communicative behaviors involved in first interactions (note this theory does NOT describe relational development over time). The theory posits that, when interacting, people need information about the other party in order to reduce their uncertainty. Uncertainty is a sense of “not knowing” that people find to be unpleasant and seek to reduce through interpersonal communication. The theory identifies two types of uncertainty: cognitive and behavioral. Cognitive uncertainty pertains to the level of uncertainty associated with our thoughts (beliefs and attitudes) of each other in the situation.[4] Behavioral uncertainty is related to people’s actions and whether or not they fit our expectations for what we consider to be “normal” or not. Behavior that is outside of acceptable norms may increase uncertainty and reduce the chances for future interaction.

There are three types of strategies people may use to seek information about someone: passive (observing from afar), active (indirectly seeking information about the other), and interactive (seeking a direct exchange with the other).  In gaining this information people are better able to predict the other’s behavior and resulting actions, all of which are crucial in the development of any relationship. The initial interaction of strangers can also be broken down into individual stages:

  1. the entry stage (when people engage in behavioral norms)
  2. the personal stage (when people tend to explore the other’s beliefs, attitudes, morals, etc.),
  3. the exit stage (when a decision is made whether a person desire’s future interactions).  Please note the exit stages does NOT mean “exiting” a relationship.  Many times, further interactions are desired during the exit phase.

A great example of these phases and Uncertainty Reduction is from the show “Love is Blind.”  In the clip below, Cameron meets Lauren for the first time.  You can see them start talking about basic information, get a little more personal, and then end with a positive “exit” phase, deciding they want to see each other again:

The video below will walk through Uncertainty Reduction Theory, including these 3 stages/phases.

Attraction Theory

James Nash, CC BY-SA 2.0
(Image: James NashCC BY-SA 2.0)

Attraction Theory posits that three factors influence our attraction to others: their similarity to us, their proximity, and their interpersonal attractiveness (Alberts, Nakayama, & Martin, 2016).

  • Similarity:
    Have you ever heard the phrase ‘birds of a feather flock together’? Similarity is often an important determinant in whether or not we find someone else attractive. Research has shown that people are more strongly attracted to others who are similar in physical appearance, beliefs, attitudes, and who share similar co-cultural identities and backgrounds. Conversely, differences in these categories can lead to dislike or avoidance of others (Berkowitz, 1974; Singh & Ho, 2000; Bryne, London, & Reeves, 1968).
  • Proximity:
    Proximity, how geographically and physically close we are to another person, also plays a role in relationship formation (Alberts, Nakayama, & Martin, 2016). In order to form a relationship with someone, we first have to come into contact with them. Historically, it was difficult to meet others outside of our geographical area. However, technology has transformed how we meet and carry out relationships since we are no longer constrained by geographic barriers. From social networking sites to mobile apps, we now have the ability to connect with anyone, anytime, anywhere. Mediated platforms have become a way to connect to others to start both romantic and platonic relationships because it is easier to connect with those who share similar interests and have similar relationship goals (such as hooking up, long-term relationship, non-monogamous relationship, etc). Still, when it comes to relationships, such as friendships, proximity is still one of the biggest determinants. Generally speaking, we are more likely to form relationships with people we actually meet face-to-face through, for example, being in the same class or working at the same place.
  • Interpersonal Attractiveness:
    We communicate more with people we are attracted to (McCroskey & McCain, 1974, p. 261). Interpersonal attractiveness encompasses three components: physical attractiveness, social attractiveness, and task attractiveness (MrCroskey, McCrowskey, & Richmond, 2006). Physical attractiveness is the degree to which we find another person’s physical features to be pleasing. Social attractiveness encompasses characteristics such as friendliness, charisma, and warmth; whereas task attractiveness pertains to attraction based on another’s abilities, skills, and/or talents. (Alberts, Nakayama, & Martin, 2016, p. 192).


Social Penetration Theory

Social Penetration Theory uses an onion as an analogy to highlight that self-disclosure is a gradual process, similar to peeling away the layers from an onion.

A key to understanding Social Penetration Theory is to first understand self-disclosure. Self-disclosure is the process of revealing information about yourself to others that is not readily known by them, and it plays a key role in the formation of relationships. As we get to know someone we engage in a reciprocal process of self-disclosure. The amount of self-disclosure changes in breadth and depth as the relationship develops. Depth pertains to how personal the information is where as breath refers to the range of topics that are discussed. Degrees of self-disclosure range from relatively safe (revealing your hobbies or musical preferences) to more personal topics (illuminating fears, dreams for the future, or fantasies). Typically, as relationships deepen and trust is established, self-disclosure increases in both breadth and depth. We tend to disclose facts about ourselves first (I am a Biology major), then move towards opinions (I feel the war is wrong), and finally disclose feelings (I’m sad that you said that).

An important aspect of self-disclosure is the rule of reciprocity. This rule states that self-disclosure between two people works best in a back and forth fashion. When you tell someone something personal, you probably expect them to do the same. When one person reveals more than another, there can be an imbalance in the relationship because the one who self discloses more may feel vulnerable as a result of sharing more personal information. The video below will discuss Social Penetration Theory:

Knapps relational stage model

Knapp’s Relational Stage Model (RSM; Knapp, 1978) is a type of theory (i.e., a model) that helps explain how our communication changes as our relationships change. In most cases, we recognize when individuals come together (i.e., start a relationship) or come apart (i.e., end a relationship). But Knapp’s (1978) RSM identifies 5 specific stages that usually occur during those two periods in a relationship.

Period Stage Description Example
Coming Together Initiating First “contact” with another individual involving observation and initial assessment of mood, interest, attraction, personality, and interaction opportunity.

-“Hi! I’m Buddy. Your name is…?”

-“I’m Jovie. Nice to meet you, Buddy!”

Experimenting Exchanges of surface-level information such as name, hometown, and other “small talk” topics in an effort to reduce uncertainty about each other

-“I gather you have an affinity for rhinos?”

-“Yes! Do you too?”

Intensifying Increases in intimacy through greater depth of communication (i.e., sharing more intimate, personal information) and progressions of physical touch.  At this point, you know the other person on an individual level.

-“I struggle with addiction.”

-“I had no idea. How can I help?”

Integrating A merging of “identities” marked by increasingly shared interests, opinions, social circles, possessions, routines, and understanding of one another

-“I just feel like we’re soulmates.”

-“Same here. We are so much alike!”

Bonding Public commitment (traditionally, this would be “marriage” in a romantic relationship).

-“Did you know we got engaged?!”

-“Yes! I saw your Instagram post!”

Coming Apart Differentiating Progressive separation of interests, activities, hobbies, and “identities”. Shifts toward a more predominant concept of “I/You” versus “We” in the relationship

-“I want to see Lizzo on Saturday.”

-“I don’t know why you like her music.”

Circumscribing Shifts toward less depth/breadth of shared information. Potential introduction of more topic avoidance and less intimacy in communication.

-“Why did you text your ex again?”

-“Not your business. Anything else you want to discuss?”

Stagnating Perceptions that individuals have very little worth saying to each other. Expectations that communication often will be unpleasant, predictable, and pointless.

-“We’ve talked about this before.”

-“Exactly! So what’s the point now?”

Avoiding More significant decreases in communication frequency (if any exists). Physical distancing and more explicit avoidance of one another occurs.

-“I’d rather go on the trip by myself.”

-“I wasn’t planning on going with you.”

Terminating Decisive moves to psychologically and physically leave the relationship. Actions and communication targeted at achieving a final ending.

-“I’m not doing this anymore. It’s over.”

-“Good. It was over years ago for me!”

Figure: Knapp’s Relational Stage Model

Knapp’s RSM proposes that our relationships can move through these various stages fast or slow, but we will generally experience these stages in this sequence. Additionally, our relationships may also move both forward and backward through these stages over time. But what about the communication? As you’ll notice in Figure 1, each stage includes a description of what our communication might look like at that time.

For example, if we return to the example of meeting a classmate for the first time, you would enter the “Initiating” stage as you sit down next to them and develop an initial first impression while probably introducing yourself. Your transition into the “Experimenting” stage would be marked by your choice to begin sharing information like your name, hometown, and college major.

To build on this example, think about another one of your current relationships, whether that is with a friend, co-worker, romantic partner, etc. Can you identify which stage your relationship is in? To do this, you would likely need to think about what your communication patterns looks like. How do they match up to the relationship stages outlined in Table 1?

You might be able to clearly identify your current “relationship stage” based on the KRSM, but it may also be difficult, especially if your current relationship communication patterns fit into a few different stages. And that is okay! The main idea is that the KRSM provides a general “model” that helps us understand 1) the common stages that our relationships move through and most importantly, 2) how our communication patterns will likely change as our relationships develop.

The video below will discuss the stages of Knapp’s Relational Model:


Relational Dialectics

Spaynton, CC BY-SA 4.0
(Image: SpayntonCC BY-SA 4.0)Three relational dialectics influence our interpersonal relationships and understanding their role is key to maintaining healthy relationships.

One way we can better understand our personal relationships is by understanding the notion of relational dialectics. Baxter (1988) describes three relational dialectics that are constantly at play in interpersonal relationships: autonomy-connection, novelty-predictability, and openness-closedness. Essentially, they are a continuum of needs for each participant in a relationship that must be negotiated by those involved.

  • Autonomy-Connection:
    refers to our need to have close connection with others as well as our need to have our own space and identity. We may miss our romantic partner when they are away but simultaneously enjoy and cherish that alone time. When you first enter a romantic relationship, you probably want to be around the other person as much as possible. As the relationship grows, you likely begin to desire fulfilling your need for autonomy, or alone time. In every relationship, each person must balance how much time to spend with the other, versus how much time to spend alone.
  • Novelty-Predictability:
    is the idea that we desire predictability as well as spontaneity in our relationships. In every relationship, we take comfort in a certain level of routine as a way of knowing what we can count on the other person in the relationship. Such predictability provides a sense of comfort and security. However, it requires balance with novelty to avoid boredom. An example of balance might be friends who get together every Saturday for brunch, but make a commitment to always try new restaurants each week.
  • Openness-Closedness:
    refers to the desire to be open and honest with others while at the same time not wanting to reveal everything about yourself to someone else. One’s desire for privacy does not mean they are shutting out others. It is a normal human need. We tend to disclose the most personal information to those with whom we have the closest relationships. However, even these people do not know everything about us. As the old saying goes, “We all have skeletons in our closet,” and that’s okay.

It’s important to note that these dialectics are dynamic and that our needs change over time. At times, we may even hold what appear to be contradictory needs. Relationship dissatisfaction is caused when our needs are not being met in a relationship, or when the other person falls on the opposite end of the continuum. For example, if you fall higher on the autonomy end of the continuum and your romantic partner falls higher on the connection end, you may end up feeling smothered or think that the other person is ‘clingy.’ Conversely, the other person may feel like you never want to spend time with them and thus are not as interested in the relationship as they are. Because negative feelings and miscommunication can arise as a result of dialectical imbalances, managing dialectics in a relationship is key. In the Communication Competence section of this chapter, we will discuss some techniques for how to better manage dialectics in relationships to increase relationship satisfaction.

Social Exchange Theory

This type of relationship might appear to be like an economic model and can be explained by Social exchange theory.6 In other words, we will form relationships with people who can offer us rewards that outweigh the costs. Rewards are the things we want to acquire. They could be tangible (e.g., food, money, clothes) or intangible (support, admiration, status). Costs are undesirable things that we don’t want to expend a lot of energy to do. For instance, we don’t want to have to constantly nag the other person to call us or spend a lot of time arguing about past items. A good relationship will have fewer costs and more rewards. A bad relationship will have more costs and fewer rewards. Often, when people decide to stay or leave a relationship, they will consider the costs and rewards in the relationship.

Costs and rewards are not the only factors in a relationship. Partners also consider alternatives in the relationship. For instance, Becky and Alan have been together for a few years. Becky adores Alan and wants to marry him, but she feels that there are some problems in the relationship. Alan has a horrible temper; he is pessimistic; and he is critical of her. Becky has gained some weight, and Alan has said some hurtful things to her. Becky knows that every relationship will have issues. She doesn’t know whether to continue this relationship and take it further or if she should end it.  What Becky is getting out of the relationship are called her Outcomes (O).

Her first alternative is called the comparison level (CL), which is the minimum standard that she is willing to tolerate. If Becky believes that it is ok for a person to say hurtful things to her or get angry, then Alan is meeting or exceeding her CL. However, if past romantic partners have never said anything hurtful towards her, then she would have a lower CL.

Becky will also consider another alternative, which is the comparison level of alternatives (CLalt), or the comparison between current relationship rewards and what she might get in another relationship. If she doesn’t want to be single, then she might have a lower CL of alternatives. If she has another potential mate who would probably treat her better, then she would have a higher level of alternatives. We use this calculation all the time in relationships. Often when people are considering the possibility to end a relationship, they will consider all alternatives rather than just focusing on costs and rewards.

Social Exchange Theory predicts Satisfaction and Commitment in the relationship by ranking all CL, CLalt, and O.  This theory predicts satisfaction and commitment from the individual perspective, not from the dyad’s perspective.  So, one member of the dyad may be Committed and Satisfied (O, CL, CLalt), and the member may be satisfied but not committed (CLalt, O, CL).

The video below will break down Social Exchange Theory.  Pay close attention to how we predict satisfaction and commitment in relationships by ranking CL, Clalt, and Outcomes.




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Berger, C. R., & Calabrese, R. J. (1975). Some exploration in initial interaction and beyond: Toward a developmental theory of communication. Human Communication Research1, 99–112.

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