According to Knapp’s relationship model, the Initiating stage of a relationship is the stage where two people form their first impressions of one another.
Knapp’s model has ten stages, with the initiating stage being the first one. It is also the first stage in the five-stage “coming together phase.”
In the first stage, the two people who will eventually form a relationship first become aware of each other. They begin to form their first impressions of one another, often based on shallow perceptions or observations from a distance.
Examples of the initiating stage of a relationship include: making introductions, a meet-cute, being introduced by a mutual friend, making small talk, and making other polite gestures.
Initiating Stage Examples
- Meet cutes: In Romantic Comedies, meet-cutes are the scenes where the two characters meet. They will often occur, for example, when the girl walks into the guy on the street and spills her coffee on his shirt!
- Initial physical attraction: The initiating stage often starts with physical attraction. While physical attraction is often an important ingredient for a relationship, it ends up being a shallow way to pick a mate.
- Liking someone’s style: The new guy at work catches Jessica’s eye because he is very well-dressed. She has a theory that a guy who dresses himself well has his act together, so she looks forward to being introduced to him soon.
- Finding someone impressive: Your initiation to someone may also be their impressive achievements or skills. For example, you might find a band member attractive due to their musical skills, which is the catalyst for you initiating the interaction.
- Mutual friend introductions: Often, the initiating stage happens when a mutual friend thinks you’ll be a good match with someone, so they get you two in touch at a party.
- Dating apps: To facilitate the initiating stage in the 21st Century, we have dating apps! The features you see on a dating app, such as the chosen profile picture and self-description are all designed to attract someone in the initiating stage.
- Bad first impressions: Often, a bad first impression is enough to shut-down what might otherwise be a great match. Recovering from this can be extremely hard!
- Speed dating: Before dating apps, people would do speed dating much more often. This involves getting together with large groups of other singles to
- Meeting at a bar or party: The somewhat ‘traditional’ way of meeting someone is at a party. People get dressed up and psychologically prepared for parties because they know they might meet someone there who they want to give a great first impression!
- Blind dates: The initiating stage may also happen during a blind date. This is a high-stakes situation where the two people who have no idea about each other try to push through first impressions and make it to the next stage, experimenting, as fast as possible.
- Chat around the water cooler: Another time you get your first impression is chatting around the proverbial water cooler – or, in simple terms, idle chat in a mutually shared space such as the staff room at work.
- Giving her your number: Initiation might also begin with one person giving another their phone number. This may be the impetus for the other person, otherwise oblivious, to start thinking about the idea of dating. This confident first impression can help get the dating period started.
- Shared hobbies: Another way an initiation occurs is when two people keep bumping into one another because they share a hobby which acts as a catalyst for thinking about one another as potential romantic partners.
- Eye contact: The initiating stage might also take the simple form of suggestive eye contact that lasts just long enough for two people to start considering one another as a potential mate.
- A good word: Another way relationships are initiated is when a friend puts in a good word for someone. If you trust their judgment, you might start entertaining the idea of dating that person.
Challenges in Knapp’s Initiating Stage
The focus for both members of the impending relationship in the initiating stage is on creating a positive impression.
Below are some key challenges people face in the initiating stage.
1. High-Stakes Interactions
It is a high-stakes stage because a negative first impression – which may or may not truly represent you – may prevent the relationship from even the beginning.
Because the initial interaction is high-stakes, people often prepare themselves for these interactions. For example, before going to a party, you may dress in your favorite outfit, do your hair well, and make sure you’re surrounded by friends who will speak highly of you.
People also often try to positively represent themselves in the first interaction, which may backfire with someone trying too hard, not being their authentic self, or even lying about who they are in order to look as good as possible.
2. Shallow Misrepresentation
This stage is often based on physical attractiveness, social status, or common interests. These more shallow observations likely do not reflect compatibility in the long term.
This is one reason why people cycle through many relationships before finding the right one.
To overcome this challenge, mature people will often put more emphasis in the initiating stage on elements like a person’s perceived values, interests, or apparent maturity, and may consciously avoid judging people by their social status or other markers that may feel shallow.
3. Initiating Stage in Era of Social Media
In the era of social media and dating apps, the initiating stage has become incredibly easy, but has led to a lot of potential problems.
For example, the swipe left / swipe right features of some major dating apps mean people will rapidly – in under a second – judge someone based on the most shallow of features.
These apps often integrate features like hobbies, where they live, their politics, and other minutiae that may make a user overly picky. Overlooking people immediately for perceived differences in values, opinions and hobbies may lead people toward perfectionism that ends in loneliness.
Success in the Initiating Stage
Success in the initiating stage means that both people are interested enough to begin to make repeat contact with one another.
The ‘first impressions’ element doesn’t end at the initiation. For the first several meetups, during the ‘experimenting’ stage, the two people continue to try to turn on their best versions of themselves for the other person.
Success in this stage occurs when:
- Good first impressions are established – A good first impression is usually needed for the relationship to progress to the experimenting stage. This may include thinking the other person seems to share your personal values, sense of humor, or hobbies.
- Attraction is established – Often, shared values or hobbies are not quite enough. Physical attraction may also be required. However, people may be more attracted to certain personalities or senses of style, which is enough for them to entertain a romantic relationship.
This will lead to:
- Perceived compatibility – The two people will believe that they are compatible with one another and may begin to visualize how they might be able to spend more time together.
- Lines of communication – The two people will seek opportunities to continue to communicate with one another, including through sharing phone numbers or arranging to talk in neutral spaces such as upcoming parties.
As relationships progress, Knapp’s relational development model suggests that people move through a ‘coming together’ phase with five distinct stages – initiating, experimenting, intensifying, integrating, and bonding (Welch, 2022).
Relationships may also fall apart. According to the model, this disintegration of the relationship also happens in a five-stage phase called the ‘pulling away’ phase.
Both are briefly outlined below.
The Phase of Coming Together
Here is a brief overview of each of the stages in the coming together phase:
- Initiating – In this stage, people explore each other to determine if they have enough in common and a strong enough connection to continue forming a relationship.
- Experimenting – Here, individuals start sharing more personal details and testing the boundaries of their connection. They may start to flirt and drop hints about their interest in each other, but they are still getting to know each other.
- Intensifying – If a mutual attraction and connection are established, the two people move into the “intensifying” stage, where they start to express deeper feelings for each other.
- Integrating – In this stage, the couple becomes a unit and establishes a shared identity. For example, they may start making plans together and introduce each other to friends and family.
- Bonding – In the bonding stage, couples are fully committed to each other and have integrated their lives together. Couples often reach this stage before getting married or having children.
The Phase of Pulling Away
In contrast to the phases of coming together, there are also phases of relational development that involve pulling away or disconnecting – differentiating, circumscribing, stagnating, avoiding, and terminating (Welch, 2022).
Here is a brief overview of each of the stages:
- Differentiating – This stage is where one or both persons become more separate from each other and direct their attention to their individual needs and desires.
- Circumscribing – As communication becomes more strained and couples start to feel disconnected from one another, they enter the “circumscribing” stage. Unfortunately, during this phase, interactions between partners tend to decrease while disagreements become increasingly commonplace.
- Stagnating – Couples become more distant and may even feel disconnected. Communication may be minimal, and there may be little emotional connection.
- Avoiding – Both people start to distance themselves from each other, including not answering calls or messages or avoiding physical contact.|
- Terminating – In this stage, the relationship ends. It can happen through a formal breakup or divorce, or the partners may drift apart and stop communicating.
The initiating stage is a high-stakes stage in Knapp’s relationship model. As the first stage, it is the gatekeeper for all subsequent stages. If it’s successful, it leads to the experimenting stage, where the two people start to get to know each other more and test compatibility before expressions of feelings occur in the third stage, called ‘intensifying’.
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Pooja, K. (2015). English communication (for AECC course, Delhi university). Delhi: Vikas Publishing House.
Welch, K. (2022). Family life now. New York: Sage.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]