Development of Intimate Relationships
Section One : Relationship Formation
The formation of relationships has always been of interest to researchers of social psychology, but it was not until
the 1970s that the bulk of theory began to emerge. It was during this time that a wide range of paradigms were
developed, but "the domain of relationship development is awesomely vast and incompletely charted" (Duck &
Gilmour, 1981a, p vii). Two theories that emerged in the 70s were social penetration theory (Altman & Taylor,
1973) and another based around attraction by Levinger and Snoek (1972). Both stem from the social
psychological paradigm and offer two useful and complementary models of relationship development.
A. Social Penetration Theory
Social Penetration theory was devised by Altman and Taylor in 1973 in an attempt to explain the development of
interpersonal relationships from strangers to good friends. They propose that relationship formation will proceed
gradually and in an orderly fashion, through reciprocal exchange from non-intimate, relatively unemotional aspects
of the selves to intimate, private and vulnerable central core aspects of the selves (Duck & Gilmour, 1981a, p
The events that occur in the formation of any relationship are, according to Altman and Taylor (1973),
encompassed by four "social penetration processes": verbal exchange, nonverbal use of the body, use of physical
environment, and interpersonal perceptions. All of these processes occur in different ways at different levels of
intimacy and encounter.
Verbal behaviours provide the informational content of an interaction while nonverbal behaviour involves use of
the body, such as postures and position, gestures, limb and head movements, facial expressions such as smiling,
eye gaze, etc. Use of the physical environment includes manipulation of spatial features including personal space
between people and of physical objects and areas. All of these communicative behaviours are accompanied by
subjective, interpersonal perceptions as to what the other communicant is like.
Altman and Taylor (1973) also point out that many factors work along side communication to hinder or influence
the formation of relationships. They put these into three classes. The first is the personal characteristics of the
participants involved in the interaction. The looks, personality and social needs of each person in an interaction
will influence how they manage the interaction. The second is the outcome of the exchange as to whether the
participants liked one another or if they feel there is something to be gained from the relationship. The third and
last is the situational context which will dictate whether the participants are free to enter or leave a relationship, or
whether they are forced to maintain a tie because of social constraints.
Within the theory, Altman and Taylor (1973) make two hypotheses. The first hypothesis is "that interpersonal
exchange gradually progresses over time from superficial, nonintimate areas to more intimate, deeper layers of the
selves of the social actors. That people are generally believed to let others know them gradually" (Altman &
Taylor, 1973, p 10). This hypothesis postulates an 'onion skin' structure of personality. This suggests that a person
has a series of layers to their personality. The outer layers are thought to hold the more physical characteristics
(such as looks), while the inner layers hold aspects of personality. It is the social penetration process that people
use to gradually and systematically move from the outer to the inner layers of personality and finally to the core or
When a relationship is developing, more and more layers of personality are stripped away and intimacy (defined
as the degree of union with or openness towards another person) is said to increase as a result. Altman and
Taylor (1973) point to self disclosure as the means by which people move from the outer layers to the more
intimate levels of personality. They categorise this progression in four levels of relationship: a) orientation, b)
exploratory affective exchange, c) affective exchange and d) stable exchange. As each of these levels are reached,
both breadth (the content level) and depth (the intimacy level) of message content increase through reciprocal self
disclosure. In the orientation level, initial contact is made with only peripheral aspects of personality accessible to
the other. In the second level, more information is available to each other and the relationship tends to be friendly
and casual without commitment. At the stage of affective exchange, the people involved get to know more about
the central aspects of each other's personality, and as a result, become more vulnerable to each other. At the final
level, the people are free to express spontaneously many aspects of their personalities and share private feelings
and experiences (Altman & Taylor, 1973, pp 138-139).
The second hypothesis is "that people assess interpersonal rewards and costs, dissatisfaction and satisfaction,
gained from interaction with others, and that advancement of the relationship is dependent on the amount and
nature of these. People assess interactions and predict implications of further exchanges. If the future looks
favourable, the pair then move to more intimate levels of encounter" (Altman & Taylor, 1973, p 12). This
rewards/costs ratio is taken from social exchange models of relationship development. Exchange frameworks
assume that the development of a relationship is based on the satisfactory exchange of rewards, like a form of
currency, between partners. After initial attraction has occurred in a relationship, deeper involvement occurs when
the partner provides rewards that are not easily available elsewhere and the levels of rewards are high enough to
motivate the partners to intensify their involvement (Cate & Lloyd, 1988, p 417).
Overall, Altman and Taylor (1973) recognise that within relationships, there is both the influence of personal
perceptions as well as social and environmental factors. They also recognise that there is a great diversity of
relationships in both form and content, but they seek to develop some general empirical and theoretical notions
about the formation of relationships.
'Attraction' is readily recognised as an important aspect in the formation of relationships, but this is usually
associated with a person's looks or appearance. However, the earliest work on attraction recognised that people
where attracted to others for a number of reasons whether physical properties (Perrin, 1921, cited in Duck and
Miell, 1984), behavioural features (Thomas & Young, 1938, cited in Duck and Miell, 1984) or personality and
opinion characteristics (Richardson, 1939, cited in Duck and Miell, 1984). More recently, researchers have
developed the idea that the main influence on attractiveness was not the pre-existing properties of individuals, but
the relationship of these properties to one another. This research looks at personality similarity, complementarity
of needs, physical appearance, matching of self esteem with other features of partner, and role congruence in the
relationship (Duck & Miell, 1984, p 230).
A theory developed by Levinger and Snoek (1972) has its basis in this attraction paradigm. They also use a 'filter'
or 'stage' model to account for the different factors that come into play during the relationship formation process.
'Relationship' is a term commonly used to describe a romantic attachment between two people; however, the term
has a more wide-ranging definition which encompasses any type of connection between people. Levinger and
Snoek (1972) define relationships at three levels: Level 1 ( unilateral awareness, Level 2 ( surface contact, Level
3 ( mutuality.
Level 1 relationships include an awareness of other people without enough contact to hold a conversation or for
them to become aware of those who are aware of them. These relationships include the people seen each morning
on the way to school, university or work. They also include the rock star on the radio or the person walking past
in the street. At this level of relationship there is not only a perception of the other person, but a reaction of
approval, disapproval or indifference occurs and yet they may pass on without ever exchanging a word.
Level 2 relationships involve at least minimal interaction. These often occur with people who perform certain
roles in society, for example, the bus driver, shop assistant or receptionist. Of course this is not always the case,
there are some relationships of this level which occur in other situations such as with a Great Aunt who is hardly
Level 3 relationships are the ones that most people would term a 'relationship'. In these relationships there is real
personal involvement and intimacy. The other person is perceived as a unique individual and their personal views
are appreciated. Examples of this type of relationship are close friends and romantic attachments. However,
Levinger and Snoek (1972) put romantic relationships into a special category of this level of relationship.
Levinger and Snoek (1972) point to the many factors or filters which are thought to influence and occur during the
progression of relationships: physical proximity, social demographic similarity, physical attractiveness, attitude
similarity, complementarity of needs, competence, self esteem, positive personal characteristics, reciprocity, and
Physical proximity is thought to play a large role in determining who will form a relationship. Most people form
relationships with those who live in a similar geographical area. Physical proximity will often influence who
becomes aware of each other and who relationships will begin to develop between (Festinger, Schachter and
Back, 1950, cited in Forgas, 1989). In one study new arrivals at a police academy were allocated to class rooms
and dormitories in alphabetical order. Everything they did together was in alphabetic order. At the end of six
months, each trainee was asked who was their closest friend from the academy. On average, their closest friend
was situated relatively close in proximity being only 4.5 letters removed in the alphabet from their own name.
(Segal, 1974, cited in Forgas, 1989)
Social demographic similarity is also thought to influence the types of people who will form relationships. It is
more likely that people will talk to and come into contact with people who are of the same ethnicity, religion,
background, occupation, status, etc (Cate & Lloyd, 1988, p 413). A study by Hollingshead and Redlich (1958,
cited in Forgas, 1989) found that marriages, friendships, cliques and school groupings were largely made up of
people who came from very similar social and demographic backgrounds.
Physical attractiveness has a particularly important role in the initial stages of relationship formation. It is often this
factor alone that will influence someone to talk to another. A study by Walster, Aronson, Abrahams and Rothman
(1966, cited in Forgas, 1989) found physical attractiveness to be the single best predictor of how much each
person liked his or her assigned partner at a computer matched dance, even after couples had spent hours
Attitude similarity has more influence in relationships at the second level. Once a conversation has been
established a person will begin to notice if the other person has similar attitudes about issues. It is thought that if
another person with similar attitudes is discovered, then the relationship is more likely to be pursued (Duck &
Gilmour, 1981a, p 11-12).
Complementarity of needs is also noticeable in the second level of relationship. When two people talk it may be
found that one has characteristics the other lacks and vice versa. Complementarity brings together people in
relationships such as dominant/submissive, extrovert/introvert, and the like (Cate & Lloyd, 1988, p 412).
Competence is a characteristic that will often play an important part in the formation of a relationship. It has been
found that people are often attracted to others who are intelligent, successful and competent rather than those who
are less so. However, this may have nothing to do with the perceived benefits of forming a relationship with that
person. Of course, there may also be those who seem to be so perfect that they are unreal. In this scenario, it is
better to have one glaring fault which will make a person appear at least 'human' (Aronson, 1976, cited in Forgas,
Self esteem also affects relationships at the second level. When self esteem is low, it is more likely that a person
will target another who is less likely to reject them as potential communicants. If self esteem is high, then a person
may feel that no one will reject them and may target people they would not normally talk to such as the prettiest
girl in the class or the top executive of the company (Walster, 1965, cited in Forgas, 1989).
There are thought to be other positive personal characteristics which people view as good and therefore likeable
in a person just as there are characteristics that are thought bad and therefore unlikeable. Studies have sought to
find characteristics that fit into those two categories. There are obviously individual differences in what
characteristics are likeable and what are unlikeable, but on the whole honesty and truthfulness are generally
regarded highly (Hobfoll & Stokes, 1988, p 502).
Balance in a relationship is preferable as it is very hard to continue a relationship that is all one sided. Reciprocity
in the initial stages of a relationship often acts to encourage the continuation of a relationship. If someone is liked
then they are more likely to like that other person. This is also the case for when someone is disliked (Burgess,
1981a, p 183).
Self disclosure is seen as an important factor in the continuation of relationships at both level 2 and 3 relationships.
The more information that is disclosed, the more the other person will find out and in turn the other person will
want to disclose information about themselves. Of course, if too much information is offered too soon by one
person, the other person may be deterred from continuing the relationship. The converse is also true; if a person
will not disclose anything, conversation becomes difficult and the interaction may terminate (Chelune, 1979). This
view is similar to the importance that Altman and Taylor (1973) place on self disclosure.
Levinger and Snoek's (1972) model of relationship formation is useful in its definition of relationships and for the
different factors that influence the relationship process.
Section Two ( Computer Mediated Communication
The convergence of computers and telecommunications has led to a new medium for communication, allowing
people to form relationships with each other via their computer even if the other person is on the opposite side of
the globe. People are forming relationships with others whom they have never met in person with only the aid of
text on a computer screen. The majority of research into CMC has dealt with the effects of new communication
media, such as electronic mail on organisations (Sproull & Keisler, 1991) as well as the effects of group
decision-making via CMC (Hiltz, Johnson & Turoff, 1986). The focus here has typically been on task-related
uses of CMC, however, more recent research has dealt with social uses (Steinfield, 1986; Hiltz & Turoff, 1978)
and the forming of interpersonal ties (Walther & Burgoon, 1992).
But what exactly is CMC? Rice (1984) defines the systems used in CMC as "media that facilitate the exchange of
semantic content, transmitted through telecommunication networks, processed through one or more computers,
between individuals and among groups" (p 438). Another definition comes from Walther (1992) who defines
CMC as "synchronous or asynchronous electronic mail (email) and computer conferencing, by which senders
encode in text their messages that are relayed from senders' computers to receivers'" (p 52). From the above
definitions it can be ascertained that CMC is either asynchronous or synchronous and that it involves the exchange
of messages first typed on one computer screen and sent to another person's computer in order for that person to
read the message and reply appropriately.
Asynchronous CMC refers to applications such as electronic mail and network news which enables a person to
send a message to another person's computer which is then stored until that person is able to read it and then
reply. Asynchronous CMC has been available for much longer than synchronous CMC and as a result the bulk of
research has been into this area.
Synchronous CMC deals with computer conferencing and 'real time' interaction. One example of this is 'talk'
where two people are able to communicate simultaneously. Another form, which is the concern of this thesis, is
IRC where many people are able to talk to each other at once in real time. In synchronous CMC people are able
to communicate immediately with another person as if they were talking to them on a FTF basis. The research into
this area is still in its early stages, but more studies are beginning to emerge (such as Reid, 1991, 1993; Rheingold,
Social Presence Theory
A theory widely used by researchers of CMC is social presence theory. This theory was originally developed by
Short, Williams and Christie (1976) for researching new telecommunications media. They suggest that these
media can transcend time and distance, and convey only part of a communicator's presence. For them the social
presence of a medium ( its ability to convey a communicator's presence ( was highest, in direct FTF
communication (where both verbal and nonverbal cues were available) and much decreased, for example, in a
The original definition by Short et al (1976) was that they "regard Social Presence as being a quality of the
communications medium. Although this is expected to affect the way individuals perceive their discussions, and
their relationships to the persons with whom they are communicating, it is important to emphasise that Social
Presence is defined as a quality of the medium itself" (p 65).
The hypothesis is that communications media vary in their degree of social presence, and that these variations are
important in determining the way individuals interact. Social presence is, therefore, what Rice (1984) calls "the
personal or social differentiating quality of communications acts". There is the feeling that other actors are jointly
involved in communicative interaction. According to Short et al (1976), the fewer channels or codes available
within a medium, the less attention is paid by the user to the presence of other social participants. As social
presence declines, messages become less personal and more task oriented: "The capacity of a medium to transmit
information about facial expression, direction of looking, posture, dress and non-verbal vocal cues, all contribute
to its social presence." (Short et al, 1976, p 65) Initially CMC was thought to have low social presence because
of its perceived absence of NVC to carry relational information in an interaction. This was thought to make it
unsuitable for establishing relationships. These assumptions brought about the belief that CMC is "less friendly,
emotional, or personal and more business like, or task oriented." (Rice and Love, 1987)
However, other research has found that there is a socialising aspect to CMC. Hiltz and Turoff (1978) reported
the development of 'online communities', and other studies present cases of friendship development and warm
relations on CMC (Steinfield, 1986). It was Walther (1992) who pointed out that humans are driven to interact
with one another; just as communicators in any context should desire to transact personal, rewarding, complex
relationships, so too do those people using CMC. He pointed out that people, given the opportunity to interact,
will not merely contain their communications to business or task orientation, but will develop relationships despite
using a medium that offers little or no NVC.
Despite this change in CMC research, social presence theory is still used as it provides a useful method for
understanding how the medium of communication and users' perceptions of that medium alter the nature of
communication in CMC.
Section Three ( Merging of the two Areas
Theories of relationship development and CMC have been outlined above; however, it must be recognised that
the relationship formation theories are designed for use at a FTF level and that social presence theory is not
designed to study relationship development. So that interpersonal relationships can be researched within the
context of CMC, the two areas will be converged. To achieve this, the three theories will be critically examined to
develop a suitable framework.
There are three factors of social penetration theory which have attracted criticism: the rewards/costs ratio, the
orderly and systematic progression of a relationship, and the 'onion skin' structure of personality.
First, the rewards/costs ratio is a very instrumental way of describing the decision that a person makes to continue
a relationship or not. While the ratio was merely developed as a means of describing the process of that decision,
obviously not all relationships are formed purely on the perceived benefits to oneself (Altman & Taylor, 1973, p
184). This maybe seen in relationships where one person is in need and the person helping them does not appear
to be gaining anything from the relationship.
Secondly, relationships rarely develop in an orderly and systematic way, and this is seen in the different rates at
which some people will disclose information about themselves (Altman & Taylor, 1973, p 183). Many
relationships develop very quickly when an 'open' person initiates a communication, while other relationships may
take months to develop because of distance or inability to communicate effectively. Some relationships may be
constrained by the context they are within such as work or shared leisure activities.
Thirdly, the 'onion skin' structure of personality implies that people have layers of personality that must be stripped
away to find the 'real' person. A question that emerges here is whether there is a real person to be found (Altman
& Taylor, 1973, p 187). There have been a number of different theoretical perspectives which have challenged
the notion that there is a singular authentic core to the self. While the 'onion skin' structure is useful for
understanding the process of finding out about a person, the issue of the real person or self at the middle of the
onion needs to be addressed.
Levinger and Snoek's (1972) theory also comes up for criticism on three levels: the dispute over definition, the
absence of the social, and the focus on intimate relationships.
First, there appears to be great confusion amongst theorists within the attraction paradigm over the definition of
key terms such as attraction, love, friendship, intimacy and so on. It is vital that these terms have a common
definition so they can be interchanged and understood when looking at other theorists' work (McCarthy, 1981, p
Secondly, attraction theorists have not paid significant attention to the social significance of interactions between
individuals. However, the 'filtering' approach does seek to address some aspects of the social. The various factors
involved throughout a relationship are seen as an ongoing continuity in which people are continually making
decisions about the relationship. Also, it shows that different features of a partner are relevant at different stages of
a relationship. Hence, partners who fail to meet one of the criteria at any stage of the relationship will be filtered
out of a group of friends. However, it is still only the features of social partners that had been explored, not the
social features of partners ( and certainly not the social significance of the social processing of partners. (Duck &
Miell, 1984, p 231)
Thirdly, when studying the development of relationships, it is inevitable that some of these relationships may
develop into love or marriage. Despite this acknowledgment, issues surrounding gender and power differences,
identified by the rise of feminism, have not been taken into consideration. This criticism can apply to both social
penetration and attraction theories. Altman and Taylor (1973) assume that the social penetration will be deeper if
the relationship continues onto love or marriage, while Levinger and Snoek (1972) assume that if the relationship
develops into love or marriage then attraction and information has increased and become more complex. Neither
theorists take into consideration the differences that may be caused by the formation of relationships between two
people of the same gender or two people of opposite genders. They fail to take account of the fact that
relationships hardly ever occur between equals. No matter what relationship is analysed, there are always
expected roles for each person which is often reflected in the 'power' that one has in relation to the other.
Social presence theory has also been held up for criticism. This theory has been criticised for its vague definition
and its ability to explain CMC.
The vague definition of social presence theory has contributed to the debate in CMC literature as to whether it is
the medium itself that alters communication or the perceptions of those using the medium that determines
communication differences. Short et al (1976) state that social presence is a quality of the medium and that this
will affect the way individuals communicate, however their research suggests that it is the users perceptions of the
medium that will influence how they communicate. This uncertainty has been reflected in following studies into
CMC (Steinfield, 1986). Both Walther (1992) and Rice (1984) state that it is important to look at both medium
characteristics and user perceptions to obtain an accurate view of communication in a computer mediated
The second criticism of social presence theory is aimed more at its use by CMC researchers. It was originally
developed for studying new telecommunications media (audio and video teleconferencing) which do not have the
same characteristics as CMC. As has already been noted, the use of this theory contributed to the early
assumptions that CMC was less personal and more suited to task-related functions. These findings also led to the
development of similar theories ( lack of social context cues (Sproull & Keisler, 1986, cited in Walther, 1992)
and media richness (Daft & Lengel, 1984, cited in Walther, 1992) ( which suggest that the absence of NVC leads
to CMC being defined as 'lean'. However, when relationships began to form through CMC it was necessary to
question why this was happening. Walther and Burgoon (1992) offered one solution to the problem by stating that
limited time for experiments was the reason for earlier research findings. They pointed out that the impersonal
aspects of CMC were limited to initial encounters between users. He said that researchers had not allowed
enough time for experiments and so the interpersonal ties were not manifesting themselves. It was only after longer
periods of time that relationships began to develop in any substantial manner.
After looking at the criticisms of each theory three major points can be identified: the effect of the medium on
communication, problems of presenting and perceiving the self, and the issue of power in relationships. Each of
these will be discussed in the following chapters.
However, despite the theories' short fallings, there are useful parts of each one which can be utilised and brought
Social penetration theory is useful for its recognition of relationship development as an ongoing process, its use of
verbal, nonverbal, environmental and personal perceptions as factors of relational development, and its
recognition that there is a great diversity of relationships. It must also be acknowledged that the rewards/costs
ratio is part of the theory but needs to be made more flexible and subjective for each different relationship. The
'onion skin' structure of personality will be investigated in the section on the self but the gradual and systematic
progression of relationships will be disregarded.
The attraction theory is useful for its definition of the different levels of relationship. It is also useful for its 'filtering'
approach which provides a range of factors affecting different stages of the process of relationship formation
without limiting it to self disclosure as in social penetration theory.
Social presence theory is useful as it points to the medium as the differentiating source in the alteration of
communication. It also points to personal perceptions as playing a role in the way communication is affected. It
will not be assumed automatically that social presence is low, but this will be tested out in the section on medium.
This brings about a framework that enables the investigation of the ongoing process of relationship development
through a series of filters in an altered medium of communication.