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Anatomy of a Relationship

Updated on November 13, 2011

There are several theories out there about how relationships develop and the ensuing success of such partnerships. Before you embark on another relationship it would be useful to take a look at how communications specialists view the development of romantic relationships and their final demise if it occurs. We can all learn by looking at the scientific explanation of the relationship spiral.

Research has shown that romantic relationships follow a well-theorized developmental course from the initial stages to the height of the relationship. Different theorists give the many stages a variety of names but all the theories are similar in nature. Once the height of a relationship has been reached, it continues to strengthen, or begins to flounder and unravel according to another well-described set of stages. I never really thought about any of this until the weeks following my last divorce. I came across many of these theories while doing research for a divorce website that I was then building.

One theory that describes the changes in self-perception and foreign perceptions in interpersonal communication is the Johari Window Theory. This is also known as social penetration theory. To simplify a fairly complex theory, suffice it to say that the underlying concept is that we all have hidden personalities, thoughts and feelings that become more visible as we develop a relationship with others. How much we reveal to others tends to reflect the depth of our relationship. A parallel theory is that the amount of touching or cuddling that occurs during a relationship also can be used to determine where a couple is located in this spiral relationship course.

I have always been fascinated by non-verbal communication, especially the body language associated with touching and cuddling and the information it provides regarding the seriousness of a relationship. The fact that “cuddle parties” even exist in some urban centers demonstrates the need for touch that many people are lacking. Those who touch each other on a regular basis, even if it is only a passing touch, seem to have deeper, more lasting relationships, while those who do not seem to be less interested in the future development of the relationship and less interested in developing a deeper intimacy with their partner.

Whether you are thinking of beginning another relationship or just want to examine where you lie with your present partner, it would serve you well to think about these concepts. Is there a relationship between touching and the stages of the relationship cycle? Can one predict how committed one’s partner is by the amount of touching and intimate cuddling that is occurring at any point during the relationship? And does a decrease in touching signify that there is a problem and the cycle is on the downhill swing?

I am sure that anyone who has gone through a divorce will be able to think back on the last part of his or her relationship and see that the amount of cuddling decreased drastically at some point. Cuddling and touching is the hallmark of a good relationship. In any new relationship, it is the way to increase intimacy and ensure that the status quo will improve. If you meet someone that you would love to stick around, an increase in cuddling will add to the probability of that happening! In addition, being more open and honest with your partner will also move you towards a lasting relationship if it is meant to happen. So let’s take a look at how these play into the relationship cycle.

At the bottom end of the scale, complete strangers feel uncomfortable when a person “invades their space”. In North America, there is an intimate space of 0–18 inches, a personal space of 18-48 inches, a social-consultive space of 48-144 inches, and a public space of 144 inches to the limits of visibility. The personal space is usually used for communication between family and friends. If a stranger or acquaintance comes closer than this range, they are perceived as invading one’s personal space. This varies according to culture.

Here in China, where I now live and work, personal space as we know it in North America does not exist. Whether it is on the bus, subway or in the classroom, both adults and teenagers of all ages think nothing of pushing up against you when asking questions or standing beside you. This would be unheard of in most Western cultures.

We also tend to hide a lot of our personality when we first meet someone. We are careful how much we reveal until we become more familiar with a new friend. And keeping the mystery alive is a good thing at first. People want to learn more so they will stick around to find out if they are interested.

In North American society, as in most other cultures, people who do not know each other do not seek to touch each other. In fact, even eye contact with strangers can be uncomfortable for some. This is obvious when you are traveling on public transport or looking at someone across a crowded room that you do not know. As much as you may want to look at someone to “check them out”, it is an uncomfortable feeling if you get caught! However, as soon as an introduction occurs and two strangers formally meet for the first time, the initial action that usually occurs is a handshake. This may occur with a third party or when you introduce yourself to another person for the first time. Without any conscious thought, this is an initial step in meeting another human of the same sex or different sex.

As we all know, this first communication will provide each participant with much information. Many studies have been done on body language and many have even been done on the handshake and the feelings it conveys. Although the information provided by other situations involving touch seems to differ according to gender, the handshake seems to nonverbally communicate the same feelings regardless of gender.

This first meeting may be as simple as two future friends being introduced for the first time or it may be the very first step in the romantic cycle. This is where you will pick up “positive vibes” for the first time. Go with your instincts! You will probably know if this is a meeting that is meant to happen or not. If it is, the sense of touch will develop in conjunction with the evolving relationship.

You may have never analyzed a meeting to this degree. If the couple finds they fit the initial qualities of the person they see as a potential mate, “positive feelings are evident”, then they will move on to the next step in a relationship. At this point, there will be very little touching occurring. People have their own needs, goals, love styles, perceptual tendencies and qualities that affect their search for a partner. There are also other aspects that are unseen to the other person. Everything is not revealed at this point. As was mentioned earlier, the mystery is withheld by each partner to be revealed at a later time when the friendship becomes deeper.

The couple then moves on to the second stage where they begin to show their interest in interacting and their hidden aspects of likes and dislikes. This leads to the next stage where they continue to expose more of their concealed self.

As a couple moves through the various stages of the relationship, the amount of touching increases. Eventually, a type of private culture begins between the two partners. Progressively tighter sets of rules begin to emerge among people who get to know one another really well. More time is spent together and a period of euphoria begins. Anyone who has been in any kind of relationship can relate to this type of feeling. Nothing else matters except the person you are with. Each learns more about the other’s thought, feelings, and inner personality traits that have not been observed up to this point. Touching reaches a peak, as the couple cannot get enough of each other. During this stage partners may develop private nicknames and language, and very few surprises emerge about each other.

Next we have a period during which couples slow down to take a more realistic look at their relationship, its problems, and whether to stay together for the long haul. If a decision is made to stay together, then the couple moves on to the final stage, commitment. During the stage of commitment and the ongoing process of staying committed, the amount of touching will say a lot about the closeness of the couple. Apparently, if the amount of touching occurs in the euphoria stage continues into the commitment stage, it is a good sign of a healthy relationship.

Psychological research has shown that happily satisfied couples touch each other a lot. Most of their touching is sensual and not explicitly sexual or genital. They hold hands, snuggle on the couch while they watch TV, hug, kiss, take baths and showers together, give massages, etc. Couples who go days or longer without any prolonged affectionate touch are starting from scratch when they decide to be intimate. Unlike the affectionate couples, they have a lot of work to do in order to make something interesting happen. Sex is not that much different than daily behaviors for the fulfilled couples, but it is a major shift for the less affectionate pairs.

Those who are divorced or separated probably can think back to where the touching started slowing down in a past relationship. In hindsight, it is often easy to understand where the breakdown may have begun because it would seem that couples who touch each other less frequently would also be the ones who would more easily progress towards drifting apart. Life without touching and sensuality becomes routine and it becomes a bigger step to move towards intimacy when the feeling strikes. This is useful to consciously think about when you are trying to begin or continue a new relationship.

So we can see that there is a point at which a relationship reaches a peak and can go forward to commitment, or begin to deteriorate because of various factors. And it seems that a decrease in touching and cuddling goes hand in hand with a drifting apart of the couple. This has been discovered as a by-product of other tactile research on couples. Researchers state that the first sign of a breakdown is the degeneration of established patterns, rules, and rituals that make up a relational culture. As the fabric of intimacy weakens, dissatisfaction intensifies. For women, this stage often begins when the quality and quantity of communications declines. For men it’s a decrease in doing fun things together. I would venture to guess that for both, this stage results in a decrease in touching and sensuality. Which causes which is the question. Is it the lack of communication and doing things together that causes the decrease in touching or is it the decline in closeness that results in the former? In any case, the two seem to accompany each other.

So now each broods about the problems in the relationship and the dissatisfaction with a partner. This brooding alone will often bring about the end of the relationship. If couples can begin to return to more touching, intimacy and open communication, the decline can be reversed. If not, the slide will continue to a point where partners will start whining to friends and family to save face and secure support.

Eventually a point is reached where intimacy and touching are a thing of the past. Communicating is at an all time low, if it is present at all. Once again, each has withdrawn into his or her own little world. It is almost as if they are perfect strangers again. The process of deterioration is complete and the partners have separated mentally, if not physically.

By keeping this relationship spiral in focus as you progress through new relationships you will have a better understanding of where you have been, where you are, and where you are headed with your partner. Think about your location as a couple in the big scheme of things. Find a way to end the relationship amicably if you know that it is on a road to nowhere. The longer you stay with the wrong person, the harder it will be to break up. And be aware of the importance of touching as a communication device. In order to maintain a strong healthy relationship, it is equally important for you to pay attention to the small things, such as a gentle touch in passing, as well as the larger day-to-day issues.

Remember that the couple that cuddles together usually stays together!

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    • rambansal profile image

      Ram Bansal 5 years ago from India

      Yes, very true, no relationship can survive without regular touches. In a relationship, persons discover themselves through the other's eyes. This discovery makes a relationship stronger.

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