- Relationships begin with a series of steps that balance uncertainty with needs.
- Assessing availability, maintaining attention, and strategic self-presentation are part of relationship initiation.
- Situational forces can derail even the best attempts at relationship initiation
How do strangers become romantic partners? Some people find it easy to bridge this gap, while others puzzle: What exactly do I do?
Early-relationship research suggests that anyone who wants to start a relationship has to proceed through six tasks. By identifying these tasks, scientists provide a framework for relationship initiation. In other words, what often seem like unique social interactions actually have commonalities in what people consider, what they feel, and how they act. Consider the steps that Davis (1973) proposed to describe the core tasks of relationship initiation.
Simple steps to start a relationship:
- Step 1: Is this person worth it? The first step in romantic relationship initiation is an evaluation of whether someone has the "qualifiers" that make approaching them worthwhile. In modern terms, qualifiers are thresholds of attractiveness. Is someone sufficiently physically attractive or sufficiently kind or intelligent? Do they signal status or wealth in a way that is attractive to us? In other words, are we attracted to this person so much so that we want to engage the effort required to start something?
- Step 2: Is this person available? We then attempt to assess if someone might be open or available to a relationship. People might look for wedding rings or the presence of a significant other. This step helps us consider how likely a person has baseline potential to reciprocate our interest.
- Step 3: Get their attention. The next step is an opener that attracts this person's attention. This gives you, the initiator, new information: Are they still interesting to you after a brief interaction? Their response to your opener also helps you read the potential for mutual interest. Some initiators might use a pick-up line, but a friendly overture or including someone in a conversation is often sufficient to see if there's any potential for chemistry.
- Step 4: Maintain engagement. Once you have an attractive person's attention, the task is to keep it. Davis (1973) suggested offering an integrating topic, a talking point that entertains both you and the prospect. You might ask questions, make witty observations, or in other ways see if you have shared interests. Similarity breeds attraction, and so too does familiarity: The more you engage with someone, the more they have a chance to feel connected to you.
- Step 5: Strategic self-presentation. Davis (1973) called this the "come-on self," but what we're really talking about here is good old-fashioned impression management. Initiation conversations are challenging because not only are you assessing the other person's interest and trying to maintain it, but you're also trying to present a desirable version of yourself. This could be a calm, intelligent self, an exuberant self, a powerful, or a high-status self. Depending on who you are and what your goals are, and depending on what you think the other person is looking for, you might showcase the particular side of yourself that you think will be most attractive in this encounter.
- Step 6: Follow through. The final task for the relationship initiator is to make the ongoing conversation not the last conversation. What Davis (1973) called the next encounter could be a subsequent get together ("meet me for coffee tomorrow so we can talk more") or an extension of the evening ("I'll walk you home").
Can you consider how well your last connection followed these steps? Where were the hiccups?
Why do some relationships fail to start?
Relationship initiation is a fragile process: At any point in these steps the process can turn sour for the initiator. Sometimes the start of a relationship fizzles because of aspects of the potential partner. Maybe they're already in an exclusive relationship, don't have the energy, or don't have the desire to give you the attention you would need to showcase your attractive features. Maybe they are stressed, preoccupied, or simply aren't in the mood for meeting anyone new.
Other times, the situation is to blame: Maybe the music's too loud, the place is too crowded, or the opportunity just isn't there to start a conversation or otherwise express interest. Friends can get in the way, pre-existing plans can pull people out of first conversations, or you may be in a context that simply doesn't allow you to present your best self (e.g., you just worked out; you're in pajamas at the grocery store because you ran out of coffee).
And of course, sometimes it's the initiator who bears the responsibility for a failed start. It's not easy to juggle the cognitive strain of self-presentation while being a delightful conversationalist. We might be awkward in a million different ways. Here's where my mother would say, "If it's meant to be, it'll be" — but I might suggest that practice helps. Social skills in possible romantic encounters can be learned. We can practice in low-stakes situations, practice mindfulness as a means of reducing in-the-moment anxiety, and remember that being ourselves (without fancy impression management) is the approach that will ultimately help us secure real connection.
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Davis, M. (1973). Intimate Relations. New York, NY: Free press.