How do you start a romantic relationship? How does one go from being single to having a significant other? Research has an answer to these questions. In fact, depending on your personal preferences and intimacy goals, there are several ways to initiate a relationship with your partner of choice.
Research on Relationship Initiation Strategies
In 1999, Clark, Shaver, and Abrahams published two studies investigating the strategic behaviors individuals use to initiate romantic relationships. In the first study, participants were asked about general relationship initiation strategies, which were found in the existing literature. In the second study, participants wrote personal accounts of how they started their romantic relationships. Based on those responses, the team identified eight strategies that people use to start a romantic relationship:
- Becoming emotionally involved and revealing personal information.
- Directly initiating a relationship through physical contact and asking a partner to start a relationship.
- Signaling indirectly by hinting and talking generally about romance.
- Manipulating the setting by making it romantic and physically close with a partner.
- Joking, teasing, and playfully insulting a partner.
- Demonstrating resources, giving gifts, and showing off possessions.
- Using a third person, such as a friend or family member, to initiate the relationship.
- Acting passively and waiting for the other person to make the first move.
Clark, Shaver, and Abrahams (1999) also asked participants to rate each of those eight categories on a number of factors. Overall, participants rated the strategies of creating emotional involvement, being direct, and manipulating the setting as the best for initiating a relationship. Emotional involvement and manipulating the setting, along with being passive, were rated as the most agreeable strategies for participants to use, while the direct strategies were also seen as the most potent, open, and flirtatious. Demonstrating resources was seen as the most phony approach, while being passive was rated as the most inhibited. Finally, being indirect, joking, and relying on third parties were rated as more moderate on most dimensions—each having their own pros and cons.
Overall, the results indicate no single, best approach for everyone. Nevertheless, some strategies were more preferable to certain people and more effective for different relationship goals. For example, men and women were found to be equally successful at initiating relationships; however, their tactics were somewhat different. Men were often more active and direct in their choice of strategies, while women were routinely more passive and indirect.
Having a goal of love or sexual intimacy also influenced the chosen tactics. Those seeking love tended to be more direct and emotionally open. Those seeking sexual intimacy often chose to be more indirect and flirtatious in their approach, although they also touched and manipulated the setting more. Therefore, by picking among the various strategies, each person tended to initiate relationships in a way that met their own comfort and goals.
Starting Your Own Relationship
To help you meet your own goals of relationship initiation, let's review each of the strategies in more detail.
1. Emotional involvement.
This approach is both effective and agreeable, but it requires the development of communication skills. To start, it is important to learn how to break the ice and initiate a conversation with a new partner. From there, emotional involvement is created by developing rapport and conversing in ways that build attraction. By itself, however, this strategy may develop more intimacy and friendship than passion and desire. Depending on your relationship goals, knowing how to escape the friend zone—or avoid it altogether—may be necessary.
2. Direct initiation.
Being direct is also a very effective strategy. In fact, simply asking for what you want has a high probability of success. This is true whether you are asking for romance or physical intimacy. Such a direct approach, however, requires that you learn how to cope with dating anxiety and to deal with rejection. Learning to be a bit more persuasive and touching your potential partner more can help, too.
3. Signaling indirectly.
Approaching a relationship indirectly has its own benefits and drawbacks. On one hand, it avoids a lot of the risks and rejections of more direct and emotional strategies. On the other hand, not sending clear signals can create a lot of confusion. Therefore, to be effective at signaling your interest indirectly, you need to learn how to get a partner's attention with your behavior and how to read the basic body language of others. After that, there are also persuasive and indirect strategies you can use to ask for a date.
4. Changing the setting.
Engineering the environment to initiate romance can be an effective and comfortable approach for many people. In fact, research shows that romantic and sexual feelings can be automatically triggered with different pictures, words, or lyrics. Exciting activities can also create attraction. Nevertheless, this approach can run into problems when neither partner is confident enough to take a step to escalate the relationship. Therefore, it is most effective when combined with direct initiation strategies, or used to set a romantic scene and signal indirectly for a partner to make the move.
5. Teasing and joking.
This approach often works well to establish a more sexual relationship. As a result, it is a strategy often favored by pick-up artists and others looking for a fling. This may involve using provocative pick-up lines to get attention, or even playfully insulting partners to build attraction. It often includes playing hard to get and making potential partners work for your affections. Without balancing such a teasing approach with more friendly behaviors, however, these tactics alone can lead to partners feeling jilted and manipulated—reducing the possibility of longer-term romance.
6. Demonstrating resources.
Given that relationships are essentially a social exchange, individuals are often attracted to partners with resources. Nevertheless, as indicated by the research above, simply showing off those resources can be seen as phony or fake. This is likely because sharing those resources can often become manipulative and unfair—both in taking too much and giving with ulterior motives. As a result, it is important to carefully structure how you give to others, reward a partner, and build gratitude into the exchange.
7. Using a third party.
Getting fixed up by family or friends is often one of the most successful strategies for finding a potential partner. This can also be accomplished by networking through social media to find dates or using a dating website. Nevertheless, to fully initiate a relationship, you will eventually have to talk to the person one-on-one and get to know them. Therefore, after a third party introduces you, using some of the more emotional and direct strategies will also be required.
8. Acting passive.
Being passive takes most of the emotional risk out of dating, but being successful at getting others to come to you may take a lot of work. Primarily, this involves making yourself attractive in several key ways. This can include improving your physical appearance, developing a pleasant personality, and sharing your unique characteristics to get the attention of others. Nevertheless, you will still likely have little control over the quantity and quality of partners who ask you out. Therefore, it will also be important to learn how to reject unwanted romantic offers and decide who is compatible with you. Even then, unless you are extremely attractive, you may have to add more direct tactics to get the type of partner you desire.
Each approach to initiating a relationship has benefits and drawbacks. It may take some experimenting to find out which strategies fit your style and meet your romantic goals. Eventually, you will settle into a unique blend of tactics that work for you and help you to find a satisfying partner. Best wishes!
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© 2016 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Clark, C. L., Shaver, P. R., & Abrahams, M. F. (1999) Strategic behaviors in romantic relationship initiation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 709-722.