Relationships are based not only on the exchange of information but also on interpersonal perceptions. A relationship is defined not so much by what is said as by the partners' expectations for behavior. - Littlejohn, 262

As scholars study the many ways in which individuals interact within society, they have discovered that some kinds of interactions are frequently repeated. These continuous patterns of interaction are called relationships, and many interesting questions about them can be asked -- for example:

Because humans spend their entire lives engaged in ongoing relationships of many kinds, the study of relationships is important to understanding day-to-day life in any society. Much more has been written on this subject than could ever be introduced in this tutorial - so, the theories and models that are discussed next were chosen to illustrate a variety of approaches to the study of communication in relationships. If you find this subject interesting, a wealth of books, articles, films, disks and tapes awaits you in the library and on the internet.


Because one person can never directly know the contents of another person's mind, one can ever be exactly sure how others are interpreting his or her messages. Another way of saying this is to point out that humans cannot be absolutely sure of the context in which others are decoding their messages.

The study of speech acts shows the importance of context in human communication. If two people are to understand one another, not only must they speak the same language, but they must make the same assumptions with regard to what is not said. This can lead to situations in which both participants assume that they understand what is being said when in fact they do not. Consider the following example.

What's the problem here? Clearly Karen and Mike understood what they said to one another on Friday. How did they come to be so confused by Saturday?

The answer of course is not in the content of their speech but rather in its context -- in what was not said. Each participant took the phrase "the party" to refer to a party that they knew was to be happening that evening, and each knew of a different party. Thus, even though their statements were true and communicated the proper intentions, the final result was unexpected.

Because humans cannot communicate all of the details that relate to all of their messages all of the time, speakers often depend on the listener's knowledge of context to be the same as theirs. The next four sections of this tutorial illustrate some of the ways in which people deal with context as their relationships form, continue and disperse. q4023

One way to view the nature of human relationships, is to see interpersonal communication not as two people throwing messages at one another, dancing but as two people engaged in dancing. In communicating, as in dancing, the partners move in reaction to, but also in anticipation of, one another's steps. If one or the other steps off in an unexpected direction, the other becomes confused and may not be able to follow. In communication, as in dance, it makes little sense to speak of what each partner does on his or her own -- it is their mutual interaction that constitutes the process.

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In order for us to deal with other human beings in any systematic and comfortable way, they must behave in a predictable manner. In turn we must behave predictably if we are to comprehend ourselves, much less be predictable to them. Being in some measure predictable constitutes the sine qua non of sanity and humanity. - Ray Birdwhistle

Scholars who observe human relationships find that certain patterns of behavior occur over and over again, and that these can be identified in terms of rules. Human beings find themselves constrained by many rules, some of which we never notice. For example, we find ourselves unable to jump up and hang suspended in the air. This is a constraint that is imposed on all who reside on large chunks of matter such as planets, and we are so accustomed to it, that we seldom think about it. Similarly, at an early age most of us learn the constraint that we cannot breath water, and as with the "gravity" rule, we simply follow it without further thought.

The constraints imposed by social rules can be just as invisible, but a significant difference between natural and social rules is that social rules are amenable to change. For example, for many decades in American society, if a man and a woman arrived at a door simultaneously, the woman was constrained to wait for the man to act, either by passing through the door, or by offering to pass her through first. That pattern of behavior has changed, and today the "women must wait" rule no longer applies. [Note]

The "rules" approach to the study of human relationships argues that relationships develop within the constraints of social rules as people engage in communication with one another. The rules-based theory that is presented next focuses on the developmental aspect of social rules. This theory, which was created by Gerald Miller and Mark Steinberg argues that people work within the constraints of three different kinds of rules while they develop increasingly accurate information about those who they meet.

These rules constrain behavior in an increasingly narrow focus. Cultural rules are followed by everyone, sociological rules by the members of particular sub-groups, and psychological rules by two individuals. Miller and Steinberg argue that relationships develop as the participants become constrained by progressively tighter sets of rules. That is, complete strangers are likely to follow cultural rules in their interaction. Members of a group shift to sociological rules. And, people who know one another well will develop and follow psychological rules.

The Miller-Steinberg Model: Rules

Cultural Rules are the rules of broadest scope -- they constrain everyone in the whole society. In U.S. society, for example, it is a cultural rule that everyone should wear clothing at all times in public.
Sociological Rules pertain to the subgroups that a person belongs to within the larger society. "White collar" workers, for example, wear suits to work, while "airline" workers wear uniforms. Not all subgroups follow the same rules. For example, at many colleges, the students wear relaxed, informal clothing to class. At other colleges, however, students wear suits, and at some, they wear uniforms.
Psychological Rules are the rules that two individuals create between themselves as they get to know one another. For example, as part of a couple going "out" to dinner, a husband might wear a fancy shirt that his wife had given him to signal that he hopes this will be an especially romantic evening. Or, two close friends might wear jewelry that they have given each other to communicate their dedication to one another.

As the rules become more tightly focused, the participants become better able to predict each others' behavior. In terms of information, the tighter the rules become, the more uncertainty they eliminate. Thus, psychological rules are more informative than sociological rules, which are more informative than cultural rules.

simple social rules

In the same way that relationships progress through levels of rules as they develop, poeple's knowledge of their partners in the relationship changes. As the participants in a relationship become more and more able to predict each other's behavior, they feel as if they "know" one another better and better. Miller and Steinberg use three kinds of "knowing" to describe the development of relationships:

The Miller-Steinberg Model: Ways of Knowing

Descriptive Knowing allows us to recognize an individual by means of his or her unique set of identifying characteristics. For example, my friend, Mark, is short with dark hair, has long arms, and so forth. He has a particular way of standing and walking, and when I see him, even at a distance, I know that it is him.
Predictive Knowing allows us to anticipate a person's behavior. For example, I know that when I hit a tennis ball to my friend Carol's backhand, that she will usually try to return it straight ahead into the back corner of the court.
Explanatory Knowing allows us to have insight into the reasons why others act as they do. For example, I am one of the few people who knows that Brenda avoids James Bond movies because she and her former husband, who she misses terribly, went to see Diamonds Are Forever on their first date.

As with the three levels of rules, the levels of knowing become increasingly personal. The Miller-Steinberg model says that as relationships develop, the participants gradually move towards explanatory knowing and psychological rules as they gain more and more information about one another. In other words, as a relationship grows stronger, it grows increasingly personal.

social rules complex

The Miller-Steinberg model is called a structural model because it predicts that all relationship patterns will have a certain shape, or structure, as they develop over time. Notice, however, that while the model predicts that as relationships become stronger they will become more personal, it has little to say about how the sharing of personal information actually comes about. The next section introduces a model that investigates precisely that. q4007 q4008 q4009 q4012 q4013 q4014 q4016 q4020 q4026

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