Interpersonal Relationships: Definition, Types, Stages And Skills

This article will explore why having strong interpersonal relationships is so important and how they are created, maintained and how relationships develop. We’ll also consider some theories and ideas on their nature and purpose. First, let’s further explore the meaning of ‘interpersonal relationships.’

What is an interpersonal relationship?

An interpersonal relationship is a relationship you have with friends, romantic partners, colleagues, family, fellow students, or anyone else you feel close to.

These relationships are built on mutual respect, trust, and concern for the other human beings health, well-being, and happiness. We rely on friends, family, partners, and even coworkers for emotional support and aim to offer the same in return.

Interpersonal relations and close relationships are key to happiness and contentment in life. They are the antidote to loneliness and isolation and give our lives a sense of meaning and purpose. With strong interpersonal relationships, even if just a few, we get the chance to not only survive but thrive in life.

In social psychology exists the Social Exchange Theory, which suggests that social behavior stems from an exchange process. There are certain costs of developing a relationship with another person, such as time, effort, and even money.

George Homans, a major contributor to the theory, suggests that we weigh the costs of this new relationship against its potential benefits, such as emotional connection, opportunity, social support, or simply fun and friendship.

If we believe the benefits outweigh the costs, we typically decide to engage further with the relationship. If the costs outweigh the benefits, we typically end it or choose not to engage any further.

Why are healthy interpersonal relationships important?

We share our ups and downs, or moments of excitement and moments of sadness, our successes and failures, and our hopes and dreams with those we are close to.

Often we reap the benefits of such relationships through having a compassionate ear to listen to us, a source of support and encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, and a warm body to cuddle up with.

According to research cited in the journal American Psychologist, ‘supportive close relationships promote health by helping people cope with stress and enabling them to fulfill basic needs for social connection such as love, intimacy, companionship, and security. Relationships also may benefit health through processes that foster exploration, personal growth, and goal strivings, all of which are essential for health and well-being.

maintain interpersonal relationships

Types of interpersonal relationships

There are four main types of interpersonal relationships. There are similarities across the board, given that all of these relationships involve a common denominator – ourselves. One of the most common aspects of all types of relationships is that they need high-quality communication to function well. Though there are similarities, there are also distinct differences between each type. 

Family relationships

Your parents, grandparents, siblings, children, and anyone else you’re related to are people with whom you have a family relationship. Family is the first community we live in, so the quality of these familial relationships significantly influences the rest of our relationships as we grow older. 

The mother-child relationship is of particular significance when it comes to the rest of our interpersonal relationships in our adult life, affecting personal aspects such as the ability to trust and rely on others and our self-image. 

Every family dynamic is different, so the same can be said for each of your family relationships. In many families, members have differences of opinion that can sometimes strain the family bond.

Still, much of the time, our family are people we can rely upon to remind us of our true selves, encourage us to stay motivated, and support us when we need support. 

It’s normal for some family members to fall out and leave their bonds behind. Still, family is a special type of relationship, so if there’s anything you can do to repair and maintain a strained family relationship, it’s worth doing (as long as that doesn’t negatively impact your health and well-being!). In the case that it does affect you, it is best to keep and maintain boundaries. Learn more about setting boundaries here.

Work relationships

Your work relationships are those you have with your colleagues, employees, supervisors, and your boss. Sometimes those we work with become our friends, and the relationship extends beyond the workplace.

Sometimes our work relationships are strictly professional and do not extend beyond the workplace. Regardless, your work relationships are important. They affect how you feel and perform in the workplace.

Strong relationships at work can make the work environment more enjoyable and can be a source of support and encouragement when things are stressful, and demands are high.

Work relationships require mutual respect and trust to function properly. You may see your colleagues more often than you see friends and family, so it’s important to keep the quality of these relationships high.

Romantic relationships

Adult romantic relationships are characterized by affection, love, intimacy, trust, and respect. We are perhaps our most vulnerable in romantic relationships. Our partners see us for who we are at our most honest, authentic, and vulnerable and we get to see our partners the same way.

We all need affection and intimacy. These are basic human needs. Romantic relationships, unlike work and family relationships, are something we choose. We find someone we are attracted to and whom we admire, and who feels the same about us.

Given their high degree of intimacy, romantic relationships can be tricky. There is often a honeymoon phase, in which partners are besotted with each other and hold the other in high esteem. Over time, that initial honeymoon phase might fade, and the relationship becomes more grounded and real.

Tension can arise, and partners might engage in conflict. This is almost inevitable. While all relationships take work and conscious effort to maintain, romantic relationships often take the most emotional work.

Friendships

We can’t choose our family, but we can choose our friends. This type of relationship may last a lifetime, or it may last just a few weeks or months or a season of life, depending on one’s circumstances.

Naturally, friendships come and go. They are usually based on shared interests and mutual respect. Some friendships are mutually beneficial, while others can become toxic.

Stages of relationship development

Mark L. Knapp is a professor at the University of Texas, Austin. He is widely renowned for his work and research on relationships development.

According to Knapp’s relational development model, there are distinct and identifiable stages in the coming together and coming apart of any interpersonal relationship. Each stage follows the last in succession.

The coming together stage includes, in the following order:

  • Initiating – making an impression and starting to interact
  • Experimenting – investigation and ‘probing’ to find common ground and increase understanding
  • Intensifying – the relationship becomes less formal, more personal information revealed, the relationship is nurtured
  • Integrating – the relationship becomes much closer, labels are added, commitments are made, benefits are reaped
  • Bonding – the solidity of relationship is recognized and made known

The coming apart stage involves, in the following order:

  • Differentiating – one or both parties begins to focus more on individual interests or opinions
  • Circumscribing – conversation begins to become limited. Some topics are avoided out of anticipation of an argument
  • Stagnating – communication reaches a low point; the relationship is maintained for other reasons such as children or unavoidable circumstances
  • Avoiding – contact is generally avoided, and partners feel physically detached from each other
  • Terminating – the relationship ends as a result of a personal decision or following a life change

How to maintain strong interpersonal relationships

Learning how to maintain strong interpersonal relationships is the cornerstone of living a healthy lifestyle. Sometimes our interpersonal relationships, such as those with our partners, friends, or coworkers, are smooth and hassle-free.

Whereas at other times, there may be conflict, disagreement, boredom, and even resentment. Nobody is perfect, and, as such, no relationship is perfect. Even relationships that go by without any conflict or disagreement may fade in passion and excitement.

You might recognize you’re sensitive and vulnerable but get so caught up in your own feelings that you fail to recognize those feelings in others. The fact is that we’re all vulnerable, and we want to find comfort and security in people we love, trust, and respect. As such, we need to put some work into our interpersonal relationships.

We need to make sure that our friends, partners, even our coworkers, know that we care for them, that we’re there for them, and that we want to continue the relationship. We don’t always need to tell others explicitly that we’re engaged in the relationship.

We can let our interest and engagement be known through several techniques. These techniques stem from important interpersonal skills.

Strong interpersonal relationship skills

Once you’ve entered any kind of relationship, the bond is not set in stone and there may not even be a mutual agreement in place. People and circumstances are constantly changing and evolving, so without mindful effort, your personal relationships may be neglected and eventually fade away. If you want to maintain your strong interpersonal relationships and help them thrive, apply the following essential interpersonal skills.

Openness

Interpersonal relationships begin with being open. You must be willing to open up if you want to maintain your close relationships. Being open means being willing to share what you’re feeling and what you’re thinking about. You don’t have to share every thought that pops into your head to be open in an interpersonal relationship. It’s more about not hiding things or keeping secrets from the other person. 

Being open shows the other person that you care about the relationship. By letting them in on your thoughts and feelings, you give them a chance to get to know you better and strengthen the bond. 

‘Effective communicators make great friends. They’re open to many things and are able to translate their thoughts into meaningful words and actions’, writes Patrick Cogen, author of ‘Emotional Intelligence – The Ultimate Guide To Develop Your Emotional Intelligence And Improve Your Communication Skills Now’.

It makes sense that openness is key to strong, healthy relationships. If you keep your cards too close to your chest and hold back on how you’re feeling, it’s hard for the other person to know what’s going on with you. They might feel some emotional distance, which ultimately hinders the quality of communication.

Empathy

We all want to feel acknowledged and understood. Life can be tough and even confusing at times, so it helps to know that someone cares about us and is willing to stand by our side through difficulties. 

Show empathy in your relationships by showing the other person you care about their feelings and that you understand. If you don’t understand what they’re going through when they bring up a worry or concern, ask them to elaborate.

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another,” writes Alfred Adler, Austrian psychotherapist and founder of Adlerian psychology, also known as individual psychology.

Showing interest and curiosity toward other people shows them that we acknowledge and that we acknowledge them, which has a significantly positive effect on the quality of the relationship.

Maintain Interpersonal relationships, romantic relationship

Respect

Respect is the foundation of any healthy relationship. It’s almost needless to say, but if you don’t respect the other person’s time, space, and energy, then you can’t expect the relationship to stay afloat. Respect is essential in all kinds of relationships, whether they’re professional, platonic, romantic, or familial.

When you treat people with respect, they’re more likely to treat you with respect in return. Mutual respect makes it easier to work together and create a smooth relationship that benefits both parties.

Active listening

For communication to be healthy and effective, it requires active listening from both parties. Active listening is paying your full attention to the person speaking. It’s about focusing on really understanding the message being shared rather than waiting to reply.

Most of us are guilty of waiting until the other person has stopped speaking so we can chime our reply, but this is a barrier to effective communication because we aren’t really listening.

‘When we listen with the intent to understand others, rather than with the intent to reply, we begin true communication and relationship building. Opportunities to then speak openly and to be understood come much more naturally and easily’, explains Stephen R. Covey, author of ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.

When you actively listen, you can respond rather than react to what the other person has said. Active listening gives you space to offer a more thought-out, mindful, and compassionate answer because you’ll have heard the person, not just the words they spoke.

You can improve your active listening skills by:

  • Paying attention
  • Showing the other person that you’re interested (nodding, using body language, maintaining eye contact)
  • Evaluating your understanding and asking the speaker to clarify if you don’t fully understand
  • Avoid interrupting or redirecting
  • Take a moment to pause before you respond

Conclusion

Research suggests that strong interpersonal relationships are a key factor in living a healthy lifestyle and boosting our self-esteem. Though there are various types of interpersonal relationships, all tend to move through distinct phases or stages, where the relationship ends if all relational stages have been completed. Relationships that last do not reach the final stage of Knapp’s relational model mentioned above, or George Levinger’s ‘stage theory.’

If you want to keep your interpersonal relationships strong and healthy, it’s important to develop and improve your interpersonal relationship skills. These skills help you stay honest and authentic, engaged, and in tune with your friends, family members, coworkers, or partner and help to keep the dynamic of the relationship positive.

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