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Research Paper
Social Penetration Theory and Divorce

Emily Huttner

Research Paper
November 18, 2015


Getting married is supposed to be is an exciting time in a couples life, it is usually a result

of connection, understanding and love; at least that is what is thought to be reasons for getting

married. Both partners feel as though they can be open with one another and engage in

communication that is understood and effective. But what is it that changes when couples

relationships begin to dissolve. More than forty percent of all marriages end in divorce, by

looking at how communication develops and changes over time, can the way in which married

couples or any individuals in monogamous relationships, communicate, predict the dissolve of

their relationship?

Many couples seek out guidance and advice from friends, family and or even counselors

to help them try to understand what is causing difficulty in their relationships. The problem is

that issues are being discussed outside of the relationship and not between the individuals. Is this

because their communication has already become ineffective, have they reached a new stage in

their relationship? The only people who truly know are the couple, and unless expressed to one

another the relationship can become stagnant.

When thinking about interpersonal relationships, specifically marriage, good

communication seems to be something that a lot of individuals believe is required for the

relationship to be successful. Communication is something that individuals engage in all the time

and should be practically inherent but when does our communication become difficult and


Social Penetration Theory developed by Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor shows the

different stages in interpersonal relationships and the extent of our disclosure. Their theory has

Research Paper
November 18, 2015

six key elements; social penetration, personality structure, self-disclosure, depth of penetration,

law of reciprocity and breath of penetration. Mark Knapps relationship model is divided by a

relationship coming together and coming apart, each with five steps. Coming together stages

include; initiating, experimenting, intensifying, integrating, and bonding. Relationships come

apart when differentiating begins followed by circumscribing, stagnating, avoiding and resulting

in termination. In between coming together and falling apart there is relationship maintenance.

If couples take the time to look at how their communication changes overtime maybe

they can work together to maintain positive communication and if they do see elements of

communication leading to dissolve they can choose to make changes or effectively communicate

how they want to begin to live their lives separately but through an open dialogue.

Research Paper
November 18, 2015

Literature Review

This literature review seeks to explore the existing ideas surrounding interpersonal

communication during the dissolve of relationships by reviewing Altman and Taylors Social

Penetration Theory as well as Mark Knapps Relationship Model and case studies. By looking at

the research of Altman and Taylor and Knapp the review hopes to link communication patterns

seen at the end of interpersonal relationships to predict divorce.

Social penetration is defined by Griffin (2015) as the process of developing deeper

intimacy with another person through mutual self-disclosure and other forms of vulnerability.

Altman and Taylor suggest that when developing relationships, individuals have a personality

structure which they refer to as, onion like. These layers are our feelings about ourselves, others,

and the world. The further the penetration into these layers the more protected they become. The

outer layers are things about an individual that are seen. The inner layers are, as described by

Griffin (2015) made up of values, self-concept, unresolved conflicts and deeply felt emotions.

The layers are penetrated through self-disclosure. Self- disclosure is the voluntary sharing

of an individuals self, any information they share about themselves; values, beliefs, stories,

feelings etc. The theory suggests that through social penetration you work to peel back the layers

while developing a relationship but the law of reciprocity requires both individuals to disclose

and the degree to which they disclosed would be mirrored by the other individual. Depth of

penetration is the amount disclosed about a particular part of an individuals life and breath of

penetration is the number of areas in an individuals life that is shared.

Mark Knapps relationship model includes ten stages of coming together and coming

apart. We as individuals begin relationships by initiating we do this my introducing ourselves,

Research Paper
November 18, 2015

followed by experimenting where we make small talk, chatting about things such as a movie or

about the weather, intensifying is where we try to find out similarities, integrating is when we

work to manage or relationship with this individual as well as anyone else that is important to us,

and then there is bonding, the relationship has developed and identify as best friends or if in a

romantic relationship consider getting married. Relationship maintenance is required after

coming together, if not that is when our relationships begin to fall apart.

In the stages of coming apart the first stage is differentiating this is where individuals

start to focus on themselves, separate from the relationship. Circumscribing is when we begin to

limit the topics we discuss in the relationship, followed by stagnating where you stop discussing

topics, typically being any issues within the relationship. The relationship truly comes to an end

when there is avoiding; the individual doesnt want to interact with the other any longer and ends

with termination of the relationship.

In Avtgis, West and Andersons analysis on Relationship Stages: An inductive analysis

identifying cognitive, affective, and Behavioral dimensions Knapps Relational Stages Model,

works to further develop Knapps relational model as a tool for classification. For each of the

relational stages they recorded the stage, things individuals said, how they felt and their

behaviors. As stated before there are ten stages in the model. In the process of coming apart

during the differentiating stage individuals would argue, apologize and discuss their

incompatibility, they had feelings of separation, slight loneliness, confusion and being

inadequate, and as a result they would try to make compromises.

During circumscribing discussion would only include everyday matters and would feel

cold, distance, depressed, frustrated, unloved and misunderstood and individuals would then

Research Paper
November 18, 2015

pursue different activities and act aloof. When reaching the stage of stagnating individuals

discussions were considered old news and would give short answers to questions, feeling

unwanted, scared, bored and sentimental, ceasing physical contact and going out. Avoiding and

Terminating are the last two stages. Avoid is when communication has be avoided or stopped,

there is no discussion about the relationship saying things such as I dont know and I dont

care, leaving individuals feeling nervous, helpless and annoyed, eating in silence, staying busy

and spending time away from one another. Terminating surprisingly enough does involve

communicating but individuals may discuss what went wrong, feeling unhappy but relieved, sad,

depressed, happy, lonely and or scared, dividing things up and possibly crying. After identifying

the dialogue, feelings and behaviors associated with each stage it is easier to look at a

relationship figure out if the relationship is coming apart.

The comparative test evaluated by Joe Ayres in his analysis of Uncertainy and Social

Penetration Theory Expectations about Relationship Communication: A comparative Test,

compares the dialogue and advancement of relationships through social penetration theory of

Altman and Taylor to the uncertainty reduction theory of Charles Berger. Berger argues the less

you know about someone the more questions you ask and Altman & Taylor studied what types

of behaviors are the results of developed relationships and how they progress over time. This test

coded the dialogue of two individuals who had just met and the dialogue of two individuals who

had, had developed relationships. The expected outcome was for the stranger encounters to result

in more questions than those who had established friendships. The dialogue was coded as

descriptive, evaluative or nothing. The results found that strangers use descriptive more often

than friends and that friends have a balance of descriptive and evaluative comments. Instead of

finding out who asked more questions the comparative test showed patterns in what type of

Research Paper
November 18, 2015

responses were given; either descriptive, evaluative or nothing. Relationship dialogue changes

over time, if we reach a point where we are not asking as many questions are we still interested

in the relationship?

Dunleavy and Booth-Butterfields work on idiomatic communication shows that couples

in developing relationships use more idioms than those in dissolving relationships. Their study

looks at the idioms used by couples in developing and dissolving relationships.. The types of

idioms seeen in both stages of relationships differ as well. By identifying the frequency and types

of idioms used we can access when relationship maybe coming to an end. By placing the idioms

in relation to Knapps relational stages we can identify possible influences of a dissolving

relationship and how they are specific to each stage. Their study also shows the how the use of

idioms change throughout relationship change, which social penetration theory shows us that

when couples become closer their relationships, they tend to become more particular in the way

we communicate.

The divorce conversation: The influence of face threat and facework on perceptions and

outcomes by Frisby, Booth-Butterfield, Dillow, Martin, & Weber looks at the dialogue between

individuals who have been through divorce and the ideas of face threats and facework. What

each spouse communicates about the other either become face threat or is facework. Face threats

are messages that portray the other spouse negatively and facework are messages that work to

portray the other spouse positively through the divorce process. Depending on the amount of

face threat and facework the relationship of the once married couple will be determined by how

they portrayed one another resulting in new and different types of relationships. How they treat

each other during the divorce will impact the future dynamic of their relationship allowing for

them to still be friends or avoid any and all contact ever again.

Research Paper
November 18, 2015

Vangelistis analysis of Couples Communication Problems: The Counselors

perspective, seeks to find what counselors view as attributes to couples communication

problems and also reveals their (the counselors) influence on what the couples see as cause of

communication problems. This study argues that like the couples themselves, counselors seek to

understand the causes of communication problems through intended meaning. The way in which

a counselor perceives the couples communication problems can vary from counselor to

counselor and they too become a part of the conversation.

The analysis looked at the responses from fifty different counselors and their perceive

ideas of communication problems. The counselors place the problems in goal clusters;

communication, cohesion and adaptability. Communication behavior goals of attentive listening,

expressing emotion and speaking for yourself where some of the top ranked behavioral goals

perceived by the counselors. The study also showed that most couples communication problems

are considered stable meaning the problems were things that were unchanging in the

relationship and that most couples that have communication problems that are the results of

unstable problems would rather wait out the period of instability than seek out counseling.

Counselors also indicated that sixty three percent of communication problems were also

external and can be influenced by behaviors taught to individuals by their families. This study

also found that overall the main problem in dissatisfying relationships one fourth of the

counselors noted that they were directly related to communication. Seeing that poor

communication is an indication of an unhappy relationship, if couples are unable to resolve their

communication problems, the relationship may end.

Research Paper
November 18, 2015


Entering a relationship is a wonderful and exciting experience that individuals love to

discuss but the dissolve of a relationship tends to be uncomfortable and much more complicated.

If a couple becomes concerned with the status of their relationship they can review their

dialogue, feelings and actions to see which relational stage they may be in. At first this idea

seems simple after looking at Avtgis, West and Andersons analysis but not every couples

dialogue, feelings and actions will be the same. Interpersonal relationships are complex as well

as the communication between the individuals, and can be broken down in many different ways,

such as specifically looking at idioms used and facework. Vangelistis work also shows the

variation among couples and the understanding of their problems. Though there is variation,

there is also a pattern, when couples start to with draw themselves, and there is less in depth

discussion, short responses, or if it has gotten to point where there is no discussion at all there is

a likely chance the relationship will reach termination, whether it is separation or divorce. It is

possible to predict the dissolve of a relationship by looking at communication, but you will have

a better chance of understanding of the stage of the relationship if you also take into account

feelings and actions.

Research Paper
November 18, 2015

Reference List

Griffin, E., Ledbetter, A., & Sparks, G. (2015). Social Penetration Theory. A First Look at

Communication Theory (9th ed., pp. 96-107). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

Avtgis, T. A., West, D. V., & Anderson, T. L. (1998). Relationship stages: An inductive analysis

identifying cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions of Knapp's relational stages

model. Communication Research Reports, 15(3), 280-287.

Ayres, J. (1979). Uncertainty and social penetration theory expectations about relationship

communication: A comparative test. Western Journal of Speech Communication:

WJSC, 43(3), 192-200.

Dunleavy, K. N., & Booth-Butterfield, M. (2009). Idiomatic communication in the stages of

coming together and falling apart. Communication Quarterly, 57(4), 416-432.


Frisby, B.N., Booth-Butterfield, M., Dillow, M.R., Martin, M.M., & Weber, K.A. ( 2011). The

divorce conversation: The influence of face threat and facework on perceptions and

outcomes. Conference Papers -- International Communication Association, 1-34.

Vangelisti, A. L. (1994). Couples' communication problems: The counselor's

perspective. Journal Of Applied Communication Research, 22(2), 106.