Interpersonal relationship is a term used to denote a broad range of associations between two or more persons. Common types of interpersonal relationships may be based on family, friendship, faith career or romantic association between people. Healthy interpersonal relationships are characterized by one or more mutually felt sentiments such as affinity, attraction, care, respect and trust, while poor relationships may suffer from a host of problems. Interpersonal relationships are the basic foundation of broader associations such as familial and friendship networks, communities and interest groups, and society as a whole.
In the 1970s social psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor advanced a general mechanism for the development of interpersonal relationships, known as the social penetration theory. In their book Social Penetraton: the Development of Interpersonal Relationships they explore the subsequent phases of an interpersonal relationship's progress, from complete strangers to full trust and personal closeness. They were particularly interested in various processes of personal information exchange facilitating this development and defining the intermediate stages.
Altman and Taylor state that the act of self-disclosure — or voluntarily disclosing one's own feelings, values, preferences and personal history — facilitates the process of developing interpersonal closeness, by exposing one's vulnerabilities. This is an act of building trust additionally facilitated by sharing possessions or secrets.
The psychologists compare the process to an onion being peeled off to reveal deeper layers of personality; to them a person is a layered in much the same way. The public persona may include patterns of clothing, outward appearance and other information that can be externally gleaned or is generally known about the person. Below the surface people conceal their attitudes, prejudices and beliefs, which inadvertently fashion the way in which relationships develop. Deeper still are notions like self-concepts, core values and emotional mechanisms, which are difficult to unlock and expose. Altman and Taylor assert that the onion peeling process of developing relationships proceeds in a slightly different fashion and at varying speed in different cultures.
Altman and Taylor also use an interesting economic model to determine the rationale for and extent to which people are willing to engage in interpersonal relationships. They believe that the individual perceives the relationship building process as costly, but these costs are weighed against rewards from successfully developed relationships. Sometimes the costs are greater than the rewards, in which case the relationship may not be pursued or may be subsequently abandoned. In other cases the long-term rewards are perceived to be much greater than the costs, even while the initial emotional or economic investment in the relationship may be significant. The scholars give an example with the parent-child relationship that is extremely demanding for the parent but offers great perceived rewards.
More recently additional studies have focused on various aspects of interpersonal relationships. In a 2003 journal article on the subject scholar Jeffrey Mcquillen notes that the advent of the information age and the emergence of the so called "global village" has profoundly changed social life. On one hand, according to Mcquillen, it has made individuals more self-reliant as Internet users are able to find "almost anything" in terms of products or information online. On the other hand, it has also shortened distances between individuals and altered the development of interpersonal relationships.
Even before the emergence of Facebook or Twitter in the later years of the 2000s, Mcquillen writes that mass media technologies like television and the Internet have had a transformational impact on interpersonal relationships. One particular effect according to Mcquillen is the promotion of "idealized and parasocial relationships" that stem from the personality stereotypes portrayed in mass media. Soap operas, for example, seem to develop very influential archetypes and plot logic, which are later emulated and replicated among viewers. The basic result is that people expect people around them to act in manners reminiscent of scripted characters from television.
A similar scripted personality principle but with different outcomes is at play in online relationships, according to Mcquillen. Selective self-representation and the omission of important cues crucial for face-to-face communication has been made possible. It allows an individual to censor the self-disclosure process and effectively mask personality traits inherent in Altman and Taylor's onion model. Mcquillen compares online relationships to a costume party where, via technological means, "relationships are not being initiated with "real" people, but with the projected, edited, "spun" images the users share on-line".