What is a model relationship? Is it a relationship with Heidi Klum or Markus Schenkenberg? Or is it a relationship that is a role model, a model that others can emulate? It could be either one or the other but in this case it is a relationship described from a model, a theory about human relationships and their development.

Let us start with a little bit of background to the model before we go in to the relationships part. The model was brought forward by a man called Will Schutz. He was commissioned to study differently groups of people to find the reasons why some of those groups work better than others, some more effective than others. He found certain basic need that needed satisfaction in a relationship for the people in the relationship to find their way to true happiness, love and openness.

A certain order

If we look from the outside on these needs they tend to have to be satisfied in a certain order so that we can create a model to apply to relationships to better understand why we are behaving different in different stages of the development of a relationship. Will Schutz called his theory FIRO, short for Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation. Since its creation in 1959 it has been one of the most used theories to improve effectiveness and well being in a team within organizations around the world.

Our intention here today is to first give you as a reader a short introduction to the theory, the different needs or the different stages that a relationship can be said to go through and then apply this in a couple's relationship. So let us start straight away.

The basic needs

Will Schutz found through his research that the needs we are trying to satisfy in a relationship with other people primarily involve three basic needs; the need to be recognized and included, the need to have an influence and to have control, and finally the need for love and openess. These can vary in strength in different individuals, but what he found in common was that the satisfaction of these needs was in the same order of most people when we start a new relationship / group and afterwards as this matures and develops.

Based on these needs a model has been created with the recognizable behaviors with three main phases, based on the three needs above, and two so called transitional phases or rest phases in between. The main phases were called Inclusion, Control and Openess.

FIRO Needs

A relationship or a group which strives towards the goal of unity and efficiency must, according to this model, go through the phases in the order mentioned to reach success. Relationships which through development have reached the third phase – unity – will from time to time return back to the earlier phases, for example the need of new members in the group, or a task that falls outside the framing of a group. The more mature the group/relationship is the faster it goes for it to return back to the unity phase.

The two transition phases are called Joviality, between Inclusion and Control, and Idyll, between Control and Openness. These two are the rest phases where the people in the group or relationship are resting after an energy craving main phase, gathering power for what will come. The phase of joviality for example can be characterized by the fact that everyone in the group has decided to be a part of the group, there are several things under the surface, emerging conflicts, that haven't yet reached the surface and the group is cozy together, for example by socializing together with high energy.

More about FIRO

The FIRO-theory is a lot about our feelings and how these affect us in the relationship to others and how this in turn affects our efficiency and our well being. The effectiveness, when it comes to solving problems or tasks, are the biggest in the openness phase where the least energy is needed for the relationships in the group. Second in this effectiveness is in the inclusion phase and the least effective to solve problems is the group that is in the control phase where a lot of energy is used to the relationships in the group.

If you look at the model from an organizational perspective, we will get to how this connects to a couple's relationship further down - a lot of organizations who end up in the control phase which is filled with conflicts and craves a lot of energy choose to re-organize or hire new staff/leader. This brings the group to return back to the first phase which is affected by insecurity and questions about acceptance, an on the surface seemingly more comfortable work environment without large conflicts.

Applied in a couple's relationship

The FIRO-theory can be applied from two people up to entire nations. For example in a couple's relationship the first main phase is represented by the first exciting time when you get to know each other, the joviality phase of love when everything is rosy, at least almost everything. Both partners are putting the effort in to show a good image of themselves, you are on time, getting dressed up, taking care of your looks amongst other things.

The relationship matures, conflict arises

Then the time comes when you discover that the other might not be all you thought/wanted him/her to be and conflicts about this and that start arising. This represents the control phase. The classic expression "the one that wears the pants" is well suited for this phase. There is a road cross, divorce, which either brings you back to the inclusion phase of a new relationship or to work through the conflicts and learn to appreciate each other's differences.

Markus: Conflicts came to a new light when I learnt this perspective on a relationship development.

Instead of being something that should be avoided and that was just difficult I started to see that they were a sign that the relationship was going to mature and develop.

Many relationships are stuck in this phase and you have endless minor conflicts that end in fights about little things that do not really have any bearing for the relationship, the so called right and wrong discussions. We can either organize the relationship to get through this phase, we create the Family Ltd, or we create a united commitment to each other to develop the relationship and to be willing to stand through both storms and conflicts with a strong belief, read trust, that the good will come back. This commitment includes giving each other feedback, engaging active listening and using a language with responsibility that is I own what I say and talk from my own experiences.

Nothing last forever, or?

Say that the couple above has worked through the control phase and returned back to the conclusion phase. They have deepened their love and come to the decision that they now would like to have children together. If we see this from a group perspective it means that a new member of the family arrives. This brings the relationship/group back to the first phase, inclusion, where it is about the questions "did it become the way I wanted?", "do I want to stay in this family?"

Then with this new group we need to once again do the journey between inclusion phase and control phase. When it might be hard to find time to talk to each other, we get two hours undisturbed sleep per night and we have a third member of the group which expressed his/hers needs closely but not always understandable. This can feel overwhelming to manage and studies have shown that a lot of relationships end two years after a child has been born in to the family. This may be one of the reasons, that getting through the different phases again becomes a hard task. That the belief and trust of that good will return doesn't manage to win over the fantasy that the grass is greener on the other side.

Like a boat trip

You can compare the theory to a boat trip, where in the inclusion phase a part of the group is sitting in the boat by the dock, while others are still on the bridge and thinking whether they should get on the boat or not. In the control phase everyone is in the boat which has left the dock but everyone is trying to row in different direction and no one really knows who should be the one to decide. Some might not be rowing at all. In the openness phase you have found your different roles onboard and you are all rowing in the same direction. There is a strong sense of unity and common goals, the leadership shifts depending on the competence required by a specific situation.

It's about fear

We previously noted that this theory and model is about feelings. The fundamental feeling here is fear. The more fear in a relationship, the further back in the phases is the relationship. The more immature the relationship is. On the contrary, the more trust and love there is in the relationship, the further ahead it is amongst the phases and the more mature it is.

It isn't always that we use the term fear openly, we hide it in what we think is more sociable acceptable norms about insecurity, stress and annoyance. Opposite, we don't talk about love but will find other expressions such as a good fellowship, friendship and liking.

Markus: I find it very liberating to speak openly about fear instead of hiding it in one of the more fancy terms above.

What isn't communicated doesn't exist, is an old saying. I find it true in my relationships too.

When we come to the core of things by daring to open up things are almost solved by them-selves.

The big questions

We often get questions after we have been and worked with people involved in different kinds of relationships or lectured on the theme relationship, questions such as "what can we do to get through the different phases?" and "how long does it take to get through the different phases?".

The first question is about how to handle the soft parts in a relationship, the actual relationships, the feelings, each others values and so on. To absorb for example the model we are talking about here, to translate the feedback in to practice, to work with developing my language to one with a responsibility, to work towards being a light house in the building of trust and to dare going against your own fear, to be a role model in this. It is always harder to walk first, to be the first one to lower the defense in the hot conflict, but it is also the way to true leadership and mutual giving, passion and open relationships.

The question about the time it takes simply depends on how well we take those tools to us and use them in practice. Knowledge without practical use has no value. It can take a few hours to travel between one or several phases in a relationship for a relationship with two or more brave and mature individuals or it can take ten years of role seeking and conflicts in a relationship where you don't speak about what the things are really about but play the game of control by for example endless discussion about which color to paint the kitchen in.

Filippa: I have lived in two different relationships where I have handled conflicts in totally different ways and it has taken time to get through them. In one relationship I chose to withdraw and mope and then refused to speak about the subject.

I thought he should be able to read my thoughts and if he didn't succeed in doing so I gave unclear hints and hoped it would become clearer. If he asked me a clear question (which he most often didn't dare to do) I just mumbled and walked away.

In my relationship today with my partner there are several times where it has gone off and we have long conversations where we work on getting to the bottom with the whole thing so that we get to know each other a bit more.

We might still not agree but we are more open about what we think and feel and I am no longer scared of conflicts and the feelings they might create. I can even think that it is sometimes quite nice to clear the air a bit to avoid life becoming a bit dull.

In conclusion

There is a plethora of different models that in more or less complex ways describes the phenomena above. We have here chosen to share this model because from our experience it is relatively easy to grasp its basics ideas and mostly... because we have seen and experienced it to work!

The knowledge about the basic needs that steer us in relationships formations and the order they tend to seek satisfactions are of highest importance to develop a relationship. Some individuals brings this with them from a good upbringing in how to build relationships, others don't have it. It has become more people in later years that don't get this upbringing from their parental home.

More importantly however is the ability to act, to translate the knowledge into action. To be able to develop in the different stages towards a mature relationship it we need to reflect, to stop and see what is going well and what isn't. It is however to little use if we don't also have the courage to use what we learn everyday in our relationship.

Homework assignment

Think back to the different moments in your current or earlier relationships. Can you recognize the different needs and phases that we describe above?

Are there moments where you have been able to show more of yourself to move forward from a superficial and unsatisfactory relationship?

Are there conflicts that you could have handled differently in the light that they were expressions for the relationship wanting to develop and deepen?

Are there moments when you see that the relationship has really done the journey through the different phases and been in a position of well being and deep love?


Couple with laptop studying relationships