The 5 Relationship Stages
You’ve probably fallen in love at least once in your life.
In fact, some people fall in love multiple times, only to have their hopes and dreams of a long and happy life with their partner dashed.
Unfortunately for many of us, falling in love is not the hard part of relationships. The hard part is staying in love!
When I work with couples I find it useful to divide relationships into 5 stages. These stages are never exact, and couples can cycle in out out of 1 or more of these stages easily.
But by thinking about what stage your relationship is in, it is possible for you and your partner to anticipate the pitfalls of each relationship stage and learn the tools to move forward into a happier, more loving and more passionate stage of their relationship.
So, what are these 5 relationship stages?
You’ve probably fallen in love at least once in your life...Unfortunately for many of us, falling in love is not the hard part of relationships. The hard part is staying in love!
Stage 1: The Initial Attraction and Romance Stage
The first and most obvious stage of most relationships is the Initial Attraction and Romance stage. Some people even call this the “drug addiction” stage, as this is when the body releases most of the feel-good hormones that characterize the initial feelings of being passionately in love with your partner.
As you probably know from personal experience, the Initial Attraction and Romance stage of a new relationship is usually quite intoxicating. It is also what most movie romances are based on. Strangers may meet on a beach, their eyes lock and they experience a powerful attraction to each other.
They then can’t stand to be away from each other. They think about each other all the time. But just before they admit their true love for each other, in most movies they encounter an obstacle that threatens to keep them apart. But against the odds they overcome this obstacle, so that they can embrace each other in the final scene and kiss passionately as the sun sets behind them.
In these movies however, there is never any focus on what happens next. Are these two characters who have fought to be together really that compatible with each other? Do they have similar world-views? Are they good communicators? Do they have anger management issues? Given that they are hooked on feel-good chemicals are they likely to be faithful to each other long-term? And what are their listening skills like?
In most movies (unlike real life) we never find out. But if you and your partner have progressed beyond at least the initial stages of the Initial Attraction And Romance stage, you are probably probably struggling with some of these questions right now...
- Are we the right people for each other?
- Can we learn to live with our differences?
- Are our communication skills good enough to deal with difficult relationship issues?
- Can we overcome the things that we fight about, or even better, stop fighting all together?
Are we the right people for each other?
You will learn tools to deal with all of these questions in later blog posts.
For the moment however, know that during the Initial Attraction and Romance stage of any relationship your body will be releasing strong love chemicals that enhance the process of bonding with your partner. These chemicals include high levels of dopamine, norepinephrine and oxytocin-almost exactly the same chemicals that you would find after taking addictive (and illegal) drugs!
However intense the Initial Attraction and Romance stage feels however, it will subside. Usually between a few months and a couple of years, the levels of these love chemicals returns to normal and your relationship may start to seem very different.
Very often this drop in love chemicals leads couples into relationship stage 2, which is the Conflict Stage.
Stage 2: The Conflict Stage
In the Conflict stage relationships feel much harder. Instead of looking deeply into each others eyes, you and your partner start to be more concerned about who left the toilet seat up or whose turn it is to take out the trash.
Other issues may start to enter relationship at this stage too. After being infatuated with your partner for so long, all of a sudden you mighty to feel feelings such as anger or disappointment. The questions that you have avoided in the Initial Attraction and Romance stage come into the light.
After your first big argument, or after multiple small ones, you may start to wonder if you actually compatible with each other. Maybe your partner’s sense of humour that first drew you to him starts to annoy you. The outgoing personality that you loved for so long starts to feel oppressive and irritating.
After your first big argument, or after multiple small ones, you may start to wonder if you actually compatible with each other.
Often in this stage anger, arguments and power struggles start to appear. You may find that when you argue your partner pursues you, while you just want to withdraw. Maybe you find out that your partner has anger issues. Maybe you note that your partner is resistant to change.
Unless you know how too deal with these situations effectively, many couples can get caught in this conflict stage for many years-and possible even for the rest of their relationship!
Fortunately however, there are some simple tools to help couples move past this Conflict stage. These tools focus on how couples can maintain effected communication, as well as deal with anger, abuse or arguments. You will learn these tools in other blog posts.
For couples that make it past the Conflict stage, the next stage they enter is often called the Working stage.
Stage 3: The Working Stage
Entering the Working stage does not mean that arguments between couples stop, but usually the intensity and frequency of the arguments drop.
Instead of arguing, you and your partner form a good team. A period of peace often enters the relationship-characterised by the beginning of acceptance of your partner for who he or she is. Things that may have bothered you previously now seem like not such a big deal. Issues such as who does the cleaning on the weekend get resolved, or routines get set up to avoid this issue.
The Working stage of relationships can last many years, and for many couples can seem very comfortable. This comfort however is a possible downside of this stage. At this point in relationship, often 5-10 years into the relationship, couples often start to take each other for granted.
Signs of this complacency can be subtle. Maybe you start easing dinner in front of the television, rather than sitting down together at the dinner table and talking. Maybe you stop the romantic gestures or date nights that were a strong part of the Initial Attraction and Romance stage of your relationship. Maybe you start watching television together in the bedroom, rather than snuggling and kissing.
If you are not careful, levels of passion in the Working stage of your relationship can drop.
Stage 4: Commitment
The fourth stage of great relationships is the Commitment stage.
The Commitment stage is about internally choosing your partner as your life partner, as they are (as not as you want them to be!). In this stage you decide that the person you are in relationship with is the person you want to be with for the rest of your life.
Of course, for many couples this Commitment stage may coincide with a wedding or other commitment ceremony, but they can also be very different things! In fact, many couples marry each other while they are in any of the first there relationship stages, which can lead to problems later on!
Often once couples enter the Commitment stage their relationship will improves. Psychological exit doors have been closed, and the brain starts to story your relationship in positive ways that justify the level of commitment you feel.
As a consequence, once you accept your partner as your one and only life-partner for the rest of your life passion levels may go up and feelings off being truly connected together often increase.
Once you accept your partner as your one and only life-partner for the rest of your life passion levels may go up and feelings off being truly connected together often increase.
Unfortunately however, many couples return to previous relationship stages even after entering the Commitment stage. Problems, power struggles and conflict may come back into the relationship.
But for most couples the intensity of the problems is less than they were before the Commitment stage. Closing down psychological options to experience other relationships often means that you become happy with the person you have chosen!
The Commitment stage however is not the final stage of most great relationships.
The Final Stage is what I call the True Love stage.
Stage 5: True Love
In the True Love stage you and your partner are committed to each other, but you are also committed to something bigger. In the True Love stage you become more than the sum of each person. In fact, you influence each other so much that who you are is not separate from each other. As a client of mine said once, there is no Tracey without Peter.
The True Love stage is also often characterized by having relationship goals and plans. These plans may involve starting a family, building a dream home, giving back to a church or club together or talking about how you will spend you old-age together.
In the True Love stage you will also have shared short and medium term relationship goals, and be working on these goals together. I will discuss this stage more in later blog posts!
I hope it is useful for you to think about these 5 relationship stages. Of course, not all relationship pass through all these stages, and there stages do not follow a linear process. You and your partner may cycle between these stages many times before you even come close to the True Love stage.
In other posts, you will learn many of the tools that will help you move past the relationship stage you are in now to a happier, more loving and more passionate relationship stage.
Before ending this post however, set aside 5-10 minutes with your partner to discuss the following questions.
(Note: The exercise in this post works best if you take turns talking and listening to each other as you answer these questions. Don’t focus on “being right” or trying to convince your partner of your perspective. Instead, just focus on listening and trying to really understand what your partner is saying!)
Question 1: What relationship stage would you say your relationship is in?
Try to explain your answer as fully as possible as your partner is listening to you. Remember there are no right or wrong answers!
Question 2: What do you remember most about the Initial Attraction and Romance stage of your relationship?
When you are answering this question, try to remember how you felt when you first met your partner? What first attracted you to him or her? What as the most romantic thing he or she did for you in this stage, and what did you do for him/her?
Question 3: What have been the happiest times in your relationship so far?
As you answer this question, try to describe these times as fully as possible. It can be a good idea to write down least some of these memories together so that you and your partner can refer back to them as much as possible. Is there anything stopping you recreating some of these memories?
Question 4: Are you and your partner in the True Love stage? If not, what would need to change in order for you to move in this direction?
Remember, if you want help moving your relationship towards the True Love stage, I am here to help!