The Four Stages of a Relationship. What Stage is Yours In?
In an ideal world, being in a serious love relationship would be easy.
There would be no angry arguments. There would be no volatile disagreements about children, pets, or former lovers. There would be no intense fighting or regular threats of breaking up and divorcing.
In an ideal world couples would be in love forever, have sex frequently and always enjoy each other’s company.
However, we live in the real world. Couples will disagree, have arguments, say bad things to each other and sometimes threaten to leave one another. In fact, as we all know, couples break up all the time.
We live in a world and at a time when it is easy to leave each other. Our society no longer frowns upon divorce the way it once did. Laws governing divorce have become more relaxed in most states.
So while divorce is often an ugly personal process, legally it is not very complicated.
Couples struggling with the process of growing a relationship need to understand that it is similar to parenting a growing child from birth to adulthood. All parents are challenged during this time.
Likewise all couples are also challenged during the growth of their relationship.
The Four Stages of a Relationship
Although it is true that many relationships need to end because the partners are too conflicted, too unhappy, too unmotivated, too tired or too damaged to continue, there are many others that could be salvaged and made to work.
Serious love relationships go through stages of development which parallel individual human stages of development from infancy to maturity. We have all had to work through the challenges of growing up. From the first symbiotic bond with our mothers we struggled to gain independence and live our own lives.
When couples first become connected to each other and the chemistry flows they experience a feeling of closeness or “oneness”. They have difficulty separating and will often think about each other all the time.
This intense bond feels soothing and comforting to the partners and is reminiscent of the early mother-child bond they each experienced as infants.
We have all either experienced or seen others experience this stage of being enchanted or even enraptured by the new love partner.
This early stage of being together is so full of strong love feelings from both partners that they usually experience very little conflict. They each forfeit a little of their own individuality for this initial experience.
In the next stage the partners begin to realize that they are different people, often with different likes and dislikes. The chemistry that initially excited them begins to settle down.
The closeness the couple felt in Stage 1 may feel a bit stifling in Stage 2, or at least they may recognize the need to have some personal space.
A partner may become irritated when they perceive the other is making too many demands on them. Requests that one partner might make of the other, previously considered acceptable, can be viewed in this stage as bothersome and intrusive.
Conflict begins to emerge, as one partner may want to exert more independence while the other partner may still want the comfort they derived from more closeness.
Stage 2 of a couples’ relationship is not unlike adolescence.
In adolescence, the need of the teenager to separate from the closeness of the family and be his own person sometimes comes into conflict with need of the family to maintain some control of their child.
If couples are not in harmony, they become even more conflicted as they approach this next stage.
One partner may want to develop his or her personal and professional persona more intensely than the other. The need to express oneself in uniquely individual ways may cause a partner to feel excluded.
It is at this point that one may begin to withdraw or demand more attention from the other than he/she is willing to give. In this stage resentments can build and the couple is at greater risk to damage the relationship.
A couple can effectively move through Stage 3 by realizing that seeking to become more of an individual does not mean that the marriage and closeness has to end.
The partners now grasp the idea that aspiring to become an independent person does not necessarily threaten the relationship. In fact, when partners function well as individuals and enjoy separate activities, they often bring more to enrich their relationship.
If partners can navigate this stage successfully they can move into their mature years having greater respect and admiration for each other.
How couples deal with these inevitable developments can make the difference between staying together successfully and breaking apart.
Having respect for the other’s right to evolve and grow without resentment eating away at the relationship is a real challenge. However, it is part of the developmental process to grow from symbiosis to independence and autonomy. Couples who navigate this together will grow more happily to maturity.
To learn more about how I can help you and your partner, visit my Couples Therapy page.
About the Author
Dr. Stan Hyman is a licensed psychotherapist and life coach in private practice in Miami, Florida. He specializes in treating addictions, anger, anxiety, stress, depression and work-life balance. He also works with couples struggling with powerful issues such as infidelity, careers, and intimacy.