Why is relationship so hard? Things were so perfect when we first met – what happened? Most likely, the answer is that you’ve left the first stage of your relationship, and have moved into another. But could it really be that easy?
Yes! Most people understand that relationships grow and change over time… but what many people don’t know is that they tend to evolve in the same way. There are specific, defined stages of long-term relationships, which offer new feelings, new challenges to overcome, and new opportunities for growth. And if you want your relationship to evolve into one of mutual respect, love and intimacy, it’s likely that you’ll have to experience all of the following relationship stages at some point or another. Take a look at the description of each phase – do any of this sound familiar?
Before we get started, you should know that most people experience these stages in this order, and will need to resolve the challenges in each stage before they can move successfully on to the next. Of course there are always exceptions to this rule. But for the most part, you can’t get out of experiencing all of these stages if you want a healthy and fulfilling relationship. Every couple will move through these stages at different speeds, and most people will experience each stage more than once – it is common to fluctuate from one stage to another.*
Okay, now that I’ve given you the basic info, let’s dig a little deeper….
Stage 1 – The Romance Stage
This is also known as the Courtship Phase or the Fantasy Stage, and can last anywhere from 2 months to 2 years. This is when you and your partner have just met, and everything is absolutely amazing. You can’t get enough of each other. Neither of you can do any wrong in the eyes of the other… mainly because you’re both still on your best behavior. The focus in this stage is on commonalities – you have so many common interests, you could practically be the same person! You show your partner your absolute best self, and you try to please each other as much as possible.
Conflict is seen as “bad” in this stage, and is avoided at all costs. You can’t imagine living without this person, so you begin spending as much time together as possible. This is the stage when our defenses are down the most, which allows you to be open to and fall in love. You and your partner are building an important foundation in this stage, so your relationship can grow. There are biological effects as well. When you’re in this stage, your body is producing enormous amounts of endorphins, which makes you feel unusually happy, positive and excited about everything in your life (this is that “head over heels in love” feeling!). This is the stage most often portrayed in movies and romantic novels, for obvious reasons. Bottom line – you are happier than you’ve ever been, and can’t imagine ever feeling any differently.
Stage 2 – The Disillusionment Stage
This stage is also known as the Familiarization Stage, or the Adjusting to Reality Phase. This is where you begin to realize that your partner is actually a human being (horror of horrors!). You get to know each other more and more, and as a result you start recognizing their various flaws and shortcomings. You see your partner in relaxed situations, and you become more relaxed as well. Since your body cannot possibly continue to produce the same levels of endorphins that it was in the beginning, those feelings of being on top of the world start to decline.
Your partner’s little habits aren’t quite as cute as they used to be, but there is still enough goodwill from the Romance Stage that you’re willing to overlook them. This stage can start to trickle into your relationship slowly, as you begin to see your partner for who s/he really is. Or sometimes it happens all of a sudden, when there has been some sort of dishonesty or deceit. This phase can be confusing and discouraging, since you’ve just experienced so much openness and connection in the Romance Stage. However, at this stage, your main job is to learn how to communicate and resolve conflict with this person effectively, which is an important skill if you want your relationship to continue.
Stage 3 – The Power Struggle Stage
This stage is also known as the Disappointment Phase or Distress Stage. As the characteristics from the Disillusionment Phase intensify, they become harder and harder to deal with. You will most likely begin to pull away from each other in this stage. At this point, you both still believe that conflict is a “bad” thing, but you are increasingly aware of your many differences. You fight to draw boundaries in the relationship, and as a result even small annoyances become big issues. This is the stage where you define unacceptable behavior, and most couples have occasional or frequent thoughts of leaving the relationship.
More and more often, you start to feel like your partner is self-centered or un-caring, or even worse, that they simply can’t be trusted. Deep resentments begin to build if you’re unable to resolve your issues in a respectful and mutually agreeable way. Many couples get stuck in this stage, because this way of interacting becomes normal in their relationship. This is when it is absolutely necessary to learn to manage your differences effectively – to communicate and work together as a team, even though it’s tempting to believe that your partner’s sole purpose on Earth is to make your life difficult. Not surprisingly, this is the stage most couples are in when they decide to break up or file for divorce. However, if they are able to negotiate all of the landmines during this phase, they’ll move on to….
Stage 4 – The Stability Stage
This is a restful and peaceful time, compared to the last stage. This stage is also known as the Friendship Phase or Reconciliation Stage. Some couples never make it to this stage, but the ones who do find that they have deeper feelings of love, connection and trust with their partner. You now have history together, and most people begin to rely on the predictability of the relationship. As you enter this stage, you begin to realize that your partner isn’t perfect, but your personal differences aren’t quite as threatening as they used to be. You’re able to resolve most of your differences, at least to some extent, and you become more confident in the relationship.
Some people feel a sense of loss in this stage as they learn to accept their partner for who they truly are, since this means they have to let go of the fantasy that was established early on in the relationship. But for the most part, the deepening sense of friendship and commitment is a good trade-off for those early feelings of butterflies and excitement. This is also when you begin to re-establish your own outside interests and friendships, which were given up in the Romance Phase. There is some danger that you may begin to drift apart from or become bored with your partner in this phase, so you should try to maintain the connection that was created in the Romance Phase. Overall, this is the stage when you finally begin to feel comfortable and happy with your deepening relationship.
Stage 5 – The Commitment Stage
This stage is also known as the Acceptance Phase, the Transformation Stage, or the Real Love Phase. It is estimated that fewer than 5% of couples actually make it to this stage, according to The Relationship Institute. This is the stage when both couples have a clear notion of who their partner is, faults, foibles and weaknesses galore… yet they make a conscious choice to be with this person in spite of all of those things (and in some cases, because of those things). You are no longer with your partner because you need them, but because you’ve chosen them, which means the level of resentment you felt in the Power Struggle Phase has decreased, if not disappeared. If you’ve made it to this stage, you and your partner are a team. You genuinely love your partner, and you look out for their best interests just as much as you look out for your own. Your partner is your best friend. There are few surprises about your partner’s habits or character in this phase.
You’ve collaborated to overcome many challenges together, and have grown to accept and support each other without restriction. Your vision for your relationship is in congruence with who you are and what you both truly want. You have discussed your future together – you have similar life goals, and you feel encouraged to define your relationship further. Many couples decide to make a formal or public commitment to each other in this stage (such as marriage) to demonstrate their intention to continue their relationship. This is the stage in which your relationship becomes a true partnership.