The Stages of a Relationship (and the Purposes They Serve)

Couple holding hands in cafeMany people believe that if you meet the right person and fall in love, you are meant to be with this person. That there won’t be anything you will ever want to change about them. That it should just work out.

There may be couples who do not struggle, but after over 40 years as a marriage counselor, I recognize that is rarely the case. If only it were easy, we would not have so many divorces or so many conflicts driving couples to counseling. Most people would agree that marriages and long-term relationships are hard work. There are many who resign themselves to sticking it out, thinking they can learn to live with, accept, and endure whatever arises, even though they may be miserable. That is not what most of us want. If we understood that there are stages to relationships and things we can do to make them better, more might work harder to make them last.

Stage 1: Romantic Love

The theory of Imago relationship therapy explains that we tend to attract and be attracted to people who feel familiar. Romance happens unconsciously. At the time, we may not be consciously aware of how a person is like our childhood caretakers. We just experience the attraction and feel the chemistry. We discover all the things we have in common and minimize, if we even notice, the differences we have. We can’t take our hands off each other. We finish each other’s sentences. We merge with each other. It all seems amazing. We feel that this is the one person who will meet the unmet needs of childhood, but we are not consciously aware of feeling this. This stage is also referred to as the unconscious partnership.

Powerful neurochemicals fuel this early stage, the main one being oxytocin. These neurochemicals produce feelings of attachment and connection, a sense of well-being and belonging. Oxytocin is produced by mothers when nursing their babies. This phase can last anywhere from three months to two years before this “drug” begins to wear off.

The purpose of this stage is to form a bond that provides a secure foundation for the journey forward.

Stage 2: Power Struggle

At the beginning of a relationship, we generally do not see the things that will annoy us as the relationship progresses into the second stage. In the second stage, you start noticing each other’s differences. He likes to spend all Sunday afternoon in the fall watching football; you don’t. You have emotional needs; your partner has different wants and needs. You like to cuddle; your partner doesn’t want physical closeness.

You may find you feel frustrated in a similar way to your disappointments in childhood. Some of us are wounded and abused to the point of trauma, whereas others have minor hurts and disappointments—but none of us escapes childhood unscathed.

In this stage, you may try to deny these differences in order to preserve the bliss of the first stage, or you may begin squabbling, trying to get back to the oneness that you previously experienced. The relationship may feel like a lose-win or win-lose. It may be experienced as competitive as to who is going to get his or her way.

Many at this stage say it doesn’t feel like love. But if we care about a partner and the relationship, we become aware that love is more than a feeling—it is a behavior, a commitment to stay with your partner and do the work. As long as both are committed to the relationship and doing the work, a relationship can grow.

Most couples who go to marriage counseling have entered this stage. They feel stuck and don’t know what to do. There are also many who, at this stage, give up and separate or divorce.

The purpose of this stage is to learn the skills and tools to resolve differences without losing yourself.

Stage 3: Mature Love

Assuming that both parties are committed to growth and value the relationship, we can now explore what it is like to be in a long-term, conscious relationship. We are now aware that, together, we can heal our childhood wounds. We have learned the skills and tools of dialogue so that we can listen and hear each other. We understand that we have differences and how those differences make sense. We have compassion for our partner. We are less reactive and more intentional. We communicate our wants and needs more clearly. We allow ourselves to be influenced by our partner without losing ourselves because we care about his or her happiness. We recognize that to have a healthy, happy relationship, we both need to experience a sense of well-being. It becomes a win-win.

The purpose of this stage is to enjoy each other and feel the intimacy of connection with someone who gets you. We do this by using the skills and tools learned in the second stage when challenges arise.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Marian Stansbury, PhD, therapist in Milford, Connecticut

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Kris K.

    Kris K.

    October 15th, 2014 at 1:42 PM

    When we search for love we don’t happen to find it however we know when we are not looking for it, it surrounds us. The complexity of interacting with a partner can sometimes be a work in progress however the commitment from both parties has to be visible in order to share in communication that is best effective for the growth of the relationship. When we move toward an open forum of humble effective communicating skill traits, not only is our personal guard down but the validity in our expression grows with us in our partnership that we share. The underlying issues that were once daughting to us as individuals are no longer person debates however nurtured emotions that are cared for with compassion with our partners. These steps forward are a spiritual enlightens that we share collectively and in-turn heightens our senses with our partner. Making for more cherish times well spent together and altering the mood that seems to fade as a trial and tribulation of the past that no longer sees to exsist.

  • Harry S

    Harry S

    October 16th, 2014 at 6:24 PM

    I’ve been with my loving wife for 19 years. We have had our ups and our downs. However in the end I reflect back on something our pastor told us was key to a long relationship. “It is not your responsibility to make sure your partner is happy, it is their responsibility.” At first it seems very counterintuitive. But on closer study it doesn’t mean it is only about you, but that the partner has a responsibility to make sure that the relationship and even their mental health is taken care for in the relationship.

  • Karen P.

    Karen P.

    October 17th, 2014 at 1:25 PM

    Marian, thank you for this clarifying article on the stages of relationships. I find in my work with couples that they are often stuck in the power struggle stage, and just can’t see that they will get beyond it to the mature stage. I’ve “shared” on my professional web page, and personal FB page. Great info!

  • Elizabeth

    Elizabeth

    October 17th, 2014 at 2:04 PM

    How can I work with my partner on communication. He gets defensive when I try to talk about how I feel. He doesn’t express emotions very well, and his love language is hard for me to understand some times. Is there any articles I can read on ways to try to open up with me?

  • Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    October 18th, 2014 at 7:00 AM

    Karen thank you for the compliment and sharing the article. I also find most couples come in for counseling when they are in the power struggle. In the first stage everything seems so blissful they don’t think they need counseling.

    Elizabeth – see the article I wrote on Couples Communication at: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/couples-communication-three-steps-to-connection-0611144

  • Randee

    Randee

    October 18th, 2014 at 2:19 PM

    I love stage 3 and ould never ever want to have to go back to 1 and 2. Yeah 1 is great and all but you know that this is not going to last foreverand that there are always those yuck times that come after it. I enjoy the relationship and the point where we are right now, where we do have to work at it but there is a maturity and an understanding there that hasn’t always been and I have to say that I enjoy that even more than the butterflies of stage 1.

  • Linda

    Linda

    October 18th, 2014 at 6:37 PM

    Thank you for your concise descriptions. I will have my struggling couples read your article.

  • Christine C.

    Christine C.

    October 19th, 2014 at 11:48 AM

    This article is exactly what I see in the couples who come to see me. Learning to accept the other person as they are, and to work on one’s own weaknesses, is one of the most important gifts marriage has to offer. If people could know that it is well worth the work, maybe more couples would stay together

  • jillian

    jillian

    October 20th, 2014 at 3:57 PM

    There are some couples who never make it out of that puppy love stage, they are afraid of the struggle that will occur and therefore they never really have that mature and lasting sort of love that is necessary to build a meaningful relationship for years to come. I think that when you miss out on any one of those steps then that is just denying yourself something that should come with time, but instead you don’t allow yourself to have that because you become afraid of getting past that hurdle in the middle

  • Louise

    Louise

    October 27th, 2014 at 2:39 AM

    Very helpful. I like the time frame referred to in Stage One. Just celebrated our first year together. I do not feel the effects from Stage Two yet but after reading this article I can understand better what to expect and how to address this Stage :)

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