The Best Relationship Advice for Every Stage of Love
As mysterious as they can seem, relationships do tend to have a somewhat predictable progression over time, as we move towards commitment and long term partnership. Dr Susan Campbell studied hundreds of couples over several decades, and her ‘5 Stages of a Relationship’ is a useful way of looking at the ‘evolution’ of a relationship, and some of the common challenges we might face when deciding to share our life with someone. The 5 Stages of a Relationship described by Dr. Campbell are as follows:
- The romance stage
- The power struggle stage
- The stability stage
- The commitment stage
- The co-creation/blissful stage
Even if you haven’t studied relationship progression or relationship psychology, these stages surely sound familiar. Most everyone has heard of the romance stage, also known as the honeymoon phase of a young relationship. After this normally follows a reality-check of sorts as you recognize your partner is a real human being with faults and shortcomings like the rest of us. The following stages deal with the reconciliation of your infatuation and love for a person and the fact that they are imperfect.
1. Romance Stage
The romance stage is the first stage of any relationship. But, like we mentioned before, relationship stages are often not linear. So while the romance stage happens at the beginning of a relationship, relationships in other stages can revert back to the romance stage for a variety of different reasons. The romance stage is the stage that is often portrayed in movies or television shows and is most often referred to as the honeymoon phase. People in the romance stage are often infatuated with one another, completely head over heels for their new partner. While infatuation might feel like love in some ways, it is more similar to obsession or addiction than true love. During the romance stage you will experience a drug-like euphoria, and a literal addiction to being around our new partner. Yes, this stage is partly biological: our hormones are going wild and we are releasing oxytocin, the bonding hormone, whenever we are around our new partner. We become addicted to this release of oxytocin, which leads us to want to be around a new partner more and more.
In addition to the biological component, it is also just exhilarating to find someone who we like, and who likes us - and the excitement and fun of this can be intoxicating. We know this stage doesn’t usually last forever, in fact it is normally one of the shorter stages in every relationship. After all, everything can’t be totally rosy forever! While it’s easy to start to panic when the feeling of infatuation starts to fade, it’s important to remember that this is a sign that your relationship is progressing. Moving out of the romance stage will offer a great opportunity for bonding and getting close to your chosen one. While you are in the romance stage it is important to enjoy it and go with the carefree, yet intense flow of things, but it is also important to keep a good head on your shoulder so that your newfound attraction doesn’t prevent you from seeing red flags in a new relationship.
Here are some helpful tips to consider if you’re currently in the romance stage of a relationship:
Even if we’ve found our soulmate, we still have to keep the other parts of our lives moving along. Sometimes new and exciting relationships can cause us to lose focus or de-prioritize the other things in our lives, such as our health, work, friendships, hobbies and personal growth. It is really useful to remember that, when the romance stage is over - which will happen at some point - you will still need to go back to your normal life. Keeping in touch with friends, looking after ourselves with regular exercise and sleep, and staying focused at work will actually help make the relationship more harmonious, as you won’t be pouring all your time and energy into your new partner (as wonderful as that may feel).
Remember that no one likes a person that drops all of their friends as soon as they get a new boo! It’s important to maintain your friendships with your inner circle so that you have support throughout your relationship and so that friends can offer their perspective on your new relationship. It can be easy to overlook flaws or even glaring red flags (more on this to come) in a new relationship because you are so infatuated with your new partner. But while you may be blind to these flaws, your inner friends won’t be, and their input can help you keep perspective. Plus, it’s important to be there for you friends for their sake.
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There is a great saying which goes ‘When you’re looking at things through rose-colored glasses, red flags are just flags!’ This statement can explain a lot of relationships that we later look back on and wonder ‘What was I thinking?’ It is great to remember that in the romance stage of a relationship, we can be blind to the faults and red flags from prospective partners - all we know is that we want to be around them, all the time. In fact, in some situations we might even be more attracted to someone who is not right for us, or who might not be a great candidate for a long-term relationship. For example, some partners will bring a lot of emotional intensity into a relationship, which can be an intense bonding experience at first (they may tell you everything about themselves, create drama and intensity, and be very ‘all in’) - but over time, this can become exhausting and can stand in the way of actually getting to know each other properly.
If you’re in this stage with a partner, it can be helpful to take a moment to step back and examine what it is you like about them. Is it that they seem to be a good match in terms of values and personality? Or, is it that they are the exact opposite of your ex, or that you feel like they desperately need you? Talking about this with a friend to get some perspective is useful, since they are outside the ‘Romance Zone’ and can look at this with some objectivity. It’s also important to note that while intensity early on in a relationship can feel exciting and fresh, too much intensity early on can often foreshadow a tumultuous, abusive relationship.
Emotionally abusive people often use the tactic of ‘love bombing’ to disarm people early in a relationship and create a psychological dependency that can then lead to emotional abuse. No, most relationships that are intense in the romance stage do not turn abusive, but trust your gut if you feel like things are moving a little too quickly and too intensely early on. Love bombing is always a red flag, but it can sometimes be hard to discern from the initial intense connections that accompany health relationships in the romance stage.
Start Good Habits, Early
Most of the time in the early stages of a relationship, the last thing we want to do is have an awkward conversation or broach a difficult subject. Firstly, we aren’t that invested in the relationship and secondly, it might potentially bring things into a more serious and less fun territory. That said, it is a good idea to start a relationship as we hope to continue it - with clear, direct, respectful communication.
This might mean choosing a good moment to let them know about something you’re sensitive about, and setting expectations for how this might be managed in the relationship. It might involve having a discussion about values or dealbreakers early on, so that you’re aware of where the other one is. The reality is that these are conversations you will be having further on down the track, and setting the pace for an honest and reciprocal communication pattern is worth its weight in gold. Remember - this isn’t necessarily first-date conversation material, but more of something to consider as you get to know each other and enjoy the new dynamic unfolding.
The ability to be vulnerable at times and communicate about things that matter to you is crucial during the early stages of a relationship. This kind of thing is difficult for many people to do with close friends and family members, much less a new partner that makes them giddy and nervous. If you are uncomfortable about the idea of broaching touchy subjects out of the blue, it’s a great idea to consider setting up check-ins with your new partner so that you have a safe space to discuss your boundaries and your wants and needs in the relationship. Check-ins are a great tool that you can use to work through conflict or disagreements at any stage in the relationship, so getting comfortable with the concept of relationship check-ins during the romance stage isn’t a bad idea. Plus, if you think you are ready to take things to the next level, having mature conversations about your feelings will help communicate your intentions and seriousness to a partner.
The romance stage often ends somewhere between two months and two years - normally when one person perceives some kind of permanence to the relationship. But remember that permanence means different things to different people. Permanence might look like dating exclusively, moving in together, meeting the parents, getting engaged or married! Anything that moves from ‘no strings attached’ to something more serious. After the romance stage, you and your partner will typically move into the power struggle stage.
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2. Power Struggle Stage
Again, this stage might feel eerily familiar for some. The power struggle stage is where things start to get… real. Where we actually start to consider whether this person we are with is right for us, and what might be possible for us to change. During the power struggle stage, the rose-colored glasses have come off, and you start to see your partner as a person with flaws, baggage and annoying little quirks. Coming to this realization is why the power struggle stage is one of the hardest stages in any relationship.
Not only will you start to recognize your partner’s flaws, you may start to become self-conscious as you realize that your partner is also discovering your flaws in the same way. The power struggle stage is about vulnerability, patience, and the ability to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Sadly, for many couples who go through this stage, a break-up is the result. The feeling of disappointment and frustration is overwhelming, and they struggle to see their partner’s strengths and value amongst all of their flaws. Often one partner will try and make the other go back to how they were at the beginning of the relationship - not realizing that they are now a different person. Other times, people might be so overwhelmed by the reality of the relationship that they jump ship all together, not understanding that the romance stage can’t last forever.
During the power struggle phase, most couples go one of two ways: break up and start again (and potentially repeat the cycle again, since all relationships do eventually reach this stage), or survive the power struggle stage by learning to communicate effectively, giving up on hopes of perfect harmony, and embracing differences. This can be tough and can feel like a lot of work, but being able to get through to the other side can be a transformational experience. Since all relationships do go through this phase, it’s important to know what to expect, and how to prepare for the inevitable situations that arise.
Here are some tips to consider if you are currently in the power struggle stage:
Communication Is Everything
You’ve probably heard this many times, but if we aren’t able to communicate effectively with our partners, it is likely that the relationship is doomed. Rather than avoid all possible sources of conflict - which is impossible, anyway - we can instead plan for what is likely to come up, and consider how we might best communicate our needs in a clear and direct way. In this stage of the relationship, conflict is one of the dominant themes - so finding ways of having difficult conversations and looking after each other’s feelings in the process can be a valuable skill. Often this might involve being really honest about an issue or about how you’re feeling. Other times it’s important to be able to sit back and listen as your partner tells you something that you’re not ready to hear, or find upsetting. Strangely enough, good communication often involves figuring out what NOT to say, as well as what needs to be said - and the times that it might be best just to sit and listen.
Remember those check-ins we just talked about?! Check-ins are a great way to facilitate the kind of conversation that is necessary to survive the power struggle phase. Setting periodic check-ins (the frequency can be every couple weeks, every month, every few months, whatever feels best for you) can help you and your partner create a safe space to talk through your feelings and address things that have been on your mind. Checking in frequently in this way will help you resolve the kind of things that tend to build up over time in a proactive way, rather than letting small things boil over into an intense fight.
Most people find that by intentionally working on their communication, their relationship improves exponentially - since issues no longer get avoided or buried under the carpet, but are instead approached directly and maturely. This gives them the best possible chance of resolution, and you can move forward in the relationship with both partners feeling like their needs have been met.
Don’t Run From Conflict
Sometimes we might find ourselves worrying about conflict in our relationship. We might have that old-fashioned notion that relationships should be harmonious all the time, and that conflict or disagreement is a sign that our partners aren’t right for us, or that there are serious issues in the relationship. The reality is that conflict is part of a healthy relationship, and often it comes down to how we deal with those arguments that determines how healthy the relationship is (see the point about communication above!). With that in mind, consider some of the conflicts or challenges that have come up in your relationship so far. What has been the common theme? Have you approached conflict with a sense of dread and anxiety, wishing it didn’t exist or that you didn’t have to deal with it? It might be useful to take a slightly different approach and look at these experiences of conflict or disagreement as inevitable, and actually as opportunities for you to grow as a couple. Most of the time, unless it is a major dealbreaker, conflict can be resolved and a negotiation can be reached where both sides have their needs met. In addition to this, going through the process of talking about the issue and exploring both sides means that you’ll likely feel closer as a couple, and more like you are a team.
While it’s important to recognize that conflict is a natural part of every relationship, it’s also important to know what topics are even worthy of conflict. Some people hear that ‘conflict is natural’ and take this as a reason to nitpick their partner over every little thing, or turn a minor disagreement into a full blown argument. This is not at all what we mean. It’s important to embrace conflict when you and your partner are at an impasse; if one of your feelings gets hurt, or if your boundaries are not being respected. It’s so important to choose your battles as a couple, and understand that some things simply do not need to be fought about.
Sure, the way your partner flicks through the TV channels instead of settling on one might drive you up the wall, but that is not necessarily something you need to have a conflict about. Or yeah, maybe you hate that they let their laundry pile up for weeks before attending to it (that’s definitely annoying), but not something that you need to call your partner out on, unless it develops into a larger issue. Understanding the necessity of conflict, and being clear about what to have conflict over are two different things that you need to take into account when dealing with conflict in the power struggle stage of your relationship.
Often, part of getting through this stage is actually accepting that our partners are not perfect or exactly how we want them to be… but that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be in a relationship with them. We are taught by movies and TV shows that soulmates are people who never upset or disappoint each other, and so when we find ourselves unhappy or discontented in our relationships, we can mistakenly believe that it is time to move on.
This represents a missed opportunity, however, to work together to change whatever needs to change, and find ways of accommodating and accepting each other. Many couples find that when they go through the process of working on their relationship, they come out the other side much happier and stronger than they were before. They’re no longer stressed and focusing on their partner’s flaws, but rather more aware of their strengths and the ways that they can work together in an imperfect, but happy, relationship.
This goes back to what we were saying about conflict. Rather than looking for reasons to start a fight with your partner, try to accept their oddities and quirks. Everyone has them, so if you are able to see eye-to-eye on the bigger issues than that is ultimately more important than the little things that drive you batty.
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3. Stability Stage
Once we’ve gotten through the tumultuous nature of the power struggle stage, there can be a period of relative calm and stability. we have re-negotiated dynamics (whether this has happened naturally or intentionally), and are now adjusting to life with the acceptance that we can’t change our partner, and that this is okay - with clear boundaries and mutual respect, a fulfilling relationship is still possible.
In fact, for those who have successfully worked through the power struggle stage, they might even find a sense of love and intimacy similar to the romance stage - where there is a re-discovery of all the positive attributes of their partner. If you’re in this stage in your relationship, well done for getting through the power struggle stage! While most couples are happy to be out of the power struggle stage, others find that they miss the combative, fiery nature of the conflicts. For those types, the stability stage isn’t a return to the romance stage, but rather a defeating stage that feels stale and causes them to fear for the rest of the relationship.
Everyone views stability in a different light, so whether you welcome it with open arms after the previously tumultuous chapter of your relationship, or whether you fear that things have gotten blah, you can consider these tips to help you navigate through the stability stage of the relationship.
Keep It Fresh
Some couples might be so relieved to have moved on from the tumultuous power struggle stage that they may lapse into something like boredom and complacency: most things are worked through, there is no more drama and little conflict, and life has settled down. While it is important to enjoy and celebrate a return to stability, it is also useful to remember that relationships thrive on change and energy, and changing things up every once in a while can make a big difference. This might look like having a weekly date night where you try new activities and cuisines, or making it a goal to do at least one new activity a week that challenges you and takes you out of your comfort zone. This may mean planning a vacation or moving to a new city to change things up.
Even though this stage is characterized by stability, it is still possible to keep things interesting and get out of your comfort zone. Relationships are often a struggle between intimacy and autonomy, and we need to remember that however nice stability is, there is always a benefit to changing things up and getting out of our comfort zones (even for a couple of hours per week!). While it may feel prescribed to have a date night every week, getting out of your normal routine can really do wonders for the state of your relationship. If you and your partner aren’t big into planning, it can be important to maintain your spontaneity during the stability stage.
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Just like communication, boundaries are a bit of a buzzword in relationship coaching. That said, there is a reason for this! Boundaries protect both ourselves and others. Long-term relationships can test our boundaries since, the closer we get to someone, the lower our threshold for closeness becomes. We might find it hard to maintain or enforce boundaries with someone we are spending most of our time with. Some people might have the belief that you shouldn’t have boundaries with those you love or those who are the closest to you - but actually, boundaries can be something that protect and nurture relationships. The stability stage is a period of re-calibration and settling after the difficult power struggle stage, so it can be tempting to let go of boundaries somewhat - but this is a time that they are needed more than ever. This might involve discussing with your partner about what boundaries might be useful for them in the relationship, and your own needs around this. Here is yet another plug for establishing relationship check-ins!
Check-ins are a great platform to talk about how your boundaries are changing over the course of your relationship. Boundaries are fluid and it’s totally necessary to have discussions about them many times over the course of your relationship. Once good boundaries are established, it means that expectations have been clearly set and misunderstandings will be less likely. It also means that this issue can be raised again in the future as needed, and put into place once again.
Have you heard how damaging contempt is to a relationship? Contempt is an expression of disgust, or even hatred, that comes from a partner who is likely frustrated and angry at a long-held dynamic or pattern within their relationship. Often, contempt is the most instinctive way of expressing pent-up anger or annoyance. Contempt is demonstrated when partners act coldly to their significant others, treat them with disdain, and generally disregard them as people.
It is possible to come back from this in relationships, but it’s not easy - and so we need to make sure that we practice respect before we get to this stage. Respect may not be something that is talked about as much as communication or boundaries in relationships, but it is of key importance when considering how we learn to live with someone else in our lives. Mutual respect refers to being able to appreciate our partner’s approach to things, and their choices, decisions and behaviors, even if it doesn’t correspond with our own.
Developing mutual respect means that both partners acknowledge that their significant other has to make their own choices in life, and that they accept this as part of being in a relationship with them. When relationships aren’t going well, we can forget how important this is, and perhaps even demean or criticize our partners. We forget that, just like we deserve respect and understanding from our loved ones, so do they.
Often, respect can be hard to hold onto when we’re hurt or angry with our partners, so a good rule of thumb is to consider how we might like to be treated, and go from there. It’s also important to consider how intertwined respect and trust are. If you and your partner are not respectful, you risk damaging the trust that you have established in your relationship. Trust is an ESSENTIAL part of communication, and I’m sure we don’t need to remind you how important communication is in a relationship. Breaking trust in a relationship is one of the number one reasons that couples break up, so focusing on respecting your partner and their boundaries is essential to surviving the stability stage and moving forward as a couple.
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4. Commitment Stage
This stage doesn’t necessarily have to do with marriage or having children. Rather, it is the stage a couple gets to where they ‘choose’ each other. They’ve worked through those questions and dilemmas around whether their partner can change, and how to navigate conflict, and whether it is worth it to stay in the relationship - and have arrived at the place where they make a full commitment to the other person, despite each other’s imperfections.
Strangely enough, this can be really liberating, and relationship experts say that this is generally when people should get married (most people get married in the romance stage, where they may not yet be aware of the complexities that lie ahead). But marriage is not necessary to show your total commitment to your partner. Many couples these days are skipping over the traditional marriage concept, and instead just agreeing to be life partners or common law spouses. Regardless of how you decide to show your commitment to one another, experts describe this stage as fun, empowering, freeing and exciting. The couple has gone on this journey together and has come out the other side, both changed and both with a new appreciation for their partner - as well as a feeling of being loved in a new way.
If you’re in the commitment stage of your relationship, some tips to consider might be:
Prioritize Personal Space
As wonderful as it might be to have reached the summit of couple goals, sometimes we can forget how important personal space and outside relationships are. Romantic relationships need oxygen and sometimes we might not even notice ourselves becoming codependent or choosing each other’s company over others - until suddenly the relationship feels restrictive and suffocating. Well-being experts discuss the idea of life satisfaction as involving a balance of meaningful work, good relationships (romantic and platonic) and participation in a community, amongst other things. Being able to go off and form other friendships and relationships, with the security of a loved one at home, can be empowering and exciting.
Like we talked about during the romance stage, it’s important to maintain your support system throughout the entirety of your relationship. Variety is the spice of life so maintaining platonic and familial relationships in addition to your romantic relationship will help you maintain a necessary balance to keep the relationship long lasting. Being involved in meaningful work and having connections to social groups, as well as participating in a community, adds to our life satisfaction and improves our relationship as well - since we are likely to be energized, satisfied and content.
We can sometimes arrive at this stage of the relationship feeling like, just like with scaling Everest, that the hard work is behind us. Actually, a relationship is more like making bread than scaling a mountain. It needs to be re-made every day, and can’t be left to sit there. As long as our outside world is changing, our relationships will change, and it is likely that there will still be stages of conflict, disappointment, loneliness and frustration during the commitment stage of the relationship - just hopefully less!
For couples who have reached this stage, good communication and open discussion of issues as they come up is possible, and likely. Having some time each week or month (cough, cough, having a check-in) to reflect on how you are both going in the relationship, and any issues that are coming up, means that things can get addressed as they arise - rather than boiling over at a later date. Just because you are in the commitment stage does not mean that you are done investing time and energy into your relationship.
Your relationship should still remain a priority in your life, and you should still be working to actively improve your relationship with your partner. Even if you feel like your relationship could not become any more perfect, it’s important to look for new ways to deepen your connection to your partner so that you are both still excited about being together.
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5. Co-Creation/Bliss Stage
This is the stage where you… have arrived. It’s the pinnacle of what we might expect from a long-term, committed relationship. The best way to describe this stage is that your relationship - whatever it looks like - helps you to go out into the world and create something with your partner that makes a meaningful difference. You’ve negotiated your differences, come to terms with imperfection and disappointments, and are able to give back to society in some way. This might look like raising children together in a conscious way, creating a community project, or being of service to others.
Whatever it is, the focus has shifted away from the individuals and the relationship, and towards the broader community. This is a great stage to be in, and if you’re in this stage it is useful to reflect on how you got here, and the things that helped you to move through the stages to get to where you are. People do describe this as a journey, and it’s not hard to see why! To get to this stage, we actually need to go through the other stages first… there is no express train straight to relationship bliss.
Additionally, the advice given in the commitment stage also stands. Even though you’ve ‘arrived’ at this valued stage, it is important not to fall into complacency and think that there is no more work to be done. There is always work! Luckily you have journeyed through this together, so all the groundwork is done - you have an awareness of each other’s needs and vulnerabilities, as well as a good sense of values and dreams - so it is not going to feel like starting from scratch. There can also be the danger of focusing so much on external projects (now that the focus has been shifted) that the relationship takes a back seat - so again, regular check-ins and open discussion can help to recalibrate the dynamic between the two of you.
That's it! There are no more stages, if you can believe it! Of course, not all our relationships will fit perfectly into this model, but it is a useful framework for understanding some of the common challenges that exist when we invite someone into our lives. If you take anything from this article, it is hopefully this: part of moving forward in a relationship is accepting the flaws and imperfections in our partner - and once we’ve achieved this (and they have achieved it, for us), then things can progress and get better and better.
This is good to remember, since often we can really buy into the idea that the ‘perfect’ person is out there for us, if only we look long and hard enough. This may be true, but it is also true that a lot of joy and satisfaction comes from accepting our partners as they are, and finding a way of working together to form a respectful, caring, and loving relationship.
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