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. We’ve put together a summary of each stage, as well as some tips that will help you to move forward through the stages, rather than getting stuck. As you read through these stages, take some time to reflect on your own relationship history - is there a stage that you might get stuck in? Are there relationships that might have suffered because neither of you could compromise or move onto the next stage? Are there some relationships that might have struggled if you’d reached the final stages?
This is the stage that we often see in movies or television shows - infatuation, 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 them - but it is also 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 - and can sometimes panic if we start to feel less of that infatuation - but it is a great opportunity for bonding and getting close to your chosen one. Some tips if you’re currently in this stage are:
Even if we’ve found our soulmate, we still have to keep the rest of our lives ticking along. Sometimes new and exciting relationships can cause us to lose focus from the other things in our lives, such as our health, work, friendships, hobbies and personal growth. It is really useful to remember that, when this 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).
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There is a great saying which goes ‘When you’re looking at things through rose coloured 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.
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 and 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 as you get to know each other and enjoy the new dynamic unfolding, being able to be vulnerable at times and communicate about things that matter to you.
The Romance stage often ends somewhere between two months and two years - normally when one person perceives some kind of permanence to the relationship. This 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.
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Power Struggle Stage
Again, this stage might feel eerily familiar for some. This 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. For many couples who go through this stage, 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 realising that they are now a different person. 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 kindly, give up on hopes of perfect harmony, and embrace difference. This can be tough and feel like a lot of work, but being able to get through to the other side can be a transformational experience.
Some tips if you’re currently in this stage are:
Communication is key!
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 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, or being able to sit back and listen as your partner tells you something that you’re not ready to hear, or find upsetting. Strangely enough, but often good communication involves figuring out what NOT to say, as well as what needs to be said - and the times that we might do best just to sit and listen to what our partner has to say.
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.
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Conflict is Healthy
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 the conflict 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 have these been? Have you approached them with a sense of dread and anxiety, wishing they didn’t exist or that you didn’t have to deal with them? 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.
Often, part of getting through the problem solving stage is actually accepting that our partners are not perfect or exactly how we want them to be - and that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be in a relationship with them. We are taught by movies and TV shows about soulmates who never upset or disappoint each other, and who have fairytale relationships - and so when we find ourselves unhappy or discontented in our relationships, we can 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, that 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 aware of their strengths and the way that they can work together in an imperfect, but happy, relationship.
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Once we’ve gotten through the tumultuous Problem Solving 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 Problem Solving stage! Some tips that might be useful are:
Keep it Fresh
Some couples might be so relieved to have moved on from the tumultuous Problem Solving stage that they may lapse 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. 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.
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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, and 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, good boundaries can be something that protect and nurture relationships. The Stability stage is a period of re-calibration and settling after the difficult Problem Solving 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. Once good boundaries are established, it means that expectations have been clearly set and misunderstandings will be less likely. It also means that this 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? This 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 this, and we see it 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 not easy - and so we need to make sure that we practice respect and care 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 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 demenan or criticize our partners - forgetting 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.
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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). Experts describe this stage as fun, empowering, freeing and exciting, since 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 this stage of your relationship, some tips to consider might be:
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. Wellbeing 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. 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 energised, 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 done. Unfortunately, a relationship is more like bread - 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 - just hopefully less! For couples who have reached this stage, hopefully good communication and open discussion of issues as they come up is possible. Having some time each week or month 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.
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This stage of the relationship is actual couple goals - 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 helping 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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