What makes relationships so fascinating is that there are always going to be twists and turns, problems and solutions, highs and lows. Because of this, there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to marriage or relationship success.
Knowing the stages of a relationship can help you prepare to deal with disconnection when it arises and give you comfort in knowing that you aren’t alone. These stages are present in every relationship, and everyone goes through them sooner or later. According to Ellyn Bader from the Couples Institute, it’s necessary to recognize what stage you’re in order to get achieve the mature, comfortable relationship you’re seeking.
Stage 1: Honeymoon Phase
Whether you’re married or not, the honeymoon phase is used to describe that first blissful feeling you have with your partner when you start a new relationship. Your partner can do no wrong and even though you might see each other’s faults, you don’t care…they’re perfect in your eyes. Your lives are starting to merge as you go from “I” to “we”. You can’t stop thinking about each other. The passion’s alive and you can hardly stand to be apart.
I equate this to running a 3-legged race. You and your partner are inseparable. Everything seems funny and happy and you feel more alive than you have in a long time.
Stage 2: Emerging Differences
Of all the stages of a relationship, this one tends to be the hardest. Over time, you notice differences in your personalities, needs, and interests. Though it’s perfectly normal for your relationship to evolve in different directions, you start wondering what’s happened to the relationship. You might find yourself wondering, “Are we growing apart?” “Why are our feelings changing?”
Disappointment is common in this stage. Couples start to see their partner for who they are, versus who they thought they were. Partners may try to change the other which shows up as bickering, blame, and sulking.
It’s important to understand the stages of a relationship and where you are so that you can learn how to manage these differences effectively and it doesn’t get in the way of enjoying time together—and loving each other more than ever before. It’s also important to not only embrace differences but also invite them.
So, it’s at this stage and the next that couples are encouraged to seek marriage counseling or therapy if they feel there is a problem with their relationship. It might sound crazy to start thinking about going to counseling when you’ve just gotten out of an argument, but it’s actually a smart move because if problems are not worked out early in your relationship, they will become harder and harder to deal with as time goes on. Once arguments become more intense and common, things can really spiral downward.
It’s also important to think about taking some time away from each other. It can be difficult to remember what you like about each other when you’re together every single day, and just as it’s important to spend time with your friends and family on your own sometimes, it’s good for relationships too. Whether it’s going out with friends or joining some sort of group, do something that gets you interacting with people apart from your significant other. Remembering what made you attractive to each other in the first place can be tricky when you don’t have that fresh-faced infatuation clouding up your judgment!
Stage 3: Exploring Identities
As relationships grow and change, it’s not uncommon for one or both partners to develop a stronger sense of self—independently. Some psychologists call it differentiation — defined as an individual’s ability to think, feel, behave and relate in ways that are appropriate to his or her own needs and interests.
This stage is kind of the moment of truth because it can be really confusing as couples tend to get into many power struggles. It tends to be a time of negotiation.
We often see differentiation at work with couples who seek out marriage counseling or therapy; they’ve begun experiencing tension in their relationship due to different wants and needs. As partners begin taking more responsibility for their own life goals and decisions, they naturally develop a stronger sense of identity. While there’s nothing wrong with developing your own identity, making choices that are right for you doesn’t always coincide with what’s best for your partner.
One example of how couples’ separate interests can clash occurred during an early session with a client named Tom and his wife, Sarah. Tom and Sarah had been married for 15 years, but they’d grown apart in recent years — their different social circles were pulling them away from each other.
The tension started to get worse when Sarah decided to take up running as a hobby. She was training for her first marathon and told Tom that she wouldn’t be able to attend his work parties anymore because she would need to wake up early every day to run before work. This bothered Tom because he felt like it put an undue burden on him — he was beginning to resent all of these other demands on his time from family, friends, and now from his wife’s new hobby.
Stage 4: Reconnecting
This is my favorite of the stages of a relationship. Couples have their own interests and can accept that and even be excited for their partner. But there’s also enough time and space for the couples to be excited about things together. They’re able to have their shared interests and their rituals of connection that keep them in sync. If they feel threatened by any part of their partner’s identity, they’re able to bring it up and talk about their feelings.
Intimacy deepens at this stage and couples can respond to their differences with humor and understanding. Individuals are less needy of each other and independence isn’t threatening.
Stage 5: Acceptance
In the stages of a relationship, this is the one where you really start to feel strong together and strong apart. You feel comfortable branching out into the world and taking risks because you have a safety net, a strong attachment to your partner that always feels like a safe place to land.
Couples in this stage have their struggles, but they have warm regard toward their partner and communicate with respect, love, appreciation, and understanding. They are able to respond versus react when they get upset. The relationship is mutually satisfying and is built upon trust, understanding, and acceptance.
Love isn’t always easy and relationships aren’t perfect—and that is normal. Knowing the stages of a relationship can help you understand what you might expect. It’s important to remember that things don’t always fall into place; people make mistakes; feelings get hurt; and expectations will sometimes clash. It doesn’t mean you should give up on your relationship or that you have a doomed-to-fail relationship—it just means it may take time to get through some things together as a couple. When you can work through these experiences with someone, they will likely make your relationship stronger than before.
What can you do to help accept those differences in your relationship? For starters, remind yourself that relationships aren’t perfect. What does that mean? Well, maybe it means not expecting everything to go perfectly all the time—or at least, giving one another space for mistakes and faults. Or maybe it means understanding that you and your partner are two different people with two different sets of likes and dislikes. Accepting each other’s individuality is also key to ensuring lasting happiness in a relationship.
A qualified marriage counselor can help you with the stages of a relationship so you can have a better understanding of where you are as a couple. It’s important to know that couples can be in any of the stages for years, but that the goal is to get to a mature relationship with love, respect, acceptance, and understanding.