Are you and your sweetie destined for a lifetime together? Are you sure in your mind that it’ll be “death do us part” or is your attitude more like “time will tell?” Most of us are not blessed with being able to see into the future, but identifying the milestones or stages of a relationship can be a good indicator of whether you and your beloved will stay the course and live happily ever after together.
Here are some relationship stages that you can expect to experience from that first moment of infatuation and – if you get that far – to sitting in your rocking chairs, hand in hand, looking out at your 20,000th sunset.
The Romance Stage
You’ve heard about those love hormones that your brain releases to get your heart going pitter-patter and igniting the fires of desire and joy when you’re with that special person. It’s the exhilarating emotional and physical state that accompanies falling in love. Enjoy it while it lasts. Not to deliberately burst your bubble, you’re seeing your sweetheart and the world around you through a beautiful lens that makes everything seem fresh, alive, and exciting – especially the person who has captured your heart and most of your thoughts.
Eventually – anywhere from a few months to a couple years in general – the lens comes off, blinders are removed, and the world refocuses into normality. If you made it past the infatuation stage, you have the makings for a good relationship. Things look encouraging. This could be lasting love.
The Back-to-Normal Stage
The love hormones are wearing off. And it’s a good thing too, as being in that heightened altered state consumes a lot of energy. You’re back to your normal self. It’s time for a reality check. You take a look around and see that your sweetie isn’t the center of your universe – just a very important part of it. You return to getting involved with your daily routine: work, other responsibilities, your friends and family. If this returned reality comes as a shock and disappointment, you may be trying to hold on to some unrealistic expectations. Was it all a dream? Have you fallen out of love? Have you been a victim of mind control or a witch’s spell? Did love potion #9 wear off? Are you finding that some “me time” is a welcome change from being “joined at the hip”? Or are you a little upset or disappointed that your sweetie wants to watch Monday Night Football instead of curling up with you by the fire so you can stare into each other’s eyes?
The Doubt Stage
I also like to call this the “make it or break it” stage. You begin noticing that your partner has flaws. That once cute little mannerism of his (hers) now kind of gets on your nerves. Doubt creeps in. You might start to question your judgment, your ability to select the right mate for you. Maybe you feel like you took the leap too soon, settled, or that the person before you now isn’t the same one over whom you fell head over heels. You might feel resentment. You might pick fights with your partner, blaming them for doing or not doing what you expect of them or that they are not meeting certain needs – realistic or unrealistic.
The challenge in this stage is to create a balance between your autonomy and the “you” in your relationship. Can you do that without destroying the connection between you? This is the time to have discussions with your partner, confront them with any concerns, resolve conflicts and misunderstandings, and express what’s important to you in a relationship.
Hopefully, you will do this in a loving and kind manner. With mutual support and guidance, your relationship can grow from the work you do in this stage, which can last for years. The willingness to grow is crucial. In my experience, most first-marriage divorces happen during this stage, roughly around years 3 to 5.
The Clarity Stage
You’ve begun to understand your partner better now. The clarity stage has a lot of give and take, as each partner tries to change and be changed by their mate. Both partners recognize and accept each other for who they are. They work at avoiding misunderstandings and can do so better because they understand each other better than ever before. While doing so, it’s important to emphasize the positives and not dwell on the negatives.
Couples in this stage will better define and clarifying their roles, commitment, and compatibility. They will explore the needs not only of themselves but of their partner. They may need to make some decisions on how much time each feels comfortable spending time together and apart, how each likes to express and receive love and attention.
Good communication is essential here. Be sure your partner understands that satisfying the needs of one another will strengthen the relationship, even if it means you want more “space” or he likes to devote a night every now and then with “the guys.” Avoid game-playing, manipulating, coercing, and other unhealthy behaviors like withdrawing, being defensive, avoiding your partner, criticizing them. Be forgiving, understanding, accepting, compassionate, and patient.
The Stability Stage
The thrill of being in love can make a comeback once you’ve successfully completed the clarity stage. What’s different is that the love seems deeper, more mature. You have internalized an acceptance about one another. You have accepted that your partner does not and cannot satisfy every one of your needs and you have given up the desire to change them. That reigniting of the love spark comes not from infatuation and newness but the realization that it’s ok – and even more than ok – that your partner and you have differences in attitudes and beliefs … that you respond differently in various situations. You are establishing clear boundaries and learning mutual respect.
The Commitment Stage
As you grow deeper in commitment and connection you learn to value the fellowship of the relationship. You like this person as your best friend and confidant as well as your lover.
You better understand them. You know the good and the bad and still choose freely to be life partners. Your love is balanced. There’s a freedom attached to your love because you know they are not the moon and the stars and you can get along just fine without them if you had to. You know in your heart they are someone you truly want to spend the rest of your life with.
The Questioning Stage
The commitment stage isn’t the end of your work in this partnership – and thinking so could be a trap. After many years of being together, doubts may start to creep in. Temptations may present themselves. That “grass is greener” syndrome might drive a wedge between your connection and intimacy.
You might start comparing your partner with other relationships you see around you; those of your friends perhaps or even thoughts of previous partners may set you to questioning. You may never have considered yourself the jealous type, but little signs that may be imagined might give rise to suspicions that your partner is having an affair.
Maybe some unhappiness or condition in your own life is causing some insecurity. Maybe you put on a few pounds, found a few more gray hairs. Maybe you feel you’re being taken for granted. You might be unhappy and are projecting that unhappiness on your partner. Maybe your desire for sex has changed or you notice a change in your partner’s sex drive.
One of you may become disinterested or overly interested in sex. Maybe there’s a physiological reason for the change? Regardless, the change may make you question the reason. Maybe you or your partner simply want to reignite those early sexual feelings and want to engage in more creative ways to make your sex life more exciting? At this stage in your relationship, you understand that a renewed interest in sex isn’t a superficial one. It strengthens the emotional bond between you.
The Trust and Contentment Stage
You have become two people who work as a team as you experience the world together. You know that your relationship is strong and that you are both happy with one another and know what to expect of one another.
Sometimes you’re in the driver’s seat and sometimes they are. Your love and trust for each other have blossomed like aged wine. You feel safe and secure, but know to avoid that trap of taking the other for granted. You know that your relationship doesn’t progress along linear lines and that if you take your eye off the ball you could backtrack to issues you thought were once resolved.
You don’t stop appreciating each other. You don’t take that lightly and you let the other know that regularly. You have both come to know that love, at all stages, must be nurtured. You don’t stop looking for ways to keep your love fresh and vibrant.
Mature Love Stage
Give yourself a gold metal. If you both feel you’ve reached the milestone of mature love, you have also reached individual personal milestones. Your love has matured into an unselfish desire to want to help your partner fulfill their full potential – whatever that might be in relation to you or not. Personal and spiritual growth is occurring within both of you. Your unconditional love has turned you into someone with altruistic qualities that are not only directed at your beloved but to the world outside both of you.
As best you can, you retain the lessons you learned at each relationship stage and carry them forward. The stages are not set in stone. They are fluid. Some bleed through to other earlier or later stages. No matter where you are in your relationship, you understand that the stages are guidelines you can use to mark your progress, not check off like items on a shopping list.
Expect the elements of the stages to bob and weave throughout your psyche. Don’t beat yourself up if you make the same mistakes more than once or twice and don’t blame your partner either. Strive for understanding, communication, forgiveness, love. It’s an ongoing process. There are no shortcuts to love that lasts a lifetime.