The Five Stages of Long Term Relationships
Recently, Kristen and I decided to start seeking couples therapy. After two and a quarter years together, we were starting to notice some patterns emerging, and some deeply held beliefs or tendencies which are butting up against each other, often causing one or both of us a lot of pain or heartache. When we stopped butting heads enough to recognize what we were doing, we agreed we should see somebody, to get a third person’s guidance and opinions on how to untangle the mess and to have assistance building something, slowly and intentionally, together.
In the first meeting, the therapist mentioned the stages of a relationship, first by saying, “What stage do you think you are in?” and later by reflecting back to us that she thinks (and I agree) we are in a conflict stage\’which is completely normal, after two plus years, in the development of a long-term partnership. I have read many books on relationships and taken some relationship classes, so it kind of surprised me that I’m not more familiar with these relationship stage theories. So I did what any Internet-savvy writer would do: I spent half a day looking up articles on relationship stages.
I think most of us can pretty easily identify the Honeymoon phase, or the NRE (new relationship energy) phase, which is pretty commonly discussed in my world anyway. It’s clear Kristen and I are past that … though to be honest, I feel a little sad about that, even just writing down that we’re no longer in it, I don’t want to admit that, to myself or to you, I’d rather be one of those couples that says, “The honeymoon never ended,” and be all blissful and gooey eyed at each other. I think I am grieving for that loss a little. We stayed there for a long time, certainly longer than I’ve ever been in it before, and we even were able to get back into that blissful wrapped-up-in-each-other feeling for a good year and a half into our relationship, maybe even a little longer.
Some of the articles I read have four stages, some have five, some have five or six, some have eight, but all of them mention this key stage of growth, which is where I think Kristen and I are, and most of them refer to it as The Power Struggle. One place writes that it is “sometimes also known as the “Growth Struggle” by those who like to think positively,” which I think is more apt, not just because I like to think positively but because I believe growth requires the temporary suspension of security, and that as much as many of us gives lip service to wanting to “grow,” most people don’t seem to be capable of doing so. And “growth” is what the Power Struggle actually means\’we are struggling against each other, with power dynamics, monsters, whatever, and if we can work through it, it will be a huge stage of growth for us, into the next stages.
So, before I keep going into my personal reactions to these stages, here’s what I understand from my readings to be the major relationship stages, as compiled from multiple sources.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I do not believe these stages are linear, nor that everyone goes through them exactly in this order, exactly like this, nor that we just go through each phase once and neatly move on to the next one. All our relationships are different and variable and varied, and I’m sure all possible combinations of this have existed in relationships and will exist in the future. What is interesting to me about a model like this is how clearly I can see my own relationship history reflected, and it is interesting to think about what could help me build as my relationship deepens and grows. As with all pop-psychology models, I invite you to take what is relevant to you, apply what you can use, and leave the rest behind.
1. The Honeymoon
New Relationship Energy, Bliss, Enchantment, Falling In Love, Romantic Love\’this stage has many names, but all the models I read seems to be clear and in agreement about what it does. It brings two people together, blissfully, and makes everything seem great. Better than great\’wonderful.
“When you see things that you don’t like, you might deny or at least minimize them. You tend to go above and beyond what is required or expected. You feel energized, alive, and filled with new dreams.” Dawn Lipthrott writes at The Relationship Learning Center. She also explains that, “Your brain is flooded with feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine and PEA (phenylethylamine). Like most endorphins, PEA increases energy, feelings of well-being, positive outlook, and diminishes pain. It increases sexual desire. PEA is what allows you to skip meals and sleep. If you usually tend to be anxious, PEA may help you feel safe and calm. If you are usually depressed, you might have more energy and see things more positively.”
Seems like most of these places say it tends to last 6-8 months, but completely vary depending on the couple and can be longer or shorter.
2. Settling In
But I think there is more to the beginning of a relationship than just the blissful honeymoon, and that most of the time, more things happen before going right into the Growth Struggle.
“The initial excitement of being together is subdued so you can actually discover who the other person really is. You and your partner begin to discover each other’s quirks and neurosis, and you uncover things that bug you about each other. You also begin to discover what you truly love and respect about one another. Your communication should deepen to a soulful level, where you begin to open up to each other,” love coach Rinatta writes.
“Roles are established, expectations are set and compromises are made,” Dr. Marty Tashman writes. I think Kristen and I spent a bit of time in this, settling in to each other, building, working on foundations, having small fights but recovering, still holding that deep bond between us. In relationships I’ve had in the past, we skipped this stage, and I think it’s important for a strong foundation.
3. The Growth Struggle
Men’s relationship advice (I know, it sounds cheesy, and that’s because it is\’but I’m only picking the parts that I found useful and are, in my experience, accurate) says that the Growth Struggle is “a troubled – but necessary (like puberty) – developmental stage.”
Aha\’puberty, I like that correlation. Awkward, bumbling, coming of age, growing up, sometimes it feels like the world is ending. Just the understanding that it is incredibly common for couples to go through a phase of heightened conflict, where suddenly The Honeymoon and Settling In seem distantly past helps.
Commonly, Rinatta writes, “the couple thinks something is wrong “ perhaps they are no longer compatible or they no longer love each other. The quirky things that used to be so charming and endearing are no longer even tolerable; the edginess starts, the impatience, the infuriation, the pre-occupation, the unavailability, on everyone’s part.
We may also start noticing patterns: that our partner is doing things similar to our own childhood or teen experiences, or similar to our past lovers. We may notice ourselves behaving in such ways, acting out or expressing emotion unskillfully. At first, when Kristen and I were going through this, I completely did what Rinatta describes\’I blamed myself and I feared for the worst, that we were somehow falling out of this great partnership we’d been building, and that somehow we had too many monsters that pulled on too much of each other’s past hurts. But in truth, this is the greatest offering an intimate partnership has: to pull on each other’s stuff. Sure, the world pulls on your stuff just about every day, but usually not to the degree that an intimate partner can. You know that old question: why can someone who loves us so much also hurt us so badly? Well, that’s exactly why: because the love is that deep. Because we have exposed so much of ourselves to them. And besides, why else would we have built entire industries around artistically expressing heartbreak?
Having your stuff\’whatever that is! Abuse, fear, pain, monsters, parent issues, unresolved anger, whatever\’pulled on can be a beautiful gift that your relationship offers you.
Of course, I can write that, and wax poetical about it, but when it comes to whatever the last actual argument that I actually had with Kristen was, I certainly don’t see that as a “gift or as anything progressive, I just see it as annoying and hurtful and frustrating. But that, I suppose, is my battle to wage.
This is the stage where relationship advise folks start saying that people think the romance will last forever, but it doesn’t, and that relationships take work. I think more commonly in my life and communities we embrace the idea that relationships take work, but there is also a lot of confusion about how much work is okay, how much is good, and how much is too much.
But I like the idea of this being an invitation to grow. And only we can figure out how
How easy it is to forget that conflict and problems are invitations for growth, change, and evolution in general! This is a basic principle of Buddhism that seems to pop up in my life frequently, but somehow I can’t seem to remember it before I am already dragged down into the mud of, “Oh my god this is never going to change this sucks argh stuck stuck stuck.”
This is the stage for tools and learning. Conflict can be a door to healing and to personal growth\’the conflict itself is not the problem, despite all those supposedly perfect couples that you know, who report, “We don’t even fight! It is actually our relationship to conflict that is the difficulty, not the conflict itself. We are two complicated, inherently imperfect human beings\’or humans being\’and we are absolutely going to run into conflict. That is just true.
I don’t know how people resolve this on their own. Some couples must be capable of it, but I know I can really use some assistance. I’m not sure if any of my relationships have moved out of this phase, to be honest. They always end here, often because, in the past, my conflict resolution skills have been awful, with my tendencies to shut down and run away. I am working hard on that in my individual therapy work, and I’m definitely in a new place.
Because I haven’t really gotten out of this, I’m not sure what the next stages are. But I’ll try to summarize and bring together as much as I can, according to what I’m reading.
It seems like there are two options from the Growth Struggle: unresolved, and resolution. I’m interested in what happens when people stay in an unresolved relationship, it probably would explain a lot of my parent’s marriage, for example, but I’m more interested in a model that I can possibly follow, and a place for which to aim. So you can go read up on the further unresolved stages, though I’m going to focus on what happens when a couple is working toward resolution in this particular relationship stages model.
Assuming the couple makes it out of the Growth Struggle and stays together, which it seems most couples can’t, the next step is work, work, work. And developing skills. And developing a common language to talk about our individual monsters, our needs, and our relationship’s needs.
This is what transforms the Growth Struggle into the deep, long-term love for which we are all aiming.
This only works if both people are willing to do the work, and willing to evolve, move forward, look and speak directly about their emotional landscape, their personal tendencies, their hurts, and their monsters. Doing this work is not easy. Most folks won’t do it. They can\’I fully believe we are all fundamentally capable of it\’but not all of us will.
This is the stage where you learn everything there is to know about each other. Our emotional patterns become clear, and we know how to identify each other’s quirky sore parts when they come up, and we work with each other to build a shared toolbox in order to handle it together.
“This is the stage in which you not only recognize that your relationship can be more than it is, but also that you have the power to make real changes. You choose to become conscious and intentional, and begin a whole new chapter in co-creating the relationship you both dreamed of,” writes Lipthrott. But we have to do some real work to develop good communication and conflict resolution skills, to be able to not take things personally when something is going on with our partner, and to create emotional safety for ourselves and each other. This is the part where we are partners in healing and growth, and we are willing to step into the other’s emotional landscape, if only temporarily, to help them through their stuck places, instead of our oh-so-common reaction of, “You’re behaving like that again and I just can’t stand it!
This is the part where that ideal, fantasy, visualized relationship starts to take place. This is the second chance to create the relationship you have always wanted with a partner you have always wanted to be with. Where we can actually start consciously creating it, not despite the conflict, but because of it. And with this phase, the experts write, we are better able to come into ourselves in other parts of our lives, as well\’because of course developing good conflict resolution and communication skills, good boundaries, and good emotional safety helps us with all our relationships, not just our partnership.
That’s how the therapist last night referred to it, anyway: as in, “you hit gold,” or “you’re golden.” I forget what she said exactly, but it’s The Point, I guess. Eventually. I don’t know how long it takes to get there\’probably depends on the Growth & Transformation stages, and maybe even once you hit Gold you still go back and grow and transform sometimes again. That would make sense, given that life is ever-changing, ever-evolving, and that there are always crises to deal with.
This isn’t the Emerald City or any perfect, singular result that we all reach and then stay at, it is not Candyland, you are not just done with the growth and the struggling and the arguments. But my understanding is that this is where a deep, lasting bond has formed, where the conflicts are much less frightening, where little things\’or even big things\’don’t threaten the very foundation of your relationship, but that rather you can hold close to each other and trust the connection, trust your ability to lean on each other when you need it, and trust your ability to solve problems together.
This is where you can, as a couple, move separately apart and come back together seamlessly, or at least more easily, knowing when you need some deep connection and when you need some solitude or personal space, where you know each other’s basic needs and are capable of meeting them, at least most of the time, and are capable of speaking about yours, and how they either are or are not being met.
“This is the stage of deep respect and cherishing of one another as separate and unique individuals without losing the sense of connection. It is a stage of joy, passion, intimacy, happiness and having fun together. It is the stage of living out the vision of true partnership, unconditional love and safety, and of coming to see your partner as your best friend. It is the stage of moving toward the spiritual potential of committed relationship the journey toward wholeness, the love in which you taste Divine Love in whatever way you imagine or language that,” writes Lipthrott. Sounds idealized, and even a little pie-in-the-sky, to me, but I also recognize that I know many couples who have weathered much in their lives and have lived to tell the tales.
“The final stage … is what is sometimes called “Realistic Love”. It is a much higher level of marital or relationship satisfaction, but unlike the Romantic Phase, it is based on a mature, realistic love that is grounded in understanding, healing and growth. It is a goal worthy of the best you have to offer,” writes Brainerd. I like the idea that this is a better phase than the Honeymoon phase. Since I have never really been to this stage, and rarely get much past the Honeymoon phase, I\’and many folks, I think, in this culture\’idealize the Honeymoon as the blissful part, as the part we all wish we could go back to and stay there forever. To quote Cypher in The Matrix: “Ignorance is bliss\’but the real stuff that comes from honesty, facing problems, deep communication and respect, that is even better than bliss.
“According to researchers, if you reach this ultimate phase of complete acceptance and love you are part of the lucky 5% of the couples who make it. Much like the first infatuation stage, blissful love is full of joy, passion, fun, and deep physical and emotional intimacy. But unlike that phase of “no control and least awareness” you now live out your vision of collaborative partnership, deep respect, and true friendship,” it reads at Men’s relationship advice.
I know I’m giving you a lot of quotes here, but I can’t write from experience about these stages as much. I’m still now just trying to understand what the phases are and how we move through them. I have a much better sense of that evolution than I ever did before\’not sure how exactly I’ve skipped this theory in all my readings on relationships, or maybe it just never quite resonated because I never got to the Growth Struggle phase and thought that I would actually get through it, and wondered what was next. It was so clear in past relationships that we weren’t going to get through it, so the struggle was simply to get out, rather than to move on.
Here, though, in my relationship with Kristen, the struggle is to move forward, to open up, to face the growth and transformation, and to keep turning toward this wonderful person who has chosen me, as I’ve chosen her.