The Five Stages of Dating that Every Couple Goes Through
Did you know that every couple goes through five distinct stages in their relationship?
It’s true. In fact, some couples move through these dating stages several times over the course of their relationship.
In this series, we’re going to explore these relationship phases so that you can understand how to navigate these each dating stage and building a successful and fulfilling relationship. Let’s look at what these stages are.
The Five Stages of a Relationship
There are five stages in each relationship. They are:
Merge or Infatuation
Doubt and Denial
Each stage has its own complications and challenges and if you are going to successfully navigate your relationship, you must know which stage you are in and how you should proceed.
Over the course of a relationship, it’s possible to visit the various stages of a relationship again and again. They are not linear like a magical relationship timeline. In fact, they are cyclical. It’s best to think of these stages not as a series of stepping stones toward a final destination but rather as seasons that we all move through in an ongoing cycle.
Some couples stay in certain phases longer than others. And some, unfortunately, never make it past the first few. A successful and fulfilling relationship is not easy; it take time, energy, and work on the part of both partners. It’s not easy but by understanding the pitfalls, you quite possibly can minimize the risks and build a strong foundation.
The ideal, romanticized picture of relationships is often portrayed in movies and television. It’s appealing to believe that an intimate relationship begins with the initial stage, the meet-cute or honeymoon phase, where we explore giddy, childlike infatuation. Next, it moves into a series of trials and tribulations until, finally, the couple finds a blissful state of happily-ever-after. It’s a satisfying narrative that neatly wraps up a relationship into enjoyable entertainment. But it’s not as easy as Hollywood makes it seems.
In reality, love is a journey and not a final destination. We shouldn’t expect to arrive at some point and look back at all the past challenges and simply say, “That’s it! We’ve arrived! We made it.” The truth is, there’s always another obstacle or challenge to overcome. And in between those challenges are great moments of happiness. It’s easy to let your guard down during those good times, but beyond where you are now, another hurdle awaits.
So what do these relationship phases look like and how should you approach them? Let’s take it step by step.
In the first article in this series, we looked at the merge or Infatuation phase. In this article, we will look at the next stage, the doubt and denial stage.
Introduction: Reality Sets In
In the previous article, we talked about the infatuation stage, that early “honeymoon phase” filled with all the excitement and promise of something wonderful and new. As the relationship progresses, however, we start to see things as they really are.
In this article, you will learn:
To Identify the signs of doubt and denial
Why doubt and denial occurs in a relationship
What the signs of doubt look like in a relationship
Why we doubt our partners and ourselves
The difference between doubt about the relationship and red flag and warnings
How to identify denial
How to get your through the doubt and denial stage
What is Doubt and Why Does It Happen?
Early on, we though we shared all the same interests and values as our partners. As we enter the doubt phase, we start to notice the differences and see things as they really are.
Qualities that once seemed perfect now begin to annoy or frustrate us. Those things we thought we could overlook in the early stage of a relationship now begin to bother use. We start to see a power struggle as the partners try to get into their normal routine. We’re confused because these feelings of love and attraction are mixed with irritation and annoyance. We wonder – sometimes even out loud – if we really are the “perfect match”.
Doubt is a sudden fear or uncertainty about a person or your relationship. Most people worry when they start to doubt themselves, their partner, or their relationship, but don’t worry. It’s perfectly normal to experience doubt at some point. It’s inevitable and it’s not necessarily a bad sign. If you can recognize it when it happens and deal with it logically and rationally, it may even be helpful in derailing your relationship at this early stage in the relationship.
The problem with so many of us is that doubt can appear suddenly and sometimes when you don’t expect it. It can catch you off guard and shock you. It can come crashing in to that blissful state of infatuation and cause you to panic that you’re making some horrible mistake.
How to Recognize Doubt
Many of us expect our partners to be just like us. We expect that they will share the same ideas and interests and have the same values and opinions. But because each of us have a different upbringing with different, unique experiences, that’s just not a realistic expectation to have.
Friction in a relationship is normal. There are power struggles as we navigate a new relationship. As the differences between partners become more apparent, it’s normal to experience stress. Our response to stress may be similar to the “fight or flight” instinct most mammals have. How you react to this new level of stress depends a lot on your personality.
Do you fight to defend your values? Do you struggle for the power in the relationship so you can have it your way? Or you do shrink into yourself and ignore the problem and hope it’s a temporary issue that will soon go away?
What Does Doubt Look Like?
You may find yourself asking wondering:
What if I’m still attracted to other people?
What if I’m not ready to be with one person?
I’m not sure I like spending time with his friends?
Is this person my soul mate? How can I be sure?
Are we sexually compatible?
Most of the questions that pop up are things that can be understood and managed over time. Sometimes you or your partner can change to accommodate each other. Sometimes these things can be understood by talking. It’s possible that you are only seeing one side of the story but without talking about it, you don’t really understand the big picture.
For example, if you partner is tight with money, you may see it as a negative trait if you like to spend money on nice things. When talking to your partner, you discover that your partner is concerned about money because he grew up poor where the family barely had enough to get by. If money struggles were a problem from an early age, he or she may have learned to save money as a protection again financial problems. Seen in this light, the problem is much easier to understand and manage.
Why Do We Doubt Our Partners?
Doubt is a natural response. In fact, it’s a protective mechanism designed to keep you from making mistakes. Doubt not only occurs when you are in a relationship.
Have you ever thought about quitting your job? There’s a voice inside you that questions your decision. This is doubt. It’s a signal to slow down and take a rational approach to your decision-making process.
In a relationship, doubt works the same way. Certainly you can experience doubt about your new partner. But sometimes these feeling come up when something much larger is on the horizon. Maybe you’re talking about moving in together or getting married. Doubt feels more intense when you contemplate making a major change in your life.
Some people interpret this as a red flag or think it means that the relationship is a mistake. But don’t worry. It’s just your body and mind is telling you to slow down.
You may be assuming things about your partner based on past relationships. Maybe previous relationships had a pattern of fighting and making up until you eventually broke up. Doubt and self-sabotage can cause you to begin repeating those patterns even if the underlying problems are not a part of your current relationship. If a previous partner lied to you, may find yourself searching for signs of similar behavior in your new partner even going so far as to make ungrounded accusations. It’s important to recognize these feelings and understand where they come from.
Doubt can be a stress response. It’s your body’s way of preparing for the new challenges ahead.
Why Do We Doubt Ourselves?
Doubt can also be a way for you to avoid confronting your own fears and insecurities.
Maybe you believe that you don’t deserve happiness or that you can never be in a committed relationship. Your doubt can cause you to create conflict and drama in the relationship.
Many people have a fear of intimacy. As you progress in your relationship, you may experience more and more doubt. The closer you get to your partner, the more stress it creates. If this is the case, you need to explore what is scaring you about letting someone into your life and get that emotionally and physically intimate.
Very often, we are our own worst enemy. Have you ever been in a relationship and thought that things couldn’t be this great. Maybe you haven’t ever experienced a truly meaningful relationship in the past. You don’t know what that looks like and you are worried that you haven’t discovered the problems yet. Your doubt may be a form of self-sabotage. You might push your partner away without knowing what you are doing.
If you have doubts and insecurities about yourself, they can manifest in your relationship. Some people project their insecurities on their partner. Have you been unfaithful in a previous relationship? Your past experiences may create in your mind an idea of how relationships work. In your new relationship you may accuse your partner of cheating because you know how easy it is to be unfaithful and think you understand the signs or signals of an unfaithful partner. If you doubt that you can trust your partner, maybe it’s because you know that you are not trustworthy.
When Should I Be Worried?
A healthy doubt is when you have questions about the relationship. They are based on your own thoughts and observations. A doubt is much different than a warning sign.
If you are experiencing doubts about your partner’s actions and behaviors, you might have a serious problem. A warning sign or red flag occurs when the situation you are currently in is not healthy. A red flag is an indicator of negative behavior in your partner. A red flag, if left unchecked can be unhealthy and potentially damaging to your emotional, physical, or psychological well-being.
Some potential red flags in a relationship:
Your partner goes out at night alone and doesn’t tell you where he or she goes
Your partner physically pushes you or touches you in an aggressive or angry way
Your partner keeps you from seeing your friends or family even though it may seem like a caring response because they say they want to “spend more time with you”
Your partner makes negative comments about you and when you confront him or her, they claim that they are just teasing you and accuse you of not being able to take a joke
Your partner texts or messages you to ask where you are all the time or makes you send proof of where you say you are. For example, they ask for a selfie at the grocery store when you’ve told them you’re going shopping
There are, of course, a lot more. The red flags above are indicators of betrayal, control, disrespect, and ignoring personal boundaries. The thing to remember is that these red flags are based on behaviors and not simply questions about how the relations is going. A red flag can often be confirmed with physical or factual evidence.
If you are experiencing these or similar red flags, it’s a good idea to talk with a trusted friend, a counselor, or call a support hotline. If you are being abused, you need to talk to a professional who can arrange to get you the help you need to get out of the situation before you get hurt.
What is Denial?
Denial is a defense mechanism. It prevents you from acknowledging uncomfortable truths in your relationship. You or your partner may be in denial about your relationship as a way of coping with difficult circumstances. By denying they exist, you can hide from your problems and avoid responsibility. Sometimes it’s easier to overlook problems than to address them head on.
Every relationship faces problems from time to time. You may be experiencing a lack of communication or intimacy. Being in denial means you are aware of the problems that exist but you avoid taking action that might resolve them. You choose not to talk to you partner because it may be painful or embarrassing to talk about or you may be afraid of the conflict escalating.
A sign of being in denial is avoidance. You isolate yourself or withdraw from your partner. You don’t confront the issues because you’re worried that your own flaws and vulnerabilities will be revealed. You don’t want to make waves so you hide behind the role that is expected of you: wife, husband, parent, or provider.
These types of denial are internal. They represent things that you do to avoid confrontation or dealing with the problem. But denial can also be external when you partner engages in the same behavior.
Have you ever confronted your partner about a problem and they deny any knowledge or responsibility? A common response is also to deflect the problem back on you, making it appear that it’s your fault or all in your head. In this case, you partner may also fully know about the problem and still deny it.
Being in denial can be frustrating for both people. Refusing to accept reality, although a defense mechanism, is simply reinforcing avoidant behaviors and justifying behavior you feel guilty or ashamed about. Worse, you create a cycle of withholding emotions and avoiding the consequences. Both people in the relationship avoid rather than face the real problems. In extreme cases, it can lead to either partner being dishonest or outright lying.
Where Does Denial Come From?
Denial is a survival strategy we all have that prevents us from being overwhelmed when we have to make decisions during a time of crisis.
Often we employ denial as a result of trauma or a devastating loss. The death of a partner is an example. There are five stages of grief that most people go through after the death of a loved one and denial is the first of them.
In this case, denial helps up pace our feelings while going through grief. It lets us block out feelings until we are ready to handle them. In the early stages, it just may be too much to bear. As you move from denial into acceptance, you begin the healing process.
Denial helps you accept the truth gradually so that you are not overwhelmed. For example, if you suspect that you partner is having an affair, maybe you denied the fact, choosing to live as if you were not aware of the issue, trying to maintain as much of a normal life as possible. This will help you avoid the thoughts of what may come: fights, separation, and divorce. Instead, you can pace yourself and come to accept the reality on your own terms.
But don’t think you can sweep the problem under the carpet. Eventually, you will have to deal with the issue. Ignoring the problem is not healthy either. You can’t make the problem go away by ignoring it. The most you can do is kick the can down the road a little bit.
In a new relationship, denial may crop up as you begin to realize that the relationship isn’t what you expected. Maybe you push aside those feelings and try to move forward hoping your partner or the circumstances will change. Usually both people in a relationship know the truth but keep on pushing through, afraid to confront the issue.
The result is that both people become unhappy and unfulfilled. Maybe neither wants to admit that the relationship may have been a mistake and neither wants to be the one to break it off. The result is that it goes on far longer than it should.
How to Overcome Denial
In order to have a healthy relationship, you must break out of the cycle of denial. You must own up to your insecurities and anxieties and create healthy boundaries so that both partners can grow. Honest communication must be respected and encouraged if you are to overcome the denial. It’s not easy. Sometimes you have to confront your own mistakes and fears. But the result will ultimately be rewarding.
Understand that doubt itself is not the problem. Doubt is simply a clue that you should take a deeper look into some aspect of your relationship. Usually the problem in a relationship is a lack of communication.
For whatever reason, when doubts begin to appear in a relationship, we don’t usually like to express them. Talking them over with your partner may feel uncomfortable or confrontational. Maybe you’re insecure about how your partner will react. Or maybe you are afraid of getting into an argument.
This is a lack of communication.
A good relationship must have open and honest communication. If you are having trouble expressing yourself, for whatever reason, you may need to explore that further. Maybe you should even consider counseling or couples therapy.
A counselor or therapist can help you navigate these feelings. A marriage or relationships counselor is a neutral third-party and can provide you with insight to help you accept your behavior and understand why it exists. In this way you can learn to readjust your expectations and develop healthy patterns of communication.
Many people lack the proper tools to communicate effectively. If you find that your conversations quickly devolve into arguments or fights, the solution may be to learn some techniques that will help you communicate more effectively by removing some of the emotional aspects of the underlying topic. Your counselor can help you with that.
By learning how to communicate, you can approach your partner in a way that is safe for both of you. When you eliminate the fear that a fight or argument is going to occur every time you talk, you can feel free to discuss important issues without worrying about having conflict. You may never completely eliminate arguments and fights from your relationship, but you can certainly minimize their impact when you have a strategy for communicating.
Be sure to keep a few key points in mind during the doubt and denial stage.
Doubt and denial is a perfectly normal part of every relationship and can help you understand where you need to focus your energy as a couple.
Doubt is signal to slow down and begin to thing rationally about the relationship.
Don’t confuse doubt with red flags; if you are concerned about your partner’s behavior, you may need to seek professional advice to ensure your physical and emotional safety.
Denial can be healthy when it helps you deal with stress but you cannot ignore the underlying problem for too long without it become a much bigger issue.
A relationship counselor or therapist can help you navigate your concerns and provide you with tools and resources to help you communicate effectively with your partner.
Doubts about your relationship are normal as you move away from the infatuation stage and into a more committed relationship. It’s a big change you are making to your life and you should be worried if there weren’t any doubts.
The key to any successful relationship is communication. When you are able to communicate with your partner in a safe and effective manner, you can often express these doubts freely and discuss why you are worried. You may find that your partner has many of the same concerns.
In the next article we will explore the disillusionment stage and how to handle the important changes your relationship may be facing.