The Five Stages of a Relationship 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 the second article, we looked at the doubt and denial stage. Next we looked at disillusionment. In this article we will explore what happens when you finally need to make a decision about where to go next.
Introduction: Crunch Time
In the last article, we talked about the most difficult time for a relationship – the disillusionment stage – which is filled with conflict and resentment. Although difficult to navigate, it is a stage where some couples have a break through and begin to make progress on fixing their relationship.
But what if that doesn’t happen?
You may find yourself with a decision to make. The decision phase is your make-it-or-break-it moment. It’s where you finally decide if you’re going to get serious or if you’re going to walk away.
In this article, you will learn:
What the decision stage is
Why this stage is the most critical of your relationship
How to navigate this crucial stage
What is the Decision Stage?
You are heavily invested in your relationship. You’re trying to work through the conflict. You are trying to confront your problems head on. But what happens if you still can’t seem to fix them?
You’ve arrive at the decision stage.
This is the make-it-or-break-it point of the relationship. The breaking point. This is where you either decide that it’s time to get serious and fix the issues once and for all or walk away leaving everything behind. It’s decision time. And it’s not easy.
When you’re in this stage, your relationship is full of conflict. You may be emotionally exhausted. You’re avoiding each other, maybe leaving the house just to get away from your partner. You may even be attracted to someone else who looks like a better match. Move too far in one direction and thoughts of infidelity can easily interfer with what you may be trying to accomplish.
It’s hard to imagine, but some couples stay in this stage for years, teetering back and forth between being frustrated and thinking that things may actually be OK. They may move back into the disillusionment stage for a while, trying to work things out.
Things may seem to get better and maybe there’s a period of peace and calm. Maybe they’re back in a period of denial, hoping things are getting better.
But ultimately, when the problems are not addressed, the relationship will continue to spiral downward.
You have to make a decision. Should you stay or should you leave?
It’s not as simple as one or the other. Both choices are filled with complex dynamics.
You can stay and decide to do nothing all the while falling deeper into despair and chaos. Or you could stay and work on fixing the problems. If you choose this, you have to also consider if your partner is willing to work with you instead of against you.
Let’s be honest. Sometimes it seems so much easier to just end the relationship rather than doing the hard work of trying to overcome the problems you’ve been facing. But leaving involves another completely different set of dynamics, especially if you are married or have children as a result of the relationship. This path may involve lawyers and custody battles that could drag on for years.
You may even find that you are caught in a cycle of break-up and make-up. You end the relationship only to have second thoughts later and reconcile in the hope of making things better. These phases can go on and on but nothing ever really gets solved.
So What Do You Do?
Don’t despair. There is a path through. But first you have to think about a third path that involves neither leaving nor staying. You have to spend some time working on you, as an individual. At this point, if you haven’t already, you should think about seeing a counselor.
Couple counseling is one solution and is often very helpful when both partners attend to discuss the problems. But you should also consider one-on-one time with a therapist to help you think through the major decisions you are about to make. Take time to reflect internally on your own progress. Are you making changes? Are you adjusting your expectations to accommodate your partner.
That’s not to say that you should be the only one working to fix your problems. You partner must be willing to his or her part as well. But if you haven’t fully uncovered what may be getting in the way of your happiness, you might not be able to move forward.
A counselor can help you look internally to discover what you need and want from your relationship. They can help you understand the role you play in the problems you have with your partner. And they can lead you to a healthy decision about where to go from here.
When you’ve had some time to work through your feelings and emotion with your counselor, then you can turn to couples therapy.
In the previous articles, we talked about how important a counselor or therapist can be in helping you navigate the challenges of your relationship. In the decision-making stage, that advice is most important.
This is the point where couples normally seek out a marriage counselor. They make a last-ditch effort to save their relationship. Although it’s better than nothing, it may be too late. Often, counseling at this point feels helpless and futile. It’s much better to engage with a professional earlier in the process to avoid the pressure of having to fix everything or walk away.
Still, it’s better than nothing. The act of going to counseling – and especially couples counseling – indicates that neither person is ready to give up and walk away. This indicates at least some willingness to try to make things better.
A therapist or counselor can’t fix your problems for you. You will still need to do the work of examining yourself and your relationship and decide how you are willing to change past behaviors and patterns in order to grow and move past this difficult time. At most, a therapist can be a third-party in the room to help you keep emotions in check and focused on the real problems rather than simply getting emotional and ending up in a fight. Your counselor can also provide you with tools to communicate and effectively discuss your feelings and emotions.
These tools and resources can help you overcome years of resentment or frustration with your partner when you learn to apply them correctly to your relationship.
One very important thing to realize is that there are two people in the relationship. Each person contributes to the break down and that means that both need to take responsibility for their own actions and behaviors. You must be willing to look inside at your own faults. No matter how frustrated you may feel, you won’t ever have a successful relationship if your only approach in this stage is to blame your partner and try to get them to change.
If you are willing to do the hard work of communicating, taking responsibility for your own actions, and commit to making a positive change, your relationship has a chance. Of course, your partner must be willing to do the same.
It won’t be easy. But if you can work at it honestly and with the good intention of trying to fix the problems, you have the opportunity to learn lessons that can turn your relationship around and allow it grow and become more solid.
The good news is that if you can work through this, your relationship will come out the other side stronger and more able to withstand future challenges that come up.
But, not every person can commit to the process. Maybe you want to work hard to fix the relationship but your partner doesn’t. At that point, it’s probably best to discuss how to end the relationship and separate. If you are seeing a counselor, it may be time to discuss how to do this constructively and amicably rather as sworn enemies.
Mature people are able to realize that sometimes relationships don’t work out the way they had hoped. There’s nothing wrong with that. You can be proud that you gave it an honest shot. When you do part, you can still wish each other well and take the lessons from this relationship with you into your next one.
This stage often seems like the point of no return. You have invested a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into trying to make it work. It’s not easy to have to confront the awful reality that it might be over. Here’s a few things to consider:
There is always reason to have hope for your relationship. Even in the darkest moments, there is always a chance you and your partner can turn things around.
It take both people willing to work on the relationship to make it work. If you find that you are putting in all the work then you may have to end the relationship.
Make sure you’ve made the effort to understand yourself fully. Are you contributing to the problem by not addressing areas where you can make a change?
Counseling at this stage may seem like a last-ditch effort but it can still be valuable.
Make sure both you and your partner realize that this may be the last chance to turn things around.
If you’ve given it everything you possibly can – made an honest attempt to confront the issues – but find that you can’t resolve them, then the healthy choice may be to end the relationship.
The decision phase feels so important because it is. It’s the moment of truth. It’s time to turn things around for good or end the relationship.
The chaos of fighting and making up and trying over and over again is not healthy. All couples have arguments and all face challenges. But to live in that state constantly is draining and can take its toll on you and your partner. Ultimately the decision stage is a time to decide what you both really want and then commit to that decision.
In the last article of this series, we will be take a look at what happens when you successfully come out on the other side of the decision. When you are able to work through the problems and create an environment where you can communicate honestly and effectively. The next stage is the wholehearted love stage.
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