photo of couple standing on stairway while holding their hands

What are the stages of a relationship?

 

Okay, so we started our relationship. In the beginning, it was really beautiful and everything was amazing. Then we started fighting a bit and it just wasn’t as fun as it was before.  In the media, we see everything really beautiful and nice and couples always having lots of passion together. Are we doing something wrong? Is it supposed to be this way?  why do we feel different than we felt last year?  over the course of this blog post, we’re going to explore stages of a relationship further. We’re going to challenge assumptions that we may have about what they’re supposed to look like,  unlearn that changes both healthy and a sign of growth.

Introduction

It’s so easy to be confused today about relationships and their stages. In the media, it says if we only see intense passion and happiness and beauty. We also time to see this on social media, like pictures of people kissing and looking so happy together, sometimes we wonder if we’re doing it wrong. Little do we know though, that the behind those pictures are a lot of work, faking, or emotional/hormonal rushes that may fade with time. why are they so happy?  Can we become happy like this too?  can it always be this way? Let’s begin our journey of discovery.

An infographic about relationship stages
Relationships generally move through these four steps.
Stage 1: Lust/Romance 

The first stage of a relationship, which we generally see often on social media or experienced in ours, is lust or romance. This stage is generally accompanied by intense feelings of longing for the other and desire, such as the feeling that we would do anything for the other and want to always be with them. We may feel happier than we’ve ever felt before, or closer and more connected than ever. This thrill feels amazing, many describe it as one of the great highs and joys of life. 

This stage is often characterized by intense hormones and sensations.  We feel our hearts melt, butterflies in our stomach, and that the world is coming together for us. It’s a really beautiful feeling.

There different theories as to why people feel this way at the start of a relationship. One idea relates to genetics and anthropology, which is that people need to reproduce to continue the species. Therefore, we have a strong genetic push and bodily sensation associated with coming together closely with another. This strong sensation over time may have ensured that people stayed together enough to reproduce and carry on the species in the past. Some think that these strong hormones we feel at this stage may be a genetic reward.

Other ideas as to why we have such strong feelings at this stage relate to anthropologists who suggests that humans have lived in small packs called hareems for most of their early history. This was in the time before large civilizations. At this time, it was really important for people to be accepted by their peers in order to survive. People who are excluded from the group due to some sort of social awkwardness or just not working well with it ended up having a very hard time surviving on their own. This was the time before there were grocery stores and so many conveniences have that made living on our own possible. In every sense of the phrase, it really took a village to raise a child.

Because of this, people suggest that there is a very strong early hormonal and emotional reward from being accepted by others. As we often throughout our lives dream of being accepted in a romantic way, this experience at the beginning, once we have it, is extremely thrilling. 

Throughout this phase, our hormones may take us to say and do some extraordinary things. People who are normally shy and reserved suddenly feel comfortable sharing absolutely anything and everything with this new partner in love. People who used to spend a lot of time alone may now not be able to live a second apart from this new person. People who generally don’t show so much emotion suddenly find themselves bursting with emotion like never before. Can you relate to an experience like this in your life? If so, you are like what’s described in the millions of songs about love available for streaming today.

Yet there is a small problem with this stage if you haven’t figured it out already. It’s that it doesn’t last and it’s not realistic. We tend to have extreme visions of our newfound partners, thinking of them like they’re perfect and the thing that’s going to save us from everything in our life and our pains and every time we ever felt lonely before. We think that they’re the one missing thing that we need to get everything we ever hoped for and dreamed of in life. These sensations and ideas come crashing down when we realize that our partners are only human, can’t solve all our problems, and also make mistakes.

Another thing that comes with the end of this stage is hormonal withdrawal. Our body has many feedback systems to regulate the way we experience sensations. Our feelings are largely felt through the release of hormones in our bodies. For example, when we are stressed, the hormone cortisol is largely related to why we feel that way. The same is true for feelings of love with other hormones. However, because of tolerance and other feedback systems, the effects of hormones fade with time: if we have a very strong hormone in our body for a long time, that hormone is going to be less effective in the future. It will take more of the hormone to make the same results – we are going to become tolerant of it.  

What this means for us and our relationship is that we’re eventually going to get used to this newfound love high. It’s going to feel a bit like our norm and therefore feel, just – normal, like nothing special anymore. This is because the effects of hormones is largely relative to the change in concentration of them in our body from time to time. This is because or body just builds a tolerance to higher concentrations of hormones after a while – they have the same effect as the lower concentration original with time. 

That means that if we haven’t felt love for quite some time, and then suddenly we meet somebody that we want to love with all their hearts and that they love us back, there’s going to be a huge change in hormones related to feelings of love and acceptance. This change in concentration is going to lead to the feeling of all these intense emotions and sensations that we feel in this early stage.

However, because the concentration of love hormones we feel isn’t getting much stronger once we get used to our new situation, we’re eventually going to stop feeling so intensely. That’s why this stage is so often referred to as the “Honeymoon Phase.” Soon it’s going to wear off, real life is going to hit, and we’re going to have to get working. It’s going to be hard at the beginning. But it’s going to be so worth it. 

 
Stage 2: Struggle

I believe that this is the phase that makes or breaks so many couples. If a couple is going to break up after a few months, year, or maybe even two years, it is often going to be at this stage. This is also where so many high school relationships end. Next, this is where anybody who initially entered the relationship thinking that it’s always going to be easy, like the movies, or always beautiful and fun is going to get dissatisfied. 

If someone thinks that their relationship dissatisfaction is a reason that they’re doing something wrong, like if they’re comparing their relationship to movies or social media where they see that people are generally always satisfied, they’re going to hit a wall. They may think that their relationship isn’t working out or that it’s supposed to be different. That it’s supposed to be always fun, nice and that this is what they deserve. But the unfortunate truth is that this struggle, or challenge phase, is a very common stage that occurs in virtually all relationships and should be seen instead as an opportunity for growth. 

If your relationship used to be easy and is now getting a bit harder, congratulations! You are progressing to the next stage. 

We call this stage “struggle” because it’s often quite challenging for many couples once they get to it at least in the beginning. This stage is characterized by hormonal withdrawal of the initial intense feelings that the couple had for each other. The honeymoon phase where no matter what the other said, everything was perfect, starts to fade. To account for this, it’s here that couples have to discover in his stage new ways to add value to each other’s lives. Real value. Value that’s going to last outside of the domain of the hormones that they were experiencing before which created much of the sensation of value that they experienced.

This stage is often categorized by the realization that their partners aren’t anything and everything that they want them to be, but are actually humans too with their own needs wants and priorities that need to be acknowledged. Soft spots or things that are very sensitive for individuals related to past experiences such as childhood are often also exposed in this stage. Couples will realize here that their partner does not always act the way that they expect or predict them too, especially related to the way they feel emotion. They may think that their partner will feel the way they do over certain situations, but this is rarely the case. Partners really have to speak with each other to learn what they need, want, and expect from each other at this stage. This is essential for them to discover how they can love each other effectively.

A lot of difficult conversations happen at the stage. Couples often fight here for the first time. They really start to talk about what their expectations are in the relationship. They may realize that they have different expectations of the relationship and should work to compromise on their views. 

There is often a divide between how one partner thinks that the other partner feels love, and the way that they actually want to experience love. This goes to Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, which were going to talk about in the next blog post in much detail. But the big idea here is that you have to ask your partner how they want to be loved and adapt to that. If you try to love them in the way you think they experience love or the way you want to be loved, it may not get to them. You may feel like you’re working so hard to show a partner that you love them, but it may not be so effective at inciting those same feelings of love and belonging for them.

The big thing here is communication. The purpose of this stage is to learn how to add value to each other’s lives in the most effective way possible. A lot of growth and discovery will occur when partners learn to recognize what their needs are and how to communicate that effectively. Couples often have to learn how to resolve conflicts together in an effective manner too here for the first time. More on conflict resolution will be discussed in future blog posts.

This stage is quite hard and requires a lot of work. But unlike lust or romance which fizzles out with time, this stage is a great opportunity to create real love that gets stronger with time. We believe here at Learn2Love that you can only love someone as much as you know them and you can only love yourself as much as you know yourself. It’s in this stage that a lot of the difficult conversations occur where partners really get to know themselves and each other on a much deeper level. This increased knowledge will lead to real, beautiful, and sustainable love that is much deeper and fuller than what can be sustained in Stage 1. 

 
Stage 3: Working 

Once couples have overcome that emotional whirlwind and hormone withdrawal that comes from departing lust/romance and moving through the struggle, they learn to understand and love each other in new and fuller ways. This leads to the opportunity to add value to each other’s lives on a much deeper level than ever before. When partners learn to add value to each other’s lives effectively, they get to this stage which we call working. 

This is a stage where the partners are coming together as a team and supporting each other. The result is that they make their lives much better than they could have been had they been apart. It’s a stage marked by the development and practice of interdependence. 

Interdependence means doing most of your tasks independently, yet coming to your partner for those tasks that are beyond what you’re able to do on your own. This is a hard stage to get to and takes considerable learning and growth to master. But the good news is that we have our whole life to get better at it. 

What does independence look like in a relationship? This means that we would expect independence for things that we would want adults to be able to do on their own, and that we would expect young adults in high school or undergraduate studies to be able to do. This includes the ability to: feel good about our bodies on our own and from the inside, the ability to feel beautiful and like we matter, the ability to take care of our emotional and physical upkeep, and to maintain everyday life chores such as maintaining our house and job. 

So for example, we would think of adults being able to organize their tasks with some form of a to-do list and stay on top of it. We would expect adults to be able to keep in touch with their friends, call their friends on their birthday, and manage their relationships with coworkers. So we expect all this to occur independently for partners in a relationship at this stage.

However, there is a place where people need to come together to achieve certain tasks. When people try to be totally independent, they struggle when it comes to the feeling of love and connection. This is often only achievable at a significant level through cooperation with one another. For example, we would totally expect couples to come together to satisfy their need to feel connected to each other. This includes things like cuddling, talking about their day, doing things together like cooking or going on trips together, as well as making each other feel needed and understood. Couples should discuss each other’s ways of sharing and receiving love, learn to act like a team, and guard their time to leave it open for them to be able to share it together and be available for each other, to accomplish this most effectively.

A thing that’s important to remember is that it’s okay to come to our partners for help. A lot of people think that coming for help is a weakness and that they should do everything on their own, but there are times when it’s totally okay and expected to come to your partner. That’s why it’s a relationship, it implies the interaction of course of two people who come together as a team to make their lives better. 

If people could do everything on their own, there would be no need to have a relationship. Some people do indeed think that they can do everything on their own. But unfortunately, people can’t achieve the same joy they get from being appreciated, needed, and valued by someone they love on their own. Connection requires, well, connection. And everyone needs connection. We’re a social species.

I think people feel very lonely and have challenges when they’re unable to share important aspects of their life like their dreams and aspirations with another. This is where the partner comes in and where interdependence is so important. Yes, we must act like adults and do many of our tasks on our own, such as taking care of ourselves, our work, and managing our chores, but we have a partner for a reason. It’s all about balance: 

An infographic about a relationship scale
We must learn to balance independence with interdependence to allow our partners to care for us without making them feel overwhelmed.

Some partners feel especially overwhelmed when their partner comes to them for everything, such as expecting them to make the partner feel beautiful. While this sounds important and a partner can aid with this, it often has to come from within ourselves first. If we fundamentally don’t believe we are beautiful from the inside, we cannot blame our partner for this. No matter what our partner does, we will not feel it, because the problem lies with us. Learning to love ourselves is the first step to making our partner able to love us and for us to be able to receive it. We won’t be able to receive things that we don’t at least feel partially inside ourselves. 

Learning to love ourselves is the first step to making our partner able to love us and for us to be able to receive it. We won’t be able to receive things that we don’t at least feel partially inside ourselves. inspire someone

What lenses do you see the world by?

When we expect our partner to make us feel something that we don’t feel ourselves, this puts a lot of strain on them and is ultimately wasteful for it will not solve our problem. A lot of conflicts may also arise when we blame our partner for tasks that we should be able to do independently or that may only come from within ourselves. Yes, a partner can help us feel beautiful or feel really good about ourselves by complimenting or supporting us, and it’s so important that they do this, but we should have some basic level of understanding and acceptance of ourselves first.

It’s at this stage that many of the most beautiful parts of a relationship occur. It’s here where the relationship satisfies the needs, wants and expectations of both parties, the expectations and desires are realistic, and that couples are communicating clearly about them. People can be at this stage for many decades of their life – coming together, sharing their experiences, supporting each other, and having a teammate by their side. It’s at this stage where their partner truly becomes their best friend. Couples learn to understand and support each other to make their lives so much better. 

Sometimes couples can go back to the struggle stage for a bit, but by learning to understand and support each other again, we can go back to working. 

 
Stage 4: Maintenance

Things were really beautiful at the beginning. Then things got a little bit hard, the hormones faded, and we learned how to work together again. We became a team and things were really working out, we were happy. But then, boom! Everything changed. I don’t understand what happened, things were good and all but now the things that used to work in the past just don’t seem to be working anymore! Everything was going really well for a decade and now I just don’t know what to do. 

If you feel this way, it’s possible that you have made it past the working stage and onto maintenance.

Just like a car needs repairs every once in a while, our relationships also need maintenance.  The thing is that people are changing every day, and over time they may have significant changes in their values, wants, needs and expectations. This so often occurs when couples have their first child. They thought that they understood each other, but then the birth of a child brings about totally different values and interactions. Have you ever seen somebody have a large transformation in their character once they became a parent? That’s why we have maintenance.

The difference between maintenance and struggle is that while the struggle stage generally occurs after a couple of months, or maybe one or two years, the maintenance stage can occur after many decades. In struggle, we have to learn how to adapt as our hormones change quickly. After that in maintenance, we have to learn to adapt again to more subtle and long-term changes in fundamental values or beliefs.

Many partners get mad when the other change. They say something like, “well you used to like this so why don’t you like it anymore?” They think out of fear: you’re just like a totally different person now? Well fortunately and unfortunately, people change and that’s just part of life, and you’re changing too!

Thought of as an opportunity to learn about our partners even more, this change is actually a really exciting part of building a strong relationship. The change that we experience as we age and take on new roles in our life is so exciting because it leads us to learn even more things about our partner and always have a chance to become closer. If partners were the same every day, that would make relationships a little bit boring over time! This change is just part of who we are and it’s been what we and our friends have been doing since we were born.

Change is just part of who we are and it's been what we and our friends have been doing since we were born. amplify this

Are you the same person now that as you were when you were in elementary school? Are you the same person at the end of elementary school than you were at the beginning? Are you the same person at the end of high school than at the beginning of high school? What about university? What about as you were 10 years ago? What about before you retired? That’s why we have maintenance.

It’s in this stage, that we learn to understand that what works for a partner one year may not work the next year. We learn to keep observing and being curious so we can support our partners in the best way.  The same thing goes for us, we’re going to change too and we have to create opportunities to share how we’re changing with our partner so that they can learn what we need from them over time. We’re not going to know the answers right away, and we may not notice how we change subtly over a long time, but we should just be open to the understanding that we all are changing, and that’s okay. 

The things that work today may not work in the future, and that’s okay.

The things that work today may not work in the future, and that’s okay. Click To Tweet

Instead of being frustrated or angry when this occurs, just recognize that it’s part of life and that all humans are doing this, and that we have been doing it since we were born.

Learning to continuously adapt as we change, we can build a beautiful and long-lasting relationship that lasts decades and satisfies our deepest wants, needs, and aspirations. 

 
Conclusions

If you think that everything is always supposed to be fun and rosy, you will be quick to realize that that’s not the case with a relationship. People often leave relationships when they feel like it’s not working out because it’s not what they expected it to be. This is especially problematic if they expect relationships to be always nice and beautiful based on what they see in movies and on social media. 

By recognizing that there are unique stages to a relationship and that some of them are hard, we can learn to expect and accept challenges more and use them to help us grow and get better. Often the best things in life are things that we have to work for, and the same is true for our relationship. 

Often the best things in life are things that we have to work for, and the same is true for our relationship. tell someone who needs to hear it

Understanding that both we and our partner change as we age, and that we have different needs and wants, is so important for it encourages us to continue to communicate and work on getting better. This ultimately pays off as it helps us build long-lasting and beautiful relationships where we feel very close to our partners and that they understand us so well. It’s through this understanding that we can become best friends with our partner and feel safe around them. This process, with its challenges, ups and downs, can help set us up on a path where it’s more likely to have a relationship that’s going to succeed. 

Thank you so much for reading. I hope that you found this article meaningful and helpful and that you’ll be able to apply it to your relationship. Let us know what you thought about it in the comments below, we love to hear your feedback! 

 
Additional Formats

Prefer podcasts? Check out these relevant episodes below to ignite your learning further and take it with you wherever you go:

 

Prefer Video? Check out our specially made video all about the stages of a relationship below!

1 comment

  1. Love smarter, not harder - Learn2Love

    […] Imagine this. You and your partner are just starting out your relationship. You’re in the first phase – lust/romance – that you learn from our previous blog post on the Stages of a Relationship.  […]

This article makes me feel...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: