Five stages of anything immediately reminds one of death and the subsequent stages of grief. But our intimate relationships also follow a recognizable pattern. At every step, there is the possibility of growth or the possibility of a dead end.
Yet unlike the well-known and largely accepted stages of grief, there is no consensus on the exact developmental stages of a relationship. After poring over dozens of models proposed by therapists, researchers and clinicians, some commonalities emerged. Here is a hybrid look at the typical journey of a committed relationship — keeping in mind that every relationship follows its own path.
Courtship and infatuation
This is the Hollywood version of romantic love. It's the butterflies-in-the-stomach and fluttery heart that feels ever-so good.
There is an emphasis on finding similarities between each other and glossing over differences. There is a tendency to idealize the other person. There is a high degree of passion and the (unrealistic) expectation that this person will be able to satisfy all needs and wants.
Each person tends to think of the other person constantly. A scientific explanation suggests why it all feels so blissful: This is when your body's feel-good chemical production is in overdrive, according to author and counselor John Bradshaw.
A biochemical wash of testosterone, dopamine and endorphins flow through your bodies. Being in love can literally be intoxicating, and certain endorphins work to increase energy, elevate mood and increase feelings of well-being. The same endorphins increase sexual desire and make us feel so alive during this period.
A natural shift away from other relationships and a focus on creating a sense of "we" are common. There is also a danger of identities getting subsumed into one, leading to Bennifer and Brangelina syndrome.
Most experts agree that this phase generally lasts anywhere from two months to two years, and is the shortest-lived of any of the stages of a committed relationship.
Couples counselor Gary Brainerd explains on his blog, relationship-help.com: "The romantic stage is necessary, but temporary. ... The couple is hopefully bonded and connected and appropriately committed." He describes the stage as a little bit of grace in nature. "We are given a taste of the potential of the relationship, but unfortunately, it is a chemically induced taste and cannot and should not last forever."
The experience of "falling in love," however, should create a bond that helps the couple survive through the more tumultuous phases ahead.
The power struggle
Consider this the reality check. Our biochemistry has returned to its normal state, so we are able to see a partner's shortcomings. It's the period when a couple begins to deal with (now apparent) differences and adjusts to reality, which begins to set in as euphoria wears off. This can often become a time of disillusionment and conflict.
Here is where the real work of a relationship begins. The couple may begin to have more minor arguments that escalate into blown-out warfare or a person becomes more withdrawn and isolated. Yelling may appear, often with blame and accusation close behind. Both partners dig in their heels and protect their turf and positions. Bradshaw writes that this early conflict is healthy and perhaps even necessary as both parties are instinctively jockeying for position in the new status quo, and it helps the couple separate a bit from the over-connectedness of courtship.
Feelings of ambivalence toward the other person may emerge, and each may wonder if he or she is still "in love." Both want the other person to change, while they remain the same. There is a fear of loss of control, and there may also be a fear about the loss of interest in the partner.
This is when couples must learn the skills to be able to solve problems, listen to each other, negotiate and resolve conflict. The main goal is to build trust. Many couples never move beyond this stage, and many divorces occur at this point.
Re-evaluation and identity formation
This stage begins with a fork in the road, when the couple begins to evaluate whether he or she wants to remain in the relationship. The reflection and re-evaluation tend to turn inward, with great isolation and distance between partners. People may disengage and emotionally withdraw. There may be feelings of disappointment. Sexual intimacy may become sporadic or nonexistent.
You may miss the powerful emotions of romantic love, and it is the stage when an affair is most likely to occur.
Partners may create a "parallel" marriage at this point, where activities, children and hobbies take over the attention paid to the relationship, Brainerd writes. Children are hard on a relationship, he adds.
"This is the famous 'U' chart of marital satisfaction," he explains. "For marriages that last, the satisfaction starts high, drops to low as the power struggle starts. It stays low throughout the parallel marriage and rises again in the later part, usually after the children are out of the home."
There is a danger of entering a relationship "dead zone" at this point, where a person becomes bored with their partner and life, in general. They may bury themselves in work or a hobby. The feeling of connection is greatly diminished.
But for a couple to survive beyond this stage, communication, love and trust are critical.
Awareness, transformation, synergy
If the relationship has survived until this point, there is an interest in reconnecting. Each partner must realize his or her own fear of intimacy, and how present behavior is shaped and influenced by what he or she learned and experienced as children in their family of origin.
They begin to see their own projections and distortions upon the other person. The war is over, and there is a desire to begin the work needed to build peace and understanding. There is a desire and willingness to learn how to work through conflicts and issues to achieve a satisfying resolution. It is a time to establish healthy boundaries, in which the couple can maintain separateness and connectedness.
The couple recognizes that their relationship has the potential to be more than it is and that each has the power to make changes.
They are willing to gain new insights about themselves, their partners and their relationship, even if they are painful, in order to address the root of recurring problems.
There is an acceptance of differences in a relationship.
Research suggests less than 5 percent of couples make it to this final stage of completion. Each person is able to take responsibility for their needs and also support the other person. There is a great deal of warmth, mutual respect and a balance between autonomy and union. The couple has figured out how to resolve conflicts quickly. They work together as a team, and resentments are few. They have chosen to be with their partner, flaws and all.
This is often referred to as realistic love.