What are the Five Stages of a Couple’s Relationship, and Why Should You Care?
Understanding the five predictable stages of relationships can be immensely helpful in identifying and successfully navigating them. During my time as a student at the Relationship Coaching Institute, I delved into the fascinating realm of relationship stages. I used to wonder why my interest in a relationship would wane after about two years. However, once I grasped the stages, it brought me immense clarity. It was no wonder I was getting cold feet! After approximately two years, a relationship transitions from the romantic phase (so fun!) to the power struggle phase (not fun at all!). Let's explore these stages in greater detail.
The First Stage: Romance
Ah, the joys of the romantic stage. I've previously discussed the importance of relishing the "recreational infatuation" period when both partners present their best selves, and the future seems boundless. Finally, you may have found someone who appears to be your perfect match! In this stage, we tend to get caught up in the chemistry, fueled by hormones, and envision dreams and fantasies about the future. There is often projection at play, where we see what we want to see, and we may conceal parts of ourselves that we dislike. We focus on our similarities ("You like sushi too? Amazing!"), disregarding differences and disagreements. Colors seem brighter, and waking up in the morning brings us happiness. Suddenly, everything feels possible.
Then, after some time, reality starts to set in. We begin to notice flaws and behaviors in our partners that we don't appreciate. Our perfect image of them begins to crumble. We might feel exhausted from maintaining the facade of perfection. The beauty of the romance stage is that it ignites the initial attraction and can serve as a foundation for a relationship. However, it offers no guarantees. I distinctly recall fervently hoping that I had found my ideal match, only to have my bubble burst. The disappointment and anguish I felt when I became aware of numerous red flags and realized that our shared dreams would never come true still resonate with me.
The Second Stage: Power Struggle
During the power struggle stage, you become acutely aware of the differences between you and your partner, which you may have previously overlooked. You might perceive these differences as negative and unwelcome, leading you to try to change your partner. Thoughts like "If only they were more like this, I'd be happy!" become commonplace. The contrast between the romantic stage and the power struggle stage can be jarring. The person you once believed could do no wrong is now subjected to scrutiny, and you find yourself passing judgment. While you may have focused on your similarities during the romance stage, in the power struggle stage, you suddenly perceive a lack of common ground. It's as if the rug has been pulled out from under you.
What are the benefits of the power struggle stage?
For one, it provides an opportunity to step back and stop trying to merge with your partner. Establishing boundaries becomes crucial, allowing you to clearly define what you are willing to accept from your partner. During this stage, as the initial surge of hormones and fantasies wanes, you begin to realize that being together is a choice, not a necessity. If you find yourselves constantly fighting without resolving issues, seeking professional help can be immensely valuable. You come to acknowledge that you are two distinct individuals with differences that need to be acknowledged and respected. Your needs matter. Instead of simply going along with things as you might have during the romance stage, you are more likely to take a stand and assert yourself. The power struggle stage is often arduous and challenging, leading many couples to contemplate divorce. Working with a coach or therapist can be instrumental at this point.
The Third Stage: Stability
If you successfully navigate the power struggle stage, you will likely have established clear boundaries and be at peace with the fact that your partner is different, and that's perfectly okay. At this stage, you may find yourselves pursuing separate interests and not spending every waking moment together as you did during the romance stage. You experience a sense of freedom and the opportunity to make individual choices. Ideally, mutual respect thrives. You now have a shared history, which can serve as a solid foundation for the future.
You may occasionally feel a pang of nostalgia for the early days when the chemistry and spark were palpable. While it is entirely possible to rekindle those feelings during this stage, it requires more attention and deliberate effort to set the stage. You might also experience a tinge of sadness, knowing that you have transitioned into a more stable phase of your relationship. However, this phase is often less draining than the romance stage or the power struggle stage.
The Fourth Stage: Commitment
Upon reaching the commitment stage, you have likely developed a solid sense of self, honed effective conflict-resolution skills, and acknowledged that your partner has their own set of differences. You genuinely want to stay in this relationship and experience a sense of connection, belonging freedom, and fun. By now, you have become quite familiar with each other, and you have also gained a deeper understanding of yourself. You are capable of making choices about your own desires and allowing your partner to make their own choices. Achieving a balance between togetherness and individuality becomes second nature, and you feel significantly more secure than in the initial two stages.
At this point, you may consider marriage or a long-term commitment. What does commitment mean to you? If you opt not to get married, do you still share the same level of commitment in living together? This is a topic that a relationship coach can assist you with. In today's world, many individuals decide to cohabitate due to financial considerations without making any formal commitments to each other. When you genuinely know your partner, you can consciously choose to say, "I choose to love you, with full awareness of your strengths and weaknesses."
The Fifth Stage: Generativity
In the generativity stage, you find yourselves in a stable relationship, fully aware of your differences and embracing them or even celebrating them. The differences no longer pose a threat. You have achieved a healthy balance between spending time with yourself and with your partner, and you may be ready to extend your focus beyond the relationship itself and venture into the world. Imagine viewing your relationship as a foundation for making a positive impact, be it through a joint project, involvement in a church group, participation in literacy programs, volunteering at a non-profit organization, or engaging in a shared business venture. At this stage, you are prepared to shift your attention from the relationship alone and direct it towards the broader world.
It is crucial in this stage to continue nurturing the relationship and not neglect it. I often compare it to tending a garden: planting seeds are fantastic, but they must be watered, and the weeds need to be tended to for you to reap the rewards of your labor. Taking your partner and your relationship for granted can lead to problems down the road. Allocating time and energy to each other, and nurturing your relationship, even amidst other commitments, is not selfishness; it is self-care.
What can we learn from the five stages of a couple’s relationship?
Understanding that the romance stage is not everlasting prepares us for the power struggle stage and equips us with the necessary skills and support. Once we've weathered this "trial by fire," the relationship can progress toward stability and, eventually, commitment. A stable and committed relationship provides the opportunity to make a positive impact on the world. Isn't that a wonderful goal?
If you require assistance with your relationship, I specialize in coaching couples and would be delighted to arrange a free 30-minute Discovery Session: