The 3 Stages of Romantic Relationships
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
If you are in a relationship, maybe you wonder why it is not how it used to be and whether it will last. Perhaps you do not want to accept that relationships go through stages. In fact, that’s the way of nature.
All our experiences can be described by a bell-shaped curve: ascending, peak, and descending. This applies to just anything in life; change is the only constant. We are in an everlasting flux, a process of continuous change and flow.
Relationships can’t be left out of this rule. After all, they are living organisms, systems comprised of two individuals that both grow and change. These two individuals are in constant interaction and transaction, thus the system is inevitably bound to change too.
Maybe you don’t like this fact very much, but wouldn’t it be static and boring otherwise?
As psychotherapist David Richo in his book “How to be an adult in relationships” states, “the phases of human relating involve passages of origin, change, loss, grief, and renewal”. Change is therefore a cue for transformation, both personal and relational.
1. Romance : Attachment to the Other
Romance is the first relationship stage. It is spurred by initial attraction, but then involves the choice to respond to this attraction. We are accountable for each choice we make, and these steps have the potential to subsequently lead us deeper in love, as we build the foundation of our mutual attachment.
Romance is a little bit like magic. You are infatuated by the other, enchanted by them, excited to be with them and around them. You see them as this perfect being that can only bring you bliss and joy, and they inspire you to also be amazing, ideal and beautiful around them too. It is like you both encourage the Best Version of each other to come out.
While romance is a very real stage, it is also temporary. And that is completely logical; both physiologically and developmentally. Sexual energy, adrenaline and dopamine run high- but these are not enough to sustain and guarantee a long-term loving relationship. Continued high adrenaline actually posits a threat to our health, so by nature we are bound to not be thrilled, excited and amazed by our partner all the time, in order not to damage ourselves.
During the romance stage, we are in love. Yet this being in love does not mean we know and see the other as a whole, nor that we actually love them. We are in love with a projection of the other in our minds, we get to know their Persona, their ideal representation of themselves to the outside world. We also offer them our Persona, cautiously testing how safe it is to start showing pieces of us we carefully guard within.
A lover’s ideal view of us is not false. Romance is not a lie. In romance we are being seen in our full potential for loveableness. This reflects who we are deep within, free of fears and dark spots. But ideal does not equal real, because real entails our being seen by the Other as a Whole- and vice versa.
When we hear the phrase “Love is blind”, it actually means that Romance is blind, because we remain oblivious to the Other as a Whole Person while in love. In contrast, love sees all, accepts all, and chooses to be there nonetheless.
People can be in love without really loving, because how can you ever really love, if you have not seen the Other in all their glory, and if you haven’t allowed yourself to fully be You? Our Shadow Self, our darker parts, our weaker wounded aspects and remnants of earlier phases in life are not yet entered the equation.
Romance is a necessary stage, as it paves the ground for further evolution in the relationship. It sets the foundation of our attachment to the other, but it does not imply the existence of a mature bond.
There are many people that are ready to leave a relationship when the first stage of Romance is over. When they realize that the first clouds appear in clear skies, or that “the thrill is gone”, they are eager to jump ship.
These people hold an illusion of what love really is, or are just unprepared and too afraid to allow themselves to experience it. They may say the want ideal love, and are shocked to discover that their partner is not perfect, but rather perfectly imperfect- human just like themselves. They may ignore the fact that ideal is different than real- because real entails conflict, disconnection, and reconnection all over again.
What to do during the Romance Stage
There is only one thing to be done while in the romance stage: enjoy it fully, while knowing it can not last forever!
Some couples are lucky enough to find themselves in romance for quite a while, maybe even a whole year. For others, signs of the next stage, Conflict, may appear earlier on.
Healthy relationships evolve to interdependence, while unhealthy ones to codependency or domination. The danger of romance is that people can fall in love so hard, that they completely lose control. They may become so enmeshed with the other, that they lose their own boundaries, even their Self. Addiction is a real risk at this point; progression is the functional alternative.
One way to counteract the risk of addiction is to really be proactive: Even if you may find yourself wanting to spend every waking moment next to your loved one, it is actually effective to resist this urge and insist on keeping your own free time, your own friends and hobbies and your own Self intact, rather than just becoming One with the other.
After all, a good relationship is one that adds quality to your life, not one that fills a void within you. If the latter is the case, it is good to be conscious that no one will ever be able to fulfill your own void. That is nobody else’s business, but yours. Keep your boundaries and respect those of the other, even if the natural impulse is to forget everything and completely surrender to the magic of the moment.
Despite how magical the first stage may look, love flourishes gradually and feels much more secure and fulfilling later on. But this also means that you have to do work with yourself and the other, in order to build something truly satisfying and strong. Rome wasn’t build in one day!
2. Conflict : Detachment from the Other
The Conflict stage means becoming detached from your partner. Though we are wired to dislike, even despise conflict, we shouldn’t really be afraid of it, since it is part of the process. We need conflict in order to evolve from romantic projection to mature self-affirmation and relationship evolution- yet this stage can be a major red flag of toxicity if it becomes the norm for a couple.
During the Conflict stage, the ideal and romantic image of You and your partner gives way to the reality of both of you. Romance show us the bright side of our love object, while conflict exposes the dark sides. Yet reality of anything in life comprises both light and darkness- one simply does not exist without the other. We exist in duality, and the multiple shades of gray in between.
It is in Conflict when we start to realize that we are different than our partner. We collide, we clash and we have to negotiate in order to restore balance- or just break the bond altogether. It is really inevitable to constantly be in smooth interactions with the other, because we are different! Not a single human being is exactly the same to another, and this pure truth should bring some consolation and comfort.
It is during the Conflict stage that our Shadow, our hidden aspects start to appear. Insecurities, fears, traumas, need to control, ego games, lack of consideration, neediness, arrogance and stubbornness are bound to be exposed. We are required to actually let go of our ego entitlement, of our expectations about what relationships are supposed to be like, what our partner should give us and how they should behave. When we get stuck in expectations, we resist to look at what really is, and that can be painful, even torturing.
The positive side of Conflict is that it entails a certain level of safety and security, in order to allow these aspects to come to the surface. Things you wouldn’t dare say, show and express to your partner during the Romance stage come naturally to you now. You feel more comfortable and safe with your partner. But the question is how you are going to move from conflict to resolution…
Cooperation is the basis of conflict resolution. Love does flow smoothly at times, but most of the times it works because we work on it. Despite what many would believe, it is not so difficult to define what has to be worked on: what doesn’t really work, signifies an alarm that it requires work.
It is the willingness of both partners to work things out that guarantees thriving of the relationship. If one or both are reluctant to do the work, or blatantly refuse to do so, it is as if they admit they are not really ready to relate to each other and build a satisfying, reciprocal and loving relationship.
What to do during the Conflict stage
Conflict is a call to action towards working things out. This can only happen by addressing, processing and then resolving the issues that arise.
Commitment is expressed when we are willing to confront and work through obstacles , rather than simply avoid them or ignore their presence. People who avoid conflict tend to swipe everything under the rug, but eventually this leads to so much trash collected there, that it will inevitably start overflowing, often with destructive force.
To overcome conflict:
You need to commit to bring all your major concerns to your partner, instead of just piling them up inside of you
You need to commit to be honest and transparent and realize that still, you are different than them, and may even have a different speed of progress which has to be respected
You need to be conscious of your triggers
You need to drop your defenses and defensiveness
You need to be conscious that criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling predict very negative outcomes for your relationship, and thus strive to avoid them and use their antidotes
You need to have patience with yourself and the other
You need to learn how to listen actively
You need to be accountable of your own part and contribution to problems
You need to recognize and remind yourself that we each have different demons to face and wounds from the past to heal; we all have a personal struggle to overcome.
Most importantly, you need to commit to yourself that you are going to work through your own issues, rather than blaming it all on your partner. Blame and criticism is a sure way towards a dead-end. Taking responsibility for yourself and seeing how you can resolve issues together with your partner builds trust. That’s how you grow together in intimacy.
When in conflict, not only do we doubt whether we can really love our partner, but we also may doubt whether we, ourselves, are really loveable. In such cases, we unwillingly may seek to prove our unloveability over and over by projecting inadequacies to our partner, who may not be able to fulfill them anyway- just like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Often we can get unstuck out of conflict when we revive an atmosphere of loving kindness between us, and remember that the core issue of the conflict is the real enemy; not our partner. Therefore, a useful question to remind yourself while in conflict, is “How can I summon a loving intend and act on it? How can I be as loving as possible in this situation?”
3. Commitment : Integration
If a couple does not break the relationship at the face of conflict, but rather chooses to prevail, address, process and resolve the issue, it moves into the stage of Commitment.
Essentially, this is the time that light and dark have been integrated, and you realize you are a human being with your strengths and weaknesses, same as your partner. You may perceive your relationship as being a team. If you have worked through some conflicts already, this probably has brought you closer to one another, as well as helped you understand yourself and the other with more compassion. This has increased trust and security between you, and made you more intimate with each other.
This is really what real love feels like: safety, harmony, balance, mindfulness. You are not anymore infatuated by your partner, blind to their shortcomings and weaknesses. You are well aware that they are less than perfect, but that’s ok, because you accept, value and love them as a Whole now. You are both committed to working on yourselves to improve even further, and on the relationship, to make it an even safer haven for the both of you.
It is possible to keep the romance alive during the Commitment stage: the happiest couples are those that can claim they are still in love, while in this stage.
The virtues of intimate love
Instead of the sometimes insecure state of the previous stages, committed love is characterized by a deep sense of trust towards your partner. To trust someone means to allow their love to come to you, but also handle their failings- and do both fearlessly.
Attention, Acceptance, Allowing, Appreciation and Affection are in a reciprocal flow between the two partners. If there are failures in how the Five A’s are offered or received, both partners are not afraid to address this, and both can commit to make amends and improve. Moreover, in mature and mindful relationships both partners can accept that the other may not be available to nourish them or provide tthe Five A's at all times- but that is no reason to walk away, unless it becomes a steady pattern.
Mature and intimate love is the one that cherishes the belief that both individuals are separate individuals, not enmeshed, and can therefore each have their own personal boundaries that the other understands and respects.
You want the other to be next to you, but you are not desperate and needy for their presence. There is a calm and confident inner knowledge that the other is there for you, and you can depend on them, but you do not surrender to them nor appoint them to take care of you completely. Each is responsible for themselves and can depend on the other in a healthy and balanced way, rather than being codependent.
In a healthy committed relationship, partners can openly and honestly communicate with each other about personal and interpersonal concerns. They can do so in an adult manner, with paying respect to the needs of their partner too.
Relationships comprise of stages, just like anything else in life.
If you would like to deepen your commitment and further improve an intimate relationship, this requires a day-to-day choice to address, process and resolve issues and keep the agreements you have mutually set with your partner.
We essentially make a commitment to stay with a partner as long as we are both engaged in the relationship effectively, or both working on the relationship to improve it and make it more effective and mutually satisfying.
Today we talked about the three main stages of relationships: Romance, Conflict and Commitment. If you view Romance and Conflict as the two extremes, Commitment is the middle path. After all, the way to the center is always through the extremes. As David Richo states:
"We move from the extreme of romance to the extreme of conflict in order to reach the center of commitment, according to the cycle of thesis, antithesis, synthesis."
Lastly, I will use a favorite quote of Dr Sue Johnson, couples therapist and founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy:
“Love is a constant dance between connection and disconnection”.
Fully understanding this statement essentially means realizing that you can go in and out of all relationship stages with your partner, and that conflict does not mean a catastrophe.
You flow in and out of love, with every step backwards or into conflict signifying a wonderful opportunity of transformation, renewal and progress.
It’s all part of the game called Love, and it is a wonderful one, as long as you allow yourself to enjoy it!