Developmental Stages of a Relationship

Marriage Counseling Insights brought to you by California Psychotherapeutic Resources, Inc.

If you’ve been through a romantic relationship or two, you probably know that the initial phase of infatuation eventually fades and a less intense but more sustainable relationship typically develops. Many people, though, think that’s pretty much how things are — phase one, phase two. Sustain and deepen the relationship… or split up.

A young man and woman in love

Not so fast, though, say many therapists. Actually, there are probably more like four stages to a typical relationship, each with their own challenges and rewards. Writing for, Renee Hanlon identifies the four stages and says, “Luckily, there are some easy ways to overcome conflicts and true love will prevail. There is no definite time period for each of the following stages. Some couples get through all of them rather quickly and with others, it takes more time.” The four stages are:

The Euphoric Stage. No surprise here. This stage has been written about endlessly but, more to the point, anyone who has been in a relationship knows that this stage is real. In addition, if there is not a bit of euphoria involved, it probably means the relationship will fizzle away pretty quickly. After all, Why am I going out with this person when there are no sparks, no chemistry? Hanlon makes an important observation about this stage: “It’s when we can overlook any and all faults of the other person. For this reason, there is very little conflict at this stage.” If there are conflicts even when sparks are flying, you might consider that a yellow or red flag.

The Reality Check. Do some of your partner’s little habits that you overlooked in the first six months of your relationship suddenly become a little annoying? Welcome back to reality. In a sense, this is make-or-break time in the relationship. The hormones aren’t raging quite as strongly, clouding your perceptions and dulling your rational thought. So, it’s time to start thinking more clearly about your present and your future. “For the relationship to be successful,” writes Hanlon, “this has to be a time of serious communication and some self-sacrifice. While our needs are important, so are the needs of the one we love. Many strong relationships still thrive in this stage and a little bit of compromise goes a long way. When individuals can grow on their own and still maintain a strong connection as a couple, it is a good, powerful thing.”

The Crisis Stage. If you survived the reality check, then you should both have a deep understanding of the other person’s wants and needs. It’s also a time for an honest assessment about whether some of those wants are simply incompatible. Younger couples, for example, may have different ideas about having children, or how many children to have. Mark that one down as a dealbreaker — if you’re each equally committed to your desire to have/not have children, there’s no amount of talking that is going to heal that rift.

The Settling Down Stage. This is the stage when mature love flourishes. However, if one partner finds this stage a bit boring, it’s time for some self-reflection: what exactly are you looking for in a long-term relationship? “This is the stage,” writes Hanlon, “where a couple finds they are able to finish each other’s sentences (pardon the cliché). They know each other so well and an even deeper attachment is formed and when you find each other predictable, it can be incredibly comforting.”

Read more about the four stages of a relationship here.