The different stages of a relationship

My relationship seems to be cooling off - the partner I married/started my relationship with is not the same anymore.

You may over a course of time develop a sense of disappointment with your partner, missing certain behaviours that you loved at the beginning of the relationship or getting irritated with behaviours that seem new and strange. Instead of the fire that was there at the beginning you are now entering more temperate or even arctic climates. Every relationship changes over time as both partners mature and develop as individuals as well as the unit that forms the relationship. While every relationship is as different as the two individuals in it, there are some distinct stages that most relationships go through.

Couples don’t necessarily ‘progress’ through the stages in a linear way, there may be some revisiting of earlier stages for example, however, most couples will at some point in a longer term relationship experience the following stages. It can be helpful to know that difficult times can be overcome and that it is quite normal for couples to go through challenging times.

The spark – romantic beginnings

In the beginning you are in paradise: (almost) everything about your partner is perfect, life is beautiful and both you and your partner are happy to give and receive love in abundance and with pleasure. The expectation is that your partner can fulfil most of your wants and needs. You may experience being one with each other and both have a wish to be in physical contact all the time.

On a physiological level your body releases high levels of dopamine which help to bind you to your new partner - you are literally high as a kite.

Developmental tasks:

Having formed a strong attachment to your partner enables you to move on to more mature stages in the relationship that allow for difference and separateness as well as togetherness. Couples who don’t move on from this stage of development in the relationship are likely to be very enmeshed with each other and struggle to deal with conflict.

The chasm – reality check

Romantic love is all very well, but who does the washing up on a regular basis? Minor conflicts start to occur in the relationship and our partner is now seen in a more critical light: previously unacknowledged differences make an appearance and an occasional sense of disappointment or even anxiety emerge. There may be a sense that your idealised partner does not quite turn out to be the way we wanted them to be. At this stage the couple begins to realise that they are two separate people with different and at times clashing agendas.

You may at this stage experience a sense of loss and grievance for the carefree romantic beginnings.

Developmental tasks:

This stage of the relationship allows partners to learn to respect their separate identities. At this stage in the relationship there may be issues around one partner getting anxious around being abandoned and the other partner wishes to be less constrained and enmeshed with their partner. Couples who seek couple therapy at this stage in their relationship will need to learn more about their own needs and where these may originate and to develop better understanding for their partner’s position. 

The power struggle – trouble in paradise

The initial enchantment has worn off in this stage: where there was agreement and oneness before there is now conflict and separateness. The two separate partners with their separate identities and different needs may drift further apart. Often this stage in the relationship coincides with arguments about children and career developments. You may experience your partner as unavailable, unresponsive, aggressive, withdrawn or even as hostile.

In this stage you may find that you are spending less time together and that conflicts are much more likely to flare up than before. Often these feelings are unacknowledged on both sides but you both have a sense of things not being right in the relationship. The fear in the relationship is often related to the thought that more intimacy entails a loss of self.

This stage is the most difficult in relationships and for many couples there is a fork in the road: to stay to together or to separate. Couples who start couples therapy mostly tend to be in this stage of their relationship.

Developmental tasks:

Both partners develop their own sense of identity and their individual interests.

The union – maturity in the relationships

Couples who weathered the storm in the power struggle and individuation phase have managed to balance safety and security with independence and separateness; they can tolerate intimacy as well as letting go and allowing their partner to grow and develop independently. Maturity in the relationship allows both partners to be depended on as well as being depending on the other.

Couples looking for couples therapy at this stage often wish to rethink how they can be closer to each other while still maintaining their own sense of individuality.

Developmental tasks:

A couple at this stage can tolerate emotional vulnerability and has the capacity to negotiate different sets of needs. Partners can work at deepening their relationship and at maintaining equilibrium between depending on and be depended on by their partner.

Often the two partners may be at a different stage in terms of the developmental aspect of each stage: for example one partner may still be in the honey moon stage feeling as one with their partner while the other has started on the road to more independence. Couples therapy is therefore often concerned with establishing where partners are situated in relation to separateness and togetherness and what these issues bring up for each partner. For example a couple which is not able to move on from the early symbiosis and feeling of ‘we are one’ may have two anxious partners who live in great fear of abandonment due to earlier childhood experiences.

You will see the partner who you met initially through a new lens at each stage of your relationship so that they become indeed a very different person right in front of your eyes. The wishes and hopes that you initially projected onto your partner may only be partly reflected back to you. The opportunity that arises with each developmental stage of your relationship is for you to see yourself reflected back and to grow as an individual. Often your partner offers you an opportunity to heal some of your own wounds.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, Greater London, N14 7BH
Written by Angela Dierks, MStud (Oxon), MA Integrative Counselling, MBACP (Acc)
London, Greater London, N14 7BH

I am a dedicated couple therapist and work with individual clients on their relationship issues.

I hold an M.A. Integrative Counselling (with Distinction) and a Diploma in Couple Counselling and Psychotherapy am BACP accredited.

I completed a BACP accredited Diploma in Clinical Supervision (CPPD) and offer supervision to other therapists.

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