The truth is that relationships do not stay the same. So often, couples come into my office and lament that “things have changed” or “I wish it could be like it was when we first met.” The good news is that even though it is sad in a way that things don’t stay the same, change can also open the door for even better things to come. Successful relationships tend to change and develop over time in predictable ways. The descriptions below will help you see where you are along the path and give you a clearer picture of what to expect. Along the way, couples tend to get stuck in predictable ways as well, and the other good news is that there are proven, effective ways to help you get unstuck.
Outlined below are the five normal, natural stages that couples go through on their way to a successful relationship and the kinds of struggles that they are likely to face at each step. Even though you and your partner are in your relationship together, you are each a unique person with your own personality and history, and you will likely move through these stages at different times and in different ways. Understanding this can help you have greater patience and perspective on change and your relationship journey.
Stage 1 Symbiosis: Exclusive Bonding
This is often referred to as the romantic or honeymoon stage. The focus is on how much you have in common and how good it feels to be together. Differences are minimized. Looking back later, people can often see that by focusing so much on the “us” at this stage, parts of their individual personality seemed to almost disappear for a time. This vital stage gives you as a couple the chance to make a powerful connection, which will serves as the foundation for the growth and change that will inevitably come. This early idyllic connection eventually fades, and each partner’s individual personality becomes more evident. Disillusionment may set in, but these changes also make it possible for needed healthy growth and development.
Stage 2 Differentiation: Managing Anxiety over Differences
It can be stressful as individual differences become more apparent. This is a very common stuck place for couples. There are two ineffective paths that those who resist change use in an attempt to stay in the comfort of Symbiosis:
- Avoiding conflict by hiding or denying differences. This is ultimately stifling and leads to increasingly unfulfilling, superficial interactions limited to “safe” topics about which there is no conflict.
- Angry, often escalating fights in which each partner tries to pressure the other to give in and agree with them so they can return to the no conflict, blissful honeymoon. These couples find themselves having the same fights over and over again with no resolution. The effective path at this crossroad is to learn to accept the differences that you and your partner have, even to become curious and interested in exploring them, and then to stretch and grow to find healthy ways to manage conflict and negotiate solutions that truly work for both of you.
Stage 3 Exploration: Moving from “We” back to “I”
Couples who are learning to manage their differences effectively need to go through this next crucial stage, which is all about each partner redefining themselves and reestablishing their own identity independently from the relationship. Although this stage is essential to the further development of the relationship, it can be very tricky as well and is another common stuck place for couples. If one partner goes into this stage before the other one, the other can feel like they are being abandoned. If both partners go into it at the same time, they can be so focused on themselves that they start to feel more like roommates than partners. Either way, when you are in this stage you can feel as if you are alone and wonder what happened to your loving and caring connection. Each of you redefining yourself will create new possibilities for a deeper relationship between stronger, healthier partners and sets the stage for reconnecting on a powerful new level.
Stage 4 Re-connection: Back and Forth Patterns of Intimacy
With your increased sense of your own identities, you and your partner can enter a new phase of your relationship, one in which you think and talk about your differences, value and appreciate your partner’s point of view while holding on to your own, without getting so hurt or angry. There will be a new quality to being together when you fully respect each other as separate individuals. This leads to a deeper sense of intimacy, which often gets expressed in a revitalized sexual connection. You can develop more comfortable rhythms of back and forth between connection and individuality. You will still have conflicts and there will be difficult discussions, but you will have increasing confidence in your ability to navigate these with grace because of your deep respect for yourself and each other, including respect for your differences.
Stage 5 Synergy: Independence and Interdependence
As the flow back and forth from “me” to “we” becomes easier, you create a synergy in your relationship, where being together is more vital than either of you alone. Each of you benefits from this and your togetherness develops an energy of its own. Your intimacy continues to deepen as you are better able to manage your emotional reactions to your differences and the conflicts that naturally arise. As an individual, you know who you are, what you believe in, and what you hold dear in life, and you deeply understand these same things about your partner. It is common to feel a great sense of stability and to want to give back to the world and to further the causes about which you are passionate. You have a profound and abiding respect for yourself, your partner, and your partnership. You are sustained by the life you have created together and feel free to be vulnerable and connected.
Of course, no couple moves easily straight through all of these stages. It is expected that you will have some jerks and halts, take a few steps forward and then a few steps back, get stuck, and then push through. The important thing is to hold on to a sense that there is a pattern, that it is normal for relationships to change, that growth and development are vital parts of a healthy, successful long lasting relationship. Knowing this can help you to figure out where you are along the way, and have a clearer idea about what lies ahead. It is comforting to know that others have gone through the same struggles that you are having, and that there are effective, proven techniques that can help you as you work to move forward.
Heartfelt appreciation is given to Dr. Ellyn Bader, PhD, and Dr. Peter Pearson, PhD, Co-founders of the Couples Institute, www.CouplesInstitute.com, for their outstanding research and inspired description of these stages of healthy relationship growth.