by: Mary Ellen Goggin
Nature evolves in predetermined patterns. Day follows night, winter spring, and adulthood follows childhood and infancy. This is also true of romantic relationships. Although each couple is unique, relationships tend to evolve in patterns or stages. Each stage provides a set of risks and challenges to navigate as a couple. If the couple succeeds, then the result is personal growth and expansion. If not, they remain stuck and experience difficulty moving to the next level.
What follows is a brief description of each of the five stages. Don’t be fooled by their simplicity or assume the stages operate in linear fashion. Most couples experience some fluctuation among stages with periods of progression to higher levels and regression to earlier stages at times of stress. Sometimes a relationship can exist simultaneously in two stages.
Stage 1- Infatuation
The beginning of a relationship is a time of euphoria and intoxication. Life looks shiny and blindingly bright and the infatuated couple feels exhilarated and giddy with infinite possibility. Our senses intensify and we feel just swell. New lovers become preoccupied with the courtship of their new romance. Their bodies surge with testosterone, dopamine and endorphins. Sexual energy, laughter, playfulness flow abundantly. A feeling of contentment warms the heart. Hollywood romantic films do a great job of capturing the essence of infatuated couples.In this stage couples establish their connection. They emphasize their similarities and ignore differences. There is a good deal of fantasy and projection about the future with the new partner. Couples play house. To make room for the new love, couples often withdraw from some of their other relationships at least temporarily.
The infatuation stage generally spans a period from two months to two years. Although infatuation inevitably fades over time, this stage is an essential building block of the relationship.
Stage 2- Power Struggle
The fantasy has evaporated and the euphoria is gone. It is time for a reality check. Light dawns on Marblehead. All of your partner’s flaws now seem glaringly obvious and downright annoying. The differences that you denied overshadow your similarities and thoughts of incompatibility begin to haunt you. You feel disillusioned and concerned that you have chosen the wrong partner. Turf battles about major and minor issues are common. Each of you believes that the relationship would be fine if only your partner would change. Welcome to the stage marked by ambivalent feelings about your partner that you will deal with either through conflict resolution or withdrawal from the relationship.
In the infatuation stage you were joined at the hip. Now you want more freedom and fear losing your individuality. You begin to set limits and dig in your heels. Couples often seek counseling during their struggle for power when they cannot resolve their differences. Some couples get stuck and divorce in this stage. Those who make it through this necessary stage move on to a healthy relationship in which they can retain both their individuality and the relationship.
Stage 3- Reflection and Re-evaluation
The power struggle subsides and the relative calm after the storm sets in. Stage 3 is a resting time. You recognize that you’re not going to change your partner to fit your specifications and you might be disappointed at the outcome of the power struggle. You reflect and reevaluate your situation. Some couples distance themselves from one another or create parallel lives in which independence trumps real intimacy and the frequency of sex is diminished. This alienation carries a risk of entering a relationship “dead zone” in which partners become bored with one another and/or their life in general. Some partners will become overly involved in work or a hobby.
Stage 4- Transformation and Commitment
After the introspection and emotional distance experienced in Stage 3, many couples feel the urge to re-merge, and start to build a bridge and reconnect. In stage 4, you feel a renewed desire for belonging and connection. Both you and your partner understand the influence of past experiences (i.e. family, friends, past relationships, culture). You start to see the real person without the distortion or projection of earlier stages. You understand at a deep level that what you see is what you got. You recognize each other’s strengths and accept their deficits.
In Stage 4, you choose intentionally to be together with eyes wide open, no longer blinded by infatuation or threatened by power struggles or emotional distance. There is a return of romantic warmth in the relationship. Couples often marry when they’ve comfortably reached this stage.
Stage 5- Acceptance and Reconciliation
In Stage 5 the couple becomes a team. Each partner is capable of standing on his or her own feet while also loving, supporting and nurturing their partner. Warmth, peace and mutual respect mark this stage. The couple has learned to resolve conflicts when they arise and has little desire for competition or resentment. They’ve struck a healthy balance between their individual freedom and the safety of their deep connection. They have forged a healthy relationship in which they are free, whole and connected.
Jerry Duberstein, Ph.D. is the co-author with Mary Ellen Goggin, JD of the book Relationship Transformation: Have Your Cake and Eat It Too-A Practical Guide for Couples Who Want To Be Free and Connected. Jerry and Mary Ellen offer couples intensive counseling retreats in the quaint seaport town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. To learn more about their work visit www.freeandconnected.com.
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