The Stages of a Relationship by Elana Clark-Faler, LCSW

Psychologist Susan Campbell has shown how relationships go through five primary stages: the Romance Stage, the Power Struggle, the Stability Stage, the Commitment Stage and finally, the Bliss/Co-Creation Stage. These stages are based on relationships that begin with romance. As we know, however, people enter relationships for a number of reasons. You might enter a relationship because you feel unsafe or unstable and you’re seeking security. If that is the case, you will likely choose someone who is highly secure. However, you may not be physically attracted to this person or the sex is just “okay.” On the other hand, you might enter a relationship because you’ve met someone who makes you feel alive, when you initially felt depressed. In these relationships, it is common that after the novelty wears off, you find yourself just as depressed as you were before you met, only this time, you might attribute your depression to your relationship. Or you may be entering a relationship because it was arranged for you by someone else (such as a parent or family members). For the purpose of explaining the development of a romantic relationship, I’ll assume you entered this relationship because you felt a romantic attraction to the person you married.

In the Romance Stage you fall in love, and when that happens your brain releases Oxytocin, Phenylethylamine and Dopamine, which set your heart longing and your loins throbbing. You ignore any flaws of your partner and shrug them off as something that doesn’t matter all that much. You feel compatible and you don’t want to be without this person. This feeling can last anywhere from two months to two years, but regardless of how great it feels and how much you love the other person, this stage shall pass.

The next stage is the Power Struggle period. This is a challenging time where you and your partner focus less on what you have in common, and more on your differences. When this happens, you will both feel disappointment, regret and sometimes anger. You will miss what you had before and romanticize the old times. You may often say or think, “I’m not in love with you anymore.”  The romantic love has worn off and you are now living “real life.” You struggle with domestic tasks. You both think differently and it’s difficult to develop routines and practices with one another. You fear that you’ll be stuck in this cycle, so you might conclude that you had might as well end it before things get worse. This stage can go on for months or years. How long it lasts depends on whether the couple seeks support to change the patterns.

Often couples don’t understand the importance of seeking help outside the relationship. This is where you see some people participate in infidelity, because they are acting out their feelings rather than communicating their feelings effectively. People can stay in a Power Struggle Stage for a very long time, and some don’t move out of it at all.

Once you’ve passed through the Power Struggle stage, you’ve entered the Stability Stage. The Stability Stage is a stage where you accept your partner as being different than you. You honor each other’s difference and respect each other. You develop new tools of communication by using “I” statements and you learn not to take things personally. You are able to listen to your partner and validate their experience. You participate in clear boundaries and you no longer try to change your partner. With mutual respect, you grow to love your partner in a new romantic way that feels deeper. You feel comfortable with each other and take risks to share more with your partner, who validates your experience. This approach causes you to feel heard, seen and honored. You’re able to see each other’s point-of-view and understand that you both may see things differently. You may agree to disagree on some matters. This stage can become comfortable and super secure–too comfortable and secure, in fact. Couples can get stuck in this stage where they become great roommates but their sex lives dwindle. That’s why it’s important to work on your sex life and find adventure on a regular basis.

The Commitment Stage is the stage where you’ve learned to truly love each other, shortcomings and all. You experience a wonderful balance of security, love, passion, fun and freedom. Power and control no longer define your relationship. You feel a new commitment to each other. You feel like a power couple, where no one can break the security between you and your partner. You feel a true connection with someone in the world who you are truly committed to. The problem in this stage is thinking your work is done. It isn’t. You have only begun.

The Bliss/Co-Creation Stage is a stage where you move beyond your devotion to each other and share your time and gifts with your community. You have chosen to work as a team to support the world by having a child, volunteering or creating a business together. You work on projects together in order to support the family, community, or the world. These gifts give back to the relationship in powerful ways. You meet new people who enter your life which enhances your relationship and bond. The problem in this stage is when you give so much to the outside world that you neglect your relationship. You must find balance.

It’s important to understand these stages aren’t linear. One does not always follow the other. They move together, more like a spiral than a staircase. Events or circumstances can reduce the relationship back to the Power Struggle stage overnight. I experience big changes in my relationships approximately every five years. You have to think of your relationship like an orgasm that is constantly building, receding, developing or evolving (at least that’s the hope). Some relationships get stuck or clogged. Others flow smoothly, even over rocky paths. It’s up to you to choose which type of relationship you want and make it happen.

Elana Clark-Faler
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