All long-term relationships tend to have a somewhat predictable progression over time. Dr. Susan Campbell studied hundreds of couples over several decades, and her “5 Stages of a Relationship” is a useful way of looking at its overall evolution and the most common challenges during each stage.
The five stages of a relationship are:
- The romance stage
- The power struggle stage
- The stability stage
- The commitment stage
- The co-creation/blissful stage
Even if you’ve never studied relationship psychology, these stages must surely sound familiar! Here’s a closer look at each stage and the best ways to navigate them:
1. Romance Stage
Also known as the “honeymoon phase,” the romance stage is typically the first of any relationship. People in the romance stage are often infatuated with one another (that “head over heels” feeling).
During the romance stage, you will experience a drug-like euphoria and a literal addiction to being around your new partner. Your hormones are going wild and releasing oxytocin (the “love” hormone). This stage doesn’t usually last forever, but that’s normal!
Here are some helpful tips to consider if you’re currently in the romance stage of a relationship:
Sometimes new and exciting relationships can cause us to lose focus or de-prioritize the other things in our lives, such as our health, work, friendships, hobbies, and personal growth. It is really useful to remember that when the romance stage is over (which will happen at some point) you will still need to go back to your normal life.
It’s important to remember that in the romance stage of a relationship, we can be blind to the faults and red flags from prospective partners (thanks to the “infatuation” aspect). It can be helpful to take a moment to step back and examine what it is you like about them. Talking about this with a friend to get some perspective is useful since they can provide an outsider’s perspective. (It’s also important to trust your gut!)
Start Good Habits Early
Most of the time in the early stages of a relationship, the last thing we want to do is have an awkward conversation or broach a difficult subject. That said, it’s still a good idea to start a relationship as we hope to continue it — with clear, direct, respectful communication.
If you feel the relationship is getting a little more serious, it’s important to discuss expectations and deal-breakers (at the right time, of course). Remember, this isn’t necessarily first-date conversation material, but more of something to consider as you get to know each other and enjoy the new dynamic unfolding.
2. Power Struggle Stage
The power struggle stage is where things start to get “real, so to speak. In a nutshell, we start to consider whether or not the person we’re dating is the right one. During the power struggle stage, the rose-colored glasses have come off and you start to see your partner as a person with flaws, baggage, and annoying little quirks. Coming to this realization is why this stage is one of the hardest, and it’s usually a make-or-break phase for couples.
Here are some tips to consider if you are currently in the power struggle stage:
Communication Is Everything
Long story short, if we aren’t able to communicate effectively with our partners, the relationship is probably doomed. Rather than avoid all possible sources of conflict, it’s important to plan for what is likely to come up and consider how to best communicate your needs in a clear and direct way. In this stage of the relationship, arguing is bound to happen, so finding ways of having difficult conversations while looking after each other’s feelings in the process can be a valuable skill.
Don’t Run From Conflict
Conflict is a normal part of any relationship, and how you deal with arguments is ultimately what determines how healthy the relationship is. With that in mind, don’t run from conflict, but rather consider some challenges that have come up so far and how you can improve! What has been the common theme? How have you approached it? It’s helpful to look at these experiences of conflict or disagreement as opportunities for you to grow as a couple.
Often, part of getting through the power struggle stage is accepting that our partners are not perfect or exactly how we want them to be — and that’s okay! (And totally normal.) Many couples find that when they go through the process of working on their relationship, they come out the other side much happier and stronger than they were before. They’re no longer stressed and focusing on their partner’s flaws, but rather more aware of their strengths and the ways that they can work together in an imperfect, but happy, relationship.
3. Stability Stage
After the power struggle stage, there’s a much-needed period of calm known as the stability stage. You’ve adjusted the dynamic of your relationship, accepted any flaws in each other, set healthy boundaries, and formed a solid foundation of mutual trust and respect. Simply put, you’re comfortable with each other!
Everyone views stability in a different light, so whether you welcome it with open arms or fear that things got a little boring, you can consider these tips to help you navigate through this stage:
Keep It Fresh
While it’s good to enjoy stability in your relationship, it’s also important to remember that relationships thrive on change and energy. Switching up the routine every once in a while can make a big difference! Keeping date night fresh by trying new activities or getting outside of your comfort zone helps reignite the spark.
The stability stage is a period of re-calibration after the difficult power struggle stage, so it can be tempting to let go of boundaries, but it’s important to maintain them. Frequent “check-ins” are a great way to talk about how your boundaries are changing over the course of your relationship and to ensure you’re both on the same page. Once healthy boundaries are established, expectations have been set and misunderstandings are less likely.
Developing mutual respect means that both partners acknowledge that their significant other has to make their own choices in the relationship and in life. When relationships aren’t going well, we can forget how important this is, and perhaps even demean, or criticize our partners.
If you and your partner are not respectful, you risk damaging the trust that you have established in your relationship, which is an essential part of communication. (Respect and trust go hand-in-hand!) Breaking trust is one of the biggest reasons couples break up, so focusing on respecting your partner and their boundaries is essential to surviving the stability stage and moving forward as a couple.
4. Commitment Stage
The commitment stage doesn’t necessarily have to do with marriage or having children— rather, it’s the stage a couple gets to where they “choose” each other. They’ve worked through those questions and dilemmas around whether their partner can change, how to navigate conflict, and whether it’s worth it to stay in the relationship, and decide they are a great couple!
If you’re in the commitment stage of your relationship, some tips to consider might be:
Prioritize Personal Space
As wonderful as it might be to have reached the summit of couple goals, sometimes we can forget how important personal space and outside relationships are. Romantic relationships need oxygen, and at times, we might not even notice ourselves becoming codependent or choosing each other’s company over others. Part of creating healthy boundaries includes prioritizing personal space.
Just because you are in the commitment stage doesn’t mean you’re done investing time and energy into your relationship!
Your relationship should still remain a priority in your life, and you should still be working to actively improve it. Even if you feel like things are perfect, it’s important to look for new ways to deepen your connection so that you and your partner are both still excited about being together.
5. Co-Creation/Bliss Stage
You’ve arrived! It’s the pinnacle of what you might expect from a long-term, committed relationship. You’ve negotiated your differences and come to terms with imperfection and disappointments. Maybe you’ve decided on marriage, have decided to consciously have children together, or you’re just super happy no matter what. The best part of this stage is that you’re in total, wonderful bliss.
Even though you’ve arrived at this valued stage, it is important not to fall into complacency and think that there is no more work to be done. There’s always work! Luckily, you have journeyed through this together, so all the groundwork is done. You have an awareness of each other’s needs and vulnerabilities, as well as a good sense of values and dreams.
That’s it! There are no more stages (if you can believe it). Of course, not all our relationships will fit perfectly into this model, but it is a useful framework for understanding some of the common challenges that exist when we invite someone into our lives.