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Where Is the Love? Exploring the Four Phases of a Relationship

Where Is the Love? — The Four Stages in a Romantic Relationship

In any relationship, both partners will evolve. And that is perfectly okay.

Jane sighed deeply, folding her arms in frustration. “How many times have I told you I hate it when you constantly check on me? I want to meet up with my friends without always having to check with you.”

Jane and Martin, together for two years, came to my therapy practice feeling disconnected. Their initial courtship had been intensely passionate, with Jane feeling she had found her soulmate. Martin even shared her love for Concrete Poetry, one of her passions. The first six months were a whirlwind of excitement. Now, both felt deflated—Martin craved more affection, while Jane needed more personal space.

As a couples therapist, I often hear sentiments like, “We are constantly arguing. What happened? Where is the person who made my heart race every time they walked through the door? What has happened to us?”

The Evolution of Romantic Relationships

It’s common to experience a point in your relationship where the initial gloss fades, and you perceive your partner differently. The relationship may feel heavy, difficult, and filled with guilt, anger, or annoyance. You might start viewing your partner more critically, and they might do the same to you.

You might wonder where the partner you fell in love with has gone. Where is the person who brought you so much joy and seemed to understand you without words? Relationships evolve, and this transformation is a normal part of the process.

Lessons in Love

As human beings, we largely experience ourselves through the eyes of others. Our sense of humor, attractiveness, or interest often comes from how others perceive and react to us. The most important image is the one reflected by the person we love and who loves us.

We first experience our sense of self through the love of our parents or other primary caregivers. The way our first caregivers demonstrated their affection stays with us for the rest of our lives, though we are mostly unaware of it. Unconsciously, we look for our parents’ particular way of showing affection in others later on. Romantic love can be seen as a kind of replacement for our parents’ love, providing us with our first sense of intimacy and a template for love. For instance, if there was a lot of touching and holding in your family, you are likely to seek this later with your partner.

Your Partner is Not Your Parent

However, your partner is not your parent. Over time, you may develop a sense of disappointment, missing certain behaviors that you loved at the beginning of the relationship or getting irritated with behaviors that seem new and strange. You start to realize that your partner is not quite the person you thought they would be. The mirror that reflected a perfect image of you might now look a bit cracked. Instead of the initial fire and warmth, you are now entering more temperate or even arctic climates. Every relationship changes over time as both partners mature and develop as individuals. You may need to adjust your old relationship templates as they may no longer serve you well.

While every relationship is as different as the individuals in it, there are some distinct stages that most relationships go through.

The Four Stages of a Romantic Relationship

Stage 1: The Spark — Romantic Beginnings

In this honeymoon stage, 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. The expectation is that your partner can fulfill most of your wants and needs. You marvel at all your shared tastes and focus on your similarities. You may experience being one with each other and wish to be in physical contact all the time. There is little to no conflict in your relationship at this point. This stage, often portrayed in movies, shapes our idealized views and fantasies about relationships.

Physiologically, your body mobilizes you to attach to your partner. High levels of the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin are released, resulting in an increased level of dopamine, the ‘happy hormone’ — you are literally high and addicted to your new love. Some research shows that people in the early stages of love share characteristics with those going through a psychotic episode.

Developmental Tasks:

Forming a strong bond with your partner enables you to move on to more mature stages in the relationship that allow for both difference and togetherness. Couples who don’t move on from this stage are likely to be very enmeshed with each other and struggle to deal with conflict. People who frequently change their partner are often very attached to this stage, seeking to endlessly repeat the excitement and fun that comes with it.

Stage 2: The Chasm — Reality Check

Your partner is still seen in a largely positive light, but minor conflicts start to occur in the relationship. Previously unacknowledged differences make an appearance, and an occasional sense of disappointment or slight anxiety emerges: are they the right person for me? There may be a sense that your idealized partner does not quite turn out to be the way you wanted them to be. At this stage, the couple begins to realize that they are two separate people with different and sometimes clashing agendas.

You may experience a slight sense of loss and grievance for the carefree romantic beginnings. Your body does not have as many endorphins flushing through your system anymore, so the initial high in the relationship is beginning to wear off.

Developmental Tasks:

This stage offers both partners an opportunity to learn to respect their separate identities. It is often at this stage that attachment issues arise, with one partner getting anxious for fear of being abandoned and the other wishing to be less constrained and enmeshed. Couples seeking therapy at this stage need to learn more about their own needs and where they originate, developing a better understanding of their partner’s position.

Stage 3: The Power Struggle — Trouble in Paradise

The initial enchantment has worn off, and your rose-tinted glasses are clear now. Where there was agreement and oneness, there is now conflict and separateness. This stage often coincides with arguments about children and career developments. You may experience your partner as unavailable, unresponsive, aggressive, withdrawn, or even hostile.

You find that you are spending less time together and that the fire that initially stoked passion now lights up your arguments. Often, feelings of frustration are unacknowledged on both sides, but you both sense things are not right in the relationship. You may wonder more frequently whether you are compatible. 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, it presents a fork in the road: to stay together or to separate. Couples who start therapy mostly tend to be in this stage. They are often exhausted by the frequent arguments and feel quite alone in the relationship.

Developmental Tasks:

Both partners develop their own sense of identity and individual interests. They need to learn to accept that there will be different viewpoints and occasional conflict but that this can be addressed, and often a solution or compromise can be found. The challenge is to develop a more effective communication style: to actively listen to your partner and not react defensively.

Stage 4: The Union — Maturity in the Relationship

Couples who weathered the storm in the power struggle phase have managed to balance safety and security with independence and separateness. They can tolerate intimacy as well as allowing their partner to grow independently. Maturity in the relationship allows both partners to depend on each other and maintain their individuality. Couples at this stage have accepted their partner’s differences and see them as strengths to the relationship.

Developmental Tasks:

A couple at this stage can tolerate and embrace emotional vulnerability. Both partners can negotiate different sets of needs and manage occasional compromise. They work at deepening their relationship and maintaining equilibrium between depending on and being depended on by their partner.

Both Partners at Different Stages

Your partner and you are not always on the same page. Often, you may be at different stages in terms of the developmental aspects of each stage. For example, your partner may still be in the honeymoon stage, feeling as one with you, while you have set out on the road to more independence. Reflecting on where you are situated in relation to separateness and togetherness and what these issues bring up for each of you can be useful. For instance, a couple unable to move on from early symbiosis may consist of two anxious partners living in great fear of abandonment due to earlier childhood experiences. Any attempt by one partner to develop more independence will be met with fierce resistance.

Seeing Your Partner Through a New Lens

You will see your partner through a new lens at each stage of your relationship. Your partner can literally seem like a different person right before your eyes. The wishes and hopes you initially projected onto your partner may only be partly reflected back to you. Each developmental stage of your relationship offers an opportunity to see yourself reflected differently and grow as an individual. Your partner provides you with a chance to heal some of your own wounds.

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