If love was like it is in the movies, there would be a very simple formula.
We’d meet, fall hopelessly in love, and go on to life happily ever after.
Needless to say, real love ‘ain’t so simple.
Real relationships are complex and dynamic. They shift and evolve stages as we navigate the ups and downs together.
But we can better prepare ourselves for what is to come.
Psychology pinpoints five distinct stages that most couples will go through during the course of their relationship.
Understanding these stages can provide valuable insights that help to strengthen you as a couple.
Stage 1: The lovey-dovey phase
Sometimes known as the infatuation stage, this is when we feel those butterflies.
Let’s face it, it’s everyone’s favorite stage, and that’s understandable.
Its hallmarks are:
- Intense passion and excitement
- Deep attraction toward each other
- Effortless communication
- Romantic gestures
Your relationship feels so fun, easy, and glowing.
But there is a lot of projection going on too.
Your partner hasn’t had the chance yet to burst the bubble.
In this early stage, we’re still getting to know one another on a deeper level. As a consequence, we’re on our best behavior.
We can idealize and glamorize the other person, and we so often do. In our eyes, they can do no wrong.
We’re far more inclined to overlook any imperfections or find little quirky habits “cute”.
Sometimes when people are lost in this infatuation stage, their common sense goes out of the window.
They overlook huge red flags that turn into big problems later down the line.
We can blame our hormones for a lot of this.
Love is a drug
Our newfound love mimics addiction because in many ways it is.
As highlighted by Harvard Medical School, the brain is experiencing a rush of chemicals that turn us into love junkies.
The reward chemical dopamine is released in high levels, making ‘“love a pleasurable experience similar to the euphoria associated with use of cocaine or alcohol”.
Meanwhile, chemicals like oxytocin and vasopressin get to work to help us connect on a deeper level:
“Released during sex and heightened by skin-to-skin contact, oxytocin deepens feelings of attachment and makes couples feel closer to one another after having sex. Oxytocin, known also as the love hormone, provokes feelings of contentment, calmness, and security, which are often associated with mate bonding. Vasopressin is linked to behavior that produces long-term, monogamous relationships.”
Sadly, this chemical cocktail doesn’t last forever.
As if fades, so too does a lot of that initial passion. It makes way for new attachments to grow, as we’ll see next, but it isn’t always plain sailing.
Stage 2: The spell is broken and doubt creeps in
It turns out our other half isn’t perfect after all.
When you enter this next stage of a relationship depends on you as a couple and factors such as how much time you spend together and how quickly your connection intensifies.
It can be anywhere from a few months in, up to a few years.
But at some point or another, the rose-tinted glasses fall off.
We are left with the realization that our other half isn’t a Disney Princess or a dashing Prince Charming.
They are a normal human being, with all the natural flaws that come along with that.
When you enter this stage, you may be faced with:
- Uncertainty about your compatibility
- Doubts over the strength of your feelings
- Conflicts and power struggles
- Strained communication that leads to misunderstandings or disagreements
It can feel intense as it’s such a marked change from how things were in the early days.
As your differences come to the surface, it leads to bitter disappointment…and perhaps a desire to run away as we suddenly “get the ick”.
Fight or flight can kick in
If all of this sounds pretty dull, that’s because it can be.
All those delicious hormones and chemicals that were flying rampantly around rather unceremoniously die down.
It’s like the hangover after a wild night. In the cold light of day, everything is cast in a different light.
The natural stress response to increased cortisol levels can prompt our fight-or-flight instinct to kick in.
If this happens, you may find yourself picking at your partner more, or simply withdrawing from them.
This stage doesn’t have to bring conflict, you may just feel a bit more comfortable and settled. But that too can leave things feeling a bit flat and unexciting.
This is a risky stage because we’re not always equipped to handle this shift in our feelings.
We can mistakenly assume that it means there is something wrong in the relationship, and that we should still feel the same level of intensity as before.
This can all come to a head as we enter the next stage.
Stage 3: Reality well and truly hits (for good and for bad)
This is the adjustment and assimilation stage of a relationship.
The impact it has on you will depend on your relationship.
We’ve got to know our partner on a deeper level which can enrich your sense of intimacy and connection.
Things have settled down and you start to lead a normal life together.
But it also means we also have to come to terms with the reality of who our other half truly is, and not what we created them to be in our heads.
If we cannot reconcile these things, or the gap between our fantasy and reality is too large, this can turn into a really rough time in the relationship.
It’s at this stage when:
- Relationship habits and patterns start to form
- Routine sets in
- We (hopefully) learn to compromise and accept each other’s differences
- We start to ask meaningful questions about the future (and whether this person is truly right for us)
- Much deeper conflicts and problems can start to arise if we become disillusioned
We have to get super honest
…both with ourselves and our partners.
If we cling to unrealistic notions of love, we can get stuck in destructive cycles.
Every time we pass the honeymoon phase we’re tempted to cut and run, and start the whole process over again with someone new.
But at the same time, we also need to make sure the person we’re considering committing to is right for us.
Open communication is key.
Does this relationship have longevity?
Do you want the same things?
Can you navigate your differences and pull together?
The answers will dictate whether you enter the next stage of a relationship or go your separate ways.
The good news is that if we can iron out any problems, smoother sailing is on the horizon.
Stage 4: A choice is made
This is when the choice is made and you must decide:
Are you in or are you out?
Or as I once rather unromantically heard it put:
‘It’s time to fish or cut bait.’
Of course, the state of your relationship will be what guides your decision.
You may discover during this stage:
- Your vulnerability is stronger as you fully reveal yourself to your partner
- You’ve learned to handle and accept each other’s flaws
- You discuss or make bigger commitments like marriage and children
- Although those sparks have faded a little, you feel a deep sense of companionship
Relationship issues can come to a head
This can be a time when some couples reach their breaking point.
Arguments increase, tensions become more strained, affairs emerge and the divide gets deeper.
This is especially likely if you have been brushing discontentment and relationship problems under the rug rather than dealing with them.
Either way, you’re still faced with a decision: to work on things or cut your losses.
If you choose to deepen your commitment you can build a solid foundation for their future.
By the time you emerge from this stage as a couple, trust, loyalty, and long-term plans become central in the relationship.
Stage 5: Real love emerges
Perhaps love would run more smoothly if we had more realistic expectations of it.
We often talk about not being “in love” anymore, despite their still being love in the relationship.
But all too often we just mean that we’ve passed through the lust and attraction phases and hit this new stage.
As outlined by Harvard University attachment is the predominant factor in long-term relationships.
Our relationship is less likely to feel like a rollercoaster ride, but our bond is deeper and more stable.
In many ways, it’s the friend zone of a relationship. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
This romantic friendship brings with it plenty of co-creation and happiness too. You can also do things to keep your sex life alive.
If you reach this stage you may feel:
- A much deeper sense of connection and harmony
- Like you’re working together to achieve shared goals and dreams
- Communication and understanding between you are easier
- There’s a greater acceptance, which brings a sense of security and safety
But wait…the hard work isn’t over
As idyllic as all that may sound, there isn’t a relationship stage we reach where we can rest on our laurels.
Otherwise, we end up taking one another for granted.
Every relationship takes effort and energy to maintain it. Your emotional connection should continue to be your focus regardless of where you’re at.
We can also strengthen our relationship by strengthening ourselves.
Make personal growth and self-awareness your priority and reap the benefits in your relationship too.