When you meet someone and fall in love, you probably imagine riding off into the sunset and living happily ever after. At least, that’s what all the Disney movies and romantic comedies tell us, don’t you think? There are several phases of a relationship that you may go through.
As we all know, things don’t always go as planned. If you’re wondering what phase your relationship is in, and whether it’s “normal” or heading for disaster, there’s some research to help you figure out what to do. With that said, let me begin by stating that there are many different types of relationship phase models available; however, I will focus on one developed by Dr. Mark Knapp because it is a classic, well-accepted theory.
Phases of a Relationship
A relationship, according to Dr. Knapp, goes through several stages. Having said that, certain things do occur during these phases. While there are ten distinct stages, they are divided into two distinct phases: coming together and coming apart.
The Convergence Phase
Relationships must begin somewhere, right? Obviously, not every relationship begins in the same manner. Some couples meet through friends or at work, while others meet through a dating app. There are some distinct stages in the coming together phase, regardless of how a couple begins.
1. The Stage of Initiation
When you first meet someone, you are in this stage. It is the exchange of pleasantries and facts about yourself. It’s the new “getting to know you” phase. At this point, your attention is primarily focused on superficial characteristics such as appearance and how the person presents themselves.
2. The Stage of Experimentation
If you survive the initiation stage (which many people do not), you will enter the experimentation stage. Some people don’t make it this far because they discover something they don’t like in the first stage. During experimentation, you delve deeper into the other person’s interests and values.
3. Intensifying Stage
This stage is also known as the “bliss” stage. This is due to the fact that things are becoming more serious and intense. You’ve learned enough about each other to want to share more personal and intimate information about yourself with the other person. Feelings begin to emerge, and there is a sense of excitement about being in the relationship.
4. Integration Stage
In the integration stage, you will begin to blend your lives together now that you are officially a couple and have feelings for each other. As a couple, you form routines and habits. Your family and friends will begin to recognize you as a unit as well. In other words, you’ve progressed from “me and you” to “us.”
5. The Bonding Stage
Because you now see yourselves as a unit rather than two individuals, the bonding stage is when true commitment occurs. You’re both certain of your bond, so you’ll either move in together or get married. Everyone has their own way of showing bonding, but in the eyes of society, this stage requires some formal commitment.
The Falling Apart Phase
We all want to be happy and live happily ever after, but for many couples, this is simply not the case. Whether you are married, living together, or just dating, the coming apart phase affects the majority of us at some point.
The stages of the coming apart phase are as follows:
1. The Distinguishing Stage
Being head over heels in love and floating on Cloud 9 doesn’t last. Life is not always perfect, even in the happiest of relationships. However, if you’ve reached the differentiating stage, you’re probably on the verge of a breakup. This is the point at which you will notice differences, incompatibilities, and cracks in your unit.
2. The Stage of Circumscribing
This stage is simply a continuation of the distinguishing stage. You distance yourself from each other, set boundaries for yourself, communication breaks down, and you become less and less intimate (emotionally, mentally, and physically). You begin to see yourself as an individual more than you did previously. The unit is disintegrating even further. There will be much finger-pointing, defensiveness, and resentment.
3. The Stagnation Stage
You are no longer progressing in the relationship at this point. You’ve come to a halt. Consider a pond with algae on it. It doesn’t move; the water simply sits there, growing more gross stuff on it. That’s pretty much what’s going on at this point. The disintegration is nearly complete. Apathy may have also set in – on the part of one or both people.
4. The Stage of Avoidance
This stage is characterized by avoidance – either physically, mentally, emotionally, or all of the above. One of you may decide to leave the house, resulting in a legal separation. Or maybe you’re still living under the same roof, but you don’t talk or interact much anymore. You’re similar to two roommates who don’t get along and try to avoid each other as much as possible.
5. The Stage of Termination
A relationship formally ends during the termination stage. If the couple is married, the divorce is initiated or completed. If you are only living together, one or both of you physically moves out, completing the separation. In a nutshell, this is the point at which the relationship is emotionally and/or legally terminated.
Different Phases of a Relationship
Couples go through four predictable phases in their relationship. At each stage, a decision is often made (sometimes more thoughtfully than others) to move forward or end the relationship.
Some phases of a relationship take longer to complete than others, and some people take much longer at each stage. Unfortunately, some people do not fully experience and process each stage as a chance for personal growth or to make a healthy assessment of the relationship or themselves.
Phase 1: The First Meeting/Attraction
Dating relationships must begin somewhere. The first meeting may take place over the internet, through friends, in a church or social group, at a party or bar, or in any of a plethora of other locations.
Different meeting venues provide different opportunities to get to know each other and determine whether there is enough curiosity or interest to proceed to the next level, which would entail arranging a second or third meeting.
Phase 2: Curiosity, Interest, and Infatuation
Attraction and infatuation are most noticeable during the second phase. Early attraction frequently involves the partner’s physical characteristics, which include things like outward appearance, body type, interests, and personality traits.
At this stage, the attraction may not be too “deep,” and each partner is generally putting his or her best foot forward. Differences are ignored or dismissed with phrases like “it’s not a big deal” or “she’ll change.”
Couples generally do not have much conflict at this stage of the cycle because each is attempting to impress the other. Often (but not always), there is more “what can I do to make this person like me” than “is this the right person for me.”
This stage may last 3 to 4 months, depending on the individual’s maturity, experience, and self-awareness. It is not uncommon for questions such as “Is this the right person for me?” to arise near the end of this phase, and hopefully at other times throughout it. Women, in particular, may be interested in determining where the relationship is headed.
Phase 3: “Enlightenment” and Marriage
Hormones are calming down and reality is setting in during this phase of a relationship. Couples frequently go “deeper” in their relationship. At this stage, trust is stronger and more intimacies may be shared, as couples remove some of their “best faces” and allow themselves to act more naturally and relaxedly.
Both halves of a couple will notice flaws and differences. At this point, “cute” habits may become irritating. Some of the perennial issues or differences, such as free-spending or frugal, neat and orderly or sloppy and disorganized, interested in spending a lot of time together or being more involved in outside activities, begin to emerge.
Couples will notice the differences at this stage of the relationship and may even begin to complain or try to solve problems. As the two people develop intimacy, more self-disclosure emerges, both verbally and nonverbally, as couples act in ways that are more like how they are in their daily lives.
Phase 4: Commitment or Engagement
Couples should have a good understanding of their partner’s values, lifestyle, and future goals at this phase in their relationship. There should be relationships with each other’s families and friends.
As couples plan their present and future together, they should have open and honest conversations. Children, finances, careers, future goals, and lifestyle should all be thoroughly discussed. Differences are natural, and couples will learn about themselves and their relationship as they observe how they deal with these differences with one another.
This is also an important stage for couples to evaluate their relationship and their ability to be in an emotionally intelligent relationship. Engagements can be broken much more easily and are clearly a better option than marrying and divorcing.
What are the Phases of a Relationship
The Merge, Doubt and Denial, Disillusionment, Decision, and Wholehearted Love are the five phases of a relationship. Every relationship goes through these five stages at least once. Consider these stages to be a series of seasons that we move through in an eternal cycle, rather than stepping stones to a final outcome.
Stage 1: The Merge
The Merge, also known as the honeymoon phase, is the first stage of a relationship. When a couple first gets together, it’s often the initial, sweeping romance that consumes them, including an all-consuming joy in the presence of their partner and insatiable, passionate sex. People in this stage of a relationship frequently believe they’ve found their soulmate “Someone who is eerily similar and compatible with them is a perfect match. They have the impression that they always want to be together, and boundaries frequently dissolve. The two appear to be merging, or at least to be eager to do so.
These emotions frequently overpower the rational part of our brain. Indeed, research indicates that this first stage is characterized by biochemical changes in our brain—a cocktail of hormones that initiate and sustain a state of infatuation, such as dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. This brain glow can frequently lead to us becoming “addicted” to our partners and ignoring incompatibilities, red flags, or other issues.
What to do during this stage of the relationship.
Enjoy this stage to the fullest—what it’s makes dating so enjoyable and intriguing. Simultaneously, be aware of your heightened emotions. Take some time to observe your emotions and your relationship, and actively question whether this person is truly the best match for you. While under the influence of this biochemical love potion, seek candid advice from friends to ensure you’re not missing any truly troubling red flags.
Related Articles: 10 Best Ways to Overcome Relationship Stress.
Phase 2: Belief and Denial
The second stage of a relationship is Doubt and Denial when we finally begin to notice the differences between ourselves and our partners. We jolt awake from our infatuation trance, only to discover that the qualities that once seemed so perfect have begun to irritate us. (His dependability now appears to be rigid; her generosity appears irresponsible; their adventurous nature appears to be an unnecessary risk.)
And, unfortunately, when we come up against each other’s differences, friction ensues. Power struggles intensify, and we marvel at our partner’s transformation. Love and alienation coexist with irritation and annoyance. Maybe we’re not “ideal” for each other after all.
What to do in this phase of the relationship
At this point, conflict resolution abilities are essential. Learn how to de-escalate conflicts and confront relationship issues head-on while treating one another with care and respect. Remember that power struggles and arguments are normal parts of a relationship; they aren’t always a sign that love is over or that the relationship isn’t working. You’ll need to learn to distinguish between healthy disagreement and unhealthy control issues; the former can be worked through, while the latter may be a sign that you should end the relationship.
This second stage of a relationship is also a good time to learn your love languages because you’re starting to recognize your differences. There are five love languages, and it is critical for each person to understand how their partner wishes to be loved.
Phase 3: Disillusionment
Disillusionment is the third stage of a relationship. This is the winter season of love, and for some couples, it may feel like the end of the road. The power struggles in the relationship have now fully surfaced; the issues that the couple has consistently swept under the rug are now glaringly obvious. Some people develop a state of perpetual vigilance, ready to charge into battle at the slightest provocation. Other couples may gradually drift apart, putting less and less effort into the relationship and investing more outside of it.
At this point, our first experience with passionate love is often a distant memory. The “I” reappears, a much safer state than our previous blissful experience of “we.” Nonetheless, some couples may not question their commitment; rather, they may interpret this as a strong signal that things must change.
What to do during this stage of the relationship.
Clear the air and make room. Stop sweeping problems under the rug and avoiding issues; as exhausting as the repetitive arguments may be, sweeping them under the rug simply results in a lumpy carpet with a lot to trip over.
At this point, there may be a lot of negative energy in the relationship. To counteract this, practice showing affection even when you are upset. Can you be angry and aware that something isn’t working and that you need to talk about it while still going out to dinner and seeing a movie together?
During the Merge, the brain only notices the positive and avoids anything that contradicts that viewpoint. During the Disillusionment Stage, the brain focuses on all of the relationship’s flaws. Things that are going well are ignored, while things that are going wrong get all of our attention. Try to counteract this process with an intentional practice of gratitude.
Phase 4: Making a decision
Because you’ve reached a tipping point, the fourth stage of a relationship is known as the Decision. After a fight, emotional breakdowns, leaving the house for hours to get away from each other, and self-protective behaviors are all common. Indifference and remoteness are also factors.
You know you’ve arrived when you start seriously considering leaving and even making plans to leave the relationship. You might be feeling ready for a fresh start with a new person. We make a decision at this point, whether to leave, stay and do nothing despite how unhappy we are, or stay and work on fixing this relationship.
What to do at this point in the relationship.
When I see couples at this point, I always encourage them to consider a new path, which is to decide to do some work before making a decision about their relationship. Many couples believe they want to end their relationship, but when they learn how to communicate effectively, years of resentment or estrangement can fade away.
Doing the work entails recognizing your own role in the breakdown of your relationship and committing to lasting change. If we make this final decision, we will be able to learn the lessons that will help us become the best people we can be as we allow our relationship to grow and deepen.
Phase 5: Unconditional Love
Wholehearted Love is the fifth phase of a relationship, and it is when our relationship is at its healthiest and most rewarding. When the fruits of a couple’s labor are fully ripe and ready to be savored, it’s love’s summertime. Couples go through true individuation, self-discovery, and acceptance of flaws in both themselves and their partners, realizing there is no such thing as a “perfect match.”
This fifth stage of a relationship still requires hard work, but the difference is that couples know how to listen well and lean into uncomfortable conversations without feeling threatened or attacking one another.
Couples begin to play together again at this stage. They can laugh, relax, and thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. They can even partake in some of the Merge’s thrilling passion, joys, and sex as each person rediscovers themselves in ways that allow them to fall in love with each other all over again.
What to do at this point in the relationship.
Take care of yourself. The qualities of two wholehearted people fuel the Wholehearted Love stage: generosity, humor, flexibility, resilience, good boundaries, self-care, and a life with meaning and purpose. Couples can stay in this stage as long as they can maintain their own wholeness as individuals; therefore, make self-care and self-growth ongoing goals.
Recognize that new challenges are on the way, but that you will be well-prepared to deal with them when they arrive. Meanwhile, enjoy the journey.
Phases of a Relationship Psychology
Neuroscientists and “love experts” “have described the four phases of a relationship. From falling in love to living happily ever after, these stages are followed (or, at least, for a while). Here are some strategies for navigating these stages successfully.
1. The Euphoric Period
Helen Fisher, Ph.D., neuroscientist and Senior Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute, and Lucy Brown, Ph.D., Clinical Professor in Neurology at Einstein College of Medicine in New York, have been studying the brain activity of people in love for several decades.
According to Brown, “The other person is the center of your life in the early stages of a relationship—the “falling in love” stage. In the early stages, you forgive everything. You can see the flaws in the other person, but it doesn’t matter. Maybe they leave their dirty dishes in the sink, but they make you laugh at least once a day, so it’s all right. The positives outnumber the negatives in this case.”
How Long Is It Going to Last?
What is the duration of the romantic phase? According to studies, the euphoric stage can last anywhere from six months to two years. Although a small percentage of the population (approximately 15% to 30%) say they are still in love and that it still feels like the first six months—even after ten or fifteen years.
Brown elaborates, “We have no idea why this is the case. I don’t think it’s because they’ve found their soulmates. I believe it is the individual. Some people are more successful than others at rekindling the earlier stages. That isn’t to say the rest of us can’t.” For the majority of people, the intoxication of new love will eventually give way to the next stage: early attachment.
2. The Early Attachment Stage
In the previous stage of euphoric love, unconscious factors such as attraction and reward system activation take over. Brain scans of couples in the early stages of love revealed high levels of dopamine, the chemical that activates the reward system by triggering an intense rush of pleasure, in Fisher and Brown’s studies.
The more evolved part of the brain, including the ventral pallidum (the region of the brain associated with attachment feelings and the attachment hormones vasopressin and oxytocin; sometimes referred to as “the love hormone”), takes over in this stage.
Couples who had been married for at least a year described love in a variety of ways. “It’s richer, deeper, it’s getting to know them better.” “Brown explains. “You’ve integrated memories—both positive and negative—you’ve faced challenges, and you’ve developed a strong attachment.”
3. The Crisis Stage
Relationships are frequently made or broken during the third stage. What happens at this point is critical to what happens next. This is referred to by Brown as the “Seven-year or five-year itch
“Almost every relationship goes through a drift apart phase,” Brown says. “You’ll either keep drifting or you’ll come back together.” You need a crisis to get through it and to be able to talk about it together—you’ve both changed and grown.”
4. The Deep Attachment Stage
The deep attachment stage is the calm that follows the storm. A couple knows each other well by this point, they’ve been through the inevitable ups and downs, they know how to deal with crises, and they’ve probably made a plan for dealing with future crises.
Brown uses the word “calm” several times when describing this stage of relationships. “When a couple has been together for a long time. It’s just very quiet. And it’s safe.”
How can we keep the flame of love alive? A novelty, according to researchers, is one of the most effective ways of keeping the spark alive. Studies that have followed couples for years have discovered that doing new, exciting, and challenging activities together has a significant positive impact on relationships.
Dr. Art Aron, one of Fisher and Brown’s main collaborators, and his wife, Dr. Elaine Aron, created the “Self Expansion Model,” which provides insight into the early stages of love and helps to explain why the first few months of a new relationship feel so intoxicating.
It’s important to note that if your relationship is in the Coming Apart stage, you don’t have to give up hope. You can always return to the Coming Together phase. It takes effort and commitment on both sides, but it is possible to resurrect a relationship that appears to be doomed.
Knowing what stage your relationship is in allows you to take a more proactive relationship to repair it. Some relationships, however, cannot be repaired and must be terminated. It’s up to you and your partner to figure out where yours is so you can both find the happiness you deserve – with or without each other.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the cupcake phase of a relationship?
The “cupcake phase” is a common stage at the beginning of a romantic relationship. The phrase refers to how early on in a relationship things can be “so cute and sweet that you want to throw up.”
How long does the dating stage last?
However, three months is considered the average length of a relationship’s first stage. Toni Coleman, LCSW, a psychotherapist and relationship coach, suggests that you should ideally be transitioning from “casually dating” to “exclusive” around that time.