Recognizing the Five Stages in a Relationship

Contributor: Michele Meleen
couple hugging on bed

Have you ever thought about the five stages of relationship development? Chances are you never contemplated your relationship in terms of stages. However, if you look at past (or current) flames using this method, you'll probably recognize when you moved in and out of these stages.

The Main Five Stages of a Relationship

How long you stay in one stage depends on the couple. Some couples never advance to the later stages because of incompatibility or emotional immaturity. Because each relationship is unique, it can be difficult to pinpoint the stages of a relationship by month.

Stage One: Attraction and Romance

All couples experience this phase. It occurs when you are beginning to get to know each other; it's a main dating step to go through. It might also be called the fantasy phase or honeymoon stage because your partner can seem perfect during this time. How long this phase lasts varies, but it can be anywhere from a few months to about two years. On average, phase one lasts about three months. This stage is a lot of fun but is not sustainable. People who are constantly changing partners are often trying to remain in this stage. Highlights of this stage of love include:

  • Focusing on your similarities and ignoring flaws - Biological forces take over causing you to only see the good.
  • Spending a lot of time together - You are in love, after all, and you can't imagine being apart from your lover.
  • Conflict avoidance - Conflict is not only avoided in this stage but seems like it will never happen at all.

Stage Two: Reality Sets In

This stage often will begin to creep in slowly during your relationship, but will sometimes happen all at once. The reality phase typically lasts about six months, or as long as it takes for both of you to decide you want to stay together. This is often where relationships end because one person decides they've made a selection mistake. If you can accept each other's flaws, you can progress to the next level. In this stage of healthy relationships:

  • You start to see flaws in your partner or behaviors you just don't like. It's not that you are no longer in love, but your partner doesn't seem as great as he or she was in stage one.
  • Biology is fighting against you. The romance stage features many endorphins running through your body that gives you that "high" sensation. Your body can't keep this up forever, and so in this stage your elation begins to level off.
  • You wonder if you are still in love. The relationship doesn't seem like as much of a fantasy as before.

Stage Three: Disappointment

What began as reality setting in during stage two often turns to disappointment in stage three. Couples at this stage spend about a year working out their differences in an effort to get to a place of stability. If you're able to communicate in healthy ways and see positive progress, you're likely to move to the next phase. The problems presented here are:

  • As a couple you believe that arguments are bad, but you are angry at each other anyway.
  • Some of the anger can be over trivial things such as small differences between you.
  • Since you don't realize that conflict can be healthy, you wonder if this relationship is doomed. In fact, you likely have thoughts of breaking up or getting divorced.
  • Without strong communication, trust, and the ability to work as a team, couples are unlikely to advance past this stage.

Stage Four: Stability

If a couple can navigate through the unstable waters of stage three, they will find stage four offers much rest and enjoyment. Couples spend roughly two years feeling stable before progressing into the final stage of commitment. Make efforts to spice up your standard life together to keep the spark alive.

  • As a couple, you now have history together, and you have been able to work through some differences.
  • The fantasy of stage one is completely gone, but you have accepted this. Yes, you have differences and you sometimes fight, but you love your partner, feel connected to him or her, and you trust you can work through any future conflicts.
  • You may, however, feel a little bored at times as the chase is definitely over.
  • You may also miss the stage one feelings and wonder if those feelings can be found in someone else.

Stage Five: Commitment

Few couples make it this far, even couples who are married. In this stage, you are truly a team and have progressed through the five stages of love. If dating, this is the stage where you can get married and feel comfortable with that decision. It is a stage of mature and sustainable love that lasts forever in an ideal world for happy couples. Milestones include:

  • You have chosen to be with your partner, flaws and all.
  • You no longer miss the romance stage because that would mean being with a new person and you don't want that.
  • You have a vision for the future together as a couple.

Stages of Romantic Relationships

Knowing about the five stages in a relationship can help you understand your feelings about your partner and your relationship. Know it is natural to lose those early romantic feelings, but something much deeper awaits you in a later stage. To advance through the relationship stages requires communication and hard work. It is worth the effort when you find the right person to share the journey.

Recognizing the Five Stages in a Relationship