Recognizing the 5 Stages of a Relationship

Updated September 22, 2022
Young man giving flowers to his girlfriend outdoors

Beyond that honeymoon phase that everyone knows so well, you've probably wondered what the stages of a relationship are and if you can blame your past failed flings on not following the right steps. There might be a lot of anecdotal evidence supporting different interpretations on the subject, but every relationship tends to follow generally the same pattern. Knowing what the stages of love are and which one you're currently in can help you know how to better approach the future with your partner and prevent you from making easy mistakes that come along the way.

After all, much like life, love and dating go through many different phases, each filled with its own ups and downs. Even though your individual relationship itself is completely unique, understanding the major stepping stones in a relationship and the way they progress can help you make the most of yours.

What Are the Stages of a Relationship?

Humans are fascinating creatures, and despite having lived for thousands of years, we still find new ways to complicate our relationships. While it feels like, by now, romantic partnerships should come with a handy rulebook for what to do and when to do it, that's not the case. Just in the way that no two people are alike, no relationship follows a strict pattern. Yet, social science professionals have studied human relationships long enough to see that many of them follow a general timeline and have certain stepping stones as they go through stages of dating and relationships. If your interest is piqued, take a look at some of the more common theories for what the phases of a relationship are and see how closely they mirror your own.

Theories For the Different Stages of a Relationship

Psychologists are constantly trying to better understand human relationships. Major developments in the 1970s and 1980s built the foundation for how professionals define relationship patterns and dating stages today. While complex psychology might not help you navigate the murky waters of 21st-century dating, knowing what to expect in your next courtship and how that relationship can progress may just prevent you from making silly mistakes along the way. The key ways that experts view relationship stages may just give you new insight into the world of dating.

Levinger's Five Stages of Love

One of the fundamental theories that attempts to define the stages of a relationship is Levinger's Five Stages of Relationship Theory. Proposed in 1976, his theory posits that relationships go through five different stages: acquaintance, buildup, continuation, deterioration, and termination. Although Levinger's final stage doesn't predict sunshine and roses, how each relationship manifests over time might not always follow this rule book.

Levinger's five stages of relationships infographic

Stage One: Acquaintance

In the first stage in the phases of love, Levinger believes romantic relationships (at least heterosexual) take an acquaintanceship phase. There's a myriad of factors that lead to an acquaintanceship, but just because this "getting to know each other" is the first one of them all doesn't mean that every potential relationship will move beyond this phase. You might ask questions to get to know someone here but not take steps to move forward. In modern dating terms, think of it as continuing to chat on a dating app but never committing to an in-person date.

Stage Two: Build-Up

This stage often will begin to creep in slowly during your relationship, but will sometimes happen all at once. This can be a phase where rocky relationships end because one person decides that they've made a selection mistake. However, the build-up is mostly a period spent increasing the social, emotional, and physical connections between each romantic partner. This is a time when you might be asking more intimate questions of your partner. Due to this increased closeness, you might find that your early interest fizzles out the more you get to know a new partner, and you amicably part ways rather than take further steps in a relationship.

You might find that these are the 'almost' relationships with people who end up being a friend or acquaintance down the road. Usually, you haven't spent enough time interested in one another to grow any of the typical 'scorned heart' resentments that come with long-term relationships.

Stage Three: Continuation

This relationship stage is marked by a period of long-lasting stability and can be entered into in any level of romantic relationship (such as dating and/or marriage). The most important element of this dating stage is the mutual commitment to being in the relationship and all that it entails. If ever you've heard people talk about the "good years" before a relationship went south, they're talking about the continuation stage.

These are the years where you fill up your scrapbooks with pictures from holiday after holiday and your shared vacations. In effect, for most people, this stage is the true calm before the storm. If your relationship has a great foundation and is full of equal participation, then you'll likely skip the fourth stage and culminate in the fifth.

Stage Four: Deterioration

Every relationship doesn't have to go through the deterioration stage, and often healthy, long-lasting ones never do. But those that find themselves feeling bored, restless, and irritable - perhaps, without any obvious triggers - are feeling the effects of the relationship's slow decline.

Commonly, you can expect behavior like being resentful of your partner for traits that mildly bothered you in the beginning, but are unbearable now. Unfortunately, this phase can either pass quickly or take forever depending on how willing you or your partner are to put an end to your relationship. However long it takes you, there's no escaping the relationship's eventual dissolution and transition into the fifth phase.

Think of this stage like a beautiful indie film where the audience follows a married couple who keeps trading off passive-aggressive comments to each other, and the tension builds until they have a giant blowout with spit flying and intense close-ups; therein, the fourth stage has moved to the fifth.

Stage Five: Ending

All relationships come to an end - some messier than others - but the fifth stage of relationships, according to Levinger, can't be avoided. Despite the label's negative connotation, not every relationship has to end in a bad way. Rather, things like death, distance, or personal growth can break romantic bonds.

Mark Knapp's Theory on the Phases of a Relationship

Just a decade after Levinger, Mark Knapp proposed a new way of breaking down relationships into stages, a theory that follows the staircase model. According to Knapp, you'll take various steps to either climb towards (coming together) or descend from (coming apart) a romantic relationship in your life, and both of these directions are full of their own challenges.

The Coming Together Phase

Within this stage of a relationship, Knapp believes that there are five distinctive phases that you'll experience: initiating, experimentation, intensifying, integration, and bonding. Similar to Levinger's theory in its basic ideas, Knapp deviates here in that he gives greater depth to the interpersonal experiences that you go through when getting to know someone and then deciding to commit to them.

Mark Knapp's coming together phase infographic
  • Initiating: Literally like it sounds, this phase is where you each try to make an impression on one another and use superficial conversation as a way to keep in contact.
  • Experimentation: This quintessential phase is best understood as the scene acted out in every romcom where the romantic leads start to reveal parts of themselves and build trust and security with each other.
  • Intensifying: As you start to unveil more of yourself to the potential partner, naturally (if there's a spark between the two of you) the conversations will deepen and you'll offer up more and more of your secrets to them.
  • Integration: This phase is the beloved answer to the "so, what are we?" question so many people in the 'talking' phase receive. Basically, you'll both hammer out exactly what kind of a relationship you're in.
  • Bonding: The bonding phase is where real long-lasting commitments are made to each other. This phase can end positively or negatively, depending on your situation.

The Coming Apart Phase

Of course, every breakup is preceded by a different sequence of problems, but Knapp has condensed these into 5 stages of a relationship that are each distinct.

Mark Knapp's coming apart phase infographic
  • Differentiation: Exactly what it sounds like, this phase is a period where partners can become preoccupied with the things that make each other different rather than focusing on their common ground.
  • Circumscribing: As you move out of the differentiation stage, you'll begin setting boundaries and establishing limits around topics of conversation and communication, which can naturally lead to reduced communication and more differentiation.
  • Stagnation: Stagnation is the definition of when a rock meets a hard place; this phase occurs when neither you nor your partner are willing to modify your behavior to satisfy the other person. Unfortunately, you can't both be 100% right and have your relationship work out.
  • Avoidance: The writing's on the wall in the avoidance stage. You and your partner, locked in a stalemate, will choose to actively avoid one another instead of focusing on reconciliation. This widens the growing divide between each of you to almost an insurmountable way.
  • Termination: This last stage is where all relationships go to die.

Are There Definitive Stages of a Relationship by Month?

No matter what relationship theory you subscribe to, set timeframes or timelines of how dating or relationships progress by month vary wildly depending on the individuals and their circumstances. Some couples may move through certain stages more quickly than others or stay in certain phases of love longer. There is no set number of months to be in any certain dating stage. So whether you stay in the initiating or acquaintanceship stage for months or move quickly to another phase, there's no right or wrong to how your romance moves forward.

Romance Is Unpredictable

Regardless of how you identify or what kind of romantic relationship you're in, knowing about the different relationship stages can help you understand your feelings about your partner and your relationship; for some, being able to predict where you're heading can give them the confidence to make the right move. Yet, it's important to remember that romance is, by definition, unpredictable. Not every relationship will hit every stage of every theory out there. Rather, they all seem to follow a general progression with an early interest or increased intimacy leading to a serious commitment and then an eventual ending. But, no matter the bumps you hit along the way as you navigate the stages of love, it'll be worth the effort when you find the right person to share your life with.

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Recognizing the 5 Stages of a Relationship