How Many Stages Are There in a Romantic Relationship?
Today’s guest blog comes from therapist Teresa Maples, who does an excellent job of explaining the different stages of romantic relationships. My takeaway: don’t make any lifelong decisions (like marriage!) until you get to stage two.
We have all been exposed over and over to romantic stories from movies and television, and the story always ends when the romantic partners finally get together and live happily ever after. In actuality, this is when the real relationship story begins. There are several stages that relationships go through over time, but most of us want the happily ever after — and believe our relationship should be easy. This is a myth. Satisfying, mature, relationships happen when both people work hard to maintain a sense of safety with each other.
According to Stan Tatkin PhD, there are a few stages in love relationships. These stages will help you identify where you are in the development of your own relationship. All three involve very different emotional states, so they require an adjustment with each transition.
The 3 Love Relationship Stages:
1. Romantic Love
You are driven in this stage to idealize your potential partner. You experience the emotions of joy and excitement. The novelty of a new love leads you to think about your partner day and night, imagining all the possibilities of how this person can fulfill your deepest desires. You want to spend every moment of every day with your new partner in the bliss of newly discovered love.
Here, you should remember the saying, “If it’s too good to be true it usually is.” There’s a reason for this adage. In this stage of romance, your brain is not able to access and incorporate red flags, or flaws in your potential partner. You only see their potential and how you feel when you are with them. Your brain is literally addicted to the feeling of being in love. In this stage, you biologically lose your brain’s prefrontal lobes’ (the thinking and logical part of the brain) ability to reason.
Romantic love is the fodder of Hollywood movies and stories. Romantic love sells, and we can’t get enough of it. But media representations of these stories give a false sense of what a relationship should look like, and set us up for disappointment in real relationships.
2. Realistic Love
As a counselor, I hear the same story over and over, “Our relationship is not easy or fun anymore.” This is the beginning of the second stage of love relationships, which is realistic love. It is most often in this stage that people get stuck. Idealization of your partner diminishes and you begin to see who your partner really is — and they begin to see you. All your flaws are exposed to each other and it is here when couples start really being challenged in the relationship.
It is in this stage where couples either make it or break it. The time frame for this stage varies wildly. Some relationships are ditched immediately, others endure bickering and unmet needs for many years. If you only believe in romantic love, your bubble will undoubtedly be burst in this stage. You will begin to feel cheated, or that you “settled” for a partner who is not the person you fell in love with. You will begin to feel resentful, and resort to blaming your partner for your unmet needs. Thus starts a cycle of blaming, hurt and despair. If you feel this is you, contact a marriage counselor sooner rather than later.
In my experience, couples wait too long to seek counseling. They live for years with blame, resentment and hurt before they seek help. Sometimes one partner is doing all the work to keep the relationship together and ultimately this strategy results in feeling depleted and frustrated. Eventually the depleted partner will decide they are totally done, and their partner will be surprised when the relationship ends. Some partners will step up to the plate and begin giving to the relationship when they realize they can no longer just take from it.
There is a healthy way to transition through this stage of realistic love relationship and move to a more mutually safe and secure functioning. I encourage any couple that recognizes they are living with negative patterns of behavior to get help with their relationship. This help will involve learning about yourself and your partner at a fundamentally deeper level. Find out what your unmet needs are, and work to feed your partner’s unmet needs too.
3. Mature Love
This stage is marked by safety and security in the relationship. Both people feel fulfilled and cared for by the other person. Isn’t that what you want and desire? The only way to obtain mature love is to work through the previous stages: there are no shortcuts. In this stage you and your partner know each other at a deep and intrinsic level. You know your own desires and wounds, and you choose to accept your partner’s desires and wounds in turn. In other words, you have each other’s backs — for better or worse.
Every one is human and makes mistakes. Each stage of love is wrought with mistakes; the important thing is that the two of you commit to working through the mistakes and build safety together. In this stage, love is an action and a feeling word. No longer worried about losing the relationship, you can experience this type of love as safe, satisfying and passionate.
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