We all know relationships are hard work – but what if there was a roadmap or a guide to help us better understand and navigate it all?
Almost all of us know that relationships morph and adapt constantly. But recently, researchers have found there are distinct and fairly predictable stages, each with their own rewards and challenges, that every long-term couple will go through. For many couples, it can be reassuring to know most relationships go through these various phases, and sometimes that’s just what they are – a phase.
One of the most influential models of relationship development was introduced by German psychologist George Levinger. Proposed in 1976, his ABCDE theory doesn’t sound very romantic, but each letter marks a different period in every relationship:
Like the five stages of grief, the five stages of relationships can be non-linear, repeated or both.
Here, we detail each stage so you can better understand how relationships develop. By identifying these common relationship stages, you and your partner can not only know how to overcome, but also flourish through, each phase.
1. Acquaintance/Attraction: The enchanting beginning
The initial stage, often known as the ‘honeymoon stage,’ is characterised by intense passion, excitement and infatuation. Emotional and physical sparks are rampant, making this beginning usually the most memorable and cherished time, as everything seems perfect. It’s an enchanting time of discovery and exploration as you and your partner invest time and effort into getting to know each other.
It’s also important, however, to keep your feet on the ground. The combination of oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine, released in the brain when you are newly in love, heightens your excitement and desire for each other. As a result, you can overlook certain traits or values you normally wouldn’t. The initial attraction can also fade but the Scientific American offers hope, though. Some couples can sustain these elated feelings throughout their relationship by challenging each other with new activities that they enjoy together.
2. Build-up: The intricate middle
This is the stage when reality settles in and the relationship can truly grow. There may be less passion than in the ‘honeymoon’ phase, but you and your partner are still connected by romantic love. You’re no longer strangers and have a good idea of each other’s values and goals. You’ve started to accept one another’s flaws and, in turn, have become more comfortable around each other, building an even deeper emotional connection.
Ironically though, as the relationship progresses, conflicts and challenges inevitably pop up. This is the intricate middle stage, where couples face various hurdles and must navigate disagreements, differences and the realities of daily life together. Developing healthy communication patterns, practising empathy and working together as a team are crucial during this stage.
3. Continuation: Building a future together
In this stage of commitment, couples cement their dedication to one another which can blossom into a shared future. Long-term plans are made, common goals are established and emotional connections deepen. This stage often involves building a life together, such as establishing careers, moving houses or starting a family.
Nurturing the relationship while maintaining a sense of individuality is essential. Some couples risk becoming co-dependent, while some can grow resentful due to a lack of space or excitement. Usually after two to three years, a period of stagnation or volatility can appear. Incompatibilities and underlying issues can surface if they’re not addressed in a healthy way, where both partners feel understood. Communication and compromise are important here, as couples move into a deeper and more fulfilling partnership.
4. Deterioration: Make or break
At a certain time, couples reach a turning point that can either strengthen the relationship – or lead to its demise. This stage is often triggered by external factors such as significant life changes, crises or major health challenges. It’s a critical period where couples must support each other and seek professional help if necessary.
This turning point can also be a result of general wear and tear. A widely accepted and popular belief, although not a scientific term, is the idea of the ‘seven-year itch,’ where happiness in a romantic relationship declines after around seven years.
While dating apps have made finding a new partner easier, Elisabeth reminds us that “even though there’s the old saying of ‘plenty more fish in the sea,’ swapping in and out of partners takes a toll.”
She says the ultimate relationship test is how you face challenges as a team so that “when you do encounter difficulties, you get through them well and feel stronger and more connected as a result.” This can often be an ongoing process for couples, as they learn productive ways to communicate, that cement a beautiful foundation for the next stage.
5. The successful or unsuccessful ending
In the final stage, couples either successfully navigate the challenges and continue building a fulfilling relationship, or come to the realisation that it’s time to part ways. Reflection and self-awareness are essential in embracing the relationship you choose. Whichever route your relationship takes, it’s important to stay honest and loving to yourself. No one can feel what you feel, after all.
On the other hand, enduring love is the culmination of every serious relationship. You’ve truly accepted each other, flaws and all, and have nurtured a relationship marked with safety, flexibility and good boundaries. Although it’s the final stage, it still requires maintenance. You can still slip back to previous stages, but that can also include the honeymoon stage again!