Why do some relationships break up and others last a lifetime?
One reason is that relationships go through 5 predictable relationship stages, each building on the last.
By understanding the 5 stages of a relationship, you can be better prepared to navigate through each stage successfully and not get “stuck” in any of them.
Here are the 5 stages of a relationship (as identified by Dr. Susan Campbell during a study of hundreds of couples):
- The Romance Stage
- The Power Struggle Stage
- The Stability Stage
- The Commitment Stage
- The Co-Creation or Bliss Stage
I’ll spend more time on the first two stages, because those are the relationship stages that most couples never get past.
1. The Romance Stage (drug addiction phase)
Nature designed the Romance Stage to have us fall in love.
In fact, nature forces us to fall in love, but not with just anyone… Nature’s bias is towards survival of the species. Adaptation and growth are nature’s way of ensuring survival.
The real reason you fell in love…
So how does nature ensure that we adapt and grow?
Nature makes sure we fall in love with the most incompatible person in the entire universe…
…the person least capable of meeting our needs and most capable of making our worst nightmares come true.
Yet they are the PERFECT person to push our every button and force us out of our comfort zone to ADAPT and GROW.
But of course, when we fall in love, we don’t see our partner’s flaws. If we knew about them, we’d run like hell in the opposite direction…
Which is exactly why nature has to DRUG us!
The Chemistry Of The Love
When you fall in love, your brain releases a cocktail of chemicals (including Oxytocin, Phenylethylamine and Dopamine) designed to set your heart thumping and of course, light a fire in your loins.
In fact, the only difference between being in love and being (an addict) high on drugs is that being in love is legal.
Just like getting high, falling in love allows you to see the world through beautiful rose colored glasses – only seeing what makes you feel good and ignoring what makes you feel bad.
Your drug induced haze forces you to only see where you are similar to your lover, hiding you partner’s flaws and making you say and do anything to get along and please each other.
Until the high wears off. That can take anywhere from 2 months to 2 years.
At this point, your brain stops producing chemicals of love and you wake up one morning with what I call a “Love Hangover”, laying next to the most incompatible person in the world.
The Romance stage has ended and the Power Struggle stage begins (cue JAWS music here).
2. The Power Struggle Stage (the love hangover)
The highest percentage of first marriage divorces happen here – around the 3 to 4 year mark.
This is such a painful time for most couples as the illusion that ‘romantic love will last forever’ falls away and is replaced with feelings of disappointment and anger.
Instead of seeing your similarities (like you did in the Romance stage), you begin focusing on your differences and your partner’s flaws.
So, you get to work trying to change your partner back into the person you thought they were, or punish them for not being that way, or both.
Often one partner pulls away and withdraws, needing space… and the other partner needily chases them feeling emotionally deserted.
If you can relate to any of this in your own relationship, then your relationship is likely stuck in the Power Struggle Stage.
The goal of this stage of the relationship is to establish your autonomy inside your relationship, without destroying the love connection between you.
This stage can last anywhere from a few months to years and years, depending on the support and guidance you have and your willingness to grow.
There are 2 ways most couples deal with the Power Struggle stage.
- THEY BREAK UP: They take the nearest exit and break up. Very often these people are serial daters, never fully committing, always looking for love, but finding disappointment instead.
- THEY SURVIVE: They continue along their journey together, surviving through the pain and frustration of a relationship that is stuck in the past and no longer growing. People who have chosen this option typically think that good relationships involve sacrifice and compromise. Their relationship eventually emotionally flatlines, along with their sex life.
Overcoming The Power Struggle Stage
The other alternative is that you overcome the Power Struggle, either on your own, or with professional guidance.
You graduate from the Power Struggle stage when you:
- accept and appreciate each other’s differences
- learn to share power, and realize that using force will never get you what you want in love
- realize who you are and what you have (as a couple)
- give up your fantasies of harmony without struggle
- surrender to life just the way it is
As simple as that sounds, actually getting through the power struggle stage is not an easy ride for most couples.
It’s all too easy for one person to quit halfway along the journey and end the relationship because it feels like too much hard work.
In reality, when one partner quits the relationship midway through the Power Struggle, they’re usually unwilling to face aspects of themselves that feel too scary to confront.
So what can you look forward to beyond the Power Struggle?
3. The Stability Stage
The thrill of being in love returns and if you’ve completed the Power Struggle stage, it returns to an even deeper, more mature form than in the Romance stage.
In this stage, it finally becomes very clear that you’re never ever going to succeed in changing your partner and you’ve given up the desire to.
You’re OK with your partner being different from you. You both have clear boundaries and you need to learn mutual respect. If you don’t, you go back to the Power Struggle.
4. The Commitment Stage
You have learned to love each other by having to like each other and you choose each other consciously.
You can honestly say to your partner, “I don’t need you. I choose you knowing all I know about you, good and bad.”
You begin to experience a beautiful balance of love, belonging, fun, power, and freedom.
The trap in this stage is thinking that all your work is done. While this may be somewhat true on an individual level, your work in the world as a couple is just beginning.
5. The Bliss / Co-Creation Stage
In this stage you become two people who have chosen to be a team moving out into the world. You move beyond the relationship and your relationship becomes a gift to the world.
Often, couples in this stage work on a project together – some kind of shared creative work that is intended to contribute to the world in some way e.g. a business, a charity or a family.These stages are not a linear process; they are more like a spiral, circling upwards.
You retain the lessons you learned at each stage and bring them forward as you grow – you are in one stage or another at any given time with bits of the others thrown in for good measure.
You’ll keep coming back to the Power Struggle stage until you learn to love each other’s differences and fight in a way that deepens your intimacy and connection instead of eroding it.
If you’ve ever wondered why you and your partner keep arguing over the same things over and over again, it’s probably because you’ve not gotten through your Power Struggle stage.
If you’d like some one-on-one help to get past your Power Struggle stage, get in touch with me to find out more about how my relationship repair program can help you fix your relationship or marriage troubles.
Lastly, please leave me a comment below and let me know which of the 5 relationship stages your relationship is in. If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more, you can get on my mailing list (by entering your email in the box below the comments) and I’ll send you a free video training on how to stop fighting and start being happy together.