Why do some relationships break up and others last for a lifetime?
One reason is that relationships go through 5 predictable relationship stages. Each stage builds upon the previous one.
By understanding the 5 stages of a relationship, you’ll expect each stage 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
Now that you know your relationship stage, let’s get started…
1. The Romance Stage (drug addiction phase)
The Romance Stage begins when we fall in love with someone.
It can last up to 2 years and then it ends as quickly as it began.
In the romance stage, we experience love in its most immature form – infatuation.
According to Merriam Webster dictionary:
– A foolish or extravagant love or admiration.
Infatuation is “foolish” in that we can only see our partner’s light side. We’re in complete denial of their dark side. They too are only seeing us through rose tinted glasses.
A useful way to understand the importance of the Romance Stage is to look at it through the lens of evolution…
Nature needed a way to ensure that us humans would reproduce (and ensure the survival of our species). So, nature adapted and an emotion called love was born.
The feeling of love encourages us to pair-bond, but not with just anyone…
Nature makes sure we fall in love with someone who appears to be 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.
Not very romantic, I know… but I imagine you’re nodding your head as you recognize this truth. 🙂
Why would nature want us to fall in love with someone so incompatible?
Because this same person usually has complementary traits to our own e.g. we’re more analytical and they’re more nurturing.
Their traits compensate for our weaknesses and vice versa.
Combined, the sum of our differences forms a unit more resilient than each of us are as individuals. And a strong unit is more likely to survive and ensure the continuation of the human species.
But of course, when we fell in love we couldn’t yet see all of our partner’s flaws. If we had known about them so early on, we’d have 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 with fancy names (including Oxytocin, Phenylethylamine, Serotonin, and Dopamine). These are all designed to set your heart thumping and 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 your new partner through beautiful rose tinted glasses – only showing you what makes you feel good and filtering out all the bad stuff.
Your drug induced haze forces you to only notice where you’re similar, hiding your partner’s flaws. It also makes you say and do whatever is necessary to get along and please the other.
The biggest trap of the Romance stage is our dishonesty. It’s not that we lie, but more that we aren’t completely truthful. Letting our partner see who we are and know what we want might scare them off. So we keep parts of ourselves hidden.
Knowing this, are you willing to risk rejection and talk about some potentially difficult topics with your new partner?
For example, it might be useful to know now whether or not you’re both on the same page about having kids, or monogamy etc…
If you can get these “deal-breaker” conversations out of the way now, the rest of your relationship will go a lot more smoothly.
Inevitably, the Romance stage grinds to a halt when the drugs wear off.
At this point, your brain stops producing those delicious love chemicals. You wake up one morning with what I call a “Love Hangover”, laying next to the most incompatible person in the universe thinking “Something’s wrong with this relationship.”
That can take anywhere from 2 months to 2 years to happen.
Often this happens when one of you perceives some kind of permanence to the relationship.
Permanence might be symbolized by:
- dating exclusively,
- moving in together,
- meeting the parents,
- getting pregnant,
- getting engaged or married,
- or anything else that symbolizes permanence to you.
And then the Power Struggle stage kicks in (cue JAWS music here).
2. The Power Struggle Stage (the love hangover)
The highest percentage of first marriage divorces happen here – around the 3-year to 4-year mark.
This is such a painful time for most couples as the illusion that ‘romantic love will last forever’ falls away. Feelings of disappointment and anger replace it.
Instead of only seeing their similarities (as you did in the Romance stage), now all you can see are their differences and flaws.
So, you get to work trying to change your partner back into the person you originally hoped they were, or punish them for not being that way, or both.
Often one partner withdraws,
while the other partner pursues…
Often one partner withdraws, shutting down their heart and pulling away to get some space…
…while the other partner pursues them, demanding their attention while feeling desperately afraid that they are being emotionally deserted.
I call these two characters the Hailstorm and the Turtle.
Most of my work with couples involves helping these two types of people get on the same page, meet each other’s needs and be happy together.
If you recognize this pattern in your own relationship or marriage, then your relationship has almost certainly entered the Power Struggle Stage.
The purpose of this stage of the relationship is for you to establish your autonomy inside your relationship, without destroying the loving bond that the two of you have worked so carefully to build.
How long will your Power Struggle last?
The Power Struggle stage can last anywhere from a few months to many years. I’ve worked with couples who have been stuck in the Power Struggle for more than 50 years.
How long it lasts for you two will depend on your:
- willingness to embrace change,
- childhood history, and
- the quality of the relationship repair advice you receive.
If you recognize that your relationship is stuck in the Power Struggle stage, I suggest you join my Free Relationship Help Course (opens in a new tab) which will provide you with solutions.
There are 2 ways most couples deal with their Power Struggle stage.
- THEY BREAK UP: They take the nearest exit and break up. Very often these people are serial daters, 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 flat-lines, along with their sex life.
Overcoming The Power Struggle Stage
The third option is to get past your Power Struggle, either on your own (which Hailstorms and Turtles almost never manage to do), or with professional guidance.
You graduate from the Power Struggle stage when you:
- discover a reliable way to communicate kindly about emotionally charged topics,
- can quickly repair emotional disconnections between you,
- can heal old hurt and restore broken trust,
- learn to share power (and realize that using force will never get you what you want in love),
- give up your fantasies of harmony without struggle, and
- accept and appreciate each other’s differences.
As simple as that sounds, actually getting through the Power Struggle stage is a bumpy ride for most couples.
It’s all too easy for one partner to quit halfway along the journey and end the relationship because it feels like too much hard work.
Often, this partner is too afraid to face aspects of themselves that their Power Struggle stage is forcing them to confront.
So what can you look forward to beyond the Power Struggle?
3. The Stability Stage
Once you’ve learned how to fight in a way that both of you win, you move to the Stability stage. A period of relative peace follows.
If you’ve actually resolved your differences and gotten on the same page together, the thrill of being loved returns. This time in a deeper, more mature form than in the Romance stage.
In the Stability stage, it finally becomes very clear that you’re never ever going to succeed in changing your partner and you’ve given up trying 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, the hurtful patterns of your Power Struggle will keep haunting you.
4. The Commitment Stage
The commitment stage has nothing to do with getting married.
In the commitment stage, you fully surrender to the reality that you and your partner are human and that your relationship has shortcomings as a result.
You’ve learned to love each other by having to like each other. 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 of your work together is done.
While this may be somewhat true on an individual level, your work in the world as a couple is just beginning.
Another trap is becoming lazy in maintaining your emotional connection.
Or, spending so much time together that you sacrifice your own personal goals.
5. The Bliss / Co-Creation Stage
In this stage, your relationship evolves beyond the boundaries of your family unit and like a teenager leaving home, it moves out into the world.
You’ve learned that love is not infatuation, love is not power, love is not stability, and love is not commitment.
Now, the two of you are both naturally called to give back to society in some way.
Often, couples in this stage work on a collaborative project together. It’s usually some kind of shared creative work that is intended to make the world a better place. This project could be anything e.g. a business, a charity, an artwork, or a consciously raised child.
Neither of you would have been able to dream up this project on your own. It naturally emerges as the result of you growing through the stages together.
These five relationship stages are not a linear process; they are more like a spiral, circling upwards.
One relationship stage will dominate your partnership at any given time until you learn that stage’s lesson. You retain the lessons you learned at each previous stage and bring them forward with you as you grow up together.
You’ll keep returning to the Power Struggle stage until you learn:
- to resolve conflict in a way that builds your partner up instead of tearing them down,
- to establish a reliable emotional connection,
- to repair broken trust and heal old hurt,
- to accept your partner’s flaws and appreciate how they’re different from you.
Still arguing about the same things over and over? Then it’s likely that your Power Struggle stage still has lessons to teach you both.
Most couples don’t ever make it beyond their Power Struggle stage. That’s why the average divorce rate is more than 50%.
Consider this likelihood: Most of us wouldn’t break up in the Romance Stage – it’s just too delicious. Once we’ve made it through the Power Struggle stage, there’s not a lot of reason to end our relationship either. We’re happily getting our needs met.
If you’re in the Power Struggle stage of your relationship now (or you’re single), you’ve probably never made it past the Power Struggle stage. Ever!
Think about the significance of that for a second.
The Power Struggle has likely sabotaged every committed relationship you’ve ever had. What are the odds that it won’t sabotage your current relationship too? Slim.
Food for thought, right?
If you’d like some help getting past your Power Struggle stage, join my Free Relationship Help Course.
Then, let me know which relationship stage yours is in (in the comments below).
Lastly, if you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more, join my mailing list (by clicking the link above). I’ll send you a free video training on how to end the conflict and start being happy together.