First best is falling in love. Second best is being in love. Least best is falling out of love. But any of it is better than never having been in love.
What happens to a relationship when the initial butterflies settle down? Or when a relationship moves through a crisis? Something is waiting for you on the other side, but what is it? It turns out relationship experts have identified the 5 stages of a relationship. These five stages are predictable, consistent, and help us all understand the ups and downs of long term partnerships better.
Even if you’ve never explored the stages of a relationship before, you’ll find the explanations below powerful in their accuracy. For example, if you are riding an overwhelming emotional high – you might be in the first stage. But if you are increasingly annoyed by all the small imperfections of the one you love, that sounds a lot like the problems associated with the third stage. Each is unique.
Each stage comes with its own set of challenges. And let’s remind one another that the experience might feel and look much different than someone else’s. Despite the personal variations, psychologists believe many remarkable similarities unite us all in our romantic relations.
Let the following guidelines serve as a detailed rundown of what to expect during each of the 5 stages of relationships. As an added bonus, there are also a few pointers on how to survive each out.
Stage One: The Heady Rush of Romance & Attraction
You can’t blame gravity for falling in love.
If there are 5 stages of a relationship, the first is the magic sauce. In the first phase of a relationship, it’s about all feeling all the feels.
All the cliches we have about falling in love tend to come from this stage: making goo-goo eyes, getting blinded by love, and falling head over heels. If you’ve ever been in this stage of a relationship, you’ll know how accurate these depictions are.
Nothing else matters except your emotional connection to the other person. You wake up thinking about them, you pine after them when they are not around, and you fall asleep dreaming of them. Your entire world revolves around the other person.
During this stage, you both are on your best behavior. Any red flags are subconsciously (or willfully ignored). The object of your attraction can do no wrong, and they seem perfect from every angle.
As psychologist and relationship coach Dr. Carmen Harra, Ph.D. explained to Bustle, “This is a blissful phase in which both partners have fallen in love with each other, and their bond appears to be perfect.”
At a basic biological level, this stage feels good. In fact, it technically has addictive qualities as the body releases a slew of wonderful chemicals like oxytocin, dopamine, and phenylethylamine. It’s why people like to describe this first phase of the many stages of a new relationship as “being high on love.” Truthfully, you probably are.
How to Survive This Stage?
Lean into the roller coaster of emotions, and ride the experience! Nothing is as magical as falling in love, but keep an eye out for red flags. Don’t completely forget about your morals and lessons learned from past relationships as you enter into a new one. If something doesn’t feel right, trust your gut, not your heart.
Stage Two: Settling In and Learning
“True love is usually the most inconvenient kind.”
The high of the initial romance and attraction stage cannot last forever. Eventually, your body slows down the release of the feel-good chemicals to a steadier, if less potent stream. There are fewer highs, yet both players might keep chasing them.
The transition between heady, overwhelming emotions into the more rational stages of a relationship is challenging. You aren’t the only one going through this rough patch early on. When the blinders come off from the first stage, you start to see your partner for who they really are.
This stage can feel uncomfortable, like a love hangover. It’s like waking up the next morning and questioning whether it was all worth it. Sometimes in the light of day, you can find your relationship decisions regretful. But, you might wake up for your reality check and want to keep going.
Many relationships don’t make it through this second step. But that’s likely a very good thing. The red flags you might have subconsciously picked up on in the beginning are suddenly glaringly obvious. Do you actually want to spend the rest of your life dealing with that?
On the flip side, you could both begin to build a genuine emotional connection that is made of more than sexual attraction and fantasy. Out of all the stages in a new relationship, this one can feel the most challenging. It can be tumultuous, but it creates a solid foundation for a long-lasting connection.
How to Survive This Stage?
Nora DeKeyser, the author of the Three Day Rule, talked about how to survive this stage with My Domaine. She explained, “Before moving into more serious stages, ask your partner exactly what they want out of a relationship.”
Which maybe means talking about the deeper issues. She went on to say, “Both parties have to choose to work at the relationship.” Ask yourself if the juice is worth the squeeze, then make an executive decision.
Stage Three: The Spell Breaks, Disappointment Sets In
“Sometimes, two people have to fall apart to realize how much they need to fall back together.”
Otherwise known as the crisis stage, there is no more messing around. If the relationship is going to work, you have to work on big issues, with real ramifications. Out of all the stages of a relationship, dating stage number three is the make or break phase.
According to most relationship experts, there is no avoiding this tough stage. Couples have to get into the mud to get through it. If you try to walk around it to avoid getting messy, it’s only a matter of time before the mud finds a way in.
In this stage, arguments transition from mild bickering into all-out wars. Big topics are on the table, like money, children, and commitment. You and your partner go head to head in discussions about the most significant hurdles you need to overcome. You both try to exert your will over the actions of the other.
You’ve likely heard that it’s not healthy to try to change the other person, but in all the many stages of a relationship, in this one, you forget that rule. You try to make the other person conform to your ideas, and it usually never works.
How to Survive this Stage?
Stay open and honest in your communication, but don’t lose sight of your emotional connection to your partner. No matter how passionate the fight is, don’t hit below the belt. No matter how long it has taken you to reach this phase, getting through it can take a year or more. Be gentle with one another because emotions can run high in this stage.
Stage Four: Comfortable Commitment
“A true relationship is two unperfect people refusing to give up on each other.”
Congratulations, you have made it through to the other side. Here, relationship challenges have crested. Of course, no relationship is perfect 100 percent of the time, but the biggest fights and crisis are now well behind you.
By now, you have made the commitment to one another for the long haul. Break up, and divorce is off the table, and you have accepted whatever differences remain. The little quirks that once annoyed you to no end are no longer a deal-breaker.
The power struggle that reared its ugly head in stage number three has quietly settled. Your partner is no longer trying to change you, and vice versa. Arguments, when they do occur, are no longer about forcing your way through. Now they are more about working together and cooperative negotiation.
In DeKeyser’s opinion, “Challenges actually bring couples who manage them correctly closer together because it teaches the two of you that you can get through the tough times together and trust each other through communication.”
How to Survive this Stage?
This stage isn’t so much survival as about appreciation. If you have gotten through the crisis point and feel comfortable in your renewed commitment with each other — pat yourselves on the back! Spend time healing wounds, and reconnecting on a deeper level.
Stage Five: Deep Unconditional Love
“True love comes quietly, without banners or flashing lights. If you hear bells, get your ears checked.” – Erich Segal
In this last and 5th stage of the relationship, the long-lasting bliss quite different from the first phase of the relationship so long ago. You are no longer chasing an emotional high. You have both settled into a beautiful experience with consistent (and stable) payoffs.
In this stage, some couples explain the experience as ‘newlywed bliss’ or ‘magical.’ Others feel their romance has moved into a more spiritual phase.
In DeKeyser’s words, “This is the stage where you realize you two are best friends and lovers. You are partners to each other in life—you can spend hours, days, weeks, months side by side with this person, and you only better each other and feel as though you are one unit.”
“This is a much more spiritual stage of love where people can look beyond flaws and are able to share love,” Paul says. “It’s this stage that brings the joy to a relationship.”
How to Survive this Stage?
By this point, you probably don’t need relationship advice. You’ve come through the weeds (and maybe more than once). You stand together on the other side of adversity, deeply connected and unconditionally in love with the one you’ve chosen to be with. Congratulations!
A Final Thought On the 5 Stages of Love and Relationships in General
No matter where you are now in your current relationship, it can be extremely beneficial to know others have followed a similar course before you. Simply knowing that others have gone through all the phases (both the rough patches and the phase of comfortable commitment) can make your course feel easier.
Remember, love is not linear. You may find your relationship stuck in one period for too long or flipping back and forth in the middle for extended periods. Have patience with the process. If you love your partner, and the connection you have is real, keep working on it. A healthy relationship is worth fighting for.