There Are 3 Stages of Relationships—and 1 Where Most Couples Get Stuck

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It's easy to forget that there are stages of a relationship until the moment you trip and fall face-first out of the honeymoon phase. You know the feeling, right? For some amount of time, no one and nothing can touch your love, because your romance is a beautiful, sparkling, Baz Luhrmann jukebox musical. Then you see your partner's bedroom and learn they still have a twin-size bed, or something equally appalling. All of a sudden, you realize, "Oh, wait, everyone dies in those Luhrmann movies." Out of the honeymoon phase you go immediately, and into something quite a bit trickier.

To quote one of those doomed Lurhmann flicks, love is a many splendored thing. And one of the key elements to finding, experiencing, and—most importantly—keeping love is navigating the hard stuff with empathy, communication, and patience. Understanding the three major stages in a relationship is also helpful so all parties involved can have a sense of what to expect and anticipate, good and bad. Below, get expert tips for surviving and thriving in all stages of a relationship. (Note: Everyone couple is on a slightly different timeline, so there's no hard-and-fast rule for when you'll graduate from one phase to the next.)


Stage 1: Infatuation and the honeymoon period

Are cartoon hearts floating above your heads? Fireworks exploding outside your bedroom? You've made it three or four dates with the same person, so what else could this be other than true love? Or, at least, true lust? During this phase, hormones like norepinephrine and dopamine (yes, the intoxicating happiness-churning dopamine) surge through you. You're ecstatic, excited, and aroused. To make the most of it:

  • Beware to not get distracted by sex and sex alone. Go deeper—emotionally deeper.
  • Pay attention to whether this person can honor and respect your sensitivity. Psychiatrist Judith Orloff, MD, author of Thriving as an Empath: 365 Days of Self-Care for Sensitive People says that at this point, you want to keep the conversation going as a strategy for identifying common values.
  • Establish your needs. Whether those include that you tend to get overwhelmed by crowds, that you'd rather do anything in the world other than go hiking, or anything else at all.
  • Determine whether they're trustworthy on a basic level. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done since knowing for sure whether someone is trustworthy is tricky. "Observe if the person’s behavior matches their words—for instance, are they kind to the parking-lot attendant, their friends, and family, alike? Do they give back to society?" says Dr. Orloff. The key to understanding whether someone is trustworthy is to not just focus on how this person treats you, but also how they treat everyone in their presence.

Stage 2: Getting acquainted with someone's less-than-savory side

Surprise! Your new partner isn't perfect! That discovery is basically the crux of the second stage of a relationship, and confronting it directly can be pretty upsetting. Sometimes, the weight of a person's baggage doesn't get heavier than "enjoying Netflix-era Adam Sandler films," and you can probably make that arrangement work. But other times, those less-than-savory traits come in the form of genuine darkness (and I don't mean dark comedies). In this case, what matters most is how they cope, express themselves, and compromise with their less attractive qualities. To get you through:

  • Ask yourself a series of introspective questions about the other person. Dr. Orloff suggests asking yourself the tough questions. "Are they controlling, angry, depressed, judgmental? Are they able to be accountable for these qualities? Are they willing to change and grow? Are they willing to work out issues," she asks.
  • Take stock of their darker characteristics. Tangoing with someone's darker side intensifies the relationship beyond what you previously knew to be true, back in the honeymoon phase. In the very beginning stages of a relationship, all parties involved are trying to be their best selves, which makes total sense. But at this point, in phase two, you start learning whether this partner is capable of understanding your shadow side too. While you might be surprised and comforted by how understanding and open this person may be, you also might find that you're incompatible—or even dating a narcissist. "Empaths and narcissists have a fatal attraction, so it is important to identify narcissism in a potential mate," Dr. Orloff says. "Full-blown narcissists aren’t capable of empathy and are emotionally unavailable—though, they are extremely seductive at first, in stage one."
  • See the bad and acknowledge it completely. Dr. Orloff calls this the hardest aspect of working through the stages of a relationship. At this point, both partners are emotionally tested regarding what the relationship can handle. On the plus side, if you can get out alive, you may have a happily ever after. "If you’ve found a partner that you like being with and that you are basically compatible with, it's worth it to stick with that person and work out the difficult parts," she says. "Then you have a truly loving relationship."

Stage 3: Developing authentic communication

You've had big, blow-up fights and are able to come out on the other side, still loving each other. You've gone from thinking the other person's quirks are cute, to gross, to just a part of who they are. You feel comfortable with this person being your equal partner, and you both work really hard to communicate honestly through whatever obstacle comes your way.

  • Ask yourself if they're fulfilling they're fulfilling your interpersonal needs. "This is where a true partnership is solidified," Dr. Orloff says. "Be honest with your feelings and needs: Do you show up for each other? Are you devoted and committed? Are you able to ride through the good times and difficult struggles? Are they available? Do you show up for each other?"

In each stage, you're really peeling away the layers and layers of a person and making the active decision to stick around. At first, their intoxicating, riveting, wonderful (it's a real rom-com vibe), then you learn to love—or not—their demons. And last, you double, triple-check that they're fulfilling your deepest communicative needs. Make it through all three phases, and you've found yourself a keeper, fam.

"Deepening love and commitment [happens] here," Dr. Orloff says. "Life is real—less projection and fantasy—and this is true love."

This post was originally published on October 15, 2019; updated on March 13, 2020.

Here's how to look out for a deadly string of love bombs, a narcissist's go-to trap. And here are six signs to spot if someone is in love based on their body language. 

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