As the good book says, to every thing there is a season — a that’s especially true in relationships, which have distinct phases couples navigate, usually without even realising that they’re leaving one and entering another.
There is some disagreement among experts about how many stages there really are, but there is no disagreement that phases are real and relationships are always changing. Recognising which stage you’re in and how to best get through it can help you build a lasting partnership, so let’s go over what they look like.
Most relationships start with a honeymoon stage
The honeymoon stage is, frankly, the fun part. This is where you’re getting to know your new boo. There are a lot of dates, romance, long talks, and sexcapades. You know what this stage is all about: You get butterflies when they text you, you rush to get off work so you can go hang out with them, and you think they’re absolutely perfect. You tell each other your favourite colours, describe your childhoods, and talk, talk, talk all the time. Everything you learn about them just makes you like them more and you tell all your friends how great they are and what an improvement they are over your ex. What’s more, you really believe it.
The issue with the honeymoon stage is you have your rose-coloured glasses on. Everything the other person does is endearing. You are getting to know them, yes, but you don’t really know them that well yet. For instance, you’re not likely to learn how they handle legitimate conflict in this stage and if you do — and discover something you might not like — you’re more likely to give them a pass because you’re so smitten.
In future stages, you could cling to the honeymoon phase for a long time. Plenty of relationships sour, and that’s normal, because the honeymoon stage can’t last forever. This might sound a little nerdy or weird, but you could write down the things you learn about them and be as honest as you can. Refer back to the list over time to be sure you didn’t miss any red flags early on. Make sure to stay aware of your emotions as you move into other phases. Don’t excuse a bad relationship for too long because you’re convinced things could “go back to how they were in the beginning.” They can’t, really, but that doesn’t mean hope is lost.
Entering the reality stage of a relationship
Some people call what comes after the honeymoon phase the “love hangover.” You will start noticing some less-than-perfect traits here, so this is where the real work of the relationship begins. If you once found it funny or impressive that your new love answered work emails during dinner, for instance, you might find it annoying or disrespectful now.
“Leaving the honeymoon phase and transitioning into reality can feel like a comedown of a high, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be exciting,” said 24-year-old May Blake, who’s been in a handful of long-term relationships. “When you leave the high of the beginning of the relationship, you have to figure out if you’re compatible long term. A relationship can’t be built on passion, but sustainability, which isn’t nearly as exciting.”
Depending on your personalities and needs, romance can totally continue into this phase, but daily life and responsibilities will reclaim their time, too. Use the reintroduction of other duties and tasks to gauge how you really feel about the relationship. If what you liked the most was the constant date nights and attention, you’ll feel that now. If you really like the person, you’ll feel that, too, even when you’re both pulled away to deal with family, work, friends, and your respective lives.
This stage can intersect with a “power struggle” phase, too, but doesn’t always have to. If your goals are totally aligned and you really respect each other’s work and personal time, you may never have a power struggle. Don’t be discouraged if you do, though. It can take some manoeuvring to get used to the constraints on each other’s time and attention. Moreover, you might find you have different ideas about what your roles should be within the relationship. One party may be more controlling or traditional than the other, for instance, and you need to set some expectations early on.
The best thing you can do in this phase is not hide who you are. Be upfront about your beliefs and goals. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not to keep things running smoothly. That won’t work in the long run. This is called the “reality” phase because you both have to come to terms with the reality of your relationship, so phoniness won’t cut it. Say your partner wants to be the breadwinner and the authority figure, the person who pays for dates, calls the shots, drives everywhere, and all of that. If you are into it, cool, but if not, don’t pretend to be. You’ll snap eventually, and the relationship won’t work.
The stability stage of a relationship
If you get through that whole wake-up call situation, you’ll emerge into a stable phase. This is the part where you have a routine down and, ideally, it lines up with what both of you are looking or working for. Once you’ve been together a few months, you’ll develop a rhythm. Maybe you always cook dinner together and watch a certain show on Tuesday nights. Maybe you run your errands together on Saturdays. Maybe you combine your grocery lists or designate certain days of the month for your separate pursuits. This is the part where the couple aspect really shines. You’re a unit now!
That doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict or that you won’t keep discovering new things about each other. By now, though, you should be communicating well enough that you can work through any new issues that arise. Stability is supposed to be nice, so if you find yourself bored or agitated by it, look a little deeper within yourself. Are you settling for a setup you aren’t really enjoying? Are you going with the motions because you want to reinstate that fuzzy feeling from the beginning of the relationship? Be honest with yourself and don’t do that. The honeymoon is over. This is where you are now. Embrace it or find a tactful way to end things.
The commitment stage of a relationship
If your life of stability is working out for both of you, you might be inclined to make it more official. For some people, this includes marriage, but it doesn’t have to. This is the phase where you don’t just have a routine, but start planning your future routine. You might move in together, start coordinating major events — like vacations — together, or combine some finances and spend jointly on the big stuff, whatever the big stuff is for you.
In this stage, signing on a dotted line or planning major milestones together shouldn’t freak you out. If you have any reservations, listen to your gut. Just because you got this far doesn’t mean you have to keep going if you don’t think it’s right. If the relationship is healthy, moving into this new phase should feel natural and exciting.
The contentment stage of a relationship
This stage has a little bit of the honeymoon phase and a little bit of the stability phase all rolled into one. Once you settle into being committed to one another, you should feel happy, content, and fulfilled. (Again, if you don’t feel those things, it is never too late to prioritise yourself and leave.)
Whether you have a house, a dog, kids, a joint bank account, or some or all of those things, you should be feeling blissed out knowing you found a partner who gets you, builds with you, and overcomes conflict with you. There’s still room for date nights and romance, so be sure to both stay on top of those. Even after having a baby or another major life event, you can — and should — make time for your relationship.
Remember, your relationship isn’t a race or a game. You aren’t just dating someone so you can speed-run through the phases and end up married. Each phase should be navigated and nurtured with care so you can progress happily — and stay happy.