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The 5 Stages of Relationships

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

A couple siting with a counsellor

It is easy for struggles to be seen as the sign of a failing relationship. If, however, you can view your relationship in a context of continual growth and development, you are likely to achieve a more positive outlook. The way in which you think about your difficulties, manage your feelings, and act under stress can have a significant impact upon the quality of your relationship.

Following is a description of the developmental stages that couples encounter as they struggle between the need for autonomy and the desire for intimacy in a relationship.  These stages define the "stepping stones" of differentiation that move couples toward greater intimacy with one another while remaining true to themselves.  Differentiation is key to the experience of a more vital, satisfying relationship.

Stage 1: Symbiotic (Oneness) Often referred to as the Romantic Stage, this stage is characterized by an experience of blissful oneness.  Significant parts of one's beliefs, behaviours, and personality are temporarily suspended in order to support the coming together as a couple.  Differences are minimized and only the good in the other partner is observed. 

Stage 2:  Differentiation (Power Struggle) The second stage is entered as differences begin to emerge and one sees the other's imperfections.  This stage can be very stressful and go on for years.  While some couples are able to deal with their differences through healthy communication and negotiation, most couples try to resolve the power struggle by attempting to return to the comfort of symbiosis.  These partners seek to re-establish togetherness by denying their differences or engaging in angry escalating arguments to convince the other to agree.

Stage 3:  Exploration If partners can resist the pressure to return to the symbiotic state, each can begin to re-establish an identity, independent of how the relationship is faring.  This important stage, however, often presents a crisis.  It may seem as if all love and caring has disappeared.  To make matters worse, the timing may be different for each partner, encouraging one partner to cling while the other distances.  If both partners distance simultaneously, they may feel more like roommates than lovers.  The objective of this stage is to re-define and sustain one's identity under stress which will form a new foundation for reconnection.

Stage 4: Connection In this stage, partners have strengthened their identities and learned to think more productively about their differences instead of reacting negatively.  There is a return to a deeper more sustainable level of intimacy which is often accompanied by an enlivened sexual relationship.

Stage 5:  Synergy As partners now manage their emotional reactions to differences more effectively, intimacy deepens.  One becomes capable of relating in ways that are true to one's most deeply held values and beliefs while actively supporting the other's right to do the same.  The flow between autonomy and intimacy becomes easier.  Each partner benefits from this synergy and both now desire to give back to the world.


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