Stages in Relationships

a useful mental map for complex terrain

The notion that there are stages in relationships as they develop that occur in all kinds of relationships can be very useful in keeping one's perspective and focus in this complex, emotionally charged endeavor.

It can be applied to the unfolding of all kinds of relationships: parent/child, husband/wife, lovers, business associates, family members.

Do remember that this is a mental model, a sort of interactional roadmap, a tool. It is only valuable to the degree that it helps you understand, make sense of, predict, or accomplish what you intend to in your interactions with others. Don't let the tail wag the dog.

Five Stages in Relationships

Romance Stage

At the start of a relationship we are all hopes and dreams. While we don't know each other, we do have visions of how being together is going to bring us things that we haven't been getting alone, of being safer, and having a more meaningful, rewarding life by being together. It is exciting and it is full of energy, which is why so many people try to stay at this stage forever, even if they have to keep changing partners to do it.

This is what has led to the observation that we are never so dishonest in our lives as we are during courtship. As true as this is, remember that we are being dishonest with ourselves as well as the other person. And, for the most part, we aren't really even aware of it.

Power Struggle Stage

Eventually, though, we get to know more of the real person and they us. There is usually more than enough disappointment to go around and it doesn't take long for blame and resentment to to surface.

Resentment grows out of resisting what is and that's exactly what we want to do at this point. It was going to be so good and if they would only would ...... (fill in the blank) things would be good again. But, of course we are both wishing the same thing, so something else has to happen.

All the things that we do when we are insecure show up at this point. The list is personal, but don't be surprised to find yourself dealing with feelings and behaviors such as

  • blame

  • guilt

  • jealousy

  • anxiety

  • defensiveness

  • high energy

The are three ways to respond to this stage and two of them don't have good long term results.

1. Get out of the relationship.

2. Stay in the relationship, but avoid the conflict, either

  • by passive-aggressive distancing with its associated resentment and secrecy or
  • by rising above it all, usually by doing what amounts to travelling on separate, but parallel tracks.

3. Do the necessary honest, respectful talking, listening, understanding, and accepting to move through this stage.

  • Telling the truth
  • Avoiding violence or blackmail
  • Taking responsibility for and handling of our own feelings


We move to the Integration stage when we have done enough talking, listening, and putting it all together inside us to really "get"that there is another separate being "over there" and we are truly able to accept and support them in being themselves.

Commitment Stage

Having moved to a new level of knowing and accepting the other person as a real, separate person, we now can make a new commitment to the relationship. Since we know more, the commitment very likely will be different than earlier ones.

Co-creative Stage

Having established a more realistic and firm place to "plant our feet" in this relationship, the relationship takes on some positive identities of its own. Very likely, some of the things that we hoped for in the Romance Stage will start to occur here in modified forms.

And, from this elevated position, don't be surprised if new romances develop, starting the cycle again to be worked through at deeper and deeper levels within us.

The Ongoing Cycle of Stages in Relationships

We don't just repeat this cycle of stages in relationships within a particular relationship. We can be at different stages in different relationships at the same time. So, while we may be in a co-creative stage of our intimate relationship, we may get the "perfect" job and be in a romance stage there.

Potentially confusing? You bet! That's where a mental model that makes sense to you can be extremely helpful in staying on track.

If would like to go into more depth on stages in relationships, the topic is discussed in greater detail in "The Relationship Garden" by Jock McKeen and Bennet Wong and in the writings by Susan Campbell from which they adapted it, starting with The Couple's Journey.

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