This is a quick reminder about the stages through which a relationship travels. Love grows and changes. The excitement that brings couples together in the first place is very different from the love that emerges fifteen or fifty years later. Love relationships go through three predictable stages. All are important and none can be avoided if love is to flourish.
Stage 1: Romantic Love
Love relationships usually begin with a strong physical and emotional attraction that produces a somewhat altered state of consciousness. Your brain is saturated with chemicals called endorphins, creating the sensations of intense pleasure that accompany infatuation. The exhilaration and sense of well-being are similar to feelings produced by vigorous exercise or eating something extremely pleasurable, like chocolate.
In this highly charged emotional state, you are apt to project images, expectations, and ideals of the perfect mate onto your partner. These projections often have little to do with who your partner really is, but it’s hard to tell because both of you are on your best behavior. Reeling with romance and passion, you and your partner are highly responsive to each other. It is not until a little further down the path that you find out what a person is really like.
Stage 2: Power Struggle
As infatuation and romantic love subside, healthy relationships go through a period of adjustment with continuing power struggles. It is common during this stage, for each partner to try to mould the other into the ideal mate. As part of this process, many couples bicker and fight. Some launch a “cold war” and start avoiding sensitive areas of conflict.
If neither you nor your partner is ready to risk confrontation, your lives are likely to become more and more separate and devoid of intimacy and sharing. Even though you avoid open conflict, agreeing at some level not to argue and fight, the tension and pain remain. Here the problems go underground and come out when least expected.
Some couples use guilt and blame to try to control each other in an effort to recapture feelings associated with the earliest stage of their relationship. Both long for that period of infatuation when being together was new and exciting and the partner was attentive. If that sounds like you, remember that it’s normal to fall out of romantic love and to experience conflict.
Furthermore, confrontation is healthy. It builds understanding when you get things out on the table. Learning to confront and resolve conflict at this stage helps your relationship mature. The challenge is to discover what can be changed in the relationship and what must be accepted.
It is never too late to learn the skills and to take the risks to effectively move through the power-struggle stage in order to achieve a stronger more satisfying relationship. It requires honesty with self, the willingness to confront and communicate with the partner, and letting go of control to experience what needs to surface.
This includes facing your fears and allowing all your feelings to be explored. Feelings are not right or wrong. When denied, however, anger turns to rage and playing “ostrich” to avoid dealing with issues turns to depression. (Healing these may require both inner work and therapy.
Steering through the power-struggle stage can take years if a couple does not look for help outside of their frame of reference. There are some definite things a couple can do to speed up the process ¾ gather information from books, take courses like this one, and go to counselling. Marriage and family therapists offer helpful information and objectivity when a couple is at an impasse.
Stage 3: Unconditional Acceptance
In its third stage, a healthy relationship moves beyond regular power struggles and control issues to unconditional love and acceptance. However, during the transition from stage two to stage three, partners must still confront and resolve issues in the relationship, taking risks to make positive change wherever possible and accepting those conditions that cannot be changed.
Even in stage three, it is healthy to discuss anything that upsets you. Differences are approached positively, not seen as things to brush over, hide, or suppress. Tolerance and forgiveness are part of the equation, because there are always two different individuals with points of view, interests, desires, goals, and rates of growth.
At this stage, each person is highly aware of various traits in the other. Some you like and others you dislike, but you learn to accept the ones that cannot be changed. This is a time when expectations are readjusted and both of you become more realistic. Part of the process involves grieving the loss of expectations that cannot be met, and forgiving your partner for not conforming to your ideals.
Making peace with yourself over the loss of your idealistic fantasies can take years — it really depends on your level of self-awareness, your willingness to let go of control, and the degree to which you are able to tune into the relationship. This third stage, acceptance, also includes enjoying the partnership and supporting each other on the journey of life.
On the path to mature love, these three stages blend into one another. One does not stop and another begins. In fact occasionally, they all three take place simultaneously. For example, you can still create romance in the second and third stages. Remember the draw of the first stage, where there was the element of surprise and the unknown?
To create some romance, change your routine and bring in the element of surprise and unpredictability. You might create a date night once a week, where you go out and do fun things together. Use your imagination. Likewise, during the third stage it is still important to bring up issues that get in the way of experiencing a good relationship. Communication is important in all stages, as is working on your own issues and building awareness.
Knowing these three stages helps people be realistic about relationships. Rather than giving up during the tough times of the second stage, it is helpful to know it is normal and there are things you can do to make the way easier. Good relationships take time, awareness, risking, and good communication skills, to name a few, and require lots of practice. Each relationship is unique and incomparable.
By Suzanne E. Harrill, M. Ed