In the eighteenth century in the Western world, romantic relationship came into being. Prior to this, there were no socially acknowledged “de facto” relationships, nor were there any relationships based on love. Marriage was governed by the rules and restrictions of patriarchal society which placed restrictions on women and men. There was no understanding of the stages of intimacy which develop over time with the use of specific relationship skills.
Romantic and intimate relating only began three centuries ago. Only then did love relationships became a personal choice. We entered into love relationships with newly recognized needs, but unfortunately without a user’s manual on how to effectively operate in relationships. Thus began the era of normal relationship difficulties where couples find themselves unskilled in how to identify their needs or how to ask for what they want.
We are especially in the dark about ways to relate which encourage our partner to respond in a positive manner to our requests. This is why relationships develop in stages. Studies have shown that the second and third stages of most relationships are marked by conflicts and power struggles (or the avoidance of those) and these stages can often feel like we’re stuck in gridlock.
Over forty years of research on what sets the “masters of relationships” apart from the “disasters of relationships” (Gottman, 2014) reveals that there are predictable skills which the masters of relationships use with each other. These skills can be learnt and learning often occurs in stages.
Five stages of relationship and intimacy development are described below (Bader & Pearson, 1988). You will see that the first three stages all have a “dark side” describing what can go wrong if the growth challenges they present aren’t dealt with in skillful ways.
STAGE ONE – HONEYMOON/EXCLUSIVE BONDING
This is the wonderful stage which all movies, novels, love songs and poetry describe as magical, overpowering and unstoppable. The honeymoon stage brings with it a blissful feeling of togetherness and it feels as if you and your loved one can do no wrong. There is passion, hot sex, mutual giving and receiving. We are prepared to do anything for the one we love, and we feel capable of achieving anything because we feel on top of the world.
Nature has cunningly engineered this necessary and beautiful stage to bring us together. It is fuelled by powerful hormones, and creates the “chemistry” designed to bring about bonding. It is what helps us to move from an “I” to a loving “we”, to bring about a merging of lives and personalities. Our similarities are magnified and our differences are minimized. It is a necessary foundation stage for couples. Couples who miss out on establishing this bonding stage often have difficulties moving through the next stages in a healthy way.
Dark side of stage one
Love is powerfully driven by hormones, hopes and desires. Love in this stage makes us somewhat blind. What feels like an indestructible “we” is inevitably based in fantasy, because both partners are putting our “best self” forward. We’re doing our utmost to “pass the interview” and get” picked for the job” of being the special one for this magical person. Inevitably and disappointingly, the bliss of powerful connection fades. For some this can happen in weeks, for others this stage can last for up to two years.
But after a time, we find ourselves struggling with conflicted feelings. One part of us doesn’t want to let go of the belief that everything should remain “perfect”. The other side can’t help seeing that this god or goddess has vulnerabilities, wounds and annoying habits. Romantic love hangs around long enough to bond two people together. Then it seems to slip away and suddenly, our dream relationship can turn into our biggest nightmare. This leads us into:
STAGE TWO – CONFLICT/POWER STRUGGLE/DIFFERENTIATING
When in the grip of romantic love, you can do no wrong. When the honeymoon fades, it feels like you can do no right. Your biggest fan turns into your worst critic. Your dream come true turns into your worst nightmare. Idealization and devotion is replaced by tension and nagging. You think “What happened? Why don’t I feel the way I used to?”, “Who is this person? We were so compatible”, “How can my partner think that way, say those things, do those things? They tricked me into believing they were something else!” This is the start of the conflict stage of relationships.
This rude awakening from the dream of perfection, can make us very anxious. The sex and the closeness are mediocre or don’t exist. It is common at this stage (and in stage three) that couples decide to come to counselling. Desperate to end the pain and disappointment of this stage, many couples think they should separate. Others who fear or want to avoid the pain of dividing up joint lives and belongings decide to stay together. But they wind up “settling”, living parallel lives, disconnected, without any true intimacy. They believe this is as good as it gets. But secretly they think something must be terribly wrong.
But nothing has gone wrong! This stage is supposed to happen. It’s a crucial stage in learning how to deal with differences through healthy conflict. Conflict in relationships is inevitable and we must learn the skills to deal with these normal relationship conflicts. What’s wrong is that we don’t have the skills to deal effectively with conflict or differences. The inevitable power struggle which results consists of:
a) Cultural remains of the arranged marriage. It is marked by inequality, an imbalance of power that was typical of the pre-eighteenth century marriage. This struggle is characterized by “You and I are one, and I’m the one!” (Hendrix & LaKelly Hunt, 2013).
b) And it is fuelled by the powerful, unconscious romantic love force that draws us to someone who has the positive and negative qualities of our parents or caregivers. Your partner may not look or act like your parents. But you will end up feeling the same feelings you had as a child when you were with your carers. This includes the positive sense of love and belonging and also the negative pain of not getting all your needs met. These negative impacts generally fall into two categories. Our parents were either over-involved, which left us feeling controlled, smothered or annihilated. Or our parents were under-involved, which left us feeling unimportant, insignificant or abandoned.
In stage two differences must emerge. And we must learn to manage our anxiety about these emerging differences. That’s why one of the names for this stage is “differentiation” and it needs to happen if the relationship is to grow.
Each partner must be “taken down from the pedestal” created by the romantic fantasy so we can see them for the real human being that they are, complete with strengths as well as weaknesses. A healthy desire to spend less time together emerges. We also spend more time taking opposite sides of an issue, we don’t see eye-to eye, we don’t feel connected, the sex is not so exciting or can be totally absent.
The learning challenges in this stage are as follows:
a) We must learn to maintain a clear sense of self, especially in the face of our partner pressuring us to adapt
b) We must learn to self-soothe instead of expecting our partner to do this for us and we must stop expecting them to change
c) We must control our own reactivity while staying close, instead of dis-investing from the relationship
d) We must develop the ability to face the issues that haunt us and our relationship and develop the willingness to tolerate discomfort for growth (Schnarch, 2009).
Dark side of stage two
Some of us can’t bear the fact that differences exist, let alone that discomfort and conflict are inevitable in relationships. We keep holding on to the idea that the dream relationship will return or we fantasize that we’re with the “wrong” person and that the “right” person would fulfill all our needs. Others of us want more autonomy or privacy, but feel guilty and afraid about this or don’t know how to ask for space. The dark side is full of disillusionment, disappointment, confusion and ambivalence. It is characterized by open or guerrilla warfare, overt or subtle insults, sabotages or avoidance. We want our partner to change or accept our version of the “truth”, instead of managing our own anxiety.
This feels awfully messy and confusing. But since partnership is designed to resurface feelings from previous relationships or childhood, it means that most of the upset that gets triggered in us during our relationship is from our past. Indeed, about 90 percent of the frustrations your partner has with you are really about their issues from childhood (Hendrix & LaKelly Hunt, 2013).
Because of this, couples can get caught in two common ways of relating (Bader & Pearson, 1988):
a) We bicker, intimidate, yell, attack, blame or dominate. We inflate ourselves to feel powerful, because we’re scared underneath. We get trapped in a cycle of anger and conflict. We are too terrified to end the relationship and not mature enough to end the battles. These are the hostile-dependent couples.
b) We engage in passive-aggressive sniping, we resentfully comply, sulk or withdraw. We deflate ourselves and feel powerless. We are so afraid of tension that it leads to hiding by deception and denying anything’s wrong, we avoid conflict or minimize our differences. These are the conflict-avoidant couples.
Getting expert help during this stage from a well qualified couple’s counsellor, a mature mentor couple or a wise friend, family or community member, we can help to move us into stage three.
STAGE THREE – PRACTICING CREATING PARTNERSHIP/RESPECTING DIFFERENCES
This next stage is where we practice evolving individually as well as developing our relationship into a true partnership, where both partners are equal and free to explore and grow. The healthy expression of this freedom is “what’s good for me, has to be good for you and the relationship” too. It is all about teamwork. We focus on consciously promoting each other’s physical, emotional, sexual, psychological, social and spiritual growth, as well as on promoting our own. In so doing, we experience the deepest connection possible between humans.
But take note – this process takes work. There’s no quick fix.
Why is this work on your relationship so demanding and challenging? Not only is the person you’re committed to like your parents in many ways, but the two of you are also incompatible (different) in various areas. It’s as if we are mysteriously attracted to someone who’s similar to our carers (that’s why we feel we’ve known them for ever, even though we’ve just met) but different enough that our incompatibility provides key elements for the process of growth and healing of our old wounds.
Incompatibility, or learning to deal with our differences, plays a crucial role in preparing partners to meet each other’s as well as our own needs. But this cannot be done at the expense of our partner. Confusingly, incompatibility is reason to stay in relationship. And, as the research shows, compatibility or the avoiding of differences, sets the stage for boredom.
One word of warning!
Incompatibility is stimulus for growth in relationship unless the three A’s are present:
Affairs (ongoing affairs take energy out of the relationship. A choice needs to be made to commit, leave or negotiate an open relationship).
Anger/Acting out (physical violence, rage, name calling, punishing withdrawal, unmanaged mental health issues, constant denial of another’s reality, spending hours on computer/porn, lying, stealing, cheating, etc). (Real, 2008; Heitler, 2011)
The first step needed for practicing a healthy partnership is to form a solid foundation in trust and commitment to the relationship. This provides the safety and security we need to go out and explore ourselves and our world without putting the relationship and our partner at risk. Healthy practicing helps us re-establish our own identity and self-esteem by engaging in interests and activities outside of our relationship. We focus on careers, hobbies, friendships, travel, or on being alone again at times. We spend time learning how to negotiate space and distance, time together (we time) and time apart (me time). We work on skills to reconcile conflicting interests and how to talk about sexual intimacy and desires which are different from those of our partner.
Dark side of stage three
If we avoid doing the necessary developmental work of this stage, we get sneaky. One or both partners “check out” and dis-invest from the relationship, rather than be truthful with the other about their unhappiness. Lies, infidelity, misrepresenting finances are typical behaviours. Power struggles become entrenched or gridlocked. We stray well off the ethical map, we take liberties without caring how it affects our partner. We look for sexual gratification outside the relationship, rather than identifying what we desire and addressing this with our partner. Developing our self becomes more important than developing the relationship.
Once again, getting expert help during this stage from a qualified couple’s counsellor, a mature mentor couple or a wise friend, family or community member, can help us move into stage four.
STAGE FOUR – RECONNECTING/RAPPROCHEMENT
This is a lovely time in relationship. Because of the energy that’s been channelled into building self and relationship in tandem, we emerge with a well-developed, well-defined and competent identity. We know how to resolve our own and our partner’s anxieties and insecurities quickly, negotiation is not as difficult as before. We know more clearly who we are and who our partner is, so it feels safe to look to the relationship for true intimacy and emotional sustenance. It’s a deeper yet more grounded experience of stage one, when we can truly appreciate our partner for their uniqueness and individuality.
We are more accepting of ourselves and of each other, so there’s no need to control, engage in power struggles or play small. Relationship and intimacy deepens on all levels. Sex becomes exciting and rewarding again. Because we know each other so well, there’s little need for lying. We can respond to differences with humour, compassion and respect, rather than hostility or deception. Revealing our vulnerability re-emerges, because we can share deeply without fear of ridicule or abandonment. This stage has alternating periods of increased intimacy and efforts to re-establish independence. We come together and move apart, in a well-practiced dance. There is no dark side here or the next stage, as both self and relationship are on solid footing.
STAGE FIVE – MUTUAL INTERDEPENDENCE
This stage is the final reward for the effort and work which has been poured into developing self whilst remaining in deep connection with another in a committed relationship. Each partner is encouraged and supported by the other to grow by following their passions and through external contacts with the world. We can do this because we are backed by the knowledge that we are deeply loved, trusted and respected. Intimacy deepens even more because of our increased ability to manage emotional reactivity.
Sex is very fulfilling because we know what we want, how to ask for it and how to deal effectively with differences in desire. Two key findings of 40 years of relationship research (Gottman, 2014) show that “Happily married couples behave like good friends, and they handle their conflicts in gentle, positive ways” and “Happily married couples are able to repair negative interactions during an argument, and they are able to process negative emotions fully”.
What is seen at this stage is a pair of well-integrated individuals, with satisfaction in their own lives and clarity about their own values and beliefs. They have created a bond that is mutually satisfying, based on a foundation of trust and growth, rather than on need. It takes years to reach this mature stage and a solid sense of self to be able to sustain it. Our earlier desire for something perfect is reconciled with a satisfaction with what is real. Each partner benefits from this synergy, and has a desire to give back to the world. Couples at this stage want to leave a legacy for others, not only their family and friends but also to a wider community. They feel fulfilled individually and as a couple and wish to share this in a way which will benefit others.
To find out more about the predictable stages of relationships, you may need an experienced relationship counsellor & coach. Call 0421 961 687 or email us to schedule an appointment. International callers should call +61 2 8005 1742.
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- Bader, E. & Pearson, P. (1988). In quest of the mythical mate: A developmental approach to diagnosis and treatment in couples therapy. Florence, KY: Brunner/Mazel.
- Heitler, S. (2011). Resisting the 3 main temptations that destroy marriage. Retrieved: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201110/resisting-the-3-main-temptations-destroy-marriages
- Hendrix, H., & LaKelly Hunt, H. (2013). Making marriage simple: 10 truths for changing the relationship you have into the one you want. New York: Harmony Books.
- Real, T. (2008). The new rules of marriage: What you need to know to make love work. New York: Ballantine Books.
- Schnarch, D. (2009). Intimacy and desire: Awaken the passion in your relationship. New York: Beaufort Books.
- The Gottman Institute (2014). Research FAQ’s. Retrieved from http://www.gottman.com/research/research-faqs/