Estimated reading time: 16 minutes
Did you know that there are five stages of intimacy in relationships? These stages develop over time and each stage has specific skills that can be learnt and practiced.
We enter into love relationships with hopes and wishes, but without a manual on how to be in relationships. This leads to inevitable relationship conflicts, where couples find themselves unskilled in how to identify their needs, how to ask for what they want or how to practice new ways of behaving and responding.
We are especially unskilled in how to encourage our partner to respond in a positive manner to our requests. Studies show that the second and third stages of intimacy are marked by conflicts and power struggles – or by trying to avoid conflict – which is still a power struggle. These two stages of intimacy can often feel like we’re stuck in gridlock.
If you find yourself in a power struggle, don’t worry. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything is going wrong. If you’re not struggling with addictions, affairs or chronic anger/abuse, it’s probably a stage that you can work through by practicing a specific set of skills. Mastering a skill set takes deliberate practice , not naïve practice and/or just hoping for change. This crucial difference is explained by K. Anders Ericsson, a researcher in the psychological nature of expertise and human performance.
The Gottman Institute has done over forty years of research on what separates the “masters of relationship” from the “disasters of relationship”. This research reveals that there are predictable skills which the masters of relationship use with each other. They fight about an issue, not with each other. These skills can be learnt. Yet it’s important to remember that learning requires deliberate practice which occurs in different ways and stages.
The five stages of intimacy 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 aren’t dealt with in skillful ways.
Stage One – Honeymoon/Exclusive Bonding
This is the most wonderful of the five stages of intimacy. Movies, novels, love songs and poetry describe it 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. You are prepared to do anything for the one you love, and you feel capable of achieving anything because you feel on top of the world.
Nature has cunningly engineered this necessary and beautiful stage to bring two separate beings together. It is fuelled by powerful hormones, and creates the “chemistry” designed to bring about bonding. This stage helps you to move from an “I” to a loving “we”, to bring about a merging of lives and personalities. Your similarities are magnified and your 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. But there’s no need to lose hope if this happened to you. If you missed out on this stage you can build a new foundation, based on your current, more mature selves.
Dark side of stage one
Love is powerfully driven by hormones, hopes and desires. Love in this stage makes you somewhat blind. What feels like an indestructible “we” is inevitably based in fantasy, because both partners are putting their “best self” forward. You’re doing your best to “pass the interview” and to get “picked for the job”. You want to be chosen above all others by this magical, special person. Inevitably and disappointingly, the bliss of this powerful connection fades. For some people this can happen in weeks, for others this stage can last for up to two years. But it does come to an to end.
After a time, you find yourself struggling with conflicted feelings. One part of you doesn’t want to let go of the belief that everything should remain “perfect”. The other side can’t help seeing that this magical person 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 you 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 want to avoid the pain of dividing up joint lives and belongings, so they decide to stay together. If you do this, you wind up “settling”, living parallel lives, disconnected, without any true intimacy. You believe “this is as good as it gets”. Yet secretly you think something must be terribly wrong.
Don’t worry, 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 you must learn the skills to deal with these normal relationship conflicts in healthy ways. What’s wrong is that you don’t have the skills to deal effectively with conflict or differences. The inevitable power struggle at this stage consists of:
- The cultural remains of arranged marriages from our historical past. It is marked by inequality, an imbalance of power that was typical of the pre-eighteenth century Western marriages. This struggle is characterized by “You and I are one, and I’m the one!” (Hendrix & LaKelly Hunt, 2013).
- It is fuelled by the powerful, unconscious romantic love force that draws you to someone who has the positive and negative qualities of your 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 impacts generally fall into two categories. a) Your parents were either over-involved, which left you feeling controlled, smothered or annihilated. b) Or your parents were under-involved, which left you feeling unimportant, insignificant or abandoned.
It can also happen that one parent was over-involved and the other parent was under-involved. In any of these cases, it may have left you with attachment wounds that may need healing. Please note that Martin Seligman (1993), the former president of the American Psychological Association, says: “Childhood events—even childhood trauma—and childrearing appear to have only weak effects on adult life. Childhood, contrary to popular belief, does not seem, empirically, to be particularly formative. So, contrary to popular belief, we are not prisoners of our past.” Many people, including therapists, cling onto the belief that our past dictates our present and future.
Yet power struggles can happen between any individuals, no matter what happened in your history. In stage two differences must emerge. And you must learn to manage your anxiety about these emerging differences. That’s why one of the names for this stage is “differentiation”. It needs to happen if your relationship is to grow.
Each partner must be “taken down from the pedestal” created by the romantic fantasy so you 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 in this stage. You may also spend more time taking opposite sides of an issue. You don’t see eye-to eye, you don’t feel connected, the sex is not so exciting or it can be totally absent.
The learning challenges in this stage are as follows:
- You must learn to maintain a clear sense of self, especially in the face of your partner pressuring you to adapt to them
- You must learn to self-soothe instead of expecting your partner to do this for you and you must stop expecting them to change
- You must control your own reactivity while staying close, instead of dis-investing from the relationship
- You must develop the ability to face the issues that haunt you and your relationship and develop the willingness to tolerate discomfort for growth (Schnarch, 2009).
Dark side of stage two
Some people can’t bear the fact that differences exist, let alone that discomfort and conflict are inevitable in relationships. If this is you, you’ll keep holding on to the idea that your dream relationship will return, or you fantasize that you’re with the “wrong” person and that the “right” person would fulfill all your needs. Other people 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. This is one of the stages of intimacy which is characterized by open or guerrilla warfare, overt or subtle insults, sabotages or avoidance of your partner. You want your partner to change or accept your version of the “truth”, instead of managing your own anxiety and practicing self-soothing skills.
This feels awfully messy and confusing. But since partnership is designed to resurface wounds from previous relationships and/or childhood, it means that most of the upset that gets triggered in you during your relationship is from your past. It’s said that about 90 percent of the frustrations your partner has with you are really about their issues from the past (Hendrix & LaKelly Hunt, 2013). Remember though that this may not always be the case as said by Martin Seligman above!
Because of power struggles, couples can get caught in two common ways of relating (Bader & Pearson, 1988):
- You bicker, intimidate, yell, attack, blame or dominate. You inflate yourself to feel powerful, because you’re scared underneath. You get trapped in a cycle of anger, hostility and conflict. You are too terrified to end the relationship and not mature enough to end the battles. These are the hostile-dependent couples.
- You engage in passive-aggressive sniping, you resentfully comply, sulk or withdraw. You deflate yourself and feel powerless. You are so afraid of tension that it leads to hiding by deception and denying anything’s wrong, so you avoid conflict or minimize your differences. These are the conflict-avoidant couples.
Getting expert help from a well qualified couple’s counsellor, a mature mentor couple or a wise friend, family or community member, can help to move you into stage three.
Stage Three – Practicing Creating Partnership/Respecting Differences
In this third of the five stages of intimacy, you practice evolving individually as well as developing your relationship into a true partnership. This is 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 and deliberate practice . You focus on consciously promoting each other’s growth, as well as on promoting your own. This is what researcher David Buss (2021) calls the welfare trade-off ratio (WTR) – the ratio of how much emphasis you place on your own value relative to your partner’s value. In a relatively balanced WTR, you experience the deepest connection possible between humans. If there is a gross imbalance, in this TED talk Buss discusses his research on Sexual Conflicts in Human Mating.
But take note – practicing the skills to respect differences takes work. There is no quick fix.
Why is this work on your relationship so demanding and challenging? Not only may the person you’re committed to be like your parents (or the exact opposite of them) in many ways, but the two of you are also incompatible (different) in various areas. It’s as if you are mysteriously attracted to someone who’s similar to your carers (that’s why you feel you’ve known them for ever, even though you’ve just met) but different enough that your incompatibility provides key elements for the process of growth and healing of old wounds.
Incompatibility, or learning to deal with your differences, is a crucial developmental ingredient in the stages of intimacy. Incompatibility helps you practice to meet each other’s as well as your own needs. This cannot be done at the expense of your partner. Confusingly, incompatibility can be a reason to stay in relationship – but only if there’s no coercive control or abuse. And, as the research shows, too much compatibility or avoiding differences, sets the stage for boredom and drifting apart.
One word of warning!
Incompatibility is a stimulus for growth in relationship only if the following three A’s are absent:
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/Abuse (physical violence, rage, name calling, coercive control, 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 you need to go out and explore yourself and your world without putting the relationship or your partner at risk. Healthy practicing helps you re-establish your own identity and self-esteem by engaging in interests and activities outside of your relationship. You focus on careers, hobbies, friendships, travel, or on being alone again at times. You spend time learning how to negotiate space and distance, time together (we time) and time apart (me time). You work on skills to reconcile conflicting interests and how to talk about sexual intimacy and your desires which are probably very different from your partner’s.
Dark side of stage three
If you avoid doing the necessary developmental work of this stage, you 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 happen in this stage. Power struggles become entrenched or gridlocked. You do unethical things, and you take liberties without caring how it affects your partner. You look for emotional intimacy or sexual gratification outside the relationship, rather than identifying what you desire and addressing this with your partner. Developing your 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 you move through the stages of intimacy 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 at the same time, you emerge with a well-developed, well-defined and competent identity. You know how to resolve your own and your partner’s anxieties and insecurities quickly, negotiation is not as difficult as before. You know more clearly who you are and who your 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 you can truly appreciate your partner for their uniqueness and individuality.
You are more accepting of yourself 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 you know each other so well, there’s little need for lying. You can respond to differences with humour, compassion and respect, rather than hostility or deception. Revealing your vulnerability re-emerges, because you can share deeply without fear of ridicule or abandonment. This stage has periods of increased intimacy alternating with times of re-establishing independence. You come together and move apart, in a well-practiced dance. There is no dark side in stages four and five, as both self and relationship are now on solid footing.
Stage Five – Mutual Interdependence
This stage is the final reward for the effort and work which you poured into developing yourself, while remaining in deep connection with your partner in a committed relationship. Each person is encouraged and supported by the other to grow by following their passions and through external contacts with the world. You can do this because you are backed by the knowledge that you are deeply loved, trusted and respected. Intimacy deepens even more because of your increased ability to manage emotional reactivity.
Sex is very fulfilling because you know what you 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 your own lives and clarity about your own values and beliefs. You have created a bond that is mutually satisfying, based on a foundation of trust and growth, rather than on need. You’ve moved through the stages of intimacy and done the hard work to earn this reward. It takes years to reach this mature stage and a solid sense of self to be able to sustain it. Your 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 your family and friends but also to a wider community. You feel fulfilled individually and as a couple and wish to share this in ways which benefit others.
This last stage is what many people dream about. Yet it only comes with regular, daily, and deliberate practice of relationship skills. These skills have been studied for decades and can be taught – if you’re willing to learn and practice.
To find out about the skills needed to move through the stages of intimacy in healthy ways, you may need an experienced relationship counsellor & coach. Call 0421 961 687 or email us to schedule an appointment. International callers should call +61 421 961 687.
You deserve the best trained relationship coaches if you’re planning to invest time and money in your relationship. If you’re not ready to book an appointment, call us on 0421 961 687 to book a FREE 15 minute phone consultation to discuss how we may be able to assist you.
- Bader, Ellyn. & Pearson, Peter. (1988). In quest of the mythical mate: A developmental approach to diagnosis and treatment in couples therapy. Florence, KY: Brunner/Mazel.
- Buss, David. (2021). Bad Men: The Hidden Roots of Sexual Deception, Harassment and Assault. Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.
- The Gottman Institute (2021). Research FAQ’s. Retrieved from http://www.gottman.com/research/research-faqs/
- Heitler, Susan. (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, Terry. (2008). The new rules of marriage: What you need to know to make love work. New York: Ballantine Books.
- Schnarch, David. (2009). Intimacy and desire: Awaken the passion in your relationship. New York: Beaufort Books.
- Seligman, Martin. (1993). What you can change and what you can’t. New York, NY: Fawcett
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