In one study1https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/147470491000800102, about 21% of participants said they experienced feelings of love within the first four dates with a partner.
Love can strike quickly! And if you’ve ever been in a honeymoon period, you know how strong it can feel.
But if you stay in a relationship long enough, you’ll notice that the nature of your love will transform from year to year. That’s because a relationship goes through four stages over the course of years.
In this article, we’ll go over the four stages of a relationship, the joys and challenges of each, and tips to navigate each stage.
The 4 Stages of a Relationship (& What to Expect)
Before going into each stage, it’s worth noting that these stages aren’t cut and dry. Here is a quick summary (more details below):
- Stage 1: Honeymoon Phase (6 months to 2 years)
- Stage 2: Building a Foundation (lasts 1 to 3 years)
- Stage 3: Sharing Identity (lasts 2 to 4 years)
- Stage 4: Secure Love (if reached, can last indefinitely)
Sometimes, it might feel like you’re occupying two (or more!) stages at a time. This is completely normal.
It’s also not like a staircase; once you reach the final stage, you are there forever, and all your problems are solved.
Instead, these stages can spiral on themselves. One stage leads to the next and the next. Like all other parts of life, there is no “there” to get to.
With that said, let’s explore the stages!
Stage 1: Honeymoon Phase (6 Months to 2 Years)
The honeymoon phase is that blissful period where everything feels like a dreamy fairytale. When you and your partner are head over heels for each other, basking in the glow of new love and infatuation.
When we are in this stage of a relationship, parts of our brain2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7223160/ rich in dopamine are extra active, which is why this period can feel so euphoric.
Spending time together feels meaningful and important
Every touch, every glance, every word exchanged feels electrifying in these early stages. You can’t get enough of each other’s company; even the most mundane activities become extraordinary when shared with your newfound love.
Spending time with each other feels like the most important thing possible, and you might be willing to forgo other parts of your life to make it happen as much as possible.
The honeymoon period gives life more color.
So many popular love songs are written about the honeymoon stage. Because when you are infatuated, the world seems brighter, colors more vibrant, and laughter becomes the soundtrack of your days.
I remember falling into the honeymoon phase with my first partner in about 2015; I came across this corny lovesong from the 70s. The lyrics described my experience with unimaginable accuracy. And I remember listening to it on repeat and basking in my feelings of (what I thought was) everlasting love.
To quote a section from said song:
“Thank you, girl, for making the morning brighter. Girl, for making the nighttime nicer. Girl, for making a better world for me. Thank you, girl, for making the winter warmer. Girl, for making the music softer.”
The honeymoon period hides imperfections
Communication flows effortlessly during this stage. Conflicts slide off you like rain off a slicker. You can easily overlook any disagreement.
You eagerly explore each other’s hopes, dreams, and quirky idiosyncrasies. You might pedestal your partner and see them as perfect. Any flaws (that you’ll later discover) are either invisible or seem enjoyable.
Sex is also notoriously passionate in this phase. Whereas later in a relationship, you might need all the right circumstances alongside help from a sex therapist to get the type of sex you want, in the honeymoon phase, you have to touch each other, and the sparks will fly.
You might also get obsessive.
The honeymoon period can also be intense. You might think constantly, almost obsessing over the other person or scrolling through their social media, admiring their beauty. At times, this can be quite pleasant.
But it can also be stressful. Our brains contain more cortisol3https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-physiological-changes-can-explain-honeymoon-phase-relationship/ (the stress hormone) during the honeymoon phase. In this phase, we can also be prone to overanalyzing.
You might contemplate questions like: Do they like me back? Why have they yet to text back? Did I say something weird?
Enjoy the honeymoon phase while it lasts!
The honeymoon phase is generally enjoyable; you should soak it up in it! But it’s also essential to remember that the honeymoon phase is just the beginning. As time passes, the initial rush of infatuation may start to fade, creating more profound levels of commitment and intimacy.
This stage of a relationship usually lasts a few months but can go on for up to two years.
Challenges of the honeymoon phase
The honeymoon phase comes with several critical challenges.
Forgoing your identity and boundaries
During the honeymoon phase, it’s common for couples to spend a significant amount of time together, often neglecting their interests and hobbies.
You also might violate your boundaries without realizing it. One common way this can happen is to give your partner as much time as possible. Even if that means going to bed later than you usually would, skipping a workout, or shortening your work day.
While crossing your boundaries can happen at any stage of a relationship, it happens much easier and more often during the honeymoon phase.
Tip: Earnestly ask yourself the following questions:
- Have I broken any of my time boundaries to spend time with my partner?
- Have I let go of any of my hobbies or self-care practices?
- Have I softened or hidden my opinions or identities to make the relationship work?
Suppose you answered yes to any of these questions; no shame! But consider if there are any shifts you’d like to make to re-empower yourself.
Overlooking red flags
The intense emotions and infatuation experienced in the honeymoon phase can sometimes cloud your judgment. They can cause you to look past any relationship’s red flags or warning signs. Here are a few things someone might think while in this stage:
- “Oh, he doesn’t want kids even though I do? We love each other, so we’ll work it out.”
- “I am extremely career-driven, and they aren’t? Oh, no big deal. I don’t mind our difference in fundamental values; I appreciate their different outlook on life!”
- “They told me they are extremely conflict-avoidant and prefer burying their frustrations into years of resentment rather than having a difficult conversation. No biggie!”
Tip: Ask yourself if any of your core values feel fundamentally misaligned. If so, recognize that this won’t just disappear; it will come up later.
Pretty much every romance movie has given us this equation:
Feeling passionate obsession about someone in a honeymoon period = everlasting healthy relationship.
This is, unfortunately, not the case! While enjoying a partner’s company early on is essential, a long-term successful relationship will require communication, teamwork, and overcoming challenges for many years.
Just because you both feel infatuated with each other does not mean you will be compatible partners.
Tip: Enjoy the honeymoon period for all of its beautiful pleasures! And simultaneously recognize that no amount of euphoria can replace good communication.
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Stage 2: Building a Foundation (Lasts 1 to 3 years)
After the exhilarating honeymoon phase comes the stage of building a foundation in a romantic relationship. This stage is characterized by establishing trust, deepening intimacy, and nurturing the bond between partners. It is a crucial period where couples lay the groundwork for long-term commitment and emotional connection.
Adjusting to the real person
This period also comes with its challenges because, in the honeymoon phase, we see the other person as perfect. But over time, that veil of perfection starts to drop. And then we begin to see our partners for who they are.
We see their flaws, our incompatibilities, and how we want them to differ.
Many couples break up after the honeymoon phase because of this. And some people start to chase the honeymoon phase, mistaking it for long-lasting love. Jumping from one honeymoon relationship to the next, always leaving when things become challenging.
Learning to communicate
Communication takes center stage during this phase. In the honeymoon phase, conflicts disappear quickly. But in this stage, you need to repair disputes together.
Partners engage in open and honest conversations, discussing their fears, dreams, and aspirations. They actively listen to each other’s thoughts and feelings, creating a safe space for vulnerability. Effective communication teaches them to understand and support one another, fostering a solid emotional connection.
This is the stage where couples start to develop their skills as a team.
They’ve picked restaurants with each other, maybe done some traveling, and navigated dozens of date nights. They’ve learned how to make decisions together and are beginning to build a reservoir of shared history.
Trust starts to deepen.
This is also the stage where partners trust each other more deeply. They both begin to show more and more of themselves and become more comfortable in vulnerability. Each small step forward asks for more trust from the other.
Sex is usually still consistent in this stage, though it might become less accessible than in the honeymoon period.
Challenges of building a foundation
While effective communication is essential during this stage, it can also be challenging. This is the stage where conflicts emerge, and you’ll have to learn to navigate them together. If one or both of you cannot work through conflict together, then this is the stage where things may fall apart.
Tip: While easier said than done, if you can remember these four principles of communication, you’ll be in good shape:
- Express your needs, desires, and boundaries
- “I need,” “I want,” and “No”
- Take responsibility for your feelings
- Instead of “You made me feel upset,” say, “I feel upset”
- Listen with empathy and avoid talking over each other
- When it’s their turn to speak, see if you can let them go until they’re complete
- Don’t let withheld communications fester because they will turn into resentment
- Every week or two, sit down and share if any withheld communications are blocking the connection
Balancing independence and merging
Finding a balance between individuality and togetherness can become challenging as the relationship deepens. Both partners may have different expectations regarding how much time and space they need for their pursuits while maintaining a solid connection.
Similarly, in this stage, you may start to defend your values that differ from your partner, and on some level, you may want them to be more like you.
Tip: Reflect on the following questions:
- Are there ways you’d like to merge with your partner but haven’t yet? (e.g., sharing a bedroom, taking trips together, meeting each others’ families)
- Are there ways that you feel too merged and would like some more independence? (e.g., more nights to yourself, less frequent dates, spending time with just your friends without your partner joining)
- Are there ways where you wish your partner were more like you? (e.g., you want them to meditate, appreciate novels, or care more about cooking). Are any of these dealbreakers?
Establishing trust and vulnerability
Trust and vulnerability are key components of building a foundation, and they can be challenging to establish and maintain. Past experiences or insecurities can make it difficult for individuals to open up and trust their partner fully.
Tip: Reflect privately on this question. On a scale of 1-10, how much do you trust your partner? What would help them become more trustworthy for you?
You could also try some of these trust-building exercises.
Stage 3: Sharing Identity (Lasts 2 to 4 Years)
In this stage, couples deepen their commitment and work towards developing a shared identity. This stage marks a significant milestone in the relationship, where partners continue to build upon their established foundation and strive for long-term growth and stability.
Getting through difficulties together
One of the key aspects of this stage is navigating life challenges together.
As the relationship progresses, obstacles will inevitably arise. Whether your partner faces depression or you lose a job, you and your partner will face some real challenges that require joint efforts to overcome.
Couples demonstrate their commitment and strengthen their bond by moving through these difficulties as a team and supporting each other through them.
Some of the primary skills couples develop in this stage are mutual support, problem-solving, teamwork, and compromise.
Supporting each others’ individuality
During this stage, partners also learn to support each other’s personal growth and individuality.
Each person continues to evolve and develop with their dreams, aspirations, and areas of personal growth. This stage involves embracing and encouraging each others’ journeys while maintaining a solid connection as a couple.
This requires open communication, respect for each other’s autonomy, and a genuine interest in supporting each other’s personal goals.
Building an identity together
Developing a shared identity is another significant aspect of consolidation. Couples begin to create a life together with shared values, goals, and aspirations. Their relationship becomes a two-person culture they construct together.
They find common interests, engage in shared hobbies or activities, and make decisions that reflect their partnership. Merging individual identities into a cohesive unit helps foster a sense of unity and belonging within the relationship.
Looking toward the future together
In this stage, couples also start to think about how their futures interact with each other.
They might look a few years out, assuming they’ll still be a couple. In this stage, couples often wouldn’t make a significant life decision without consulting how it would impact the other person.
Challenges of sharing identity
Retaining your individuality
By the time a couple has reached this point, they will have developed a shared identity, and maintaining individuality can be challenging.
Each partner may have unique interests, goals, and dreams requiring attention and nurturing. Integrating these individual pursuits into the shared life can be challenging without feeling like personal identities are being compromised.
Tip #1: Consider investing in hobbies and interests that are just yours and not shared by your partner. Is there a class or workshop you could attend this week?
Tip #2: Intentionally build a friendship that is just yours. Not every friend you have must also be a friend of your partner’s (though it’s nice to share friends).
Resolving power dynamics
As the relationship consolidates, power dynamics within the couple may emerge. This can manifest in various forms, such as decision-making, division of responsibilities, or even differences in financial contributions.
One of you may always lead your decision-making process around planning trips or life logistics. One of you may always initiate sex. One of you may win every argument.
Sometimes, power struggles can emerge where you both subtly want more respect and influence than the other.
Tip: Reflect on the questions:
- Where in the relationship do I have more power than my partner?
- Where do they have more ability than me?
- Can we equalize our power dynamics?
Dealing with societal pressures
During this stage, couples often face pressures around what their relationship should look like from the eyes of their family, friends, and society.
There will be pressure to get married. Pressure to purchase a house together. Pressure to buy a dog and have kids. Pressure to share a bedroom and a bed. Pressure to take every vacation together.
You get the idea!
Tip: Talk with your partner about what pressures you feel around your relationship (both from your families and society). And determine which of those pressures you want for yourself and which you don’t.
Stage 4: Secure Love (If Reached, Can Last Indefinitely)
The fourth stage is the secure love stage, where couples experience a deep sense of trust, security, and emotional connection. This stage is characterized by a stable and committed partnership where both partners feel supported and valued.
Overcoming a big challenge
Sometimes, it requires overcoming a major challenge together to get to this stage. There may be a period where one of you experiences significant doubt, and you both wonder if there’s an incompatibility you can’t get past or where there are heaps of resentments piled up.
If you both believe you are compatible and make it through any significant challenges, you will likely reach a place of more profound commitment and resilience where there is a sense of calm and trust.
Trust and safety
Couples in the secure love stage have built a strong foundation of trust. They feel secure in their partner’s love and commitment, which allows them to be vulnerable and authentic in their communication and actions.
This stage also provides a sense of emotional safety and security. Partners can rely on each other for support, comfort, and understanding, creating a nurturing environment.
This trust and safety create a general feeling of calm, security, and wholehearted love.
And much of this trust is built on expressing appreciation, love, and goodwill.
Research indicates4https://www.gottman.com/about/research/couples/ that a strong sign of divorce is when, over time, partners withhold their goodwill and affection from each other. During conflicts, healthy couples share about 25 positive sentiments for every five negative ones (whereas unhealthy couples share four positives for every five negatives).
At this point, couples will have seen all of each other. Over the years, you’ll have smelled all their bodily smells, heard their worst jokes, and seen them in their most vulnerable.
This creates immense comfort where you can both loosen your belts and be your true selves around each other. You’ll know each others’ quirks, accept them, and learn how to be with them.
Challenges of secure love
Boredom and complacency
One of the main challenges is the feeling of boredom or complacency. Over time, routines and familiarity can lead to a lack of excitement and novelty in the relationship. Couples may find themselves stuck in monotonous patterns, leading to life feeling routine.
Tip: Bring external influence into your relationship. Whether going on a double date with another couple or a communication workshop together. If you can bring other people into your intimate universe, it can shake things up and create new experiences and feelings.
You could also try an activity like Cards for Connection with each other, which will bring about new vulnerabilities and information about each other.
The intimacy feels stale.
This is a challenge that most romantic couples face at some point in time. There’s just so much comfort, acceptance, and predictability.
So much of fulfilling intimacy comes from the tension of uncertainty and newness, so it can be hard to keep your partnership vibrant through years of connection.
Tip: Try going through this guide to unlock new pockets of intimacy and vulnerability with each other.
Lack of growth
Another challenge is the potential for stagnation in personal growth and relationship discovery. When couples feel secure and comfortable, they might neglect personal development or stop actively working on the relationship.
Tip: Do something new together. One of the cornerstones of personal growth is that when you do something you’ve never done before, you must integrate that unique experience, which causes growth. You can apply this principle to your relationship.
Either go on a new adventure together (e.g., a long hike or a creative retreat). Or go to a class or workshop that introduces a new relating dynamic (e.g., doing martial arts or salsa together).
Frequently Asked Questions About the Stages In a Relationship
The honeymoon phase is the first stage of a relationship, characterized by initial attraction, intense passion, excitement, and infatuation between partners.
The time it takes to fall in love scientifically can vary depending on various factors, such as individual differences and the depth of connection. Still, many agree it can happen within a few months to a year.
The stages in a relationship typically include the honeymoon phase, the stage of building a foundation, sharing identity, and securing love.
The stage of building a foundation (or adjustment) is often considered the hardest in a relationship as couples navigate differences, face challenges, and learn to communicate effectively. This is also right after the honeymoon phase, and adjusting to reality can be hard.
A relationship can be serious at any stage. Still, a relationship is generally considered “serious” during the stage of sharing identity, where both partners have a deep commitment to each other and are beginning to understand who they are as a couple.
Takeaways on the Stages of a Relationship
While each relationship is unique, many romantic relationships follow a similar arc through four stages. Below are the stages and some of the common challenges to each.
- Stage 1: Honeymoon, where everything is new and exciting
- Major challenge: Overlooking red flags and shortcomings
- Stage 2: Building a foundation, where you start to learn how to communicate and develop your connection
- Major challenge: Communicating through conflict
- Stage 3: Sharing identity, where you begin to merge more and form a team together
- Major challenge: Balancing individuality with togetherness
- Stage 4: Secure love, where you’ve made it through some major challenges and feel a calm security
- Major challenge: Boredom
Best of luck with your relationship, whichever stage you may be in. And if you’d like to understand your from a different angle, you might appreciate this article on the five different relationship patterns.
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