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“Understanding the three stages of relationship so you don’t get stuck”

[Note – The most current and complete version of my three-stage model can be found in my R3 Relationship Masterclass. Listen to a free sample here.].

Three stages of relationship

Relationships move through three predictable stages. If you, like most people, are not aware of this, you are bound to end up confused and disheartened. Honestly, you will probably be confused and disheartened at some point regardless, but if you understand that relationships naturally move through these three stages, and if you understand the nature of each stage, and what it asks of you, you will be far better equipped to deal with what is coming.

Each stage of the relationship journey presents you with certain developmental tasks, and you can’t effectively move to the next stage until you’ve accomplished the tasks at the previous. People get “stuck” at a certain stage of relationship because they don’t recognize what the relationship is asking of them, and they resist moving forward into the unknown and intimidating territory ahead, pining instead for the easy love and good times that came previously. The bad news is that there’s no going back to easier and sweeter times. The good news is that if you successfully navigate the next stage, you will be poised to make a kind of “homecoming” or a return to what you enjoyed previously, but with more maturity, more depth, and more richness. You’re likely to have some emotional scars and war-wounds, but they will take on a special significance and will be worn proudly.

Backward or forward?

In the introduction to my book, The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples, I state – “The search for re-connection might have us gazing wistfully backward whence we came, looking for something familiar, something we believe we lost when we took a wrong turn somewhere. But true re-connection is not sentimental, nor is it necessarily repair or reclaiming (although it might include elements of both). We re-connect at a new point on the path, at a place we’ve not been before. Real re-connection is less about getting something back, and more about finding our way forward. Perhaps most accurately it has flavors of both; we arrive at a place that feels familiar and is yet unknown.”

As we look at the three stages of relationship this statement will become even more clear and meaningful.

The first stage: Falling in Love

The first stage of relationship is Falling in Love, also called the honeymoon stage, or the age of innocence. At the Falling in Love stage, differences between partners are ignored, invisible, glorified, or minimized. Compatibility is emphasized. Connection and bonding is the theme at this stage.

The voice of the Falling in Love stage says things like –
“I need you.”
“We’re perfect together.”
“We are one.”
“We’re meant for each other.”
“You complete me.”
“You’re my soul mate.”
“Our differences make us better.”
“We get along so well.”
“We have so much in common.”
“We’re so lucky.”

Each stage presents us with tasks. These tasks are crucial for our continued development and growth, and they’re a prerequisite for effectively moving to the next stage.

Developmental tasks at the first stage

Developmental tasks at the Falling in Love stage include –

  • Opening your heart to another
  • Joining
  • Loving
  • Caring
  • Feeling
  • Connecting
  • Trusting
  • Celebrating
  • Giving
  • Merging
  • Bonding
  • Vulnerability

…and generally yielding to love and attraction.

Many potent hormones and neuro-chemicals help us accomplish these tasks at this stage. It’s called “Falling in Love” for a reason: If we are able to let ourselves go, gravity takes care of the rest. This letting go, opening up, connecting, and loving comes easily for many, but not for everyone. Some people have to make an effort to “fall”!

Most adults, not all but most, have some experience with the Falling in Love stage because it happens more or less automatically. As attachment theory advocates rightly say, “We’re wired for connection”.

Some couples therapy and marriage counselling attempts to keep you at this first stage and tries to shepherd you back to blissful communion. But from my point of view, the Falling in Love stage never lasts forever, nor is it designed to. Difficulty must follow. Everyone who’s read a fairy tale knows this.

The second stage: Disillusionment and Trouble

I call the second stage of relationship Disillusionment and Trouble. This is where many relationships end, sometimes for good reasons, but very often simply because we are unable to successfully complete the tasks that are required, and we waste our energy trying to return to better days. This stage is when most couples call me for counselling.

The Disillusionment and Trouble stage is when the differences between us show up and become a problem. You’re a night owl and your partner is a morning person. You discover that you have different sexual styles or appetites. In-laws become unbearable. There’s an affair or infidelity. Differences in parenting philosophies, in money management, work ethic, communication styles, attachment styles, preferences, desires, and needs all become glaringly apparent.

Maybe you discover deceit or manipulation at this point. Maybe your partner pretended to be someone they aren’t (maybe you did).

Confronting your illusions in love

Disillusionment is a double edged sword. On the one hand, the illusions of the Falling in Love stage are very beautiful, and the bonds that are formed there are real and will be an important resource for you both as you navigate this next difficult chapter. On the other hand, illusions mask the truth, and when they crumble, the truth, not always pretty, floods in. I encourage you to treat your own illusions with tenderness. They have been necessary; not an error, not a mistake. But now, it’s time to reconcile your disillusionment and attend to the tasks at hand.

One of the primary tasks that the Disillusionment and Trouble stage requires of us is discernment. Will we carry on with this relationship or will we end it? This is when we confront our non-negotiables, and discover the real meaning of the popular word “boundaries”. Ending a relationship that was previously a delight is painful, but it is sometimes the only way we can keep our self-respect and our integrity. Sometimes ending the relationship is the right option at this stage. Some people gain clarity about this quickly; others struggle for a long time.

The voice of the Disillusionment and Trouble stage says things like –
“I don’t know if I can do this.”
“I feel so much doubt and hopelessness.”
“We used to be so good together.”
“My heart aches.”
“I’m angry. I’m hurt. I’m disappointed.”
“I’m broken.”
“The trust is gone.”
“I don’t know who my partner is anymore.”
“Is it me or is it them?”
Is this a healthy relationship?
“Are we good together?”
I’ve lost myself in this relationship.

Developmental tasks at the second stage

Tasks at this stage include –

  • Discernment
  • Confronting, tolerating, and managing differences
  • Negotiation
  • Constructive conflict
  • Facing hard truths
  • Standing up for yourself
  • Emotional differentiation (There’s a chapter on emotional differentiation in The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples. You can download a free sample on my website.)

This stage is necessarily marked by confrontation. To do what this stage asks, you will find yourself confronting your partner. This is difficult for many people; not so difficult for others. You’ll also need to confront yourself: your own blind spots, manipulations, and deceptions. Your own decision making, and responsibility, your own integrity.

Developing independence in relationship

The earlier Falling in Love stage is about strength in togetherness, in merging. It’s about dependence. The Disillusionment and Trouble stage reminds you that you are indeed two distinct individuals. It’s about claiming independence. This is a tricky stage, because claiming independence within a relationship usually threatens the relationship, at least in its former version where dependence was implicitly or explicitly celebrated.

If we decide to stay in the relationship, we must keep sight of the emotional commitment and the radical acceptance we practiced in the earlier Falling in Love days, but we must also now acknowledge the space between us, the unbridgeable gap, and the need to be a sovereign and integrous individual in the relationship, not just a “partner” or one half of a whole. This is where co-dependent tendencies really come to the forefront and will need to be addressed.

To make things even more difficult, partners don’t always enter this stage together. In fact it is very common for one partner to begin advocating for independence and autonomy while the other is still in the highly enmeshed, dependent stage. Moving from dependence to independence in a relationship feels disorienting and even painful for some people. For others, it can be a relief.

The key to getting through the Disillusionment and Trouble stage is to recognize it as a stage and to keep going. If you can accomplish the tasks associated with this – differentiating from your partner, navigating conflict, standing up for yourself, pursuing personal interests – while maintaining emotional commitment, you might then proceed to the “Homecoming” stage that follows. But if you continually resist the Disillusionment and Trouble stage, if you fail to recognize that it is a necessary stage of development for people and for relationships, and you dig your heals in and insist on the blind love of the Falling in Love stage, you might remain stuck here for a very long time. It’s not uncommon for people to be stuck here for years. If your relationship ends at this stage, and you never successfully recognize it and navigate through it, you will likely repeat it with new partners.

Recognizing and respecting differences in relationship

Moving through the Disillusionment and Trouble stage means either resolving or managing, and ideally coming to honour and respect differences between you and your partner. It means coming through disappointment and doubt, and sometimes mistakes or wrongdoing, with a much fuller understanding of who your partner really is, and maybe of who you really are. It may also mean a period of grieving what has been lost.

Once you’ve been through it successfully you look back on the process and you feel the pain of it, but you recognize that it was worth it, and maybe even that it was unavoidable and necessary. Many clients have described this experience to me after a few months or maybe a year of couples therapy.

Here’s an example of a couple entering the Disillusionment and Trouble stage –

Two ways of crossing the street

I was working with a new client couple by telephone. We’ll call them Joshua and Samantha. I had asked them for a specific example of a recurring conflict in their relationship. They rather sheepishly told me that they argue about how to cross the street. I assured them that even petty sounding conflicts hold the seed to greater understanding and even reconciliation, which is true; there is some wisdom in the saying “How we do something is how we do everything”.

Joshua wants to cross the street at the intersection, in accordance with the pedestrian signal. Samantha prefers to look both ways, then jaywalk mid-block rather than go to the intersection and wait for a light. Joshua felt that Samantha was putting his safety at risk by jaywalking, and this made him indignant and superior feeling. Samantha felt controlled by Joshua, and this made her angry and defiant. I could tell we’d hit a goldmine of personal and interpersonal issues and I wanted to help them find the value in it. I asked both of them to brainstorm as many possible solutions to this problem as they could, to really press their imagination. They came up with a few, but there was one, very obvious to me, that did not occur to either of them.

“How about Joshua goes to the crosswalk as per his preference, Samantha jaywalks as per her preference, and you meet up on the other side of the street in a minute or so?”

Neither Joshua nor Samantha, out of all the possible solutions, had imagined this possibility. Why not? Joshua was in the stage one relationship mode of believing that all decisions needed to be made together. Any autonomous move by either partner was seen as a threat to the partnership. Samantha too had not imagined that they could exercise their autonomy without terrible consequence. Even though she felt controlled by Joshua, she resorted to anger and defiance rather than imagining the two of them crossing the street (or presumably doing many other things) as individuals according to their own needs and preferences. This is the epitome of being stuck at the first stage of relationship, and it’s a great example of the sort of everyday circumstances that push us toward entering stage two.

As we continued to work together over a few months of weekly calls it was fascinating to see how this one example revealed so many core beliefs, so many unexamined dynamics, and, appropriately, so much disillusionment and trouble. I felt a lot of satisfaction helping this particular couple move from stage one into stage two. That’s what was happening here: a grinding progress from the falling in love stage where everything is about “togetherness”, into the Disillusionment and Trouble stage where things inevitably break down. Remember, Joshua and Samantha, when asked to brainstorm, couldn’t even imagine crossing the street on their own, in their own ways, and meeting on the other side. That illustrates just how all-encompassing that first stage of relationship can be, and how difficult, and in a way how counter-intuitive the move forward into stage two is.

What worked in stage one no longer works in stage two. That’s why my clients often describe a feeling of “banging their head against the wall”. You need the bond that you formed in stage one to help get you through stage two, but stage one skills won’t reconcile the troubles at stage two. This move nearly always includes serious self-confrontation and soul-searching, as well as new ideas, new understandings, new behaviours, and ultimately new breakthroughs.

And then you come home.

Stage three: Homecoming

The Homecoming stage is equal parts coming home to yourself and coming home to your partner. A love and respect for your partner co-exists with a love and respect for yourself. You’ve been through an initiation together, and now you are more mature. You bear wounds and scars from the journey, but they have mostly healed and you are simultaneously more strong and more tender than ever.

The Homecoming stage happens more or less spontaneously when you have sufficiently attended to the tasks of the Disillusionment and Trouble stage. Some people are pleasantly blind-sided by the Homecoming stage, even bewildered. It’s a hard thing to imagine when you’re up to your neck in disillusionment and trouble, but it is there somewhere around the corner.

The Homecoming stage marks a kind of “coming full circle”. Former versions of dependence and independence now reconcile to become interdependence. There’s a lot of talk in popular culture about interdependence in relationship and why it is a good thing, but you don’t just decide one day to become interdependent. You enter the stage of interdependence in relationship only after you have successfully fulfilled the tasks of both dependence and independence.

The Homecoming stage is loving, like the Falling in Love stage, but it is a more mature kind of love, based upon a fuller recognition and reconciliation of the reality of your relationship, including its limits. Illusions have been exposed and resolved, so this stage is more resilient and more sustainable than either of the former.

Homecoming is marked especially by a deep respect; for yourself, for your partner, and for the difficult process you have successfully navigated. From the Homecomimg perspective, the early stage of Falling in Love couldn’t embody much real respect because you hadn’t yet seen the worst of yourself and your partner show up in the relationship. If there was respect before, it was based more on surfaces or fantasies than on real lived experience.

Moving into the Homecoming stage is the reward for all your hard work and perseverance at recognizing, reconciling, tolerating, or managing differences. But not all differences are reconcilable, tolerable, or manageable… and that’s OK; it has to be. If you choose not to accept certain differences (and that’s absolutely the right choice sometimes) or if you are unable to do so, this stage will not be attainable in this particular relationship, and that’s a difficult but necessary fact to come to terms with. Not all relationships get a homecoming.

The story of Eros and Psyche

Here I want to briefly touch upon the classic Greek myth of Psyche and Eros. Psyche is a woman whom the Gods demand be sacrificed. She’s taken to a cliff where she falls. It turns out to be a fall into love. The wind carries her to Eros, the god of sexual/erotic love. Psyche becomes Eros’s lover, and she lives blissfully for a time. But the love affair has a catch: She mustn’t ever actually SEE Eros. He comes to her at night, in the dark. She can never know him fully. Eventually she becomes dissatisfied with this arrangement. She wants to know her lover. So she tricks him and lights a lamp. Here is where the Disillusionment and Trouble stage begins.

Psyche is banished from her lover, and she must accomplish a series of seemingly impossible tasks. Each time, just as all hope is lost, help comes from some unimaginable source. Eventually she beats all odds, accomplishes her tasks, and is whisked to Mount Olympus where she is rejoined with her lover Eros, but now in the form of a god herself. She has been transformed.

The symbolic relevance in this story to the three stages of relationship is uncanny. In fact, the relationship journey, in the stages I’ve laid out, bears clear resemblance to the Hero’s Journey as told in many forms: An innocent and naive protagonist leaves their familiar home, finds trouble, miraculously accomplishes seemingly impossible tasks, and then returns home initiated, transformed, matured, often scarred or wounded, and ultimately, now a gift to others in their community.

I’ve sketched out this three-stage model of relationships to give you a map for identifying where you are on this journey, where you are going, and some insights on what you might need to do to get there. But the map is not the terrain. If you want help navigating the real challenges of this terrain in your relationship, request a client information package and see if my services might be a good fit for you.

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All My Best,
Justice Schanfarber

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber

Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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