10 Stages Of A Relationship From Hello to Goodbye
Most love relationships begin, develop, and even unravel without our being fully aware of what's going on.
Especially at the beginning.
We meet someone, feel an initial attraction, and then if everything lines up as it should, we are swept away in a torrent of chemically-driven emotions that blind us to anything but the intense joy and passion we're experiencing.
Oh, if we could only bottle up that period of time and sprinkle those feelings over us a few years down the road.
As you've probably experienced, those intense feelings of infatuation and early love fall away over time and transform into something else. Sometimes that something else is a deeper, more satisfying, emotionally intimate connection. Other times, not so much.
What Are The Stages Of A Relationship?
Understanding the stages your relationship passes through as it develops, and even if it is ending, can help you navigate these various stages with mindfulness and self-awareness.
One of the best models for relationship phases is that of Mark Knapp, Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin. He is renowned for his research and writing on nonverbal communication and communication in developing relationships. He developed a model for relational enhancement which routes the interpersonal development between two people.
His model shows us how relationships grow and develop and even how they deteriorate and ultimately end.
Here are the 10 stages of a relationship:
1. The Initiation Stage
This is the very beginning stage when you first meet someone. This stage is all about impressions and appearance. You are attracted to how this person looks, dresses, and presents themselves, and they are judging and evaluating you with these same criteria. You both are paying attention to the subtle and not-so-subtle signals you are sending about yourself and your attraction to one another. Although these early impressions may or may not be accurate, they influence whether or not the two of you want to progress to the next stage.
If you are in the initiation stage . . .
As much as you want to put your best foot forward, try to be yourself. You want someone to be attracted to your authenticity and true personality. Even if you find yourself physically attracted to this new person, pay attention to their body language, social skills, and any qualities you know you want in a partner. It's easy to overlook red flags when you have a strong attraction to someone.
2. Experimentation Stage
In this stage of the relationship, both of you begin to dig a bit deeper to see what common interests and values you might have. You learn more about the person behind the attractive face and whether or not this is the type of person you want in your life. This can be a really fun and exciting time as you discover more about one another and how you relate. Or it can be disappointing when you realize this person isn't the right match or isn't what you thought he or she might be.
If you are in the experimentation stage . . .
This is the best time to ask important questions, without scaring this new person away. You'll want to get an idea about his or her values related to what's important to you, as well as learn about areas of compatibility and commonalities in your world view. You don't want to ask off-putting questions like, “Do you see children in your future?” or “How much money do you make?” But you want to ask about their life goals, their family and friends, and how they spend free time. You can learn a lot about someone with just these questions.
3. Intensifying Stage
Now the relationship is getting more serious and intense. You've found enough in common that you begin sharing more private and intimate information. You are both checking the other to see if you share deeper feelings, and you're looking for signals that this person wants to move forward. This is the time when you might express your feelings of affection, start spending more time together and give one another gifts.
If you are in the intensifying stage . . .
It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of this new relationship. But this is an important time to make sure you are both on the same page before you become more intimate or involved. Sometimes one partner is more ready to move forward in closeness and commitment before the other, which can result in the relationship ending prematurely or becoming imbalanced. If possible, try to pace yourself and use your good judgment even if you are completely infatuated.
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4. Integration Stage
Now the relationship is in full bloom, and you are a couple. You spend increasing amounts of time together and begin integrating aspects of your life. You become sexually intimate and become more willing to be vulnerable and open about various aspects of your life. This is the point when you are truly in love and feel free to express this with one another.
If you are in the integration stage . . .
Enjoy it! At this point in the relationship, you both feel secure and happy, and you are able to share more and more of your life with this person. As you become more involved in one another's lives, you may begin to see areas of possible disagreement or discord. Use the powerful connection and love you have in these early days to address any possible issues before they undermine your closeness. (You might want to check out my book, 201 Relationship Questions: The Couple's Guide to Building Trust and Emotional Intimacy as a resource for the two of you.)
5. Bonding Stage
Now the two of you are fully integrated, and you develop a more formalized commitment through marriage or living together. Your friends and family view you as a committed couple. You may pool your financial resources, make joint decisions as a couple (rather than as individuals), and begin having children.
If you are in the bonding stage . . .
Congratulations on reaching this important stage in your life. Fully committing to another person is a big step, and it means you have both navigated small and large hurdles in your developing relationship to reach this point. Having a bonded, loving, intimate relationship is not only deeply satisfying but adds to your health and longevity.
Now your mission is to maintain your close connection and protect it from the inevitable challenges couples face in their lives together. Be sure you are both committed to putting your relationship first, and that you have a plan in place to nurture your relationship and manage conflict in healthy ways.
Coming Apart Phase
6. Differentiating Stage
As time goes on and the years go by, the two of you begin to see one another more as individuals than as a couple. This happens as the demands and pressures of life pull you in different directions and create stress and resentments. The bubble of romance and infatuation has burst or is not longer impenetrable, and conflicts become more regular.
If you are in the differentiating stage . . .
It's very difficult to escape this stage, especially if you're a busy couple with children and career demands. Differing needs and pressures compel you to take out your stresses on one another and protect your turf. It's imperative for the health of your relationship that you take action to heal the rifts and address the triggers for conflict. This is a great time to find a licensed relationship counselor to help you get back on track and save your relationship.
7. Circumscribing Stage
At this stage, you begin to pull apart even more. You set protective boundaries for yourself, communication devolves and becomes less and less intimate. You may have your own lives, separate friends and activities, and separate spaces in your home. Arguments push you further apart, and you may avoid arguments because they are so painful, even though the problem or issue stills exists between you.
If you are in the circumscribing stage . . .
This is a very painful and lonely time in a relationship. The couple has pulled so far apart they have lost their original intimate connection and respect for one another. If you want to save your relationship, it is essential you work together with a counselor to heal the damage and define a new way of relating and reconnecting. You both will need to move past defensiveness, blaming, and resentments in order to build a stronger connection. If one of you is unwilling, there isn't much hope for saving the relationship.
8. Stagnation Stage
When your relationship has stagnated, you've reached the point where separation is virtually complete. However, the relationship persists, for reasons of convenience or necessity. You may feel apathetic and disengaged, but at this point, you don't see a compelling reason to end the relationship.
At this stage, couples may stay together because they have children, even though their relationship has tanked. If tension and conflict continue, it's hard to discern whether separation is best or worst for the children.
If you are in the stagnation stage . . .
It's time to get counseling for yourself. You need help in navigating this very painful time and deciding the best course of action. You may have financial issues to figure out, as well as coping with the emotional pain of ending this bond. Even if the relationship has hit rock bottom, the two of you are still intertwined in many ways.
9. Avoidance Stage
Whether you're living under the same roof or one of you has moved out, now you are truly separated. You spent little, if no time together, and when you are together, there is little eye contact or real communication. You are taking the first steps toward a permanent end to the relationship.
If you are in the avoidance stage . . .
The relationship has ended in all but the most formal ways. At this point, avoidance is a necessary coping mechanism and facilitates the end of the bond between you. You may find yourself confused and conflicted, and you may attempt to reconnect to avoid the pain of the separation.
Again, having the support of a counselor, as wells as a support system of family and friends, can help you have clarity and strength during this time.
10. Termination Stage
The relationship permanently ends through divorce or the two people moving to separate homes. This can be a difficult time if there is conflict over money, children, and housing arrangements. For some couples, it is a time of relief and thinking ahead to a new future.
If you are in the termination stage . . .
You will likely need the help of an attorney and/or mediator to deal with the practical aspects of dividing assets and co-parenting your children. If you do have children, you will have several years in which you must navigate parenting decisions, child support, and custody.
Having these decisions formalized through the court system will help you cope with potential conflict and further pain. It's important that you prioritize your children's health and well-being and that you minimize their exposure to negativity and conflict between you and your former partner.
You may begin thinking about a new relationship at this point. Or you may still feel too much pain and confusion to consider entering a new relationship. Both of these feelings are normal. Use this time to examine what you learned through your previous relationship, and how you can apply those lessons as you move on in your life.
Understanding these relationship stages will empower you to take action to protect, repair, or if necessary detach from your current relationship. Think about where you are now with your partner or love interest, and use this information to thoughtfully consider your next steps.