GP Bridges Therapy and Continuing Education

"Building Bridges Across Relationship Barriers"

The Four Stages of Relationships:  An Introduction

Whether you've been with your significant other for 5 months or 5 years, you've had time to realize that building a positive and healthy relationship is not due to luck, chemistry, or "meeting the one"; it is a combination of commitment, healthy boundaries, maintenance and attention. The assortment of books and articles on relationship building can be overwhelming and can even, at times, provide advice that is not conducive to a healthy outlook on relationships. While we will be addressing the stages of relationships in this article, we must first set the stage by dispelling the myths that have surrounded relationships for years. 

My love can change him/her. While this is a commendable exercise of patience and selflessness, it is only marginally true. If your significant other is not healthy, the sad fact is that they stand more of a chance of changing you, than the opposite. So....how do you know if your partner is healthy? While only a professional who is actually acquainted with you can provide deep insight into this, the following information on myths might also be informative for you.

They just suffer from a lack of self-esteem and need me to remind them of their worth: While humility is something some people need more of, there are those who possess a devastating lack of self esteem which can leave their partner in a position of constantly affirming, rebuilding, and rushing to find ways to "prove" to their significant other that they are valued and have self worth. The sad fact is that self worth is not extraneous, it is an internal state that can only come from a person's ability to assess their strengths, weaknesses, and to realize that no one is perfect. No matter how many compliments you offer or gifts you give, this will not do anything other than to provide a temporary "affirmation band-aid". A simple analogy is that of throwing flowers and precious belongings down a bottomless pit with the intent of filling it up. The key word is "bottomless." Keep in mind that everyone gets "down" from time to time and needs the support, love, and understanding of their significant other. However, when this becomes a daily routine, it no longer is healthy and will, in fact, begin to emotionally exhaust the "giving" partner in a relationship. Again, if you are in this type of relationship, it is time to seek help that you will need in order to develop healthy boundaries for yourself.

While all of us will, at one time or another in our life, be behaviorally inappropriate in our relationships, the key questions are: How often does this happen? How does it make me feel? What is it doing to our relationship? We recommend a daily journal if you are questioning your relationship and how it is affecting you.

You complete me. While this statement and belief can be viewed as romantic and is intended to be the highest form of praise, it is utterly impossible to "complete" someone. In fact....why would you want to? Wouldn't this take something from the other person's uniqueness as an individual by meshing two completely different "selves" together? If you are single and believe that you have found that someone that truly does "complete" you, I encourage you to step back and try to identify just what "complete" means to you. Odds are, you will find a list of character traits that you admire and which you may not have yourself. While this may complement you, it doesn't complete you. In order to have a healthy relationship, you must first be complete in yourself.

His/her frequent bouts of extreme anger are just their way to vent. While occasional bouts with raised voices are more the norm than the exception, how does your partner react typically when faced with issues that anger him/her? More importantly, how frequently do they experience these bouts of anger? If they frequently destroy things, hit or shove you, resort frequently to belittling and scathing remarks about you that are not designed to "vent" but are truly designed to hurt you, or consistently threaten to leave, it is time to seek professional help. You are not equipped to deal with this type of relationship, nor do you have the skills to change it. Even more concerning is the fact that you might very well be in physical danger.

If you believe that you are in an unhealthy relationship, perhaps even with a mate that has a possible borderline personality, the important thing is to make sure that you are informed and aware as you make decisions.

Stage 1 - Romance

So the perfect partner has been found...the soul mate that truly makes the heart skip a beat, causes an endorphin rush that creates an unbelievable "high", and who represents most, if not all, of what you have been looking for in a mate.   Conversation is marked by an understanding of who the other person is and empathy for relationship disappointments they have experienced.  Conversely, becoming the total focus of the significant other results in a feeling of being accepted and admired.   More attention is paid to appearance and negative emotions are kept to a minimum.  Being together as much as possible is a priority and telephone calls might last for hours.  At this stage, partners tend to use "company manners" and, if aware of habits that are viewed to be detrimental to a healthy relationship, these may be downplayed.  Regardless, even in the healthiest of people, there is a tendency to be on their best behavior during this stage of the relationship.  It isn't unusual for one partner to view the other partner as possessing projected traits which may not even exist.  In some cases, the partner may be unaware of this projection and may not, in fact, have demonstrated tendencies that support the projection.  In these cases, the projected traits arise out of the need of one partner to be in a relationship where those traits exist.

It isn't that couples don't see the faults of their significant other; they do, even if it is on a subconscious level.  However, these faults may be minimized or ignored altogether.  They may be attributed to prior, negative, experiences that have no bearing on the current relationship.  To some, the acknowledgements of these flaws threaten their perception of the relationship's stability.  There is an understanding with self of "I understand them and I will help them with this." Affirmation abounds on both sides as the couple puts their best foot forward in demonstrating their viability as a mate.

This is Stage 1 of all romantic relationships, although the depth of behaviors and emotions might vary.   It is not age specific.  Couples in their seventies demonstrate the same behaviors in new relationships as those who carpool to high school or college classes.  We all experience the "rush" of a new relationship at one time or another.  This is normal.  This can also be a dangerous part of the relationship since some couples marry at this stage, inaccurately viewing this experience as the baseline for the relationship.  This is, in fact, the "honeymoon" stage and this may last anywhere from two months to two years.

Stage II - Reality Based Transition

 A couple will know they are entering stage II when some of the magic appears to dissipate and day to day living once more becomes the norm.   Divorce is common during this phase if couples have married during stage 1: They are simply not equipped to deal with the reality of human traits and relationships with even a normal amount of conflict.  There is a sense of disappointment and loss as flaws in each other begin to take on more prominence.  It isn't unusual for both partners to reassess their commitment and to determine if they want to continue in the relationship.  Often, one will withdraw as they begin to realize that the person they had connected with in the beginning of the relationship isn't what they had envisioned.  It becomes more difficult to "be" the person that the other person wants them to be.   As conflicts arise, there may be feelings of distress.  The couple will feel, incorrectly, that they have "lost" the relationship when in fact they have simply moved into a deeper component of the relationship.

The adjustment to emerging character traits, if they have not already been present, will in itself create conflict.  Because there will be confusion as to why the relationship changed, there may be a tendency to attempt "returning" their partner to the person that was present in the first stage of the relationship.  While this will be present in both partners, the degree of manipulation and intensity will vary.  Unhealthy and controlling behaviors may emerge.  Even those who are healthy will be tempted to find ways to return to the exhilaration of the initial part of the relationship.

As conflict increases, there will be relational awkwardness.  Communication will become deeper, and yet more difficult since the couple has not developed the skills or knowledge base about the other person to learn how best to communicate concerns and emotions.  There may, rightly or wrongly, be the perception that the partner has fallen out of love.  A sense of rejection may be interjected into the relationship and partners will find themselves needing to pull away, both emotionally and physically.  There will be a sense of a loss of balance and centeredness.   

It is important for the couple to assess their compatibility, not based upon the conflict (unless it is unhealthy) but upon common goals and what initially attracted them to the other person prior to entering stage 1 of the relationship.  If the couple survives this stage, they will find themselves more relationally mature and able to connect with each other.  They will have learned how to handle conflict and incidents or conversations that trigger reactions in their partner.

 

Stage III - Calm Yet Unsettled

In Stage III, the couple has survived adjusting to conflict and understand more the personality of their partner.  They acknowledge the flaws that are present and have learned how to avoid conflict when possible.   However, despite the relative calmness of this stage, communication may not be a priority.  Partners may begin to establish more individuality and outside relationships.  A sense of routine will be established and few surprises will be evident.  Obvious challenges to the relationship do not appear to be pressing and there may be a tendency to take each other for granted.  In this stage, the sense of loss will be subtle, perhaps even subconscious.  There may be a perception of a loss of respect for the other partner although what is actually occurring may be "relationship stagnation."

It is not unusual for couples to seek counseling in this stage.  They might be confused as to why feelings are absent although other areas in the marriage are going well.  There may be a sense of growing apart which will be evident in varying degrees to both partners although neither may be able to explain it.  If there are children in the relationship, they may be older and no longer a focus of the parents if they have formed their own relationships or have moved out.  This, too, may contribute to a sense of loss.

At this point, the couple needs to set new goals for the relationship.  There will be a need to reconnect physically and emotionally.  A focus on the strengths of the partner will need to be renewed and both will need to recommit.  It is not unusual, however, for one partner to demonstrate behaviors that are damaging to the relationship and which will challenge rebuilding.   A partner may believe that recapturing the excitement they remember in relationships is important to them emotionally and can be found through infidelity.  High risk behaviors may become evident if this is the case and the marriage may become a casualty.  It is common for one partner seeking out other relationships to fulfill their fantasies for a time, only to realize later that they had given up a stable and loving environment for mistaken concepts about their need for an accelerated emotional and physical experience.

It is critical for couples during this stage to assess their willingness to reconnect in the relationships.  If both partners are not willing to commit, these efforts will not be effective and one of the partners will be undertaking a goal that cannot be reached.  However, if both partners are committed, the relationship becomes deeper and stronger than it was before.  A new bond is established and it is not unusual for some attributes both enjoyed during stage 1 to reappear. 

Stage IV - Acceptance

In the final stage of relationships, couples have weathered stage III.  They have reconnected and are comfortable with each other, yet still experience from time to time the endorphin "rushes" associated with Stage I.  In direct contrast to Stage II, they not only tolerate each other's flaws, they minimize the importance of these flaws and maximize the strengths of their partner.  They have developed independent lives outside of the relationship, but ensure that the relationship itself is a priority.  They handle conflict in a manner that brings positive resolution and are generally content to stay in this relationship long term.  They share common goals and communicate easily, often without words.

Despite the security afforded by Stage IV, however, there may be times when the relationship  slips back into Stage I, II, and III on occasion.  The couple may find themselves deeply and romantically in love at times, and at other times experience the awkwardness of Stage II when they feel overwhelmed and insecure.  Occasionally there may be periods of restlessness and boredom.  If this occurs, there is little cause for alarm unless these periods are prolonged or the relationship becomes negatively affected.  These experiences will normally be of short duration and the stability of Stage IV will once again emerge.

Closing Thoughts

The success of the relationship, regardless of the stage it is in, will focus on the degree of committment both partners demonstrate.   It is not possible to "love enough for both."  Commitment will allow couples to weather virtually any storm and tenacity will build bridges even during the process of seeking answers to relationship challenges.   If one partner is committed but one is not, the relationship will eventually terminate. 

It is critical that both partners assess their degree of commitment on a regular basis.