Where Are You in Your Relationship Cycle?

close up of 2 people holding hands

In my last few blogs, I’ve been focusing on the nature of relationships because, as social creatures, virtually all of us are dependent on our relationships for our emotional health and even our survival.

I have my Master’s degree in psychoeducational processes. This involves the research about the dynamics of relationships and what influences group dynamics over time. There are many studies done by researchers to identify some of the predictable stages most groups experience. According to Google, “Psychologist Bruce Tuckman developed his group development model in 1965 to explain how healthy teams gel over time. Tuckman’s model identifies the five stages through which groups progress: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.”

From this and other research come descriptions of the predictable stages occurring in personal relationships such as marriage, deep and intimate friendships and any kind of strong and meaningful relationship that goes on for a period of time. This information can be valuable to us because it helps us appreciate that it is normal for some of the changes to occur in important relationships. When healthy communication skills, kindness, and consideration are used during tough stages, these relationships can ultimately be strengthened and become even more meaningful than when they first began.

The 5 Stages Of A Relationship by MBG

Researchers differ on the exact number of stages most significant relationships go through but in general the patterns are very similar. Mind Body Green describes five stages. The first is called the Merge. People can feel that they have found the “perfect match” and boundaries seem to melt away. Their research shows biochemical changes in the brain, creating “a cocktail of hormones that trigger and maintain a state of infatuation, such as dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins.” This can cause a person to become literally addicted to their partners while ignoring issues, incompatibilities, or other red flags.

Stage Two is called Doubt and Denial. This is when people start to notice differences and no longer feel so infatuated with the other person. Power struggles can increase. People may want to fight or withdraw.

This is where the skills of conflict resolution can be very helpful in preventing a move to the next stage: Disillusionment. “At this point, the power struggles in the relationship have come fully to the surface; the issues the couple have consistently shoved under the rug are now glaringly obvious. Some people become perpetually vigilant, ready to fly into battle at the slightest provocation. Other couples might quietly move apart over time, putting less and less energy into maintaining the relationship and investing more outside of it.”

The next stage is Decision. This is when one or both people begin to seriously consider breaking up. Things could go either way.

If able to work things out, the last stage is Wholehearted Love. This is when a relationship is the healthiest and most rewarding. “Couples experience true individuation, self-discovery, and the acceptance of imperfection in both themselves and their partners, recognizing there is no such thing as a ‘perfect match.’”

The 4 Stages Of A Relationship by Very Well Mind

You’ll see some similarities and some differences in the four stages described by the Very Well Mind website. Helen Fisher, Ph.D., neuroscientist and Senior Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute, and Lucy Brown, Ph.D., Clinical Professor in Neurology at Einstein College of Medicine in New York, have been studying these stages.

The first stage is the Euphoric or falling-in-love stage. This lasts for an average of six months to two years during which time “…You forgive everything in these early stages. The other person has faults, and you see them, but it doesn’t matter. Maybe they leave their dirty dishes in the sink, but they make you laugh at least daily, so it’s okay. Good things outweigh the negative here.”

Next comes the Early Attachment Stage. In this stage, “the more evolved part of the brain begins to take over, including the ventral pallidum (the region of the brain linked with feelings of attachment, and the attachment hormones, vasopressin, and oxytocin—sometimes referred to as ‘the love hormone’.)

Next comes the Crisis Stage where couples tend to drift apart. Sometimes couples end up divorcing or breaking up while others learn they can deal with crises and become more successful at managing them and coming back together again.

When they accomplish that, they go on to the fourth and final stage which is the Deep Attachment Stage. Their love is very secure as other abilities to work together through conflicts.

It is important to appreciate that relationships are living entities that form, go through times of deep attachment and harmony, have their moments of breakdown, conflict, and stress, and hit a point where each person has to decide whether to stay in the relationship or break apart. When things are worked out and people stay in their relationships, they often experience a much deeper love and sense of commitment than they experienced in the initial euphoric stage.

It can be comforting to know you’re not crazy if a relationship that once felt so close came to be filled with conflict and stress. These can be times when the people in the relationship have the opportunity to learn and apply the critical skills of conflict resolution and also offer loving and affirming messages to each other. There is power in knowing about these stages and appreciating how many choices we have in determining how healthy any given relationship is and how much we can contribute to building and maintaining that health.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. When you consider significant relationships you have experienced or currently are in, to what extent can you relate to the stages described in this blog?
  2. To what extent do you have hope that even if a significant relationship you are in experiences rocky times of conflict and disillusionment, you end up in a more loving place than you were at the beginning of the relationship? What specifically might help you to achieve this?
  3. Think about other images and questions that arise for you with regard to stages your relationships might move through. Do your own research on what the possibilities are and what promotes healthy navigation through the relationship stages.

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