Do you understand the Five Stages of a Relationship?
April 2013  Issue #34

Today's Topic:  Understanding the Five Stages of a Relationship

Dear friends,
Happy Spring!  The optimists in Vancouver are breaking out their shorts and sandals.  Wherever you live, may Spring find you soon!
As nature is ever changing, so are our relationships.  Change can be unsettling, however it can also be an invitation to grow – and a sign that, as a couple, it is time to go deeper.  Today's article looks at how a couples' relationship deepens through five stages of development.

Something to think about

Each couple is unique.  And there is no one "right way" to do the Couples Journey.
                                                           -Susan Campbell
Why we need a map
Romantic comedies don't have much to tell us about the stages of a relationship.  A couple’s journey has just begun at the point that most happily-ever-after Hollywood movies usually end.  What happens when the euphoric "in love" feelings begin to diminish and a couple finds themselves living in the real world again -- in relationship with an imperfect partner?  It’s at this point that the deeper work of relationship begins. However many of us lack a road map for what comes next.
What is happening?
When my husband and I hit those first shock waves of reality in our relationship many years ago, we were inspired by the work of Susan Campbell.  Campbell wrote a book entitled:  The Couples Journey:  Intimacy as a Path to Wholeness.  In it, she outlines five developmental stages of a couple’s journey, based on her experience as a counsellor, wife and couples researcher.  They are:
I.      Romance
II.     Power Struggle
III.    Stability
IV.   Commitment
V.    Co-creation

These stages may happen over time, and mini-cycles may occur almost daily.  I share these stages in the hopes that they will provide some meaning and context for your own relationship struggles and triumphs.  And perhaps help you make sense of the “journey to wholeness” you are engaged in together.
I.   Romance
The romance stage is all about oneness and togetherness. We have finally found that special someone for us – with whom we experience ease and with whom we can share our hopes and our dreams. And in so doing, a shared vision and future begins to emerge. 
This stage is full of possibilities, dreams and excitement. And while we may not be aware of it, we are getting help with our romantic feelings.  Our bodies are being flooded with the “love drug” PEA (phenylethylamine), which produces a natural high.
This stage comes to an end when conflict begins to emerge – when the relationship no longer magically “works” – when obstacles to what we want begin to appear – often in the form of disillusionment with our partner.  He or she isn’t as perfect as we thought. 
At this point, some couples go their separate ways.  Or they move into the next stage:
II.  Power Struggle
This stage begins with a disillusionment, with the recognition that “you’re not who I thought you were”.  In this stage our different-ness is forefront.  I do things THIS way, you do things THAT way. We see our partner as the obstacle to our happiness and set about to change him/her -- or to resist being changed! 
This stage can be characterized by trying to force, shame or manipulate our partner into being the way we want – or simply digging in our heels in response to our partner’s push for change.  At worst, it can devolve into a “spite war”.  This stage can go on for years if the partners get stuck in a blaming pattern.  It can end quite quickly, when we become willing to look inside, at our own part in the dynamic and work WITH, not against, our partner. 
If a relationship survives the power struggle (and many don’t), it moves on to:
III.   Stability
This stage is more peaceful.  If often begins with forgiveness and acceptance of one another's foibles.  As a couple, we become more comfortable and skilled in navigating conflict.  We are better able to use conflict to learn more about ourselves and our partners -- rather than to score points or bolster our position.  We begin to look into our own inner world, for the source of conflict, rather than assuming it's all the fault of our partner.  We become capable of seeing things from our partner's perspective, as well as our own.
We are now more willing to meet some of our needs outside the relationship, rather than expecting our partner to change.  We step more fully into our own individuality, rather than trying to be “the same”.  We take responsibility for who we choose to be, rather than focusing on how our partner may be limiting or shaping us.  As a couple, we have taken ground in working out our respective roles and responsibilities, based on who we are and what we choose, as opposed to “shoulds” or stereo-typical roles.  This leads us into:
IV.  Commitment

This stage signals a deciding FOR the relationship -- and a letting go of preconceived expectations and "the way it's supposed to be".  
Commitment signals our choice to take responsibility for the quality of the relationship, to work together to create a relationship which supports BOTH OF US in our full self-expression.  It is about our ability to act with intention and faith, trusting that we will ride out and learn from the ups and downs.

This stage also involves a new-found ability to hold paradox and polarities – to find solutions which include seeming differences and contradictions and to discover “win-win” solutions.  We are able to hold the tension between loving our partner and sometimes hating their behaviour.  This stage requires discernment and an increasing ability to move through and beyond our reactive, knee-jerk emotions -- in the service of the relationship and of our own growth.  When the fruits of this synergy are experienced, there is often a natural move toward:
V.  Co-creation
In this stage we apply and take out into the world all we have learned from this process of relationship.  We extend our feeling of unity and caring outwards.  This may take the form of a creative project, a shared community service, a business, the creation of a family -- to name just a few of the many possible expressions.  Others become the beneficiaries of the fruits of our experience and mutual empowerment.  As a couple, we experience our interconnectedness as extending beyond ourselves, to include the world – and we want to contribute.
Not a linear process
I have come to see these stages as both linear and non-linear in nature.  Sometimes my husband and I can cycle through these stages in the course of one conversation!  Couples often cycle through them in the completion of a shared project – such as a renovation, or a financial goal for example.  At the same time, a couple may find that one stage sets the predominant “tone” for a period of years.
All five stages exist at once
There is rarely a distinct point of division between one stage and the next.  Within each stage, elements of the other stages are always present.  Says Campbell, “Thus during Romance, we have our less obvious power struggles: as during the Power Struggle, romantic feelings often come into play.  And of course, there is a certain type of commitment necessary at each stage just to keep us hanging in there!” 
With understanding comes power
In the midst of challenges, it can be very helpful to identify the developmental stage we are engaged in – especially when we are in the midst of a power struggle!   It can provide perspective, meaning and hope, when we most need it. 
Through understanding the stages of relationship, we get a sense of where we are and where we are headed.  With all of it’s ups and downs, we are on an exciting developmental journey!  The goal?  Wholeness and full expression – for ourselves, each other and for our world.
Invitation to action

Reflect on the following questions by bringing to mind your current relationship -- or if you’re single, a past relationship.  If you’re part of a couple, you might share this article and questions with your partner:

  • How do these stages resonate with your own experience? 
  • Which stage is most difficult for you?  Which one are you reluctant to leave?
  • How has your relationship journey called YOU into greater wholeness and self-expression? 
  • How does your couple express its co-creative energy?
 I invite you to take from the model what is useful and gives meaning to your own journey – and leave the rest.

Shirley's update:

As you may know, I'm a big fan of the work of Dr. Brené Brown.  I've recently listened to her 6 CD set called The Power of Vulnerability. (You can get it through It is a fantastic synthesis of the research in her three books -- and very entertaining to boot.  She is my new hero, as she brings into mainstream conversation the vulnerabilities that we all share.  Check out her recent interviews with Oprah:  Living with a Whole Heart and Daring Greatly
Shirley Vollett BSW PCC is a Life and Relationship Coach, with over 20 years of combined experience in counselling and coaching. She delights in helping pro-active individuals make positive changes in their lives, their work/business and their relationships. Her clients appreciate her ability to listen deeply, her compassionate wisdom and her support in staying focused. Contact Shirley for a complimentary intro phone session. If you are experiencing a challenge or are eager to make some changes, explore how coaching works and how she can help. Click on a link below or visit her website at
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