Not to point out the obvious, but every relationship shifts and develops over time. The way we relate to our parents, our friends, and, yes, our romantic partners, moves through distinct stages as bonds are formed and tested. Why is it, then, that the stages of a romantic relationship seem more difficult to decipher? While it's true that every relationship cycles through different phases, what exactly they entail and how long they last differ from couple to couple.
When is it best for couples to start getting serious? Does the honeymoon phase really exist? Does falling out of the honeymoon phase mean falling out of love? To help provide some clarity, we asked two dating experts, Bela Gandhi and Nora DeKeyser, for their takes on the most common stages of a romantic relationship. Surprisingly, both women had similar ideas for what partners can expect as a relationship goes from casual dates to seriously coupled.
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Below are the five stages of a relationship nearly every couple experiences, according to two dating experts.
The Awkward Stage
While some chance encounters result in instant chemistry, there's typically an initial awkwardness to slough off before the first date—and even during it. Testing the tepid waters of "do they like me, do they like me not" can be the toughest part. Saddling up the courage to even approach the other person, drafting up clever texts—while exciting, the very first steps of a potential relationship include the biggest challenges of all.
The first date can be difficult, too, and something that DeKeyser says is an inevitable first stage in dating: "Both parties are nervous, overthinking, and worried it is going to be 'another' wasted date with someone they don't connect with." It may not turn out exactly as you expected, but DeKeyser says, "Always go on a second or third date because most people don't represent themselves fully in the first few dates. After this stage, things get less awkward and you can finally start feeling comfortable around the other person."
The Attraction Stage
If you've made it past the initial awkwardness, couples enter one of the most exciting periods: the attraction stage of a relationship also called the honeymoon phase. This is a golden period where, as Gandhi puts it, "You're lit up like a chandelier around this person." You recognize all of your partner's good qualities and "want them to fall deeply and madly in love with you." The honeymoon phase is just that: a phase.
But how do you know when you're transitioning out of the honeymoon phase versus falling out of love? "Everyone will fall out of the honeymoon phase," DeKeyser says. "But not everyone will fall out of love. The honeymoon phase will fade with time—but love should grow with time. Honeymoon is a quick feeling of excitement, sexual arousal, nuance, and slightly obsessive 'lust'—which can be addicting at first. Love is a feeling of stability, partnership, deep intimacy and trust, and shared values."
Gandhi elaborates on the difference between the two, stating, "Falling out of love will probably mean that even though you truly care for and love your partner, you realize that they are not right for you emotionally, mentally, and spiritually." Although moving on from the initial attraction phase may mean fading sparks, Gandhi says, "You trade 24-7 lust for a safe, comfortable attachment—and it's worth its weight in gold."
The Uncertainty Stage
The act of falling in love might be effortless, automatic even. Moving on from falling in love to contemplating long-term exclusivity, however, is a scary, albeit exhilarating, step to take. This is where the uncertainty stage of a relationship sets in. You may doubt the veracity of your love for this person; you may even question if your values and lifestyles are compatible.
"The biggest key to success is open communication," DeKeyser says. "Before moving into more serious stages, ask your partner exactly what they want out of a relationship. What do they value, how do they want to live their life, how do they want the relationship to be in the future? Both parties have to choose to work at the relationship, and you choose to work at the relationship as an effect of the wonderful feelings you experienced throughout the stages of love."
This may also be the stage where the most challenges crop up as you start to view your relationship with a critical lens. According to DeKeyser, "Challenges actually bring couples who manage them correctly closer together because it teaches the two of you that you can get through the tough times together and trust each other through communication."
So how can you differentiate between challenges and a relationship that’s a no-go? "The way to spot if this is an unhealthy relationship is if you feel alone," DeKeyser says. "Can you not tell your partner about how you feel? Why? Is it you not being open enough, or is your partner someone who wouldn't want to work on the hard stuff? Think about why this challenge isn’t being openly discussed and then fix the source of the problem."
The Intimacy Stage
If you and your partner have decided to get serious, you've landed at the intimacy stage of a relationship. While the word may conjure an association with physical intimacy, this stage focuses on vulnerability. It's incredibly tough to be vulnerable with another person and to reveal—openly and unequivocally—parts of yourself that aren't ideal.
"This is the part of dating that is true and raw," DeKeyser explains. "This is when you are getting to know your partner in their true self—you are seeing their insecurities; you are vulnerable with each other. You are realizing that what you have is deeper than 'fun, exciting, and sexy.' It is a bond and trust that keeps you together."
It's after relating to each other on a completely open level that couples can move on to the final stage of commitment in a relationship: the partnership stage.
The Partnership Stage
What partnership means to a couple is wide and varying. It could mean moving in together, getting engaged, or simply deciding to enter a long-term, exclusive relationship. DeKeyser explains, "This is the stage where you realize you two are best friends and lovers. You are partners to each other in life—you can spend hours, days, weeks, months side by side with this person, and you only better each other and feel as though you are one unit."
Every couple is unique—there isn't an exact time stamp you can put on reaching the partnership stage of a relationship. Gandhi says, "If this person makes your relationship easy, you are compatible, and you like to be together, it sounds like a good foundation to get serious." She warns, however, that "if you are unhappy more than you are happy in your relationship, it is probably unhealthy. Every relationship takes work, but the work shouldn't be hard—a good relationship should be easy overall." If your foundation is healthy, then there's no limit to the happiness you can experience in your partnership.