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The 5 Stages of a Relationship and How to Keep Yours Strong

Learn how to get to the next stage with your relationship

Published on: February 03, 2014

Couple with back pockets

Every couple wonders why some relationships fall apart while others last. Why did the couple across the street seem so in love last year, but now there’s a moving van out front, headed for a new bachelor pad? Why, as we and our children get older, do the couples around us seem to start falling like dominoes?

Will our own relationships stand the test of time?

If you are aware of the predictable stages that love relationships go through, you may be better prepared to evolve yours as time passes. To stay happy, it is important that partners grow together and hopefully become stronger with time.  

What stage are you in, and how can knowing this help you? Read on to find out (and for tips on how to help a stale relationship).

Stage 1: Romance

Everyone starts off in the romance stage, which is said to last anywhere from two months to two years.  

“Romance is great, but so is lust, and you cannot have passion without both love and lust,” says Dr. Roger Libby, a Seattle sex, marriage and relationship therapist .  

Random acts of kindness — and romance — can go a long way to keeping the feelings of this stage alive.  

“You need to be thoughtful, romantic and do unexpected things, so if he empties the dishwasher and she normally has to do it, that is romantic, because it is thoughtful,” Libby says.

Stage 2: Power struggle

The second stage of a relationship is power struggle, which is where some couples who believe that romantic love will last forever become disappointed and part ways — only to possibly realize later that the romance keeps fading no matter what relationship they are in.  

One of the most common areas of power struggle? Sex, of course.

“It is a common challenge that long-term committed relationships experience a problem with sexual interest waning, and more often it is the woman whose interest has waned,” says Dr. Elizabeth Rae Larson, director at the Seattle Institute for Sex Therapy, Education and Research.  

There are some commonalities among women who do maintain interest in their partners, Larson says.

“The women who are feeling sexually happy are also feeling understood, listened to, respected, supported and assisted,” she says.  

The goodwill of the relationship matters. “When men lose interest it is often that there is a sexual pattern of incompatibility with their female partner, or something they like to do that she does not want to do,” Larson says. Illness, injury and financial and emotional stress can sap sexual interest as well.  

Instead of seeing what you had in common, like you did in the beginning, you start to notice differences and flaws.

Stage 3: Stability

The third stage of a relationship is the stability stage, which is where you realize that you cannot change your partner and that you do not want to, either.  

“Stability occurs when you are trying to vary things and make it exciting, because it is not stable to do the same things everyday like a robot,” Libby says.  Some people really rely on routine, but they often lose sight of each other in the process, and the focus moves away from enjoying one another.

Strong relationships feature clear boundaries and mutual respect, experts say.  

“I encourage regular communication about what couples need from each other emotionally and sexually,” Libby says.

Stage 4: Commitment

The fourth stage is the commitment stage, where you realize that your relationship has shortcomings and that's normal.  

This is the stage when people are actually ready to be married, though many people tend to get married during the romance stage where they still feel the high of the relationship, say experts.  

“You will see brain changes in every relationship, and it shifts from the gambler’s high of the dopamine neurotransmitter to fading sexual attraction, and if the high is not replaced by commitment or devotion, those couples typically will not be able to make the transition” or succeed long-term, Larson says.  

If you are frustrated with imperfections in your relationship, try talking to a therapist. “Consider their training, areas of expertise, how long they have been in practice, their approach and make sure they do not just sit there and say “how do you feel” and think they are treating [you],” said Libby.  

Stage 5: Co-creation

So is there more to love?

There is, and it’s where many parents of young children find themselves. The fifth stage is the bliss or co-creation stage. This is where you decide to act as a team in the world. Even here, you may find that you return to the power struggle stage until you learn to accept and appreciate each others' differences and fight in a manner that deepens your connection and intimacy instead of tearing it away.  

While it may be nerve-wracking to go through all of the relationship stages, often more than once — and while you might sometimes fantasize about the lust of the early days — ultimately realizing the full journey is a positive one for many couples.  

“When people are deeply committed, it is a different relationship and intimacy than when they first dated; it is actually based on love, comfort and caring,” Larson says. “Look at a relationship as a process or a journey and not just a static state.”

If you nurture your relationship, it usually evolves in a positive way, Libby says.

Have you lost that lovin’ feelin?

How do we continue to appreciate our long-term partner, get past rough patches, and keep that lovin’ feeling alive?

It might sound corny, but try to make every day feel like Valentine’s Day.

“Look at Valentine’s Day as a model for the way you should treat your partner —  pay more attention to each other, not just sexually but with affection, kissing, cuddling, massage — and not seeing it as the only day to give someone a card,” said Libby.

Try to shift the focus back to what you have in common.  

“Take a class in something you would both like to learn about together,” Libby says. Couples have a choice to either break up or make sacrifices and compromises in order to stay together successfully.  

It can help to try to keep things fun, be playful and share humor instead of being serious about things all the time. “Go out on a date once a week and do things you rarely or never have done to induce new excitement between you, which then affects the sexual relationship,” Libby says.

Try to enjoy the moments as they come. “Practice mindfulness or find a way to increase your ability to pay attention to what is going on and not get lost in the past or future, because sex and all play happens in the present,” Larson says.

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