If my wife and I had known about the three phases of lasting relationships before we married, it would have saved us both some grief many years ago. Knowing about them now helps us to make fair comparisons between our relationship and the relationships of others around us. By knowing what phase we’re in, we’re also more likely to have realistic expectations for ourselves and each other. The three phases are:
2. Identity Struggle
3. Committed Love
Some professionals claim there are more than these three phases, but in working with couples I have found that dividing them into a larger number of phases just makes them more complicated without adding to their ability to prepare people for the realities of couple life.
Virtually all relationships go through these phases.
It’s important to note that phases are not stages. Stages are typically things we go through and then we’re relatively done with them (e.g. an infant goes through the scooting stage, the crawling stage, and the walking stage). Phases, on the other hand, can be entered and exited and reentered. Although most couples never return to the first phase, they can and sometimes do move back and forth between the second and third phases.
Phase One: Courtship
The courtship phase, also known as the honeymoon phase, typically lasts the first six months to two years, but it can also be longer or shorter in rare cases. During the courtship phase, both partners are their best selves. They are highly loving and polite to one another, very considerate, and inordinately thoughtful.
During this phase partners are very “into each other”—which is extremely emotionally fulfilling for both partners. This is the phase of romantic love: of love songs and poetry. The lovers of every Shakespearean play are solidly in the courtship phase; most other cinematic, theatrical, or novels depict love and lovers in this phase.
New love is irrationally—some say insanely—fulfilling, but it doesn’t ever last. People in new relationships are unreasonably loving, psychotically trusting, hysterically entertained by, obsessively committed to, and perversely turned-on by their partners. The wonderful feelings they have for and get from their partners are over-inflated by the very biology of the courtship phase.
This is not intentional deceit, or false advertising, as some cynics have called it. The truth is, during the courtship phase partners actually want to be as kind, connected, and fulfilling as they are in this phase. It’s part of our genetic code for coupling, and you have to admit, it works very well. But because no new love is new forever, it must, at some point *heavy sigh* come to an end.
Phase Two: Identity Struggle
The identity struggle phase has traditionally lasted from one to six years, and sadly, sometimes decades longer. Identity struggle begins when the honeymoon of the courtship phase is over, and now, the majority of life satisfaction no longer comes from the once intensely fulfilling courtship phase.
Getting through the identity struggle phase is a matter of readjusting your understanding of the reality of the relationship. Important improvements can still be made. In fact, “happily ever after” can still happen—just not like in the movies or books. After the courtship phase, the relationship will never again be able to sustain the level of passion, connection, and trust you once enjoyed.
Because the relationship itself is not as emotionally fulfilling, partners will suddenly each need to seek a lot of their emotional fulfillment on their own. Ideally, each will find emotional fulfillment that will enhance, rather than detract from the relationship.
For some partners, this necessary change in roles can be traumatic. They may ask themselves or each other, “What happened to all the excitement she used to show when I came home? What happened to all the little thoughtful things he used to bring me? Does he or she even love me anymore?”
Sometimes partners deal with these sad and sometimes scary feelings quietly inside themselves, and sometimes less quietly and less inside, but 1) all lasting relationships go through this phase, and 2) successfully getting through it will literally make or break your marriage.
Phase Three: Committed Love
This final phase can last a lifetime, it can last until the death of a spouse, or it can be interrupted. In this phase, couples enjoy a much less intense but often much deeper, more meaningful love. Many couples firmly in the committed love phase report that they love one another much more than they did at any time in their relationship. Starting into the committed love phase is a direct result of successfully negotiating the identity struggle phase.
Committed love is quiet and strong. It tends to be also highly trusting, but in a more realistic way (partners patiently and lovingly trust one another to be the flawed humans they now see them to be). Committed love has its times of passion and intense connection, and in these times the passion and connection can be as intense as it was in the courtship phase. But in the committed love phase, that high intensity does not last. Within a day, or at most a few days, the passion subsides again, allowing the partners to return to the quiet, strong love that characterizes most of their, highly fulfilling, days.
Some couples appear to go back into the identity struggle phase years into the committed love phase. Some waver between committed love and identity struggle for years. Sometimes this happens because one or both of the couples did not successfully let go of the courtship phase. Other times the relationship has become unfulfilling for other reasons. In either case, good couples counseling can often help couples get back on a healthier, happier track and back into committed love.
Questions to Ponder and Discuss:
- What relationship phase are you in right now, and how do you know you’re in it?
- Why are they called the Three Phases of Lasting Relationships? In what phase do you think most people leave their relationships and why do you think so many leave them in that phase?
- Who could you share this article with that you could then discuss the phases of lasting relationships?