Natural Stages of a Relationship

Relationships go through predictable, natural stages.
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Relationships are as unique as fingerprints, but almost all relationships go through predictable natural stages. Meeting a new person face-to-face or through social media can be exciting. Whether it is a potential new BFF or a romantic interest, recognizing similarities characterizes the initial phase of a relationship. The fun and enthusiasm of this initial phase, often called a honeymoon or starry-eyed phase, is generally short-lived, as other natural stages follow in pursuit of an enduring, tried-and-true relationship.

1 Hey -- You Wild Thing, Maybe I Love You

A wildfire of interest can be sparked by another person who shares your likes and dislikes. During this initial relationship stage, you enjoy fun interactions with your new friend. You may feel the person is perfect and that being with that person is easy, requiring no effort on your part. In this phase, impressions are important. How the person looks and acts plays a part in how you feel about your new friend. Novelty and interest activate the pleasure center of your brain to pump out feel-good chemicals. Then, after the initial excitement, exploration begins. You and your new friend share more details about your lives, often including your hopes and dreams.

2 But I Could Be Wrong

The exploration phase moves from finding similarities to finding differences. Idealization wanes as you discover more and more ways that you and your friend are not alike. No longer on overdrive, your pleasure center slows to a hum. The work and effort of building a relationship begins during this phase. Your first conflict happens, leading you to re-evaluate the relationship. This is the make-it or break-it point for many relationships, as the differences overwhelm the similarities.

3 Committed -- Conditionally

Friends or couples who come through the exploration phase with their relationship intact can find themselves facing another hurdle -- insecurity. According to Stan Tatkin, PsyD MFT, a professor and marriage counselor, it is during this conditional relationship stage that you may hyper-focus on your friend’s or partner’s flaws. Tatkin explains that your brain is wired to react to danger, and continually monitors for signals. Actions, words and nonverbal communication through your voice tone and body language are all scrutinized. Under threat of somehow being harmed by your friend’s imperfections, your commitment to the relationship becomes conditional. You keep your options open to end the relationship or move to a deeper, mature stage.

4 The Stage Only a Few Achieve

Relationships can stagnate in the conditional relationship stage, mired in conflict. From the mud and muck of disagreements, friends or partners generally move in and out of periods of anger and disappointment to times of temporary satisfaction with the relationship. If you and your friend develop skills for communicating and problem-solving with each other, you may reach the peaceful relationship stage of acceptance and mature mutual concern and sharing. This stage, enjoyed by few couples or friends, comes about when each partner takes responsibility for his or her own life and commits to a supportive relationship with the other, according to “The Stages of a Committed Relationship,” on the Relationship Institute website.

For Judy Kilpatrick, gardening is the best mental health therapy of all. Combining her interests in both of these fields, Kilpatrick is a professional flower grower and a practicing, licensed mental health therapist. A graduate of East Carolina University, Kilpatrick writes for national and regional publications.