- Like individual adult development, intimate relationships also naturally change over time.
- Common stages of intimate relationships are early dating, you both settle, committing and building, breaking out, and repairing or leaving.
- By knowing what to expect, we can anticipate change. We can shape the relationship by being aware of changes before it reaches a crisis.
We know from research that, as adults, we continue to grow and move through stages of development, as do children.1
But we also move through stages in our intimate relationships.
Here are the five most common ones; see where you’re at:
1. Early Dating
The purpose of dating is to find out if you’re compatible—that there’s chemistry, you have common interests, that your personalities mesh. But for the longer haul, what needs to be on top of the list are safety: do you feel safe enough to be honest and vulnerable? And problem-solving: can you both reach win-win compromises? Is there give and take? While the content of your lives will change over time, these two are needed to sustain the relationship.
Dangers: Instead of taking the risk of being vulnerable, you walk on eggshells or are too passive or accommodating. Not only does the other person not really get to know you, but you may also wind up feeling like you’re doing the heavy lifting and, most of all, never have the opportunity to find out if you can feel safe.
Going too far in the other direction, you may start out being too confrontative or have unreasonable expectations, and once the other person doesn’t seem to be a perfect fit or hurts your feelings, you cut and run. Not only may your style drive others away, you never have the opportunity to see if you can work through problems together.
2. You Both Settle
Hopefully, at some point, you both are more honest; you will stop walking on eggshells or being so rigid. As the oxytocin and sex naturally decrease, everyone gets more real, and arguments may increase. This is a pivotal time when couples either break up, resolve problems, or move on.
Dangers: You don’t settle but get stuck in early dating mode, continue to do what you do; everyone adjusts, but you’re holding things in, and the other person never really gets to truly know you.
3. You Commit and Build
You’re committed; you get married. You start to build a life together—finishing education, establishing careers, moving houses, having kids. It’s often a changing, multi-year process of moving forward, but hopefully, somewhere in your 30s, you create a less-disruptive life.
Along the way, you’re also building an everyday structure to your lives—routines and rules about chores and sex and handling disagreements, in-laws, and money. You create patterns, patterns that are often more powerful than individuals.
Dangers: You’ve built your relationship and life on shaky ground. You’ve accommodated too much from the start; your compromises are watered-down compromises; you both sweep big problems under the rug; the demands of everyday life force you to give up important parts of yourself.
4: You Breakout
This is about individuation—becoming more you. What form it takes depends on the past: you get fed up with doing the heavy lifting or with your passive partner; you’re tired of being micromanaged; the things you’ve been biting your tongue about for so long are getting hard to contain; the routines no longer work because they are imbalanced, or because in the process of building your life you’ve left too much of you out, you’ve compromised away too much of you.
Here is where folks have affairs, start speaking up, pulling away, arguing more, or getting so fed up that they leave. This also fuels those midlife crises—quitting jobs and changing careers or throwing yourself into getting that big promotion.
Dangers: The need to break out is natural, but you handle it poorly. You act out and have affairs, impulsively quit the job, or do nothing drastic but fall into ranting or depression.
5: You Repair or Leave
You fix the core problems—stop with the heavy lifting and create more balance; you survive the affair, and it helps you both upgrade your relationship. You have more honest conversations, stop walking on eggshells and build a new, updated lifestyle; you don’t get that promotion, but you’re able to reset your priorities and feel satisfied.
Or you don’t. You’re burned out; you have only 20 good years left, and it’s now or never to do what you want; your resentments have grown too big, and you can’t find a way to get around them.
Dangers: You do none of the above. Your life runs on autopilot. You use distance to avoid conflict, and you both live parallel lives. Depression sets in.
All this is normal, though obviously, the details vary based on personality and culture. But the theme that runs through is the notion that you will naturally change and grow over time, as will your intimate relationship. The key to not outgrowing your relationship is for both of you to stay aware of changes within you—your needs, frustrations, expectations, and vision—and share those with your partner so you can upgrade the emotional software of your relationship before it gets too outdated.
Knowing what to expect can hopefully help you anticipate and prepare for what is to come. Once it comes, it’s up to you to find your course to move through it.
Where are you? What do you need to start doing differently now?
Levinson, D. (1986). American Psychologist, Vol 41(1), Jan 1986, 3-13.