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  • Writer's pictureAlexis Rosenbaum

Stages of Relationship by Dr. Susan M Campbell

Updated: Feb 21, 2021

There are five stages to all relationships. All couples move through the different stages at different speeds and will move back and forth from stage to stage but both will predominantly be in the same stage at the same time. These stages are not a linear process; it is a circle spiralling upwards so when you hit a certain stage in the power struggle it becomes easier. Knowledge of the stages helps movement through them.


All relationships begin with this stage. The need satisfied here is love and belonging. This stage is characterized by its dream-like qualities, fantasies, hopes for the future, the possibilities and the asking of "what if". Everything is wonderful, beautiful, fun and exciting. Reality is seen through rose coloured glasses or likened to looking into an off focus camera lens. Details are obscure and specifics are not discussed.

They focus on similarities and do things to please each other. Differences are viewed as bad so are denied. The emphasis is on how to fit and move together and soon they look like they're glued together at the hip. Each will do anything to get along.

You deny part of yourself and the thinking is "Now that I have this other person I am complete and happy." The equation is: half + half = one you + me = us. This stage is short lived because you cannot be a whole person but the stage does allow for the building of a foundation for the relationship in the future.

Romance allows one to take chances and risks and nurtures a belief that "I can do it". However, real love cannot begin at this stage so paradoxically one must fall out of love to learn to love.

This stage lasts, on the average, two months to two years. Romancing takes up a lot of energy with all the courting and pretensions and trying to be the same and eventually you begin to tire.

As well, melding at the hip becomes uncomfortable. When the cost to your individuality becomes too great you begin trying to change the other person. There is resistance, you try to insist and there is a fight, leading to the next stage of power struggle. A counsellor does not see anyone in the Romance stage.


The need satisfied now is power and some freedom. There is an awareness now that you are different but the premise remains that differences are bad. The equation now is you + me = you vs. me.

The lens of the camera is now a crystal clear zoom lens and you focus on every minute detail-your differences are magnified. You seem to have nothing in common anymore and everything the other person does is wrong. There is a pulling away from each other, a need for space, a chance to breathe...all of which is quite normal.

This is a critical stage where divorce occurs most frequently and when couples seek counselling, The fight is for boundaries and clearly defining unacceptable bottom line behaviours. The past is acted out in this struggle stage.

You become aware of your quality world, perhaps a lonely road but a necessary one to determine what is really important to you. It is necessary to reclaim yourself as a whole person otherwise you die inside or end up hating your partner. This is necessary to move ahead.

Going deaf is a power struggle syndrome - in anger the tightening of the jaw actually impairs 80% of our hearing ability. The focus in the power struggle stage is on the present and the past. There is a nervousness about the future and some questioning whether there will be one.

There is a need to get the fighting from the past into the present - learn to fight where both win (i.e., use phrases like "I want to talk to you and all I want you to do is listen.")

Accept that differences are okay and normal. Learn to be together because of choices not needed as in the romance stage. This stage is a prerequisite to readiness to relate to each other as whole people. See it as a positive one, an opportunity to journey together, to learn how to fight fairly with both winning and to declare one's own individuality and separateness.

It is possible to have one partner still in the romance stage while the other is into the 20 power struggle stage. This can be painful when the one in the romance stage finds that what he or she does for love and belonging leaves the other feeling oppressed (i.e., he brings her flowers which was once okay but now she feels controlled by his actions and reacts by needing even more space).


The need satisfied in this stage is freedom and choice. You are now aware of each other’s personal world instead of just your own and the difference is okay. It is finally clear you are not going to reshape your partner. Clear boundaries are determined.

The equation is you + me = you and you. There is a sense of loss and a certain sadness at this time as you realize dreams aren't reality. The power struggle was hard and has weathered you. You feel older and wiser. If you had not learned good coping skills as a child the power struggle stage was even harder than it had to be.

This is a resting time. The war is over and it's time to relax. You breathe a sigh of relief. The danger at this stage is the couple may start to move apart as each does their own thing. There is a realization that each other's paths in life may be different. There may be a feeling of boredom, a sense of not being connected and having nothing in common.

The focus is on the present not the future because that is still undecided.

This is the second most common stage for counselling or divorce. At first it feels good to agree to stop changing the other but life is not like that. Life is about growing and changing. The positive aspect is that at this stage you have history and it can be used to advantage. Don't throw away the relationship easily. At this time you either learn mutual respect or you go back to the second stage.


This is the only stage where there really is a readiness for marriage though people usually have already married in the romance stage. That's unfortunate because when they reach the power struggle stage they wonder what hit them.

In this stage you are wide awake, making clear choices about yourself and your partner, based both on individual differences and those things you have in common. You see clearly who you are and what you want as well as who your partner is and what they want. This is the only way for a healthy relationship. The equation now is you + me = you + me + us.

You now choose each other with awareness of past, present and direction to the future. The needs fulfilled here are a balance of love, belonging, fun, power and freedom. You don't need each other, you choose to be with each other.

If one of the pair is in the stability stage and one ready for commitment, the couple will either both remain in stage three or could return to stage two. Both need to be ready for the commitment stage. Though parts of previous stages may reappear there would have been enough work to have developed strategies for dealing with problems.

Living together is probably in stage three without readiness for stage four. They need to stay in the stability stage until they are ready for commitment and really want to be a team. The statement can now be made to your partner, I choose to love you knowing all I know, good and bad." Getting married after living together can start you back at romance.


In this stage you are two people who have decided to be a team moving out into the world. The equation is you + me = you + me + us within the world. This world may include children, a project, a church, a joint business venture, etc.

You move beyond the relationship. The danger at this stage is over involvement with the outside world and relationship being neglected. The relationship must be continually nurtured along the way. There needs to be time for you, for me, for us and for them. This is difficult sometimes and choices must be made.

A test of where you may be in the relationship is: If your spouse and children are away for a while, who gets the first hug upon their return. If it's the kids then maybe it's time to take a better look at "us"

The above was compiled from The Couple's Journey, by Dr. Susan M Campbell.

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