Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT has been a therapist for over 30 years, specializing in work with couples, families and relationships. She has expertise with clients ...Read More
There are 4 predictable stages that couples experience in a dating relationship. At each stage, there is often a decision (sometimes more thoughtfully arrived at than others) to move forward or to end the relationship.
Some stages take longer than others to go through and some people take much longer at each stage. Unfortunately, some people don’t fully experience and process each stage as an opportunity for personal growth or to make a healthy evaluation about the relationship or about themselves.
Stage 1: Initial Meeting/Attraction
Dating relationships have to start somewhere. The initial meeting may take place over the internet, through friends, in a church or social group, at a party or bar or any one of a myriad of many different places.
Different arenas for meeting allow for different opportunities to get to know each other and see if there is enough curiosity or interest to take it to the next level which would involve arranging a second or third meeting.
Stage 2: Curiosity, Interest, and Infatuation
During the second stage, attraction and infatuation are most pronounced.
Early attraction often involves the physical attributes of the partner and include things like outward appearance, body type, interests and personality traits. At this stage, the attraction may not be too “deep” and each half of a couple is generally putting his or her best foot forward. Differences are not noticed or are dismissed with thoughts like “not a big deal” or “she will change”.
Couples generally do not have much conflict at this stage of the cycle as each is really trying hard to impress the other person. Often (not always) there is not enough “is this the right person for me” but rather more “what can I do to make this person like me?”
This stage may last for 3 or 4 months depending on the individuals and their maturity, experience and self-understanding. Towards the end of this stage, and hopefully at other times throughout it, it is not unusual for questions of “is this the right person for me” to emerge. For women especially there may also be a desire to figure out where the relationship is headed.
Going slowly in making any decisions about a relationship are more likely to be better ones than moving quickly (unless it is clear that the relationship is not a good fit).
Stage 3: “Enlightenment” and Becoming a Couple
During this stage of a relationship, hormones are calming down and reality sets in. Couples often go “deeper” in their connection. Trust is stronger and more intimacies may be shared at this stage as couples take away some of their “best face” and allow themselves to act more naturally and relaxed.
Both halves of a couple will notice weaknesses and differences or flaws. “Cute” habits might become irritating at this stage. Some of those perpetual issues or differences such as free-spending or frugal, neat and orderly or sloppy and disorganized, interested in lots of time together or more involved in outside activities begin to emerge.
At this stage of the relationship, couples will take note of the differences and may even begin to complain or attempt to problem-solve.
As intimacy develops between the two people, more self-disclosure emerges, both verbally and nonverbally as couples act in ways that are more like how they are in their daily life.
This is when the big question emerges even more strongly: “Where are we headed?“ Women have a tendency to ask this question before men, even though both may be wondering about the answer to this question. Pushing for an answer; however, may cause real problems in the relationship. Each person needs to listen to their own inner voice and wisdom. It is important to talk over their thoughts and feelings with their partner while finding ways to keep from “pushing” for commitment.
There is no need to rush through this important stage and every reason to go slowly.
Stage 4: Commitment or Engagement
At this stage in a relationship, couples should have a good understanding of their partner’s values, life style, and goals for the future. There should be a relationship with each other’s family and friends.
Open and honest conversations should be happening as couples plan their present and future together. Questions about children, finances, careers, future goals and lifestyle should be discussed more fully. Differences are normal and couples will learn about themselves and their relationship as they note how they handle these differences with each other.
This is also an important stage for couples to use to evaluate the relationship and their ability to be part of an emotionally intelligent relationship. Engagements can be broken much more easily and can clearly be a better decision than getting married and divorced.