The Life Cycle of Relationships

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Marina Edelman, M.A. is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern in private practice in Westlake Village, CA and is a member of CAMFT. Marina ...Read More

If you are in a relationship that seems to be headed towards commitment such as getting engaged, married, having kids, etc., it may be a good idea to familiarize yourself with the relationship lifecycle. There are five stages to all relationships. Couples move through the various stages at different speeds and will move back and forth from stage to stage and at times will find themselves in the same stage and other times in different state. Understanding the stages helps the couple normalize what they are experiencing and make better decisions.



All relationships begin with this stage. The need satisfied here is love and belonging. This stage is characterized by its dream like qualities, fantasies, and hopes for the future. The role of this stage is to give the couple a taste of the potential of their union. This stage lasts anywhere between 2 months to 2 years, but averages 6 months. When a person is in this stage, their body produces vast amounts of endorphins, which makes them feel unusually happy, positive and excited about everything in their life. There is not much to fix at this point and the couples is encouraged to continue to explore one another.


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During the exploration process, differences are discovered and power struggle sets in. This is the most difficult of all stages and is usually the time when relationships terminate. As couples become emotionally and physically more intimate, weaknesses and vulnerabilities begin to surface and conflicts ensue.

The need satisfied now is power and some freedom. The role of this stage is to make each individual gain awareness of themselves and their partner and to begin to relate to each other as whole people. Power struggle starts soon after the two move in together and can last for many bitter years. During this stage a couple has three options: terminate, continue to stay together but live parallel lives, or learn how to fight fairly with both winning and to declaring one’s own individuality.


If as a child one did not learn coping skills, then the power struggle phase was exceptionally hard. However, upon survival, the couple becomes okay with each other’s differences and establishes clear boundaries. The need satisfied in this stage is freedom and choice.

The danger at this stage is that the couple may start to realize that each other’s paths in life may be different. There is a sense of loss and sadness as dreams do not materialize. 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 counseling or divorce. In the beginning, it feels good to agree to stop changing the other, but life is all about growth and change. At this stage, the couple has history and should use it as an advantage to persevere in the relationship. At this point, mutual respect sets in or the couple reverts to power struggle.


This is the stage when the couple should contemplate marriage, unfortunately 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 the couple is making clear choices about themselves and their partner, based both on differences and commonalities.

The needs fulfilled here are a balance of love, belonging, fun, power and freedom. This is a stage when two individuals realize they don’t need to be with each other but choose to be. Overall, this is the stage when the couple finally begins to feel comfortable and happy with their deepening consistent relationship. Some people feel a sense of loss in this stage as they learn to accept their partner for who they truly are, since this means they have to let go of the fantasy of who they want their partner to be. At this phase individuals begin to re-establish their own outside interests and friendships, which were given up in the Romance Phase. There is some danger that the couple may begin to drift apart from or become bored with each other. The remedy is to try to maintain the connection that was created in the Romance Phase by establishing date night, flirting and making each other a priority.


In this stage the couple have decided to be a team moving out into the world. This world may include children, a project, a joint business venture, etc. The role of this stage is to handle any common project or life crisis as a perfect team, acting as one: proactively, responsibly, and constructively to a mutual fulfillment. 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.

Keep Reading By Author Marina Edelman, MA
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