As a couples therapist I find reality TV shows like Married at First Sight or The Bachelor/ Bachelorette utterly fascinating. As the couples try to develop their fledgling relationships in front of millions of viewers it gives us a chance to see the initial stages of a ‘normal’ relationship, all play out in one or two evenings.
The issues we see them struggling with are exactly the same as the couples I see in my practice. Once the excitement wears off and things settle down, reality kicks in.
Romance is wonderful, but it’s not the thing that makes a couple, or keeps them together. A deep lasting connection is built on so much more than romance.
Let’s dive in and take a look at the four ‘stages’ of a relationship. And as you’ll discover, romance can’t be the sole focus if you want to build a strong foundation.
Stage 1. Romance and attraction
The early stage of a romantic relationship tends to bring out the best in us. Our new partner makes us happy and life feels wonderful. We find ourselves wanting to spend more and more time with them. We text and call each other constantly. We wear our best outfits. We wouldn’t dream of burping or farting in front of each other, and not only do we listen to what our partner has to say, we’re actually interested too.
The romance stage of a relationship is so intoxicating because our brain releases a cocktail of chemicals, creating feelings of euphoria and pleasure. This is the happy rush you feel whenever you think about them, or spend time with them. This is when you’re both still projecting the best part of yourselves.
But, after awhile, the romance fades, and we’re left with a very real picture of each other. Personal habits and idiosyncrasies start to get annoying. Best behaviour is no longer viable to keep up consistently. Conversations and opinions start to take a different tone – enter, the ‘power struggle’.
Stage 2. The power struggle
If you’ve ever lived alone, or been single for an extended period of time, you would have had the luxury of designing your life just the way you like it – perfectly.
You have a routine that works for you, and you’re not accountable to anyone else’s opinions, needs or wants. You’ve been living by your own set of rules, and you have your own opinions about how the world works.
There’s just one small problem, your new partner does too!
In this stage of the relationship we begin to struggle with the desire for our partner to be just like us, or to be the perfect version they were projecting. You know, the one who, until a short time ago, could do no wrong?
After spending the first stage of the relationship being inseparable it’s now time to start recognising that there are two individuals here.
The power struggle phase can be too much for some couples. So fixated on the feelings of romantic love, they’ll find themselves chasing that elusive chemistry. They start to feel overwhelmed and choose to let the relationship go.
But ending the relationship when the struggle starts only short-changes both of you. It denies you the chance to have a wonderfully rich relationship.
The struggle is there for a reason. It’s designed to help both of you understand yourselves through the reflection of your partner.
Stage 3. Creating a safe and stable structure
If you and your partner can make it to stage three you’ll enjoy a lot more stability in the relationship. By now you’ve had a chance to work through some of your differences. The romance may have gone, but you’re ok with that. You might fight from time to time, but there’s a deeper connection between you now, and you’re willing to work through problems because the relationship means more to you.
There may be times when you miss the romance of stage one, and you might even experience a little boredom at this stage, but mostly you love your partner, you feel happy and connected.
Stage 4. True and lasting commitment
It takes a lot of work to get to this stage. Some married couples never reach it at all. Stage four is about real and lasting commitment. If you’re in stage four you no longer want to be with anyone else and the lack of romance isn’t an issue because you’re truly content. You trust one another implicitly and share a vision for the future.
When you both feel you are being held in the heart and mind of each other, and that you’re working towards a life that is mutually rewarding, the relationship has reached a deeper level of love.
Whatever stage you’re at in your relationship, remember that your partner is a separate person, with an entirely different view of the world to you.
Stop and acknowledge that they are telling you how they see the world. Once you both decide to listen and better understand one other, the easier it will be to actually hear each other.