According to the principles of marriage and family therapy, love relationships undergo five basic stages or phases. Similar to individual human development, each stage is marked by a central crisis and several developmental activities. Each relationship is different, and different couples spend varying amounts of time in each phase. Nonetheless, for a relationship to be satisfactory over a lifetime, every couple must eventually reach stage five.
According to psychologist Dr. Marty Tashman in "The Five Stages of Relationships," for Family-Marriage-Counseling.com, the first relationship stage is known as the honeymoon phase. In "Stages of a Healthy Relationship," found on her website, WesPsych.com, Dr. Nancy Wessman refers to it as infatuation.This is the stereotypical, Hollywood romance, starry-eyed stage in which the partner can do no wrong. Wessman suggests that this phase happens quickly, often within just a few dates.
Tashman calls the second phase accommodation, while Wessman defines it as initial but limited commitment. Some couples enter this phase within a few weeks, others within a few months, but virtually all couples are in it by the two-year mark. During this stage, real life begins to intrude on the new relationship. Both partners let down their guard and show their true selves. Conflict, disillusionment and relationship problems are hallmarks of this stage. Many couples break up during the accommodation phase as they are unable to work through their differences and reach satisfactory compromises.
Tashman defines the third relationship stage as challenge, while Wessman calls it permanent commitment. Both psychologists agree that this is the time when partners cope with crises outside the relationship. Illnesses, work struggles, financial worries and other issues take precedence over accommodating the partner. In healthy relationships, the couple is able to communicate, show support and understanding, and navigate the external world together. For some couples, however, the strain is too much. Risks include unfaithfulness, emotional withdrawal and even the collapse of the relationship.
The fourth stage, which Wessman defines as early marriage and Tashman as crossroads, occurs when the couple’s relationship fundamentally changes. Marriage, parenthood, taking in an elderly family member or other factors push the couple to make a deeper commitment to each other. According to Tashman, couples who successfully deal with multiple crises during the challenge phase usually have the skills to navigate crossroads without undue stress. Wessman states that this phase is when each partner must decide whether he can truly be himself in the relationship.
The goal for a loving, committed relationship, rebirth or recommitment occurs when the crossroads stage is fully resolved. Tashman claims that only 15 percent of couples reach this phase, while Wessman notes that it is an ongoing daily choice that requires constant growth. At this point, couples fall in love again. They rediscover the things that drew them together, while building on a strong foundation of successful crisis resolution and internal acceptance of their individual differences. Relationships that have reached this stage are nearly impossible to destroy.