Where Is the Love? — The Four Stages in a Romantic Relationship

Both you and your partner will change in a relationship. And that is OK.

Angela Dierks
Hello, Love


You are not the same anymore

Jane sighed deeply, arms folded. Again she was exasperated with Martin: “‘How many times have I told you that I hate it when you constantly check on me. I want to be able to meet up with my friends without always having to check with you.”

Jane and Martin had been together for two years when they came to see me in my therapy practice. Both felt that the other wasn’t really present anymore. Their initial courting had been very fiery and Jane felt for the first time ever that she had truly met her soulmate. Martin even liked Concrete Poetry, one of her passions in life. For the first six months of their relationship they experienced a whirlwind of excitement. Now, both felt deflated. Martin wanted more affection, Jane needed to have more time on her own.

In my work as a couples therapist I often hear the following sentiment expressed: “‘We are constantly arguing. I don’t understand what happened. Where is the person who I talked to for hours on the phone? The person who made my heart beat faster every time I heard them arrive at the door? What has happened to us?”

Most of us have experienced that rather sad moment in our relationship when the gloss in the relationship has come off and we experience our partner somehow differently. The relationship at this moment may feel heavy, difficult, guilt-ridden, anger provoking, suffocating, annoying. You notice that you look at your partner with a more critical eye and you notice that your partners seems to do the same to you.

At this point you may wonder where the partner you fell in love with, who you singled out from a myriad of others has gone to. Where is the partner who made us dive to the bottomless well of joy? Where is the mirror that we get lost in? Where is the partner who seems to read my mind?

Lessons in love

As human being we experience ourselves largely through the eyes of other people. Only in relation to other people do I have a sense of myself for example as humorous, loving, attractive or interesting. How do I know? Well, I know I am humorous if someone laughs at my jokes or I know I am attractive if another person looks at my longingly. Frequently, it is our reflected image in the eye of the beholder that gives us a sense of self. And the most important image is the one that gets reflected by the one who matters most, the person we love and who loves us.

We have first experienced our sense of who we are through the love of our parents or other primary carers who brought us up. The way our first carers demonstrated their affection for us will stay with us for the rest of our lives though we are mostly not aware of this. Unconsciously we are looking for parents’ particular way of showing affection in others later on. We are drawn in by a particular smile, a particular way of holding us or stroking our head. Some will therefore argue that romantic love is a kind of replacement of our parents’ love who provided us with our first sense of intimacy and a template for love. So, for example if there was a lot of touching and holding in your family you are likely to seek this at a later stage with your partner.

Your partner is not your parent

However, your partner is not your parent. You may over a course of time develop a sense of disappointment with your partner, missing certain behaviours that you loved at the beginning of the relationship or getting irritated with behaviours that seem new and strange. You start to realise that your partner is not quite the person you thought they would be. And you notice that the mirror that reflected back a perfect image of you might look a little bit cracked. Instead of the fire and warmth that was there at the beginning of your relationship you are now entering more temperate or even arctic climates. Every relationship changes over time as both partners mature and develop as individuals. Over time you also realise that you may need to adjust your old relationship templates as they don’t serve you well anymore.

While every relationship is as different as the two individuals in it, there are some distinct stages that most relationships go through.

Couples don’t necessarily go through these stages in a linear way, there may be some revisiting of earlier stages for example. Most couples, however, will at some point in a longer term relationship experience going through the stages. It helps to know that difficult times can be overcome and that it is quite normal for couples to go through challenging times.

Stage 1: The spark — romantic beginnings

In this honeymoon stage you are in paradise: (almost) everything about your partner is perfect, life is beautiful and both you and your partner are happy to give and receive love in abundance and with pleasure. The expectation is that your partner can fulfil most of your wants and needs. You marvel about all your shared tastes and focus on your similarities (‘wow, you like this film too — it’s my all-time favourite’). You may experience being one with each other and both have a wish to be in physical contact all the time. There is no or very conflict in your relationship at this point. This stage is often portrayed in movies and shapes our idealised views and fantasies about relationships.

On a physiological level your body mobilises you to attach to your partner. High levels of the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin are released which results in an increased level of dopamine, ‘the happy hormone’ — you are literally high as a kite and addicted to your new love. Some research showed that people in the early stages of love share characteristics with those who go through a psychotic episode.

Developmental tasks:

Having formed a strong bond with your partner enables you to move on to more mature stages in the relationship that allow for difference and separateness as well as togetherness. Couples who don’t move on from this stage of development in the relationship are likely to be very enmeshed with each other and struggle to deal with conflict.

People who frequently change their partner are often very attached to this stage. They want to endlessly repeat the excitement and fun that comes with it.

Stage 2: The chasm — reality check

So, your partner is gorgeous, but do they do the washing up on a regular basis? Your partner is still seen in a largely positive light but minor conflicts start to occur in the relationship. You are likely to experience a slightly more critical appreciation of your partner. Previously unacknowledged differences make an appearance and an occasional sense of disappointment or even a slight anxiety emerge: are they the right person for me? There may be a sense that your idealised partner does not quite turn out to be the way you wanted them to be. At this stage the couple begins to realise that they are two separate people with different and at times clashing agendas.

You may at this stage experience a slight sense of loss and grievance for the carefree romantic beginnings.

Your body does not have as many endorphins flushing through your system anymore so the initial high in the relationship is beginning to wear off.

Developmental tasks:

This stage of the relationship offers both partners an opportunity to learn to respect their separate identities. It is often at this stage in the relationship that attachment issues arise around one partner getting anxious for fear of being abandoned and the other partner wishing to be less constrained and enmeshed with their partner. Couples who seek couple therapy at this stage in their relationship will need to learn more about their own needs and where these may originate and to develop better understanding for their partner’s position.

Stage 3: The power struggle — trouble in paradise

The initial enchantment has worn off at this stage and your rose-tinted glasses are clear now. Where there was agreement and oneness before there is now conflict and separateness. It is often at this stage that the two separate partners with their separate identities and different needs may drift further apart. Frequently this stage in the relationship coincides with arguments about children and career developments. You may experience your partner as unavailable, unresponsive, aggressive, withdrawn or even as hostile.

You find that you are spending less time together and that the fire that stoked passion initially now lights up your arguments. Often feelings of frustration are unacknowledged on both sides but you both have a sense of things not being right in the relationship. You may wonder more frequently whether are compatible. The fear in the relationship is often related to the thought that more intimacy entails a loss of self.

This stage is the most difficult in relationships and for many couples there is a fork in the road: to stay to together or to separate. Couples who start couples therapy mostly tend to be in this stage of their relationship. They are often exhausted by the frequent arguments and feel quite alone in the relationship.

Developmental tasks:

Both partners develop their own sense of identity and their individual interests. Both partners will need to learn to accept that there will be different viewpoints and occasional conflict but that this can be addressed and often a solution or compromise can be found. The challenge at this stage is to learn to develop a more effective communication style: to be able to actively listen to your partner and to not react defensively.

Stage 4: The union — maturity in the relationships

Couples who weathered the storm in the power struggle and individuation phase have managed to balance safety and security with independence and separateness; they can tolerate intimacy as well as letting go and allowing their partner to grow and develop independently. Maturity in the relationship allows both partners to be depended on as well as depending on the other. Couples at this stage have accepted their partner’s differences and see those as a strength to the relationship as a whole.

Couples looking for therapy at this stage often wish to rethink how they can be closer to each other while still maintaining their own sense of individuality.

Developmental tasks:

A couple at this stage can tolerate and embrace emotional vulnerability. Both partners have the capacity to negotiate different sets of needs and to manage occasional compromise if necessary. Partners can work at deepening their relationship and at maintaining equilibrium between depending on and be depended on by their partner.

Both partners at a different stage

Your partner and you are not always on the same page. Often you may be at a different stage in terms of the developmental aspect of each stage: for example your partner may still be in the honey moon stage feeling as one with you while you have set out on the road to more independence. It would be useful for both of you to reflect where you are situated in relation to separateness and togetherness and what these issues bring up for each of you. For example a couple which is not able to move on from the early symbiosis and feeling of ‘we are one’ may consists of two anxious partners who live in great fear of abandonment due to earlier childhood experiences. Any attempt by one partner to develop more independence will be met with fierce resistance.

You will see your partner through a new lens at each stage of your relationship. Your partner can literally seem a very different person right in front of your eyes. The wishes and hopes that you initially projected onto your partner may only be partly reflected to you. The opportunity that arises with each developmental stage of your relationship is for you to see yourself reflected back differently and to grow as an individual. Your partner offers you an opportunity to heal some of your own wounds.



Angela Dierks
Hello, Love

Counsellor, Psychotherapist, Couple Therapist, Clinical Supervisor and University Lecturer, London— Weekly , free podcasts: therelationshipmazepodcast.com