The Natural Stages of a Relationship, According to a Therapist
Whether you're trying to understand why someone ghosted you, how to deal with emotional cheating, or how to get through a broken heart, it's only natural to want to understand how romantic relationships work.
Of course, that's easier said than done, because no two relationships are the same. However, most couples (or triads!) will experience similar stages of a relationship as their time together progresses. These stages might look slightly different for ethically non-monogamous people or those who create their own relationship structures. But most folks will still need to navigate the same stages of a relationship as a bond grows and strengthens.
Granted, there are certain life circumstances that affect how these stages progress. For example, if you started dating someone during COVID lockdown and, as a result, spent an extraordinary amount of time together, you may blow through the honeymoon phase faster than might be typical. On the flip side, a 16-year-old might hang out in that blissful state longer than others because they don't have to deal with the complexities of adulthood on a day-to-day basis.
Learning what the typical stages of a relationship are and how to navigate them can help you better understand what's going on in your own life, learn how to talk about it, and realize that you're not alone in experiencing these things. Ready to dive in?
Typical Stages of a Relationship
Honeymoon Phase: Start to 1 Year
You probably saw this one coming and have likely heard this term before — and it's a very real thing. The beginning of a new relationship is exhilarating. You're connecting with someone you find exciting and who finds you exciting. You're eager to learn about them, can't get enough of them, and have all of those passionate feelings that make dating so thrilling. There is so much anticipation, curiosity, nervousness, and wonder. (Also read: What It Really Means to Have Sexual Chemistry with Someone)
This is the phase where people often get swept away with romantic feelings, sometimes believe they have found "the one" (or one of "the ones"), and have mind-blowing, passionate sex. During this relationship stage, it's crucial not to make any big decisions (e.g. moving in together, getting engaged, etc.). Don't get me wrong: The honeymoon phase is fun, and it should be! Soak up all the joy this phase brings — just wait until the following phase of the relationship to take things to the next level. Typically, this period lasts anywhere from six months to two years, but it usually tapers around the first year for most relationships.
Here's the fun thing about the honeymoon phase: There's actually science behind it. During this relationship stage, dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline increase, producing that telltale feeling of attraction. Dopamine is the "feel good" neurotransmitter, serotonin brings you happiness and joy (in addition to a lot of other important things), and norepinephrine (aka adrenaline) gives you that energized, euphoric feeling. The combination of these three neurotransmitters can cause you to be blind to certain things, such as any faults the person has, and there's really nothing wrong with that — as long as you're being aware and as safe as possible. After some time passes (again, this varies based on lots of factors), these hormones/neurotransmitters dissipate, allowing that potent "high" to wear off and the relationship to move to the next stage.
Back-to-Reality Phase: 1-2 Years
Personally, I love this phase. I think it's full of opportunity and, for a lot of people, it is a make-or-break stage in the relationship. In the honeymoon phase, your partner(s) can't do any wrong; you're swept away with each other and probably haven't dug in super deep to know if there are any real issues quite yet — and that's okay. Sometimes you might just be looking for a whirlwind romance and not a full-blown relationship.
However, if you are looking for something longer-term, this stage of a relationship is vital to its progression. Now, as someone with quite a lot of feelings who enjoys deep, intimate talks, this part is challenging and dreamy. This is where things get real in a different way; you'll likely approach topics that are uncomfortable, you'll probably meet each other's friends and/or family, and you might realize some things about each other that possibly annoy you or deserve a conversation.
My advice? Don't run from these things, because they will catch up with you; real intimacy and connection come from facing these things head-on together. So, talk. Be vulnerable, honest, and ask your partner questions. Listen with intent and share with complete transparency. This stage sets the foundation, in many ways, for the rest of your relationship. And if your partner is unwilling to have the conversations in a vulnerable way, this could be a breaking point. Believe people when they show you who they are in this phase — and remember, if you break up, you didn't fail at this relationship. It's just as successful to leave a relationship that isn't for you as staying in one that is. (Related: How to Know When a Relationship Is Over, According to a Therapist)
Decision-Making Phase: 2-3 years
Everything is out, exposed, and on the table in this stage of a relationship. You probably know each other's traumas, hang-ups, weaknesses, communication struggles, and most profound needs and fears. It's all out there: You are fully emotionally in the nude. This can be a complicated phase if the relationship feels like it isn't going to work out; it can feel even more painful to lose someone after they have experienced you in all your forms and you've experienced them in all of theirs.
This relationship stage is also vital for growth, though — and for a lot of people, it comes down to evaluating whether your lifestyles are compatible. At this point, you know everything about each other. If your lifestyle doesn't match when it comes to how you view going to therapy, communication, growth, after-care, and whatever is most important to you and your core beliefs, it's probably best to part ways. In the decision-making phase, it's basically like the partners are standing on stage surrounded by all of their biggest roadblocks that all have spotlights shining down on them — it's either time to decide to be a team and tackle those gnarly things together or part ways.
That said, many people take another route when they reach this point in the road — and I'm not saying I encourage it, but I absolutely understand it. This is when some people decide that they want to stay in the relationship for comfort and familiarity regardless of their significant issues and differences. I understand why people do this, 100 percent. My hope for everyone — as a therapist and someone who is genuinely happy in their relationships — is that people don't settle for comfort when it's absolutely possible to find a deep, authentic, and overwhelming connection.
Settling Down Phase: 3+ years
In this relationship stage, there likely won't be a lot of surprises. Sure, there are always some surprises because we're all ever-evolving human beings. But there are a lot less than you likely experienced in the first few phases of a relationship. This part is refreshing because you feel known and have the privilege of truly knowing your partner — it's beautiful and sweet while also being relatively predictable, in a comforting way. The relationship has likely developed its own language for navigating the world together. Of course, this time period won't always be sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns, but it will likely be easier to navigate uncomfortable conversations, situations, and shortcomings because of the years of practiced communication.
There is, of course, a difference between settling down with someone after three years, five years, or 10 years. Regardless of how long you've been together, however, this stage allows the partners to fully sink into being their most genuine, whole selves and know that their partner(s) are doing their best to be attentive, loving, and open with them (and vice versa). This stage provides a lot of security, which is especially important for those who crave security and allows the partners to sink into one another fully. (Related: All of the Relationship Attachment Styles, Explained)
When you're settling down with someone, there's different brain chemistry at play compared to, say, that which occurs during the honeymoon phase. The two hormones that are shown to be needed in healthy, happy long-term relationships are the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin increases attachment, decreases fear, pain, and stress, and helps regulate the immune system. Vasopressin plays an important role in social behavior, sexual motivation, pairing/bonding, and stress response.
The shift from the honeymoon phase hormones into the long-term relationship "settling down hormones" could manifest in feeling less sexual desire towards your partner, and that's okay. The reality of long-term relationships that have a sexual component is that the sexual relationship is going to ebb and flow. There are three important things to do when you feel this: acknowledge it, communicate about it, and start creating new ways to feel intimacy together. This is also an important moment to ask yourself if you're still prioritizing yourself, your needs, wants, desires, and passions. When you have an empty cup, it's really hard to pour into your relationship. (Related: Understanding These 2 Types of Sexual Desire Will Help You Feel In Control of Your Libido)
What to Know About Relationship Stages IRL
Aside from the four phases above, there are even more little stages mixed in that can be important relationship landmarks. These four are arguably the biggest, most notable relationship stages that happen in a longer-term relationship. While they all might be caused by different reasons and look vastly different from the outside, their coding is very similar.
Hopefully, you find this comforting because it's helpful to enter relationships with a little "handbook," so to speak. The truth is, no one person or relationship is perfect, and we're all continuously figuring it out. Everyone has the potential to learn, grow, and add to their tool belts to be better equipped in existing and future relationships.