The Four Stages of Relationship
by David A. Yeats LCSW
Stage 1: The Urge to Merge. This is the Puppy Love gone wild stage, the honeymoon phase of relationship. We have only recently met, and our body chemistry lures us irrepressibly toward each other. We can’t get enough of each other, and all we see are endless similarities and commonalities, or if we notice differences, they are only intriguing or cute. Our partner is on a pedestal, and can do no wrong. This is also the “Two Become One” of traditional wedding vows, and indeed, we can act as one.
Stage 2: The Urge to Diverge. Sooner or later (usually within six months to a year), things change, gradually or abruptly. Although we are still enthralled with our partner, one of us slowly wakes up to realize that our closeness is not all there is to life, and we see we don’t want it to be. We want our autonomy too. We want our own private thoughts, and we want to do what we want to do, make our own choices, not check in about everything. Our friends have been neglected, and our world has been put on hold. We need to create some space. One partner who feels this impulse to reestablish autonomy compels the other partner, who is still delighting in the couples’ oneness, to begin to deal with the reality that we are two, not one. Thus, we begin a necessary, painful, and ultimately positive period of power struggle. Regardless of the issue, underlying is the connection/separateness negotiation. Couples can get stuck in this stage indefinitely, engaging in power struggles in every and all aspects of life. Many couples are motivated to do therapy when they are unable to resolve the ongoing tug-of-war.
Stage 3: The Urge to Converge. Resolving the power struggle that is the second stage results in a reciprocal appreciation for both partners’ autonomy, and both partners are strong advocates for their own and the other’s separateness, individuality and differentiation. At the same time, both partners are conscious to deliberately nurture their connection and intimacy with each other in all areas of their relationship. They both work to create quality time with each other in reliable and predictable ways, and they confidently count on each other for support and acknowledgement. They balance separateness and connection recognizing that both parts are vital to a healthy, satisfying relationship. This is when the Three Gardens, representing the autonomy of each of the partners, along with the connection that binds them is a conscious and clear dynamic between them. Both recognize, acknowledge, and support their own and each other’s boundaries, and both proactively build bridges of connection as they co-create a life together.
Stage 4: The Urge to Emerge. Some couples go beyond the stage where their lives converge into a harmonious collaboration between two whole and intact individuals. The third stage of relationship is filled with well-being and a consistent sense of mutual love. Still, for some, this healthy and empowered union becomes a template for an even more encompassing experience of loving and appreciation, as they begin to relate to other people, other beings, and being in general with the same regard, reverence, and care that they share in their relationship. Their relationship itself becomes a means to contribute to well being of all that comes into their experience. Their daily particular stories and dramas dissolve into a greater integrating with being and existence and compassionate action. They have moved beyond a sense of self defined primarily by ego toward a self-definition that incorporates all of humanity and all that they are part of.
Each of these stages is normal, sequential, and builds on what has gone before, and each stage broadens our view of ourselves, our partner, and the world, just as when we climb a hill or a mountain, the higher we climb, the more inclusive and expansive our view. The great gift of relationship is that we can journey together, teaching and supporting each other as we go.