Anger couple sitting on a sofa - Why conflict is a normal part of a healthy marriage - Sandra Harewood

The 3 Stages Of Intimate Relationships: Romance, Conflict and Commitment

We are well and truly in autumn: a new season but a familiar pattern. Every year the seasons come and go. It’s nature’s predictable and yet often unpredictable cycle.

Relationships are the same. They, too, have their seasons. For many couples, the pattern feels unpredictable. A period of what feels like the depth of winter never entirely shifts to make way for spring with all its possibilities.

The truth is relationships rarely bask in the continuous summer sunshine. Most are characterised by three main ‘seasons’ or phases. So what are they?

Phase 1 – Romance

At the beginning of a relationship, there is what is commonly known as the romantic or honeymoon phase. It’s when the couple feels that they are both on the same page and have a deep sense of connection and compatibility.

The couple’s boundaries are likely blurred. But they don’t mind because everything feels great, and they enjoy the feeling of being loved and in love. There is a kind of mutual dependence on one another.

From an attachment perspective, this ‘merging’ is important. The romantic phase is necessary for the couple to form a loving bond.

There’s lightness, expectancy and hope in this stage of the relationship.

But romance is not without its challenges. Couples want to show their best and inevitably set themselves up for a fall. In this initial phase, it is not that there aren’t any problems; instead, couples do things to prevent a problem from occurring. What this might look like in practice is a lot of conflict-avoidant behaviour.

At some point, however, someone will eventually be disappointed when the mask slips. A boundary is finally crossed, someone is insensitive, or suddenly you realise that a value important to you isn’t shared. Now you are noticing differences. This point marks entering into the conflictual or power struggle phase when there is a push for independence and a struggle to assert personal needs, wishes and boundaries.

Phase 2 – Conflict

If a relationship is a dance between connection and disconnection, of all of the stages of a relationship, this perhaps is the most difficult feeling, like a prolonged dark night.

Most couples want to stay in the initial romantic phase and are shocked by the disillusionment that triggers conflict. Many couples then spend the relationship reminiscing and longing to go back. But there is no going back. It is not surprising then that this is where couples get stuck and where relationships are likely to break down.

The reason why many people are afraid to ‘sit with it’ and navigate through the messiness of this conflictual phase and discover what happens when they get underneath their respective masks is simple. They fear being vulnerable.

Getting under each other’s masks demands vulnerability. You can’t avoid it.

What happens when you are taken down from your pedestal?

What happens when you discover who your partner really is?

Inevitably fears about change rise to the surface, and one partner might begin to feel threatened and betrayed.  ‘This isn’t what I signed up for !’  In an attempt to go back to how things were at the beginning, they might adopt behaviours that actually threaten the relationship, e.g. clinginess. If they have an anxious or insecure attachment to their family, this may intensify the urge to avoid conflict.

The conflict phase might last many years, and some couples may remain stuck here for the course of the relationship. Longevity in a marriage is not necessarily a sign of good relationship health.

And to be clear, nothing about a necessary and healthy conflict phase is about abuse.

The truth is the second phase sets the foundation for the third, which is the commitment phase.

Phase 3 – Commitment

As the couple transitions into a more committed relationship, they begin to disentangle the ‘we-ness’.  Interests and things that bring happiness outside the marriage might become more important to them both. This might include their careers, hobbies, friendships, travel, and maybe just discovering the pleasure of time alone.

At this time, couples must negotiate space, distance, time together, and time apart. With a firm foundation and willingness, the relationship begins to find balance.

With commitment, there is a complete acceptance of this person in your life with flaws, limitations and aspects of their character that you would rather they didn’t have.

A relationship that has navigated all the challenges to arrive at this stage feels loving and compassionate, and the couple is at ease with one another. The commitment to their relationship reflects love and interdependence, and there is a mutual honouring of boundaries.

No going back

Couples’ relationships, therefore, go through and evolve because of normal, predictable developmental stages.

Problems arise when partners aren’t able to progress through these stages.

The truth is that a couple cannot return to the beginning any more than an adult can return to being a teenager again.

The stages of human relating involve navigating through change, loss, grief and renewal.

This isn’t a linear journey, and each phase has no set time. Although the initial romance phase usually lasts less than two years, life events can bring it to a premature end. Illness, grief, misuse of substances or a life-changing event early in the relationship might cut the romantic phase short and plunge you very quickly into locking horns.

The challenge is recognising that your relationship is constantly changing and evolving for a reason.  Sometimes the change will feel uncomfortable.  That is part of the process; growing pains.  Couples often don’t see the discomfort as that but as signs of a terminal illness, then wonder whether it’s time to end the marriage.

Familiar yet different

Your relationship’s ability to navigate through the phases, amongst other things, depends on how well you and your partner can actively define your thoughts, feelings, wants and desires to each other and how you handle and allow your partner to do the same.

This quality of that development is what Dr Ellyn Bader of the Couples Institute defines as differentiation.

Differentiation is an essential part of what makes it possible for partners to really know each other intimately and eventually find the solid ground of a truly committed partnership.

The magic happens in a relationship when a couple navigates the phases and grows to know and accept both themselves and the other. The acorn seed planted in the garden doesn’t become an oak tree overnight.

Over To You

If you’re stuck, arguing a lot and want to know which of the stages of a relationship you are in, get in touch for a clarity session. I offer video sessions online via a secure platform. 

Or call me today on 07535 864836.

Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.


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© Sandra Harewood 2022

About Sandra

Soul Centred couples therapist, counsellor and Jungian Shadow Work coach Sandra Harewood specialise in working with women and couples stuck at a crossroads in their marriage. Relationships are precious; this is your chance to begin a new journey and experience the connection and intimacy you most deeply desire.

Sandra provides a soulful space for her clients to explore creative solutions to their difficulties and deepen their self-knowledge to discover what keeps them ‘stuck’ in their marriages to create and experience extraordinary relationships.