It’s easy to forget that there are stages of a relationship until the moment you trip and fall face-first out of the honeymoon phase. You know the feeling, right? For some amount of time, no one and nothing can touch your love, because your romance is a beautiful, sparkling, Baz Luhrmann jukebox musical. Then you see your partner’s bedroom and learn they still have a twin-size bed, or something equally appalling. All of a sudden, you realize, “Oh, wait, everyone dies in those Luhrmann movies.” Out of the honeymoon phase you go immediately, and into something quite a bit trickier.
To quote one of those doomed Lurhmann flicks, love is a many splendored thing. And one of the key elements to finding, experiencing, and—most importantly—keeping love is navigating the hard stuff with empathy, communication, and patience. Understanding the three major stages a relationship is also helpful so all parties involved can have a sense of what to expect and anticipate, good and bad. Below, get expert tips for surviving and thriving in all stages of a relationship.
Stage 1: Infatuation and the honeymoon period
Are cartoon hearts floating above your heads? Fireworks exploding outside your bedroom? You’ve made it three or four dates with the same person, so what else could this be other than true love? Or, at least, true lust? During this phase, hormones like norepinephrine and dopamine (yes, the intoxicating happiness-churning dopamine) surge through you. You’re ecstatic, excited, and aroused.
During this getting-to-know you phase, beware to not get distracted by sex and sex alone. Go deeper—emotionally deeper. Psychiatrist Judith Orloff, MD, author of Thriving as an Empath: 365 Days of Self-Care for Sensitive People says that at this point, you want to keep conversation going as a strategy for identifying common values. Pay attention to whether this person can honor and respect your sensitivities. And use this information-sharing time as an opportunity to set and establish your needs, whether those include that you tend to get overwhelmed by crowds, that you’d rather do anything in the world other than go hiking, or anything else at all.
As far as analyzing the person in front of you, now is when you’d be wise to determine whether they’re trustworthy on a basic level. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done since knowing for sure whether someone is trustworthy is tricky. “Observe if the person’s behavior matches their words—for instance, are they kind to the parking-lot attendant, their friends, and family, alike? Do they give back to society?” says Dr. Orloff. The key for understanding whether someone is trustworthy is to not just focus on how this person treats you, but also how they treat everyone in their presence.
Stage 2: Getting acquainted with someone’s less-than-savory side
Surprise! Your new partner isn’t perfect! That discovery is basically the crux of the second stage of a relationship, and confronting it directly can be pretty upsetting. Sometimes, the weight of a person’s baggage doesn’t get heavier than “enjoying Netflix-era Adam Sandler films,” and you can probably make that arrangement work. But other times, those less-than-savory traits come in the form of genuine darkness (and I don’t mean dark comedies). In this case, what matters most is how they cope, express themselves, and compromise with their less attractive qualities.
To better understand where this person falls on that communicative front, Dr. Orloff suggests asking yourself a series of introspective questions about the other person: “Are they controlling, angry, depressed, judgmental? Are they able to be accountable for these qualities? Are they willing to change and grow? Are they willing to work out issues,” she asks. “Your buttons may be pushed.”
Tangoing with someone’s darker side intensifies the relationship beyond what you previously knew to be true, back in the honeymoon phase. In the very beginning stages of a relationship, all parties involved are trying to be their best selves, which makes total sense. But at this point, in phase two, you start learning whether this partner is capable of understanding your shadow side too. While you might be surprised and comforted by how understanding and open this person may be, you also might find that you’re incompatible—or even dating a narcissist.
“If you’ve found a partner that you like being with, it’s worth it to stick with that person and work out the difficult parts. Then you have a truly loving relationship.” —psychiatrist Judith Orloff, MD
“Empaths and narcissists have a fatal attraction, so it is important to identify narcissism in a potential mate,” Dr. Orloff says. “Full-blown narcissists aren’t capable of empathy and are emotionally unavailable—though, they are extremely seductive at first, in stage one.”
Basically, you have to see the bad before you can really determine if you’re meant to be with someone, which is what Dr. Orloff calls the hardest aspect of working through the stages of a relationship. At this point, both partners are emotionally tested regarding what the relationship can handle. On the plus side, if you can get out alive, you may have a happily ever after.
Stage 3: Developing authentic communication
You’ve had big, blow-up fights and are able to come out on the other side, still loving each other. You’ve gone from thinking the other person’s quirks are cute, to gross, to just a part of who they are. You feel comfortable with this person being your equal partner, and you both work really hard to communicate honestly through whatever obstacle comes your way.
“This is where a true partnership is solidified,” Dr. Orloff says. “Be honest with your feelings and needs: Do you show up for each other? Are you devoted and committed? Are you able to ride through the good times and difficult struggles? Are they available? Do you show up for each other?”
If you can tick off all those things as a “yes,” then you’ve reached the final stage of your relationship, the part where you can merge into a team. Though the future is uncertain, you know that for this moment, you have each other.
“Deepening love and commitment [happens] here,” Dr. Orloff says. “Life is real—less projection and fantasy—and this is true love.”