Often we focus on looking out for red flags in the early stages of a relationship as it is natural to want to protect ourselves from being hurt, particularly if we have been hurt before. When we hit our first rocky patch it is easy to believe there is something easier and better out there, because that is the illusion of modern dating, that we have access to an abundance of potential suitors and one will be perfect, we just need to find them. It is important to understand, however, that early conflict can be a natural and potentially important part of the evolution of a relationship into a fully functioning and effective partnership.
The development of a relationship often involves various stages before an optimal relationship can be reached. These stages include:
The initial stage of the relationship is where the couple gets to know each other and is often characterized by intense feelings of attraction and desire. Couples may be swept up in the excitement of new romance and experience heightened emotions and intense physical sensations. They tend to be on their best behaviour, polite and courteous as they establish common ground and build rapport, happily compromising as they priotitise the other’s needs. There is usually a focus on avoiding tension and anything that may potentially result in conflict. The intense feelings of this stage are often mistake for love, however, it is most likely infatuation.
The power struggle
As people settle into the relationship and become comfortable their true characters will begin to emerge. Couples become more likely to express opinions and ideas which may lead to tension or disagreements. Conflict or misunderstandings may arise as the couple navigate issues of communication, trust and compromise. Whilst this may be a difficult stage, it is important for couples to work through these challenges to establish healthy boundaries and learn to communicate effectively. When not properly understood, this is typically the stage where people feel ‘red flags’ begin to emerge and concerns for the viability of the relationship may arise.
If a couple successfully navigates the challenges of the power struggle stage and establishes a solid foundation of trust and mutual respect, they may enter a period of stability. This is the stage were couples establish norms, communication becomes more open and honest, and the relationship more peaceful and harmonious. Shared goals may emerge, plans laid out, and the relationship becomes a prioritised aspect of their lives.
This is the stage where the couple feels comfortable being themselves around each other, conflict is minimized and they work well together to achieve common goals. There is a strong sense of unity and safety, and the relationship is viewed as satisfying and fulfilling. While the commitment stage is marked by a sense of security and stability, it still requires effort and attention to maintain the connection that has developed, and without this, the relationship may cycle back to previous stages.
Romantic bonds are often complex and challenging. Understanding the natural stages of relationships can help a couple to successfully navigate the inevitable ups and downs of romance, and, create a stronger connection more likely to go the distance.
It is important to note that these stages are not necessarily liner, and some couples never successfully move past the power struggle stage. It is generally accepted that a couple who has failed to resolve the power struggle stage within two years of the start of the relationship are unlikely to leave that stage without conscious work and intervention. Working with a counsellor to enhance communication and relationship skills may improve the couple’s chances of moving to a stable and fulfilling relationship.