The 5 Stages of a Relationship

In my previous article, The 5 Stages of Marriage and How to Read Your Love Map, I offered a simple love map for understanding the way to have a passionate relationship that lasts through the years. The key to a great love life turns out to be something most of us try and avoid disillusionment. And it’s no wonder. Disillusionment can feel like the end of our hopes and dreams, another relationship ending, crushing grief and despair. Yet, I’m here to tell you, it’s not the beginning of the end, but your invitation to real, lasting, love.

Let’s begin with a quick review of the five stages:

Stage 1: Falling In Love

We find that special someone and we feel the overwhelming excitement of falling in love. All our senses are on high alert and we feel like we just might die and go to heaven. We feel content and joyful, the sex is other-worldly, and we are enthralled with our love-mate.

Stage 2: Becoming a Couple and Building a Life Together

We can’t believe how lucky we are to have this person in our lives. We want to make them happy and enjoy the challenging work of building a life together. It feels so wonderful to go from a world of “just me” to the world of “it’s us” and no one else.

Stage 3: Disillusionment

We hope the next stage is living happily ever after, but too often happily ever after turns into something else entirely. This is where most relationships end, but as we’ll see shortly, this is actually the most important stage of all.

Stage 4: Creating Real, Lasting, Love

This is the stage too many people never find. They get lost in disillusionment, become convinced they’re with the wrong person, and go looking for love in all the wrong places. They find a new partner, fall in love and think they are home free until the problems surface once more. As we’ll see, we can’t have real, lasting, love until we’ve gone through disillusionment.

Stage 5: Finding Our Calling as a Couple

This stage is our gift to the world for having been given the gift of real, lasting, love. It’s our opportunity to bring enlightenment and love to some part of our world that we feel particularly called upon to heal. I describe the process in my book, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why The Best is Still to Come.

For those who believe that the stage following Falling in Love and Becoming a Couple is Living Happily Ever After, disillusionment feels like a kick in the gut. It can come on quickly or develop slowly over many years. Sometimes we hear the words, say the words, or feel the words, “I love you, but I’m not in love with you anymore. Maybe we need to separate.”

In whatever way it comes about, our carefully constructed world begins to disintegrate. We no longer feel surrounded by comfort and joy, but live in a world of constant sorrow. The good news is that Disillusionment is the third stage of a potentially great marriage if you understand and have the courage to deal with the following truths:

1. Falling in love is evolution’s trick to make babies. It’s not meant to make us happy.

Some believe romantic love is a modern idea, but it’s as old as sex and reproduction. It’s meant to intoxicate us so that we will pair up and reproduce. It’s the reason we have ancestors and it’s the reason we were born.

2. We don’t fall in love with a real person. We fall in love with a projected illusion.

I know we feel we’re being our “real selves” when we fall in love, but we’re not. We are projecting our hopes and dreams on to our partner. We imagine we will now get the things we longed for and didn’t get from our parents or from our previous relationships. But since we are besotted with falling-in-love chemicals, we’re not aware of our projected illusion.

3. Becoming a couple and building a life together is a lot more difficult than most people are led to believe.

We believe that if we have the right partner, building a life together will be fun and having a family will bring us great joy. Well, yes and no. True, there’s a lot of joy, but there’s also a lot of heartache and pain. Raising children is the hardest job we’ll ever have and most of us have been trained poorly for the job.

Deconstructing Disillusionment and Discovering It’s Hidden Gifts

Disillusionment isn’t a mistake. It has two basic purposes. Disillusionment forces us to get real and get healed. Here’s what I’ve learned counseling couples and being married for forty years about the hidden gifts of Stage 3:

1. We will get real about our partner.

In Stage 3, the veil of illusion comes down and we see our partner for who they are. They are not all sweetness and light. They are not our “better halves” or our “dream lovers.” They are complex, flawed, contradictory, and endlessly fascinating, human beings. If we have the courage to go deep into Stage 3, we will have the privilege of fighting, withdrawing in frustration, and coming back for more. We will spend a lifetime getting to know the true and changing person we are learning to love.

2. We will get real about ourselves.

When I married Carlin, I thought I knew myself pretty well. I thought I knew what it meant to be a man. I thought I knew what it meant to be a good man, a good husband, a good father and good provider. Stage 3 taught me that I actually knew very little about my true self. I call the 5-Stage Relationship, the graduate school of life. It’s a long program and its much more demanding than getting a Ph.D. or MD degree. It will test you in ways you can’t imagine and not everyone will make it. But if you are one of the truly courageous ones, the riches you receive will last a lifetime.

3. We will get real about love.

What most of us know about love, we learned from our parents, from movie dramas, from our own relationships, and from what we know from talking to others. All of this is a pale copy of the real thing. Love is not always gentle and kind. Sometimes it is ferocious and demanding. It can build us up and make us strong. It can also cut us down to your roots so we can grow new buds and branches that we never knew existed. Real love is not what you think.

4. We will heal our Adverse Childhood Experiences.

In their book, Making Marriage Simple: 10 Relationship-Saving Truths, Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. and his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D. tell us that “most of the upset that gets triggered in us during our relationship is from our past.” Over many years treating couples I have found that about 90% of the frustrations we have with our partner are really about our issues from the past.

In order to heal our present relationship in Stage 3, we have to recognize, understand, and heal our ACEs or Adverse Childhood Experiences, which I discuss in detail in my book, The Enlightened Marriage.

5. We will heal our father wounds.

No matter how good our family life was growing up, we all have issues we must deal with. I wrote a whole book about healing my father wound. In the introduction to My Distant Dad: Healing the Family Father Wound, I quoted Jungian analyst James Hollis: “A father may be physically present, but absent in spirit. His absence may be literal through death, divorce or dysfunction, but more often it is a symbolic absence through silence and the inability to transmit what he also may not have acquired.” Whether we are male or female, almost all of us have a father wound that must be healed.

6. We will heal our inherited family trauma.

As I was nearly finished with my book, My Distant Dad and the accompanying workbook Healing the Family Father Wound I realized there was a missing piece to my story that required I go back to the wounds of my ancestors. I found, for instance, that my mother’s father, died when she was five years old and her unhealed loss impacted her own relationship life as well as my own. In his book, It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, I learned about how we can heal generations of wounds that have reverberated through our families and will impact our children and grandchildren until we heal them.

So, let me conclude by saying that I can only give you a small taste of the potential for getting real and getting healed in stage three. If you’d like to learn more, drop me a note to [email protected]and put “Getting Through Stage 3” in the subject line and I’ll tell you more about what you can do to go deeper. As always, I appreciate your comments and questions. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to my weekly articles my entering your name and email below. Thanks for reading. I look forward to your questions and comments.

Originally published on Men Alive


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