4 Stages of a Relationship: Growing from Strangers to Partners for Life

Having been in different romantic relationships over the years, I have came to notice that relationships usually go through stages, and that they end when one of the partners, or both, are unable to provide the necessary qualities needed to move into the next stage.

So what does it take for strangers to become partners for life? Here is my view of the intricate world of romantic relationships. Apply these lessons at your own risk 🙂

Usually when we think about our ideal partner, we tend to emphasize abstract ideas such as loyalty, compassion or empathy. In the same time, when we meet someone, that isn’t what we notice or care for in the beginning. We are attracted to people that seem humorous and playful, not those that are overly serious or sober. Does it mean that we are ignorant about what’s important to us?

I think that the answer is that in different stages of a relationship, we look for different things. Each stage demands different qualities, and for the relationship to successfully progress, partners need to be able to provide in each stage the required qualities. When we think about our ideal partner, we think about the distant future of a long-term relationship. But it takes a different set of traits to get us there.

Meeting -> Romantic Interest
Every relationship starts from a meeting. First impressions might be wrong but they are inevitable. First several meetings offer us the opportunity to form the first impression, seek common ground, and develop a spark of an attraction. It might take humor, mystery and playfulness for the initial acquittance to develop into a romantic interest.

Humor

Humor allows to break the tension and ease the atmosphere. Humorous attitude can also signal personal traits: irony and light cynicism signal intellect, self-deprecating humor signals confidence and self-awareness.

Mystery

Some people  make the mistake of delving into personal details of their previous relationships in the first meetings. While sincerity and openness are great traits, they are best to be unfolded gradually. We fall in love not with a real person, full of weaknesses, odd habits and personal history, but with a fantasy image of the ideal partner. It takes time for our superficial crush for an image to develop into a real feeling for a real person. Some measure of mystery – that is of keeping the more personal details of our lives untouched, allows us to construct this image, and that’s what gives us a hope for a mutual future.

Playfulness

Playfulness transforms the daunting “dating project” into a fun game, full of teasing, double meanings and disguised hints. Instead of a nervous back and forth of personal statistics, the meeting can become a joyful experience, when both sides are able to sustain a lighthearted atmosphere.

In this stage, being overly serious, talking passionately about personal ideology and religion or delving into intimate details of the past might be risky. Partners haven’t yet developed a personal sympathy through which disagreements may be worked out, and so even slightly different views on life might be perceived as obstacles. That is not to say that partners shouldn’t look for signals to confirm their potential comparability. But in this stage that should be done discreetly rather than openly.

Romantic Interest -> Romance
Romantic interest is established when both partners signal that they are interested in each other. A touch, a kiss, symbolic gestures show partners their mutual interest. But now, when the first uncertainty is cleared, suddenly a new set of qualities is needed for the romantic interest to develop into a real romance.

Affection

The tension, the hints, the smiles and the accidental touches can now evolve into an open affection. It’s with a feeling of relief that partners show their tenderness. Being confident that their sympathy won’t go unanswered, they can unveil their softer side. The ice of two strangers meeting is now melted under the warmth of mutual affection.

Intimacy

Intimacy is the ability to be close with another person, both physically and spiritually. It means letting off our guard and letting someone else into our personal space. Intimacy and sex are not the same things. Sex can be impersonal and distant and be more about lust than intimacy. Intimacy shows up in quiet moments of togetherness, when partners share time and space, when hearts, minds and bodies intermingle in harmony.

Trust

Every lasting relationship needs a foundation of trust, and so  does a romantic one. Trust is built gradually through gestures, and it develops through reciprocity. When one partner shows trust (by telling an intimate episode in his life, for example), the second is compelled to do the same, and in this way trust is contagious. But it is also fragile, since partners don’t have yet a long mutual past to rely on.

In this second stage, when romantic interest develops into a romance, partners need to be able to provide affection, intimacy and trust, to grow from strangers into lovers. And what’s interesting is that what was important in the previous stage, is now superseded: playful tension as the main conversation mode has to transform into an atmosphere of affection and trust,  for the relationship to develop.

Romance -> Relationship
Romance dwells in the “present”. It’s being together here and now, it’s enjoying the magic of the moment. But sooner or later partners find themselves talking about their intentions for the future, and they want to make sure that they are together for the same thing. It’s in this stage that most break-ups take place, since it takes openness, commitment and maturity to move from romance to relationship.

Openness

Being a riddle can certainly be attractive in the beginning. But gradually partners need to be able to open up, to talk about their past, their passions and dreams. Opening up is always risky – after all we might be met with misunderstanding. But it is essential for the connection to become more than just a passing fling. This is where the initial superficial image of the partner begins to grow in depth and resolution with details of a real person.

Commitment

Starting from small things like meeting with each others parents, to large steps like moving together, partners need to show through deeds, not only  words, that they are committed to each other. Commitments are meaningful only when they come with sacrifice: committing to living together means sacrificing some personal space, committing to fidelity means sacrificing some measure of personal freedom.

Commitments are hard to make and easy to break, so it’s no surprise that often they are the reason for failed relationships. But they are what ties people together – it’s what makes “me” and “you” into “us”.

Maturity

Maturity is the space between consideration and courage. It’s when we consider and respect our partners’ wishes but also have the courage to bring forward what’s important to us. Relationship demands constant adaptation to each other, and it can succeed only when both partners are mature enough to be able to communicate, negotiate and compromise.

If romance is about being together “now” (tonight, this holiday), relationship is about being together through time. It’s about growing closer through adopting, making concessions,  and being open. Affection and intimacy are not enough to sustain a relationship – obstacles will easily disrupt harmony if partners are unable to be committed, open and communicate maturely.

Relationship -> Bond
People in a relationship share time and space. But what it takes for people to share a life? What it takes to transform months and years into lifetime? Is it only the circumstances of common children and the inertness of the status-quo that keeps people together over years? I would like to believe otherwise.

Shared Values and Goals

While basic compatibility is tested in previous stages of the relationship, it takes a similar set of values, a common view of the world and mutual goals, for the relationship to transform into a bond.

Two people can stay on the same path only if they share the same destination. Whether it’s career, family life or personal development, long-term goals have to be shared by the partners. Otherwise, paths that have different vectors will grow ever further away.

Endured Crisis

Most couples will sooner or later go through some kind of crisis. Be it infidelity, sickness, economic hardships, crisis disrupts the harmony of the relationship, and tests the strength and the adaptability of the partnership. Some couples will break apart, some will be fatally wounded, never to regain their mutual trust.

But those couples that will endure despite all, and come on the other side together, will grow stronger. Enduring through crisis gives a new dimension to the relationship. It reinforces the belief in a common destiny, since it gives the feeling that “if we withstood this, we can face off anything”.

So Where Does It Leave Us?

Lifetime partnership is a journey taken together. It’s two personal paths that converge into a single pathway, and it takes more than a comfortable co-existence for them to stay on the same course and weave a life together.

If you have read this far, I would like to thank you for your patience. Real life is much more complex than any model or theory. Ideal love is simpler. But in the space between them lies our hope for building a deep and rewarding relationship.

14 Replies

  • A lot of love, honesty and passion was invested into this blog post, i love it.

    At the end of the day, i think that understanding one another, harmony and a lot of hard work is what build and enable a long, fulfilling and wonderful relationship that the “success criteria” of it is something good created by the people in the relationship, something magical and powerful that fulfill their shared destiny.

    Happy relationship making!

    • Thank you for your kind words. I wholeheartedly agree with you that it takes hard work (mostly on yourself) to make relationship work. That’s why I am more comfortable with people saying “I’ve built a great relationship with her” than “I was lucky to find her”. Not that luck is unimportant, but usually it’s not enough 🙂

  • A lot of love, honesty and passion was invested into this blog post, i love it.

    At the end of the day, i think that understanding one another, harmony and a lot of hard work is what build and enable a long, fulfilling and wonderful relationship that the “success criteria” of it is something good created by the people in the relationship, something magical and powerful that fulfill their shared destiny.

    Happy relationship making!

    • Thank you for your kind words. I wholeheartedly agree with you that it takes hard work (mostly on yourself) to make relationship work. That’s why I am more comfortable with people saying “I’ve built a great relationship with her” than “I was lucky to find her”. Not that luck is unimportant, but usually it’s not enough 🙂

  • Thanks for another great post Mick! For me personally it’s useful and timely. Relationship is truely a learning process.. I can only add that our ‘unconsious’ is also a great factor in our ‘love and romance’ life…. that’s why people fall in love with ‘wrong’ people and suffer. It’s foolish and beautiful at the same time. For myself i still haven’t found a secret of sucessful relationship. It’s such a complex combination of so many things … that i tend to think it’s just a big ‘Life lottery’.

    • I am glad you could relate to my thoughts. Falling in love with the “wrong” people is an interesting issue (and maybe s subject for a future post 🙂 ). I guess it happens because “attraction” and “fit” are quite unrelated to each other. Attraction works on the emotional and hormonal level, fit is recognized only by rational thinking.

      How to find the balance between letting us feel, and making sure not forget to think, that’s a good question 🙂

  • Thanks for another great post Mick! For me personally it’s useful and timely. Relationship is truely a learning process.. I can only add that our ‘unconsious’ is also a great factor in our ‘love and romance’ life…. that’s why people fall in love with ‘wrong’ people and suffer. It’s foolish and beautiful at the same time. For myself i still haven’t found a secret of sucessful relationship. It’s such a complex combination of so many things … that i tend to think it’s just a big ‘Life lottery’.

    • I am glad you could relate to my thoughts. Falling in love with the “wrong” people is an interesting issue (and maybe s subject for a future post 🙂 ). I guess it happens because “attraction” and “fit” are quite unrelated to each other. Attraction works on the emotional and hormonal level, fit is recognized only by rational thinking.

      How to find the balance between letting us feel, and making sure not forget to think, that’s a good question 🙂

  • I’ll allow myself to add 1 small point.
    This is strictly from my own experience – so I might be wrong.
    This is a hard one to explain, so bare with me.

    A large part of the “falling in love” process is the feeling that the other person is a valuable asset, whom you have a good chance of losing – since every person always desires what he can’t have.

    When pursuing a romantic relationship, one should exploit this human weakness, by playing the close-distant game. Meaning that one moment you are friendly and happy and close, and the other moment you are distant and cold.

    Once again, in my experience this drives women crazy –
    and although it is mainly designed for the Romantic Interest -> Romance phase
    one should keep playing this game all along.

    • I think that this kind of game might be beneficial only in the first stages of the relationship (meeting->romantic interest->romance), when partners want to generate interest and longing by appearing somewhat mysterious and complex.

      But this kind of mating ritual has to be abandoned, and make place for sincerity and openness, for the relationship to progress. If you go on with this kind of behavior, sooner or later you will come of as being unreliable and immature, and it might speed up the break up.

      So my point is that you have to adopt your relationship “tactics” for the needs of the partnership. That’s of course if you are looking for a long-term meaningful relationship 🙂

  • I’ll allow myself to add 1 small point.
    This is strictly from my own experience – so I might be wrong.
    This is a hard one to explain, so bare with me.

    A large part of the “falling in love” process is the feeling that the other person is a valuable asset, whom you have a good chance of losing – since every person always desires what he can’t have.

    When pursuing a romantic relationship, one should exploit this human weakness, by playing the close-distant game. Meaning that one moment you are friendly and happy and close, and the other moment you are distant and cold.

    Once again, in my experience this drives women crazy –
    and although it is mainly designed for the Romantic Interest -> Romance phase
    one should keep playing this game all along.

    • I think that this kind of game might be beneficial only in the first stages of the relationship (meeting->romantic interest->romance), when partners want to generate interest and longing by appearing somewhat mysterious and complex.

      But this kind of mating ritual has to be abandoned, and make place for sincerity and openness, for the relationship to progress. If you go on with this kind of behavior, sooner or later you will come of as being unreliable and immature, and it might speed up the break up.

      So my point is that you have to adopt your relationship “tactics” for the needs of the partnership. That’s of course if you are looking for a long-term meaningful relationship 🙂

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