Like other relationships in our lives, romantic relationships play an important role in fulfilling our needs for intimacy, social connection, and sexual relations. Like friendships, romantic relationships also follow general stages of creation and deterioration. Before we explore these stages, let’s look at our definition of romantic relationships.
In many Western cultures, romantic relationships are voluntary. We are free to decide whom to date and form life-long romantic relationships. In some Eastern cultures, these decisions may be made by parents or elders in the community based on what is good for the family or social group. Even in Western societies, not everyone holds the same amount of freedom and power to determine their relational partners. Parents or society may discourage interracial, interfaith, or interclass relationships. While it is now legal for same-sex couples to marry, many same-sex couples still suffer political and social restrictions when making choices about marrying and having children. Much of the research on how romantic relationships develop is based on relationships in the West. In this context, romantic relationships can be viewed as voluntary relationships between individuals who have intentions that each person will be a significant part of their ongoing lives.
Think about your own romantic relationships for a moment. To whom are you attracted? Chances are they are people with whom you share common interests and encounter in your everyday routines such as going to school or work or participating in hobbies or sports. In other words, self-identity, similarity, and proximity are three powerful influences when it comes to whom we select as romantic partners. We often select others who we deem appropriate for us, as they fit our self-identity: heterosexuals tend to pair up with other heterosexuals, lesbian women with other lesbian women, and so forth. Social class, religious preference, and ethnic or racial identity are also great influences, as people are more likely to pair up with others of similar backgrounds. Logically speaking, it is difficult (although not impossible with the prevalence of social media and online dating services) to meet people outside of our immediate geographic area. In other words, if we do not have the opportunity to meet and interact with someone at least a little, how do we know if they are a person with whom we would like to explore a relationship? We cannot meet someone or maintain a long-term relationship without sharing some sense of proximity.
We are certainly not suggesting that we only have romantic relationships with carbon copies of ourselves. Over the last few decades, there have been some dramatic shifts when it comes to numbers and perceptions of marriage. It is more and more common to see a wide variety of people that make up married couples.
Just like the steps we examined for developing friendships, there are general stages we follow in the development and maintenance of romantic relationships. Let’s look at these six stages of the development of romantic relationships.
The first stage in the development of romantic relationships is no interaction. As the name suggests, the initial stage of a romantic relationship occurs when two people have not interacted. For example, you may see someone you are attracted to on the first day of class and think to yourself, I really want to meet her. Our attraction for someone may motivate us to move beyond the no interaction stage to see if there is a possibility of developing a romantic relationship.
The second stage for developing romantic relationships is invitational communication. When we are attracted to someone, we may signal or invite them to interact with us. For example, you can do this by asking them to dinner or to dance at a club or even by saying, “I really liked that movie. What did you think?” The significance here is in the relational level (how the people feel about each other) rather than the content level (the topic) of the message. As the poet Maya Angelou explains, “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.” The shades of deeper meaning are the relational level messages that invite others to continue exploring a possible romantic relationship. Quite often, we strategize how we might go about inviting people into communication with us so we can explore potential romantic development.
The third stage of developing romantic relationships is explorational communication. When individuals respond favorably to our invitational communication, we then engage in explorational communication. In this stage, we share information about ourselves while looking for mutual interests, shared political or religious views, and similarities in family background. Self-disclosure increases so we can give and receive personal information in a way that fosters trust and intimacy. Common dating activities in this stage include going to parties or other publicly structured events, such as movies or a concert, that foster interaction and self-disclosure.
The fourth stage of romantic relationships is intensifying communication. If we continue to be attracted (mentally, emotionally, and physically) to one another, we begin engaging in intensifying communication. This is the happy stage (the relationship high) when we cannot bear to be away from the other person. It is here that you might plan all of your free time together and begin to create a private relational culture. Going out to parties and socializing with friends takes a back seat to more private activities such as cooking dinner together at home or taking long walks on the beach. Self-disclosure continues to increase as each person has a strong desire to know and understand the other. In this stage, we tend to idealize one another in that we downplay faults (or don’t see them at all), seeing only the positive qualities of the other person.
The fifth stage of romantic relationship development is revising communication. When the relational high begins to wear off, couples begin to have a more realistic perspective of one another and the relationship as a whole. Here, people may recognize the faults of the other person that they so idealized in the previous stage. Also, couples must again make decisions about where to go with the relationship—do they stay together and work toward long-term goals or define it as a short-term relationship? A couple may be deeply in love and also make the decision to break off the relationship for a multitude of reasons. Perhaps one person wants to join the Peace Corps after graduation and plans to travel the world, while the other wants to settle down in their hometown. Their individual needs and goals may not be compatible to sustain a long-term commitment.
Commitment is the sixth stage in developing romantic relationships. Committed romantic relationships occur when a couple makes the decision to make the relationship a permanent part of their lives. In this stage, the participants assume they will be in each other’s lives forever and make joint decisions about the future. While marriage is an obvious sign of commitment, it is not the only signifier of this stage. Some may mark their intention of staying together in a commitment ceremony or by registering as domestic partners. Likewise, not all couples planning a future together legally marry. Some may lose economic benefits if they marry, such as the loss of Social Security for seniors, or others may oppose the institution (and its inequality) of marriage.
Obviously, simply committing is not enough to maintain a relationship through tough times that occur as couples grow and change. Like a ship set on a destination, a couple must learn to steer through rough waves as well as calm waters. A couple can accomplish this by learning to communicate through the good and the bad. Navigating is when a couple continues to revise their communication and ways of interacting to reflect the changing needs of each person. Done well, life’s changes are more easily enjoyed when viewed as a natural part of the life cycle. The original patterns for managing dialectical tensions when a couple began dating may not work when they are managing two careers, children, and a mortgage payment. Outside pressures such as children, professional duties, and financial responsibilities put added pressure on relationships that require attention and negotiation. If a couple neglects to practice effective communication with one another, coping with change becomes increasingly stressful and puts the relationship in jeopardy.
Not only do romantic couples progress through a series of stages of growth; they also experience stages of deterioration. Deterioration does not necessarily mean that a couple’s relationship will end. Instead, couples may move back and forth from deterioration stages to growth stages throughout the course of their relationship.
The first stage of deterioration, dyadic breakdown, occurs when romantic partners begin to neglect the small details that have always bound them together. For example, they may stop cuddling on the couch when they rent a movie and sit in opposite chairs. Taken in isolation, this example does not mean a relationship is in trouble. However, when intimacy continues to decrease and the partners feel dissatisfied, this dissatisfaction can lead to worrying about the relationship.
The second stage of deterioration, the intrapsychic phase, occurs when partners worry that they do not connect with one another in ways they used to or that they no longer do fun things together. When this happens, they may begin to imagine their life without the relationship. Rather than seeing the relationship as a given, the couple may begin to wonder what life would be like not being in the partnership.
The third stage of deterioration, the dyadic phase, occurs when partners make the choice to talk about their problems. In this stage, they discuss how to resolve the issues and may seek outside help such as a therapist to help them work through the reasons they are growing apart. This could also be the stage where couples begin initial discussions about how to divide up shared resources such as property, money, or children.
The fourth stage of deterioration, social support, occurs when termination is inevitable and the partners begin to look outside the relationship for social support. In this stage, couples will make the news public by telling friends, family, or children that the relationship is ending. As family members listen to problems or friends offer invitations to go out and keep busy, they provide social support. The couple needs social support from outside individuals in the process of letting go of the relationship and coming to terms with its termination.
The fifth stage of deterioration, grave dressing, occurs when couples reach closure in a relationship and move on with life. Like a literal death, a relationship that has ended should be mourned. People need time to go through this process in order to fully understand the meaning of the relationship, why it ended, and what they can learn from the experience. Going through this stage in a healthy way helps us learn to navigate future relationships more successfully.
You can probably recognize many of these stages from your own relationships or from relationships you’ve observed. Experience will tell you that we do not always follow these stages in a linear way. A couple, for example, may enter counseling during the dyadic phase, work out their problems, and enter a second term of intensifying communication, revising, and so forth. Other couples may skip some stages all together. Whatever the case, these models are valuable because they provide us with a way to recognize general communicative patterns and options we have at each stage of our relationships. Knowing what our choices are and their potential consequences gives us greater tools to build the kind of relationships we desire in our personal lives.