January 2, 2022 |Gideon Hanekom

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In this article, we look at the 4 stages of a relationship and what they mean to you.

One of the most talked-about topics among relationship experts is “relationship stages.”

However, there are many people in relationships out there that don’t know that all relationships follow a pattern and what relationship stage their own relationship is in.

In this article, you’ll learn exactly what each stage means, how to identify at which stage your relationship is, and what some of the biggest ‘deal breakers’ are throughout these stages.

A crucial fact to keep in mind is that the four stages of a relationship are something that every couple goes thru. Relationships are never static nor linear.

Yet, relationships do follow similar patterns of introduction, growth, and maturation or life building (or decline).

Thus, the idea of a “stage” in a relationship isn’t necessarily a sign that things are wrong or going wrong.

4 stages of a relationship

This article looks at the different stages that all relationships go thru, what each stage means for you, and some of the common challenges that couples face during each stage.

Neuroscientists and “experts on love” have outlined four stages of a relationship, and they essentially go from falling in love to living happily ever after (or, at least, for a while).

What are the 4 stages of a relationship?

According to neuroscientists, there are four stages of a relationship:

  1. the attraction phase,
  2. the build-up phase,
  3. the plateau phase, and
  4. the resolution phase.

Some also use terms such as the euphoric stage, the early attachment stage, the crisis stage, and the deep attachment stage.

Each of these relationship stages has their own unique traits and come with distinct challenges and rewards.

Additionally, in my experience, each stage is also typically defined by different levels of happiness and fulfilment.

In the attraction phase, the two people involved feel drawn to each other and are eager to get to know each other better.

In the build-up phase, they start to form a deeper connection and become more committed to the relationship.

In the plateau phase, the relationship becomes more stable and comfortable.

The resolution phase, often marked by a feeling of clarity and understanding, the calm after the storm so to speak, as well as a renewed sense of commitment to the relationship.

If you are in the build-up phase, you are moving toward the resolution phase, but may still feel as though you need to do more to really commit to the relationship.

The resolution phase involves being in the relationship that you have been yearning for and that you know is right for you.

Therefore, rather than rushing in to make a big decision, you may be better off taking your time to figure out whether the relationship is right for you.

The Attraction Stage explained

The attraction stage in a relationship is the beginning of something new and exciting.

It’s when you first meet someone and feel an instant connection.

You can’t stop thinking about them and you can’t wait to see them again.

Everything about them seems fascinating, and you’re drawn to them like a magnet.

4 stages of a relationship

This stage is when you are the most nervous, but it’s also when you feel a new surge of excitement and anticipation.

You know you are in the right place at the right time.

You may even feel like you have fallen for your partner, and begin to experience a strong desire to build a relationship with them.

When people enter the attraction stage, they typically respond by wanting to make the relationship last.

During the attraction stage in a relationship, couples typically do things like spend time together, get to know each other better, and flirt.

They may also engage in physical intimacy, such as kissing and touching.

Couples in this stage often feel butterflies in their stomachs when they’re around each other and are typically very happy.

Part of the reason for this is the role that the brain plays when we’re in love.

For example, brain scans of couples in the early stages of love revealed elevated dopamine levels, the chemical that triggers the reward system by eliciting an overwhelming surge of pleasure, the same impact as cocaine.

So, when someone is ‘in love,’ they are essentially like someone doing drugs.

During the dating stage in a relationship, couples are still getting to know each other and are not committed to each other.

Lucy Brown, PhD, Clinical Professor of Neurology at Einstein College of Medicine in New York, has been investigating the brain activity of people in love at various stages of the relationship.

She asserts that during the early stages of a relationship, the stage of falling in love, the other person becomes the focal point of your life.

In these early days, you forgive anything.

The other person has flaws, which you are aware of, yet it makes no difference.

Perhaps they leave their filthy dishes in the sink, but they at least make you laugh daily, so it’s acceptable.

The positives outweigh the negatives in this case. 

Brown also notes that one of the most significant discoveries from the brain mapping studies (and one that has been identified as a critical component in relationship success) includes what is referred to as ‘suspension of negative judgment.’

According to Brown, in this early stage, many people have a drop in activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain associated with unfavourable judgments about others.

This suggests that the longer a couple can suspend unfavourable judgement against one another, the better their prospects of relationship success are.

Additionally, researchers discovered that couples who had been together for three years or longer had the greatest decrease in activity in this region of the brain, implying a potentially reduced tendency to suspend negative judgments about one another.

The attraction stage in a relationship typically lasts anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

According to some studies, the attraction stage might continue between six and two years.

However, about 15% to 30% of some populations report that they are still in love and still feel the same as in the beginning, even ten or fifteen years later.

Researchers are currently still unclear about what the reasons for this might be.

The Build-up Stage explained

The build-up stage is one of the most important stages in any relationship.

This is when the couple starts to get to know each other better and develop a strong emotional connection.

During this stage, the couple will share intimate details about themselves and build trust.

4 stages in a relationship

Additionally, according to researchers such as Brown and Helen Fisher, PhD, neuroscientist and Senior Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute, the more evolved areas of the brain, such as the ventral pallidum, the region of the brain associated with attachment feelings and the attachment hormones vasopressin and oxytocin, commonly referred to as “the love hormone,” begin to take over during this stage.

That is also probably why the build-up stage in a relationship is one of the most exciting times.

This is when you get to know each other and explore your feelings for each other.

You may feel like you can’t get enough of the other person and you want to spend every moment together.

You may also find yourself constantly thinking about the other person and wanting to know what they are doing.

This early attachment phase in relationships is also a time when a couple is starting to form a bond.

As already said, this can be a very exciting time, as both people are usually eager to learn more about each other and spend time together.

However, in this early attachment phase, it is crucial to make sure that you’re taking things slow and are not rushing into anything, because this can be a very confusing time, as you may find yourself very attracted to the other person and only want to be with them (for reasons already pointed out).

This can make it difficult for you to see if you are dating the right person, however, especially if you feel that the other person is your ‘true soul mate.’

The Plateau Stage explained

The plateau stage is a time in a relationship when the excitement of the early stages has died down and the couple is comfortable being together.

This third stage is frequently the deciding factor in the success or failure of relationships.

Brown refers to this stage as the “seven-year or five-year itch,” and what occurs during this time period is critical to what occurs afterwards.

Certain relationships require a crisis to survive and the ability to discuss it together in order to elicit growth and progress.

For example, for some couples, having children either strengthen the relationship or adds enough stress to cause it to disintegrate.

4 stages in a relationship

But if a couple successfully overcomes a crisis, they will progress to the following stage, which is characterised by a strong attachment.

My wife and I had our son and moved to a different country to begin a new life inside the first three years of our relationship and marriage.

Our marriage overcame the difficulties associated with childbirth and immigration and undoubtedly strengthened not only our marriage but also our emotional connection with one another.

In essence, the plateau stage in a relationship is a time where the couple has settled into a comfortable routine.

They know each other’s likes and dislikes, and they are content with just being together.

This stage can be a sign that the relationship is strong and healthy, or it can be a sign that the relationship is becoming stale or worse, declining.

If the couple is able to navigate through this stage successfully, they will likely be able to stay together for a long time.

If not, the relationship will likely end.

The Resolution Stage explained

The resolution stage of a relationship is a deep attachment period that is typically regarded as the “calm after the storm.”

It’s likely that a couple has developed a strong understanding of one another and has gone through the inevitable ups and downs of marriage.

They are confident in their ability to deal with crises (or whether they are capable of doing so at all), and they have developed a method or determined strategies for dealing with future crisis situations.

The deep attachment stage in a relationship is a time when two people have bonded closely and share a strong emotional connection.

They feel a deep sense of love and intimacy for each other and are able to rely on each other for support and comfort.

This stage is characterized by a high level of trust and mutual respect, as well as a strong desire to make things work together.

4 stages in a relationship

Couples in this stage are typically very committed to each other and are willing to do whatever it takes to maintain the relationship.

They will make sacrifices to ensure their relationship remains strong.

This stage of deep connection can last an extended period of time and can even last a lifetime if you’re fortunate.

Often, a marriage that falls into the ‘failure’ category often falls short of the deep attachment stage because it lacks trust, commitment, respect, and intimacy as a result of succumbing to the crises that occurred during the previous relationship stage.

What are the biggest ‘deal breakers’ in the early stages of a relationship?

There are many different things that can be a deal-breaker in the early stages of a relationship.

For some people, it might be someone who is not a good match for them personality-wise.

For others, it might be someone who is no longer physically attracted to them.

There are also many people who might break up with someone if they do not share the same interests as them.

However, despite the most obvious ones like cheating and abuse, what are the more subtle but biggest ‘deal breakers’ in relationships in general?

Jonason et al. surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,744 single American adults in 2015 for a study titled ‘Relationship deal breakers: Traits people avoid in potential mates.’

These participants were given a list of 17 characteristics and asked to check the ones that they considered to be deal-breakers (as many as they wanted).

The percentage of participants that selected each of the 17 attributes is shown below, broken down by gender.

The average number of deal-breakers chosen by participants was six, with women choosing somewhat more than males.

Also very important is the fact that researchers found that deal-breakers mattered more than deal-makers.

Just food for thought.

Deal breakers in committed relationships

(M=Men, W=Women, O=Overall Percentage):

  1. Disheveled or unclean appearance (M 63% W 71% O 67%)
  2. Lazy (M 60% W 72% O 66%)
  3. Too needy (M 57% W 69% O 63%)
  4. Lacks a sense of humour (M 50% W 58% O 54%)
  5. Live >3 hours away from me (M 51% W 58% O 49%)
  6. Bad sex (M 44% W 50% O 47%)
  7. Lacks self-confidence (M 33% W 47% O 40%)
  8. Too much TV/video games (M 25% W 41% O 33%)
  9. Low sex drive (M 39% W 27% O 33%)
  10. Stubborn (M 32% W 34% O 33%)
  11. Talks too much (M 26% W 20% O 23%)
  12. Too quiet (M 11% W 17% O 14%)
  13. Blunt (M 11% W 17% O 14%)
  14. Does not want kids (M 13% W 15% O 14%)
  15. Had kids (M 14% W 12% O 13%)
  16. Too athletic (M 7% W 10% O 9%)
  17. Not athletic (M 7% W 6% O 6%)

Note: Gender differences were significant for all the results except for ‘Stubborn’ and ‘Not athletic.’

4 stages of a relationship

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for dealing with possible deal breakers in a relationship because the best approach to dealing with them depends on the situation.

Some tips for dealing with deal breakers in a relationship include being honest and transparent with your spouse about your concerns; talking openly and honestly with each other, and being willing to compromise.

However, if you are unable to overcome the relationship’s deal breakers, it may be better to end the relationship sooner rather than later, because they will eventually do it for you even if you do not.

How do you move from the early stages of a relationship to the later stages?

To progress from the early stages of a relationship to its later stages, you must be able to transition and progress naturally.

This means you must be able to deal with new degrees of intimacy and trust.

You must also be able to deal with new degrees of communication.

This implies being extremely open and candid with your partner about what you are and are not ready to do, in other words, about your boundaries.

The types of activities you are willing to participate in will differ from person to person.

For example, a person may be willing to kiss and cuddle with their partner but refuse to have sex with them before a certain point.

Others will be expecting sex within the first few months of the relationship.

You will be able to negotiate the transition periods of a relationship as long as you are clear about what you are and are not willing to do.

Furthermore, in order to progress from the early stages of a relationship to the later stages, it is critical to maintaining a consistent degree of commitment.

As you progress in your relationship, you must be able to commit to your partner more and more.

This is critical because it will make you feel safe and secure in your relationship.

Commitment, in essence, provides a couple with a sense of confidence about the state of their relationship and their future together.

More importantly, when you sense your partner’s dedication to you and your relationship, you feel valued, but the opposite is also true.

4 stages of a relationship

There are a few dangers to be aware of if you do not believe your partner is dedicated to the relationship.

The first risk is that you will begin to feel ignored and irrelevant since they will not make an attempt to make you feel loved and valued.

This will almost certainly lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, which are never healthy for the durability of a partnership.

The second risk is that you may believe your spouse does not want to be with you, which can lead to self-esteem and confidence issues.

Third, when your partner does not commit to you, you may feel taken advantage of.

This can lead to increased worry and insecurity, which can have a detrimental impact on your relationships.

The above-mentioned concerns should not be present when a couple organically transitions through the four stages of a relationship because, while confronting life’s natural challenges (as all couples must), a couple should never question the essence of the love they have for each other.

Challenges come and go, but our love should develop and deepen as we go through life together, not fade.

What are the biggest challenges in the later stages of a relationship?

Long-term relationships face a variety of obstacles, the most prominent of which include dealing with change, boredom, and communication.

Change is an inevitable part of life, and every relationship will experience it at some point.

However, as we age and adapt, we get more comfortable with change and are better able to deal with it.

However, if the changes cause us to lose interest in what we were previously interested in, it might be rather problematic if it undermines the foundation of a relationship.

We’ve all heard the story about the couple that decided to divorce after 40 years and remarry quite soon after.

4 stages of a relationship

Another issue that many couples face in the later phases of their relationship is boredom.

For example, as a relationship progresses, one person may lose interest in sex, which, if not addressed, can lead to a host of issues in the bedroom and outside of it. 

We’ve already noted that 33% of surveyed couples see low sex drive as a relationship deal-breaker, so its boredom is something to keep an eye on.

We also know that humans respond favourably to variety or novelty (person depending) as it triggers feelings of adventure, excitement and growth.

That is a good thing until our marriage becomes the victim.

Communication is also necessary throughout all phases of a relationship, but it is especially important later on when we have gotten accustomed to each other and sometimes assume we know what the other is thinking or wants.

However, such thinking might become a trap in the later stages of a relationship.

It is essential that we are open and honest with one another when there is a problem or an issue that we do not understand so that we can address it before it becomes too large and out of hand.

Although a relationship has the potential to last many years and be full of wonderful memories, this does not mean that you will have an easy time or that you could become complacent at any point. 

In fact, the longer we are together, the more cautious and aware we must be.

Even if we are in a stable, long-term relationship, there may be times when the aspects of the relationship that keep it going become jeopardised.

As partners in the later stages of a relationship, we must avoid complacency at all costs and continually work on our relationship to ensure its growth and health.

If you have any questions on the four stages of a relationship or want to share your own experience, please leave a comment below.

About the author

Gideon Hanekom

Gideon Hanekom is the creator of TheRelationshipGuy.com, a popular relationship blog that ranks among the top 50 relationship blogs in 2024. The website helps couples to create happier, healthier, and more intimate relationships. Gideon is a trained professional counsellor and holds post-graduate degrees in Theology and Psychology. His articles have also been featured on respected platforms such as Marriage.com and The Good Men Project.

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