Wondering which of the 7 stages of a healthy relationship yours is in?
Anyone who has ever been in a long-term committed relationship will agree with me that relationships change over time.
Relationships, like people, rarely stay the same.
We change, we grow and yes, sometimes we grow in different directions. But change and growth don’t have to mean the end of the relationship.
In this post, we’re examining all the various changes most relationships go through. We’ll listen to some of the world’s most recognized marriage experts and get their opinions. We’ll also look at what to do when things break down.
Specifically, though, we’re going to take an in-depth look into the 7 stages of a healthy relationship.
Are there really 7 stages of a healthy relationship?
According to world-renowned marriage expert John Gottman, there are 3 relationship stages.
Every marriage or committed relationship goes through these. While I agree there are 3 primary stages, I would argue that there really are 7 stages of a healthy relationship.
When a relationship can’t transition from one stage to the next, that’s when trouble sets in.
So if we believe there are 7 stages of a healthy relationship, how do we know what stage we are in? Even still, how do when know when it’s time to move to the next level?
What if our partner is doing things we feel are preventing us from getting to that next level? If that is the case how do we “fix” it?
Why is it important to identify relationship stages?
I got the idea for this post after listing to Gottman being interviewed about relationship stages on the Neil Sattin podcast entitled Relationship Alive. You can listen to that interview in its entirety right here:
I don’t pretend to be as knowledgeable as Gottman or as insightful as Sattin.
Gottman and his wife Julie have literally spent 40 years doing clinical research and studies on relationships and if anyone knows about how to make or break a relationship, it’s John Gottman.
I’ve been married over 11 years as of this post. I’m not the perfect husband. Nor am I the perfect blogger.
But I have made mistakes in my relationship. I’ve seen what has worked & has made things better. But I have also seen damage from my actions and reactions. And (luckily), I’ve seen what it takes to repair some of that.
What are Gottman’s three stages?
1. NEW LOVE
This is the kind of love when we are just starting out in a relationship. Passionate, spontaneous and bold. We haven’t yet gotten comfortable walking around in our 5 year old underwear yet.
We’re showing them our best sides only and because the love is new; it’s exciting! No arguments yet, intense feelings and affection. Pure heart-pounding love.
2. BUILDING TRUST
The next relationship stage is where we start building trust. We have accepted we’re in this for the long haul and we’ve started to let our hair down. We’re starting to argue a little and explore each other’s personalities. We’re testing the waters of trust and both parties probably are doing things to both make and break trust.
This where we look for and offer support. Will my partner cut and run at the first sign of trouble? Do they have the strength to stick it through the tough times? Do they love me enough to put up with me when I screw up?
3. BUILDING COMMITMENT
The 3rd of the stages is where we have a solid foundation of trust. Now we start working on commitment. Trust and commitment are 2 different things. You also can’t have a completely committed relationship without trust. Thus, the relationship stages end with commitment.
Commitment is making a conscious choice to put your partner above all other priorities. To focus on appreciating what they do and who they are. Focusing on that, rather than on what you think is missing is crucial for building commitment.
Why total acceptance of your partner matters!
When you mostly focus on what you wish our partner would do differently, you aren’t fully committed. Been there, done that.
True commitment is about accepting this person for exactly who and what they are. They may have (in your mind) bad habits. Perhaps they have different eating habits.
I have a friend (recently divorced) who’s ex was always on them about changing who they were. This in spite of the fact that my friend was pretty much the same when they started dating.
When we don’t accept our partner exactly as they are we will never fully commit and that can cause serious issues in the relationship.
Why I love John Gottman
If you aren’t familiar with John Gottman’s work, definitely check out his website and follow his social channels. But there’s no substitute for his printed works (of which he has many).
His book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work may have literally saved my marriage. But for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to highly recommend this book of his:
You CAN save your marriage — even if your spouse says that they want a divorce.
You CAN rebuild that passion you felt for one another when you first kissed. And you can bring back that love and devotion you felt for one another when both of you said, “I love you” for the first time.
If you feel like your marriage is worth fighting for, then do yourself a favor and watch this quick video on how to Mend Your Marriage that will teach you everything you need to know about salvaging the most important thing in the world.
What are the 7 stages of a healthy relationship?
This falls under Gottman’s “New Love” heading. You first meet, get those butterflies in your stomach and ache for your newfound partner daily.
2. Love and the Harsh Realities
This still falls under the new love heading, but the initial shine of infatuation has worn off. You’ve had a minor disagreement or two and have begun to let the daily reality of the world set back in.
3. Relationship Conflict
The last of the new love sub-categories. You hit your first somewhat major speed bump. Not a deal breaker but you definitely know you’ve had an argument that will take some work to get past.
4. Love Renewed
Now we’re in Gottman’s “building trust” category. We’ve learned how to navigate conflict without throwing in the towel. We’re definitely well past the infatuation stage and starting to think long-term.
As we plan and build for the future, many (but certainly not all) couples start to bring kids into the equation. This can often put stresses on us and the relationship we hadn’t encountered before. It’s also easy to get lost in parenting and forget ourselves and/or our spouse. As couples put their own needs or their spouse’s needs on the back-burner, they set the stage for the next level.
6. Relationship Crisis
Sometimes known as the 7 Year Itch or perhaps a mid-life crisis, this is the stage where a major breakdown occurs. This could be an affair, but it could also be just one partner moving in a totally different life direction. But it is the defining point in any relationship and it can break even the strongest of relationships.
7. The Golden Years
Once couples figure out how to navigate the troublesome waters of a major crisis, they are set to enjoy the richest and most rewarding chapter of their lives. Trust rebuilt, passions renewed, connection reborn.
Which of the 7 stages of a healthy relationship are you in?
So many of you reading this can probably identify where your relationship is at in these 7 stages of a healthy relationship.
I also think it’s possible for relationships to ebb and flow through different relationship stages. Possibly regressing at times before moving forward again.
In other words, you aren’t done simply because you’ve checked this stage off your checklist.
The first stages are pretty self-explanatory and probably something you have felt and been through a few times. Many of us lament the loss of this stage as the passion (and intimacy) can be seen to diminish. In truth, I think intimacy deepens as we go further into the relationship.
Perhaps sex diminishes (especially when children first come into play). But intimacy should be increasing as we get to know one another better.
So far, one of my most popular posts on relationships is called 5 Secrets to Create Lasting Love – Make Your Relationship Soar! If you haven’t already read that one, check it out and let me know what you think!
When things break down . . .
As we get into the business of living together as a couple, this is where things can first start to go awry. Often we get too focused on tasks and not enough on nurturing our relationship.
If we focus more on our daily to-do lists than we do our partner, intimacy erodes. When that happens we have to first fix that first. Then we can move into the next of the 7 stages of a healthy relationship.
A recent study the UCLA’s Sloan Center found that on average, couples where both partners work only spent only about 35 minutes per week actually talking.
I’m talking about genuinely connecting! Deciding who’s making the kid’s breakfast or paying the water bill doesn’t count as a genuine connection.
In truth, while that study is heartbreaking, we can all probably relate a little. It’s very easy to get caught up in our daily lives and duties.
- Who’s picking the kids up from school or taking junior to the basketball game?
- Which partner is dealing with the cell phone bill that came in $40 higher than expected?
- How are we going to plan and pay for that summer girl’s trip my wife wants.
At times it seems the whole world has conspired to make our to-do list so long we never have time to just be with each other.
We find ourselves wondering if this is all there is to our life. What does it all mean? Even worse is when one partner is more this way than the other.
Quality over quantity
If all you have are those 35 minutes, make them count! Put the phones and tablets in another room. Turn off the TV.
Sit with a glass of wine once the kids are in bed and just look in each other’s eyes and talk. Take a walk together! BE with them. Take the time to be present (where you aren’t focused on anything but them).
If the idea of being away from your phone scares you, you might want to read an earlier post of mine called 9 Signs of Cell Phone Addiction – Are You Addicted? Just sayin’!
When you can’t make quality time for each other, you may never see the other 7 stages of a healthy relationship!
If all we focus on are tasks, eventually we find ourselves becoming critical of how the other is doing those tasks. Being regularly critical of our partner starts building resentment and can seriously damage the relationship. Trust me; I’ve done it.
Building Trust as we navigate the 7 stages of a healthy relationship
Trust is when both partners both value their own needs as well as the needs of their partner equally.
According to Gottman, trust is best built when we listen to our partner when they are in a negative space without defensiveness or judgment.
This is especially true when they are mad at us.
Listening with empathy, having your partner’s back and not trying to “fix” the issue is crucial. You aren’t just waiting for your turn to talk. And you also aren’t rebutting every point they bring up (even if you think they are wrong).
You also aren’t feeling sorry for them; that’s sympathy.
What you want is empathy. Empathy is where you put yourself in their shoes and feel how they feel. The true masters of the 7 stages of a healthy relationship know how to listen empathetically.
You are genuinely listening to your partner with the only intent being to understand what they are feeling.
Giving our partner the benefit of the doubt
In a committed relationship, we have to make the assumption that our partner is a good person. That doesn’t they won’t make mistakes. It also doesn’t mean they may not have baggage from childhood or past relationships. Been there, done that also.
If you struggle to Let Go of the Past and know it impacts you in the present, please take a moment and review the steps you can take to not let your past control you!
Make the assumption that our partner is a good person. If they are feeling and expressing something negative, that is genuinely how they feel. They aren’t simply trying to hurt you.
If they are genuinely trying to hurt you then you have bigger problems.
But in 99% of the cases, your partner is just hurting and wants you to truly hear them. Give them that and you build trust. If you get defensive, argue every point back or even try and fix the issue at the moment, you erode trust. Trust me; I’ve had to learn this one the hard way!
Guys are often hardwired to be fixers. That’s just what many of us do. Something breaks; we reach for the cable ties and duct tape every time.
— DFW Biz Tweets (@DFWAreaNews) November 12, 2018
For most of us, the last thing we want to see is our partner upset, sad or in a dark place. Thus it’s our natural tendency to want to “fix” the situation. I want you to resist that natural built-in urge!
How to listen empathetically
Empathetically listening doesn’t mean you don’t get to speak. It also doesn’t mean you can’t disagree. But it does mean making sure your partner truly feels heard.
Look at them in the eyes. If they aren’t mad at you at the moment, hold their hands while they speak. Wait for them to get the bulk of it off their chest before interjecting.
Don’t be thinking about what you plan to say in return. When you do speak, especially if their issue is with you, say something like: “what I heard you say is (insert issue here). Does that sound right?”
That lets them know you were truly listening and it also gives them the opportunity to explain further if they didn’t feel like you got it right.
— Intentional Insights (@intentinsights) January 30, 2017
When it comes time to explain your actions (again, if their issue is with you), own it. Don’t make excuses why you said or did something wrong. Don’t try and turn it around on them “well if you hadn’t done (x, y or z) I wouldn’t have done (insert offense).”
If you made a mistake just say it. Apologize for it and don’t make excuses. When we make excuses or try and blame another for our actions, it only makes things worse. And we look like a jerk (been there, done that).
If you struggle with empathetic listening skills, as I once did, I highly recommend you take a moment and check out of my newer posts which addresses just that.
How to truly commit to your partner
Commitment is when each partner values the other partner’s needs more than their own.
That doesn’t mean that you don’t place value on your own needs, but it’s moved beyond keeping score. We aren’t worried about getting our needs met at the expense of the others.
You are willing to sacrifice for your partner.
Love Is Not Measured By Our Enjoyment From Our Spouse, But By Our Sacrifice For Our Spouse…mm4life pic.twitter.com/AV1nM5JIu8
— Tony & Tarenia (@marryme4life) October 10, 2013
Taken further, true commitment is about cherishing your partner through thick and thin.
Do you question whether the relationship is “worth it?”
You’re going to have arguments, but when those happen do you think about breaking up?
Perhaps you ponder what life would be like with a different partner? Or perhaps you begin to confide in another (who you could potentially be attracted to) about your relationship issues.
When those thoughts and things happen you’ll never be 100% committed.
Now I’m not here to say you’re a bad person because you confided in a co-worker when you and your spouse last had an argument. I’m also not saying you’re a terrible person if you ever thought to yourself “why did I marry this person!!” in the heat of the moment.
If you are in a committed relationship, the chances are very high one or more of these thoughts have entered your mind at some point.
What I want to do is show you a better way; a way that leads you through the 7 stages of a healthy relationship.
I want you to understand the dangers of telling yourself things like that. Think of your mind as a computer and your thoughts are the programming code.
When we have negative thoughts about ourselves or our partner, we are literally programming our brain to think that way. Do it once and sure, it’s probably no big deal. If you do that frequently, however, you are shaping how your brain will think about them moving forward.
What I do when any kind of negative thought enters my mind is:
- First I acknowledge that I’m having that thought (denial or justifying doesn’t help anyone)
- I physically envision that thought being pushed out of my head (I like to think of it getting pushed off a cliff)
- I’ll focus on my breath while I’m doing this (slow breathing with a longer exhale than inhale will naturally calm you down)
- I try and replace that negative thought with a positive one about the same thing (if we’re talking about your partner think about what you love about them)
Unsure of the 7 stages of a healthy relationship & where you are at?
If you aren’t at the stage yet where you are willing to literally or figuratively take a bullet for your partner then you need to work on trust first.
One interesting thing from the above-referenced podcast was Gottman referenced a study by Jim Cullen where he looked at gay and lesbian couples. The ability of gay and lesbian couples to marry is still fairly new (at least in my country).
However, this study was done before the recent Supreme Court decision.
As you know if you’ve followed me for long, you’re aware that my blog is about finding common ground. Thus I’m not here to discuss gay marriage as an issue. We’re talking about relationships, and they come in all shapes and sizes. This is about us coming together to celebrate our similarities and shared problems.
But in his findings, Cullen noted that gay & lesbian couples who were or considered themselves to be married had noticeably higher levels of the hormone oxytocin which shuts down the brain’s fear center.
When we get more levels of oxytocin and are less fearful we’re generally:
- We live longer
- Our kids do better
That research proves that being in a committed relationship is actually better for you!
So that gives us even greater incentives to work our way through the 7 stages of a healthy relationship.
The crucial things you AREN’T doing in your relationship (but should)
Gottman also broke down the things that successful couples do that unsuccessful ones don’t do (or don’t do as much). He cited his source as a book called:
So if you are still a little confused about the 7 stages of a healthy relationship, just try and incorporate some or all of these into your relationship and you’re almost guaranteed success!
- Say I love you to your partner every day (and mean it)
- Kiss passionately for no reason
- Give romantic gifts for no reason
- Be affectionate in public
- Have Regular date nights
- Make sex a priority
- Stay friends
- For guys, be involved with the kids
- Also For guys, especially when both partners work full time, make sure you’re helping equally around the house
Which of the 7 stages of a healthy relationship are you in?
In his post, we took an in-depth look into the world of relationship stages.
All relationships ebb and flow and go through changes. Sometimes we grow and change in different directions. But the good news is that with good communication, commitment and focus, almost any relationship challenges can be overcome.
So this post should have helped you figure out which of the 7 stages of a healthy relationship you were in. That way you can focus on where you want to go and take your marriage or relationship to the next level!
What relationship struggles do you need help with?
If you like this post, please follow my Strong Marriage board on Pinterest for more great tips from myself and top relationship experts!
Photo credits (that aren’t mine):
Women in park – https://www.flickr.com/photos/40006794@N02/
Aloof couple – https://www.flickr.com/photos/billstrain/
Happy couple – https://www.flickr.com/photos/johnnysilvercloud/
Empathy – https://www.flickr.com/photos/smemon/
Nose touching couple – https://www.flickr.com/photos/rocketboom/