Every Relationship Goes Through These 5 Stages: Where Are You? (2023)



Updated on December 5, 2022

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

By Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Linda Carroll is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981.

The Merge stageThe Doubt and Denial stageThe Disillusionment stageThe Decision stage

The Wholehearted stage

(Video) The 5 Stages Of A Relationship Every Couple Goes Through

Last updated on December 5, 2022

The five stages of a relationship are the Merge, Doubt and Denial, Disillusionment, the Decision, and Wholehearted Love. Every single relationship moves through these five stages—though not only once.

Think of these stages not as steppingstones to a final outcome but rather as a series of seasons that we move through in an eternal cycle.

Here, the five stages of every relationship and how to navigate each one.


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Meet the expert

Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling fromOregon State Universityand has practiced psychotherapy since 1981, specializing in couples and communication.

We often think all intimate relationships reliably progress from the initial meet-cute to giddy infatuation, to a series of small trials and tribulations, and finally to a blissful state of happily-ever-after.

It's a satisfying narrative we see all the time in the movies, TV, and music. In reality, love is a journey without a final destination.

We shouldn't expect that at some point in our relationship, we'll look back at the obstacles we overcame and say, "Well, that's it! We're here! We made it!" Because beyond wherever you are now, another hurdle awaits.


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In other words, the stages of a relationship are not linear but cyclical. Even people who reach the fifth and final stage of a relationship—Wholehearted Love—will eventually find themselves looping back to Stage 1 to start the process all over again. But they can always find their way back.

This Love Cycles model is drawn from my experience as a couples therapist for the last three decades, studying couples at all stages of a relationship and identifying common patterns.

Here's everything you need to know about the five stages of a relationship and what skills couples need to weather each stage.

(Video) The 5 Stages Of Closeness In All Relationships | Thais Gibson


The stages of a relationship are cyclical, not linear. People who reach the final stage of a relationship—Wholehearted Love—will eventually find themselves looping back to Stage 1 (The Merge stage) to start the process all over again.

The first stage of a relationship is the Merge, aka the honeymoon phase. It's the initial, sweeping romance that often consumes a couple when they first get together, including an all-consuming joy in the presence of our partner and insatiable, passionate sex.

Often people in this stage of a relationship will feel as if they've found their "perfect match," someone who is so eerily similar and compatible with them. They feel they always want to be together, and boundaries often melt away. The two seem to merge together, or at least feel eager to do so.

These emotions often drown out the rational part of our brain. Indeed, research tells us this first stage is marked by biochemical changes in our brain1—a cocktail of hormones that trigger and maintain a state of infatuation, such as dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins.

This brain glow can often lead us to become "addicted" to our partners and to ignore incompatibilities, red flags, or other issues.

Find your match today with eHarmony. Free to join.

Every Relationship Goes Through These 5 Stages: Where Are You? (3)

What to do in this relationship stage:

Enjoy this stage to the fullest—this is the stuff that makes dating so delightful and intriguing. At the same time, be aware of your heightened emotions. Take time to step back and observe your emotions and your relationship, and actively question whether this person really is the best match for you.

Get candid advice from friends who can make sure you're not missing any truly worrisome red flags while under this biochemical love potion.

Go slow with making any big decisions, too—the Merge can fog your vision and make you want to dive into situations that might not actually be wise or healthy for you in the long run.

In general, don't make decisions because you're "so in love"—because that's a temporary feeling of infatuation that will eventually fade.

RELATED: Honeymoon Phase: How Long It Lasts + How To Bring It Back

The second stage of a relationship is Doubt and Denial, in which we finally start to actually notice the differences between us and our partners. We wake up from the trance of infatuation with a thump, finding that the same qualities that once seemed so perfect have begun to annoy us. (His reliability now feels rigid; her generosity seems irresponsible; their adventurous nature feels like unnecessary risk.)

(Video) The 5 Stages of Relationships Everyone Should Know

And unfortunately, friction is naturalonce we run up against each other's differences. Power struggles increase, and we marvel atthe change in our partner. Feelings of love mix with alienation and irritation. Perhaps we're not "perfect" for each other after all.

As our disappointment escalates, so do our biological responses to stress. Depending on our personality and circumstances, we may want to fight or to withdraw.

For example, you may feel the need to fight to defend your values, which may actually translate into the desire to have everything your own way. It makes little sense to expect another person to be just like we are,and yet, at some level, many of us do tend to ask, "Why aren't you like me?"


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What to do in this relationship stage:

At this point, the skills of conflict management are essential. Learn how to deescalate conflicts and face relationship problems head-on while treating each other with care and respect.

Remember that power struggles and arguments are normal parts of a relationship; they're not necessarily a sign that love is ending or that the relationship isn't working.

You'll need to learn to identify the difference between healthy disagreement and unhealthy control issues; the former can be worked through, while the latter may be a sign you should break up.

Because this is the stage where you're starting to recognize your differences, this second stage of a relationship is also a good time to learn your love languages. There are five love languages, and it's important for each person to know how their partner wants to receive love.

RELATED: Why Differentiation Is The Key To Healthy Relationships

The third stage of a relationship is the Disillusionment stage. This is the winter season of love, one that may feel like the end of the road for some couples. At this point, the power struggles in the relationship have come fully to the surface; the issues the couple have consistently shoved under the rug are now glaringly obvious.

Some people become perpetually vigilant, ready to fly into battle at the slightest provocation. Other couples might quietly move apart over time, putting less and less energy into maintaining the relationship and investing more outside of it.

At this juncture, our original experience of passionate love is often a distant memory. The "I"reemerges, a state that feels a lot safer than our former blissful experience of "we."Nevertheless, some couples may not question their commitment; instead, they may see this as a strong message that things need to change.


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What to do in this relationship stage:

Clear the air and create space. Stop pushing problems under the rug and avoiding issues; as tiring as the repetitive arguments may feel, pushing them under the rug just leaves a lumpy carpet with much to trip over.

There may be a lot of negative energy in the relationship at this stage. To offset this, practice showing affection even when upset. Can you feel angry and be aware that something isn't working that you need to talk about—but still go to dinner and a movie together?

During the Merge, the brain notices only the positive and avoids anything that challenges that view. In the Disillusionment stage, the brain is zeroing in on all the relationship's deficiencies.

(Video) 5 Stages That Every Relationship Goes Trough

The things that are going right are ignored; the things going wrong get all our attention. Try to offset that process with an intentional gratitude practice.

The fourth stage of a relationship is called the Decision because you're at a breaking point. Emotional breakdowns, leaving the house for hours to get away from each other after a fight, and self-protective behaviors are all commonplace. So, too, is indifference and remoteness.

You know you're here when you begin to seriously contemplate leaving and even make plans for exiting the relationship. You may feel ready for an enticing new beginning with a new person.

In this stage, we make a decision—whether that's to leave, to stay and do nothing despite how miserable we are,or to stay and actually work on fixing this relationship.


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What to do in this relationship stage:

When I see couples at this stage, I always encourage them to consider taking a new path, which is to decide to do some work before making a choice about the relationship. Many times, couples feel they want out of the relationship, but when they learn the skills to communicate effectively, years of resentment or estrangement can fade away.

Doing the work involves understanding your own role in your relationship's deterioration and committing to real change. If we make this last choice, we can learn the lessons that will help us become the best people we can be as we give our relationship the chance to grow and deepen.

Even if couples do make the choice to part ways, they can often do so in a constructive way, wishing one another well and understanding their own part in what happened.


The fifth stage of a relationship is Wholehearted Love—when our relationship is at its healthiest and most rewarding. It's love's summertime, when the fruits of a couple's labors are fully ripe and ready to be savored. Couples experience true individuation, self-discovery, and the acceptance of imperfection in both themselves and their partners, recognizing there is no such thing as a "perfect match."

There's hard work still involved in this fifth stage of a relationship, but the difference is that couples know how to listen well and lean into uncomfortable conversations without feeling threatened or attacking one another.

In this stage, couples also begin to play together again. They can laugh, relax, and deeply enjoy each other. They even can experience some of the thrilling passion, joys, and sex of the Merge as each person rediscovers themselves in ways that let them fall in love with each other all over again.

What to do in this relationship stage:

Nourish yourself. The Wholehearted Love stage is fueled by the qualities of two wholehearted people: generosity, humor, flexibility, resilience, good boundaries, self-care, and a life with meaning and purpose.

Couples are able to stay in this stage as long as they're able to continually sustain their own wholeness as individuals, so make self-care and self-growth continual goals.

Know that there will be new challenges waiting somewhere in the distance but that you can be well-equipped to deal with them when they come. In the meantime, relish the journey.

RELATED: 11 Signs Your Relationship Is Getting Healthier


What are the 5 stages every relationship goes through? ›

The five stages of a relationship are the Merge, Doubt and Denial, Disillusionment, the Decision, and Wholehearted Love. Every single relationship moves through these five stages—though not only once.

What stages do you go through in a relationship? ›

Stages of Relationships by Months

Stage 1: The euphoric stage - 6 months to 24 months (2 years) Stage 2: The early attachment stage - 12 months (1 year) to 60 months (5 years) Stage 3: The crisis stage - 60 months (5 years) to 84 months (7 years) Stage 4: The deep attachment stage - 84 months (7 years) and beyond.

What are the 5 most important things in a relationship between? ›

5 essentials for a healthy relationship
  • Communication. One hallmark of a healthy relationship is the ability for partners to communicate openly with each other about how they're feeling. ...
  • Feeling heard. Having someone listen to us and feeling heard is important. ...
  • Disagreements. ...
  • Mutual intimacy. ...
  • Trust.

What is the most difficult stage in a relationship? ›

The first year of the relationship is the hardest stage, and even when you're living together, you still discover new things about each other every day. How to Survive: The key to getting past the discovery stage is also discovery. The discovery of your partner's imperfections and your imperfections as well.

How do you answer where is this relationship going? ›

These ideas will help the conversation go smoothly:
  1. Broach the issue clearly. It's too vague to ask, “So what's happening with this relationship?” Be as direct as possible. ...
  2. Choose the right situation. ...
  3. Don't panic if the response isn't exactly what you want. ...
  4. Allow for space. ...
  5. Resist the urge to ask for continual updates.
Oct 22, 2010

What are the 5 stages of falling in love? ›

Five Stages of Relationships
  • Attraction. The early days of the relationship are the honeymoon phase. ...
  • Curiosity. As the infatuation fades a bit, you start investigating your partner and who they really are as a person. ...
  • Crisis. ...
  • Deep attachment. ...
  • Commitment.
Nov 19, 2019

At what stage is a relationship serious? ›

In the most basic sense, a serious relationship is one in which you're completely committed to your partner; you're totally open and honest with one another; you trust each other deeply; and you're on the same page, not only in terms of your values and ethics but about your future together as well.

What are the 7 stages of relationship? ›

The 7 stages of a loving relationship
  • Discovery. At first, you may not realise what a treasure you have found. ...
  • Hide and seek. In this second stage, you both have hopes and fears. ...
  • Imperfection. ...
  • Trusting. ...
  • Resting. ...
  • Sharing. ...
  • Intermingling.
Dec 3, 2021

What are the 5 bonding stages for a man? ›

Appreciation, infatuation, attraction, impression, and conviction are the 5 bonding stages for a man.

What's the 3 most important things in a relationship? ›

All healthy relationships share the following three core components: Mutual respect. Mutual trust. Mutual affection.

What is the 1 most important thing in a relationship? ›

1. Trust. One of the most important parts of a relationship is to trust one another completely. You have to be able to trust that they won't stray and you trust them with your feelings.

What are the 4 most important things in a relationship? ›

Without further ado, here are four things that are needed for a healthy relationship: respect, equality, safety, and trust. Each of these components can manifest in healthy ways or in unhealthy ways in any relationship, and are built with actions as much as words.

What stage do most couples break up? ›

The likelihood of a breakup jumps down as the second and again the third years of a relationship pass. But the fourth year of a couple's life is just as likely as the third to end in departure. It's only after a couple reaches the 5th year of their relationship that the likelihood of break up falls sharply.

What's the hardest month in a relationship? ›

What month is the hardest in a relationship? The one and two month milestone are seemingly the hardest. There might be times you say to yourself, "I don't want a relationship like this," While you can look at all the dating advice out there, getting to know someone can be hard.

Why do most relationships end? ›

The main reasons why relationships fail are loss of trust, poor communication, lack of respect, a difference in priorities, and little intimacy. This article discusses why each may cause a relationship to come to an end.

Where are you going vs Where are you going to? ›

Both of the phrases are correct although the first is usually used when you know someone is going to a place and the second when you don't know if they are going to an actual place. Example: Your friend mentions they are going out shopping, you ask "Where are you going to?".

What is the question answer relationship? ›

The QUESTION–ANSWER RELATIONSHIP (QAR) is a question answering and generating strategy that improves comprehension by helping students understand the different types of questions.

How do I ask what we are in a relationship? ›

Oftentimes, the “what are we” talk comes from a discrepancy in the relationship, leading to one person wanting clarity. Be direct and simply say, “I'm having a really great time with you, and I'm interested in ….” Then, ask the other person if they feel the same way. Don't leave any room for confusion.

At what stage do you fall in love? ›

Key points

The early stages of falling in love can be summarized into three feelings: euphoria, personal endangerment, and exhaustion due to the first two. The euphoric feeling of falling in love is biological and hormone-based.

What are the stages of lasting love? ›

In Love Cycles, veteran couples therapist Linda Carroll presents a groundbreaking model of the five natural stages of romantic relationships — the Merge, Doubt and Denial, Disillusionment, Decision, and Wholehearted Love — and a guide for navigating through them toward lasting love.

What are the 5 stages of life? ›

Life stages are the ages and stages we go through as we learn and grow, from infancy to adulthood.
Life stages
  • Prenatal/infancy. From conception through the earliest years of life or babyhood. ...
  • Early childhood. ...
  • School age. ...
  • Transition to adulthood. ...
  • Adulthood. ...
  • Aging.

How do you know if he wants to marry you? ›

Signs Your Partner Wants to Get Married
  • They Talk About Their Parent's Happy Marriage.
  • They Are Planning Your Life Together.
  • They've Been Engaged Before.
  • They Want Unprotected Sex.
  • They Talk About Their Wedding Plans.
  • They Want You to Meet the Family.
  • Ask About Your Partner's Future Goals.
  • Be Honest About What You Want.
Nov 30, 2022

How do I know if my relationship is progressing? ›

Your time together is a sure thing.

"You know that you both want to be seeing each other on a regular basis," Hartstein says. "They text you back; they make and keep plans; so do you," Melamed adds. "Attendance is mandatory in a serious relationship—you need to show up every damn day.

How do you know if a man is serious about you? ›

7 Signs To Tell if a Guy Is Serious About You
  • He Listens to You. If a guy is serious about you, he will really listen and he won't take anything you say for granted. ...
  • He Makes Future Plans. ...
  • He Checks Up on You. ...
  • He Helps You with Any Problem. ...
  • He Makes You a Priority. ...
  • He Does Thoughtful Things. ...
  • He Introduces You to His Friends.

What are the 5 areas of relationships? ›

If you want to be that #relationshipgoals couple, here are 5 essentials for having a healthy relationship.
  • Communication. You've definitely heard the very cliché “communication is key.” But here's the thing – it's a cliché for a reason. ...
  • Respect. ...
  • Boundaries. ...
  • Trust. ...
  • Support.

What is stage 6 in a relationship? ›

The Sixth and last stage: Real Love

You can rely on each other but also have your own autonomy. You can be in love with each other but also do your own thing and then bring it back into your relationship to enhance and nourish it. There's an acceptance between you that a good relationship requires hard work.

What makes men fall in love? ›

Physical attraction, sexual compatibility, empathy, and emotional connection are key to making a man fall in love with a woman.

What is the strongest relationship bond? ›

Of all human bonds, the maternal bond (mother–infant relationship) is one of the strongest. The maternal bond begins to develop during pregnancy; following pregnancy, the production of oxytocin during lactation increases parasympathetic activity, thus reducing anxiety and theoretically fostering bonding.

What makes a man feel bonded to a woman? ›

Men Need Love and Affection

In plain language: Men often feel most loved by the women in their lives when their partners hug them, kiss them, smile at them, and explicitly offer gratitude, praise, and words of affection. Men also feel loved and connected through sexuality, often to a greater degree than women do.

What is Stage 7 in a relationship? ›

Stage 7: Crisis and Recovery in a Relationship

And that's the crisis and recovery stage. That can be any time when there's a big transition, any time there's trauma within the relationship. It can be a trauma outside of the relationship. You need to navigate it or repair it.

What are 5 aspects of a healthy relationship? ›

Healthy relationships involve honesty, trust, respect and open communication between partners and they take effort and compromise from both people. There is no imbalance of power. Partners respect each other's independence, can make their own decisions without fear of retribution or retaliation, and share decisions.

What are the 5 elements of love? ›

We all give and receive love in 5 different ways: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. These are called 'love languages' - a concept created by Dr. Gary Chapman through his long-time work as a marriage counsellor.

What is the 5 relationship model? ›

These are (a) the working alliance, (b) the transference/countertransference relationship, (c) the developmentally needed/reparative relationship, (d) the person- to-person relationship, and (e) the transpersonal relationship.

What are the 3 parts of a successful relationship? ›

All healthy relationships share the following three core components:
  • Mutual respect.
  • Mutual trust.
  • Mutual affection.

Is Year 7 the hardest in a relationship? ›

The 7-Year Itch is the idea that marriages start to decline or end in divorce around the seven-year mark due to boredom or even unhappiness. Either one or both partners can feel the 7-Year Itch and can be produced by several different factors, including: Lack of communication. Miscommunication.

What is the three month rule? ›

People in new relationships should wait three months before thinking long-term. Important discoveries about another are usually made in that three-month period. Don't bother worrying if a man is husband-material until you really know him.

What is the butterfly stage in a relationship? ›

Stage 1: Butterflies.

This kind of obsessive thinking about someone and the state of your relationship is "happy anxiety," according to eHarmony. You can't get the person out of your head, but even more than that, you're thinking about the image you're projecting as well because you want to win them over.

What is Stage 3 in a relationship? ›

Stage 3: Attachment

After the wild feelings of lust, and then the excitement of attraction, then comes attachment. The attachment phase helps couples grow bonds and feel connected to each other. It is where people decide to depend on their partner.

What does Stage 3 mean in a relationship? ›

The third stage of a relationship is the stability stage, which is where you realize that you cannot change your partner and that you do not want to, either. “Stability occurs when you are trying to vary things and make it exciting, because it is not stable to do the same things everyday like a robot,” Libby says.


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