The Inevitable Stages of Relationships

By Linda Mthenjane

‘I don’t love you, like I used to…’

We grow up thinking that our goal in relationships is to find “the one”.  And when we eventually meet someone special,  it’s easy to belive that the honeymoon phase will never end. But love isn’t sustained by the heady first moments and (pheromones).  Psychologist Linda Mthenjane unpacks  the inevitable stages love undergoes to reach maturity.


Understanding  your contribution to the frustrations in your relationship, committing to being in it for the marathon rather than the sprint and understanding what your partner needs to heal and grow will bring you closer to your beloved.  

When we meet someone who knocks us off our feet, makes our palms sweat and simply takes us breath away, in those moments we cannot imagine that this intense chemical reaction may  come to an end. 

What many don’t realise in those intoxicating early stages of a relationship is that we are on endogenous drugs. In fact  neurobiologist like Stan Tatkin call it  courtship brain or a love fog– basically an addicted brain. We have  dopamine, noradrenaline - testosterone oxytocic, neurochemicals  coursing through our brain and this changes the way we feel, the way we see our beloved other.  What we know for sure is that we  are not operating from our clear-thinking brain. 

For some people this stage lasts 3 months others three years but you can rest assured it will change – with the introductions of family, children, life. This chemical reaction will ebb. So, what does it take then you would ask to keep these flames going – in the face of Life, “reality” what I call – did you get the milk and bread hum drum of life. Is it possible to keep this spark alive? 

Our starting point is really just to understand the natural process of the ebbs and flows of all that is intimate . Knowing and talking about stages of a relationship helps us  better navigate this journey . 

Therapists  such as Gary Chapman , Terry Real,  Ester Perel and Harville Hendrix have given these different names, the essence is clear :  it is a time when we are 1) connected,  then 2) disconnected and 3) more deeply and richly connected, if we put in the work we will reap the benefits. Let’s take a walk though these stages.  

The process I describe below in by no means linear -I have seen couples move from spring to winter in a matter of an afternoon – the seasons are largely cyclical – but the more we learn to repair well and quickly  the deeper the relationship becomes. 

STAGE 1 -  In Love or  Love without Knowledge – 

When we fall in love our brain becomes flooded with neurochemicals such as phenylethylamine. These neurochemicals increase our positive outlook, diminish pain, and cause us to feel safe and calm. They anesthetise us so that we can commit to a relationship. When we fall in love we may feel a sense of oneness or completion with our beloved. Some call it a soul connection . This ‘love addiction’ as termed by Pia Melody’s like a fix. It also usually at this stage of the relationship that we don’t take note of each other’s flaws  - those aspects of the person that leaves sweetener packets on the counter, talks non-stop, sometimes drinks too much or is stingy at the wrong times! In this stage we definitely  have poor judgement of our beloved,

Gary Chapman calls this the “Summer of Relationships”  The birds are singing, everything is in full bloom, and everything is beautiful. Things are sizzling.  Our partner can do no wrong and all we see is the good. In Zulu we say – luse pink uthando.  

STAGE 2 Disillusionment OR  Knowledge with no Love 

But as life happens change can happen at any time caused by any of life’s many fluctuations, such as a new baby,  a new job, fear of losing work, losing work, death of a child, death of a parent or inlaws take their grip. Life will intervene in this bubble. Reality will set in, we look at our partner we think now that we really know our partner, we don’t really like what we see. We conclude before they finish their sentences, we make assumptions on who they are what they meant when they said or did this or the other. It is sometimes called by Harville Hendrix the Power Struggle or the Winter of the relationship by Gary Chapman.  The phenylethylamine begins to wear off and there is an intense feeling of disillusionment , almost as if we were fooled  into being with the wrong partner. We think that if we had made the right , different choice we would still be experiencing romantic love. We notice what a slob they are, how they leave their socks lying around, how they chew with their mouths open, how we don’t really agree on anything.

The truth is that the power struggle is inevitable and is a natural consequence of the brain’s withdrawal from these love chemicals. We begin to get defensive and focus on protecting ourselves instead of engaging in the relationship. We even begin to dislike many of the things that made us fall in love in the first place. When we fell in love we may have been intrigued by our partner’s fun loving personality, which we may now find that same trait  loud and irresponsible..  

You might find that you're starting to have some resentment creep in because you're not resolving conflicts well. You're still in love with them but the volume knob on feeling “in love” has been turned down. If couples don't take care to address the cracks that are starting to creep into the foundation, many will drift apart. 

And bolstered by our feelings of entitlement will go on  to  find a matched partner or confusion at having gotten it so wrong  we may struggle to reconcile the benefits of staying versus the pain of starting over. If a love interest beckons with Stage 1 hormones,  it may be difficult to resist  the impulsive to leap out into something else – a relationship that will most likely end up in similar dissatisfaction. 

Why does it have to be this way? Did we make a mistake? The truth is that all couples experience these relationship stages to some degree. What I have found is that  committed relationships  are  one of the greatest opportunities you will find to grow and heal. From a psychological perspective we are subconsciously looking for a partner that will help make us more whole and complete. In order for this to occur, we are attracted to someone who will best stimulate our growth. This person will push our buttons and trigger some of our deepest wounds, usually from childhood. Yet if we work through these issues we can achieve enormous personal growth for ourselves and the relationship. 

Receiving outside counsel from a professional or trusted friends can be very beneficial.  You can get support to  work through your conflicts,  understand how to meet each other's needs effectively, how to communicate better, how to spend more quality time together.. Your relationship needs a lot of work during winter so you have to dig in , giving it the time and energy, it needs. If you do that, you can come out of winter and go into spring and back into a deeper more realistic summer not driven by hormones but by intentional relational behaviour. 

STAGE 3 - A Conscious  Relationship OR Knowing Love  

Having successfully negotiated that particular conflict the opportunity exists to begin to feel more connected to our partners. The key is how we are able to repair well. Here we each take the self-responsibility to get to know each other, be less threatening to each other’s nervous system, be able to co-regulate each other. Knowing each other’s imperfection and loving them regardless. Couples that wake up and become conscious begin the journey to the third stage of relationships which is called Real Love or the Conscious relationship. 

One of the  most important ingredients to a long-time successful relationship is when couples are able to answer the question – what do I need to do for you so that I can get what I need?   Conscious couples in this stage will tolerate the “otherness” of their partner with much more grace and generosity. Together they will learn to explore their issues, finding the balance between feeling safe enough to meet their partner’s needs, holding onto their own separate self, all whilst feeling un-threatened by their partner’s uniqueness. 

Becoming conscious of the power struggle, no longer getting locked inside the issue, and seeing the big picture enables couples to become more balanced. 

Knowing these cyclic  stages of relationships is incredibly helpful for couples who may become despondent once they start to face a rough patch in their relationship. Or may even believe that the relationship has prematurely come to its end.

Understanding  your contribution to the frustrations in your relationship, committing to being in it for the marathon rather than the sprint and understanding what your partner needs to heal and grow will bring you closer to your beloved.  

Deciding on a daily at times moment to moment basis, to mindfully choose the one you are with, will begin to lead one to experience love on a deeper, more mature level providing  hope to weather the storm and confidence to commit to cultivating a deeply satisfying relationship. 

About the Author

Linda Mthenjane is a registered clinical psychologist, a writer and mental health advocate, with over 24 years of experience . Her “ikigai” is to help people live more connected and relational lives. She is a qualified clinical psychologist, a certified relationship therapist and coach, passionate about developing and nurturing healthy relationships , contributing to the development and upholding of the fabric of society.