Because we, as individuals, are all different it follows that all relationships are different. Some can start very quickly from the first meeting to intense involvement, while others are more cautiously approached. While many relationships thrive, some can founder through lack of awareness, understanding and communication between the couple. So while there may be no typical phases of a relationship, if we can imagine for a moment that we could identify a characteristic pattern then it might look something like this:
We have the wonderful feeling that we may have found someone who could be special, maybe even our ideal partner. It's a time of discovery and revelation and joy in finding shared likes and dislikes, going to new places and doing new things together. There may be intense physical and emotional passion. Everything may not be perfect and everything may not go smoothly all of the time, but it all feels worth it.
In this stage we might genuinely believe that our partner could perceive and fulfil our profoundest needs and satisfy our deepest desires. They make us feel valued and understood and we, in turn, feel we value and understand them.
This stage can go on for quite some time, maybe even a year or two; making plans to live together, to marry, have children, to travel, to start a business or to become involved in a shared sport or hobby. Or it may come to an end within a short space of time, but during this period, there is a common aim, a sense of togetherness.
But then something disappointing happens: a conflict develops or traits and habits that we haven't seen before in our partner begin to emerge. Perhaps we now realise that all along we've been suppressing some of our needs in order to make things work and the plan happen, giving way or compromising to a degree that we may have come to regret.
Now our feelings are dominated by unease and uncertainty - 'This isn't what I thought it would be... this isn't what I wanted'.
So there can come a time of disappointment and struggle perhaps made more protracted by a reluctance to acknowledge or accept our true feelings. We're assailed with doubts about our choice of partner and the viability of a happy future together. We begin to wonder whether we should stay and try to make it work or leave the relationship and try again with someone else. After all, we've invested so much in the present relationship. This stage can be further complicated if there are pressing decisions to be made. Perhaps one or other has the emotional or biological imperative to have children. 'Shall I have children? Shall I have children with this person?'.
But the misgivings persist: 'Is there somebody out there who'd be better for me?' or 'I need to be single again for a while and have some uncomplicated fun'. But the issue is that we either understand and work through the problems and our own part in them so that the relationship thrives, or we go into Stage Three, accepting the disappointment and finding a way to live within an unsatisfactory relationship.
Eventually if you do decide to stay together, without addressing the challenges of Stage Two, the relationship settles into the pattern of a fixed routine. Maybe children have come along, or family and friends think the relationship is 'a good thing', or a house is bought and effort is put into paying the mortgage – meaning is given around money and possessions. It could be that we simply get used to the conflict, which goes on more or less continuously. At other times we develop a strategy for avoiding each other and live essentially separate lives under the same roof. The need for protection from deep emotional pain predominates in Stage Three. The relationship becomes predictable and stagnant as uncomfortable and painful surprises are avoided. For some people this stage can be the end of the line, the culmination and final state of what once promised to be an exciting and productive partnership.
If we find ourselves caught in the uncertainty and pain of Stage Two of a relationship, or locked into the stultifying routine of Stage Three, there is a way out. We can take the decision to become conscious of what our real needs, and those of our partner's, are in the relationship, learn to recognise and accept them and to communicate them clearly. We can learn to become more aware of the person our partner really is and to meet rather than to frustrate or simply tolerate his or her needs. There is no need to simply resign ourselves to an unsatisfactory and unfulfilling life. A more rewarding option is to develop a real and effective understanding of what is actually going on for ourselves and for our partner.