Stages and Challenges in Relationships

There is evidence that relationships follow a developmental path. Understanding this will help in understanding challenges in relationships. Some people negotiate these stages relatively easily but the growing pains of any relationship can bring up traumatic issues for individuals.  Our early childhood influences our ability to negotiate the changes because these stages mirror the tasks in early childhood.  If our developmental tasks have been interrupted or we have been wounded early in our lives, it will be revisited in our adult relationships. These stages provide a general guide that I find helpful in my work with couples and individuals. I give some examples of the kinds of challenges some couples face at each stage but it is by no means exhaustive.


The first stage is called symbiosis. This typically occurs at the beginning of  a relationship. Both partners are exploring the possibilities of compatibility and creating a life together. This is where couples are creating a sense of  ‘we-ness’, by bonding over the similarities they have and creating an identity of togetherness. It is here that we fall in love, explore the possibilities and dreams of a relationship, and share our innermost thoughts and feelings.  During this stage partners often have a sense that they have found the person who fits. There is little demand for change and differences are overlooked. There is a mutual give and take with both parties nurturing the relationship and giving attention to each other’s needs. When both partners feel that the other has nurtured them a good foundation is established to develop into the next phases of relationship. One of the problems and difficulties that arise at this stage is due to the fact that the relationship contains a lot of projection and fantasy about each other. When individuals come into relationship with a strong desire to find someone to ‘fix’ their wounds, or ease their anxiety of being alone the symbiotic fantasy can obscure incompatibility and unresolved personal issues. This makes transitioning into the next stages very difficult.


The second stage is called Differentiation. Here both partners become aware of their differences. Disappointment is experienced as the symbiotic fantasy dissolves. This is a time that the couple begins to live their everyday life with each other and conflict arises. Differentiation will begin to arise after a significant commitment has occurred such as the first year of marriage or when partners move in together.  There is still a focus on the relationship and how each are different from the other. Each partner is developing self-definition through identifying their uniqueness.  Negotiating differences is an important challenge at this time, as the couple develops their skills to deal with conflict. Sometimes individuals cannot tolerate conflict or being disillusioned and will abruptly leave the relationship in search of the next symbiotic fantasy.  This I believe is one of the most important challenges to relationships – coming to terms with our differences and supporting each other’s needs even when we don’t agree, or they don’t do things the way we do.


Most difficulties in relationships occur in these first two stages. Partners can get stuck in symbiosis and avoid differentiation by becoming enmeshed and there are two ways that this happens. Firstly, there is the couple who will avoid conflict by attempting to anticipate every mood and need each other has. Relationships are based on mind-reading and indirect communication. There is a lot of fear in the relationship, fear of separation, fear of their needs not being met, fear of not meeting their partners needs.


Secondly, enmeshment can occur by being hostile and dependent. They cannot separate and cannot resolve their differences. In this situation there is a lot of blame for not meeting their needs and often the conflict escalates into constant arguing and bickering.  There is constant attack in an effort to get the other to change and create symbiosis. This kind of merging reflects the statement ‘there is only one person in this relationship and that is ME!’ Arguments often centre around what is right and what is wrong.


The third stage is called practicing. This is where the individuals have a firm foundation in the couple relationship and take time to explore their individual pursuits and development. Partners become focused on themselves, career, school, activities, separate friends. The relationship provides a safe haven to return to after being out in the world. The couple are challenged to maintain the relationship bond while they learn to support each other’s individual pursuits.


There are a number of ways that difficulties arise at this stage.  If partners are threatened by separation they may try to control each other’s individual pursuits.  Individual’s need to go outside the relationship often occurs at different times. So one partner is still relationship focused and the other needs more separateness. The practicing stage can be a way to avoid differentiation by going outside the relationship as a way of not dealing with their differences and either become two people leading separate lives or conflict occurs as one tries to pull the other back into symbiosis. It is common for affairs to develop at this time.


Sometimes couples will meet when they are focused on self-development and forming a strong bond or togetherness is missed.  Especially where individuals have a fear of being engulfed, invaded or lose themselves when they get too close to someone may find symbiosis and differentiation very difficult. It is not unusual for these couples to live apart for many years and maintain a ‘dating’ status. Long distant relationships can also be an expression of fears of getting close to someone and about the partners need to maintain a separation. This can work for a long time for some couples but when partners come into therapy at this stage it is usually because ‘something’ is missing.  That something is a deeper intimacy and the task here is to go back to the missed stages.


The next stage is called rapprochement which means a reestablishing of intimacy. At this time when partners have established a stronger sense of themselves and separate identity there can develop a deeper intimacy between them. There is a balance of connection and separation, a coming and going in the relationship. Partners will experience a greater vulnerability and childhood issues can achieve greater resolution because there is more safety to be oneself. There is less fear of being engulfed by a symbiotic intimacy and therefore can risk being closer. The challenges come where one is still at the practicing stage and wanting to hold onto their individuality. An increased need for intimacy can be interpreted as having to sacrifice ones self for the relationship for the partner who has not moved on from practicing. The partner who wants more contact and intimacy may feel frustrated and unsatisfied in the relationship. Negotiating their differences is usually easier at this stage because they have learnt to negotiate differences earlier and have developed their style of conflict resolution. At this point the couple may engage in shared projects or causes.


The last stage involves a mutual interdependence. The couple are continuing to learn about giving to each other and the relationship is based on supporting each other’s growth rather than need. There is a strong foundation that provides constancy and the fantasy has been reconciled with the real.


Each couple will find particular challenges depending on who they are,  childhood issues and the circumstances of life that trigger responses to each other. Problems between couples arise when stages are skipped or there is a difficulty moving from one to the next.


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