The Phases of Relationships

 In relationship counselling

Turning Points

The Phases of Relationships

All people change over time. We are familiar with the way children change through their physical growth and the development of their personality.

We are, however, less aware of the ways adults change. These changes are less visible and less obvious.

If you were to think back five, ten or twenty years ago you would find your attitudes, your expectations of life, your self-confidence and your interests would have changed in many ways.

Change for adults is gradual, but is still very real. Because adults change, their relationship will also change.

People sometimes complain that their partner has changed. ‘They’re not the person I met all those years ago!’ No – they’re not. Chances are they have changed.

Relationships and Change

Most relationships change a great deal over the years. It is important for couples to realise this, and to be ready for change. Otherwise, perfectly normal changes in their relationship may be seen as a threat or disappointment. This can lead to tension and difficulty in their relationship.

Three types of change occurs in relationships:

  1. Changes in the pattern of the relationship
  2. Changes caused by the stage of life the couple has reached – the `milestones and hurdles’ of committed relationships
  3. Changes caused by some of the unexpected events that can occur in anyone’s life, such as the unexpected death of a family member.

This page will briefly describe each type of change. Although these changes happen to many marriages, there will be exceptions. The important thing is not how well your relationship fits the following pattern, but how well you are coping with whatever changes have occurred for you.

Changes in Relationships

In love …

Many relationships begin with an exciting and often intense period of falling in love. This is a time when couples wear rose-tinted glasses, they idealise each other, can’t spend enough time together, and make light of any differences between them. Love will conquer all. The first phase of the relationship is important as well as enjoyable.

It provides a powerful bonding of the couple that will carry them through more testing times in the future.

Recognising differences …

Eventually couples move onto the next stage of their relationship. This can happen early in their relationship or sometimes not for a year or two. Couples begin to be aware of the differences between them, and become more realistic in their view of each other. Arguments that are more than `lovers tiffs’ will often occur.

This phase can be quite frightening for some couples, especially if they weren’t expecting it, believing that the honeymoon would last for ever. The earlier experience of being in love, and the bonding together of the couple, now comes into play and serves to re-assure couples that their relationship will survive.

I want to be me …

In the previous phase of their relationship, couples began learning how to be two separate individuals within a relationship. This process continues for most couples in the third phase, when much of the energy of the two partners will go into establishing their own lifestyle – as parents, in their work and in their interests outside the home.

This is often a time when the relationship seems to coast along and the partners want less from each other. They know the relationship is there, and it is safe to be busy in the ‘outside world’.

Together by choice …

The fourth phase is a process of finding each other again, of seeking greater intimacy and deepening the relationship. This is vastly different to the intimacy formed in the earlier part of their relationship.

The partners now have a stronger sense of themselves as individuals. They are choosing to be together, to be dependent and intimate at times, rather than needing to be together.

This phase represents the end of the journey from being “in love” to “loving”. There is a growing balance between ‘I’ and ‘us’. The relationship is based on choice rather than need – two partners, who are not afraid to be independent, who choose to be together and to be intimate.

Milestones and Hurdles

Whilst couples are working out how to be together and yet still be two individuals, other changes will also be demanding their attention. All relationships have a series of turning points and hurdles they must get over. At each of these turning points practical changes in the couple’s lifestyle will need to be made. There are also less obvious challenges to the couple’s relationship.

Becoming a couple

The first hurdle a couple has to face is the task of becoming a couple in the sense of placing a boundary around their relationship.

This involves separating from the families they each grew up in. This is not always easy to achieve. Parents are still important, but being a son or a daughter has to become second to being a partner. Otherwise, jealousy or resentment from their partner may develop.

From partners to parents

For most couples, the next turning point is the birth of the first child. Many practical adjustments need to be made. There is also a change in the couples relationship as parents. Until now they have been able to focus their attention and energy on each other. This now has to be shared with their baby.
Less of their effort goes into being a couple and instead goes into being a mother or father. This is a point when some relationships run into difficulty as some couples find it hard to adjust. Resentment and hurt can creep in, with one or both partners feeling that they are no longer cared for in the way they were before the baby’s birth.

Wives may feel that their husbands don’t help as much as they should, especially when the demands of motherhood lead to exhaustion. Husbands often feel they are playing second fiddle to the baby and that their wives no longer have the same interest in them as companions and lovers.


Many practical changes in family life occur when the children become adolescents. How does this affect the couple’s relationship with each other? Parents are faced with their children’s sexuality in adolescence. This means couples will need to re-examine their own relationship and how satisfying it is to them, both emotionally and sexually. Adolescence also signals that soon the couple will be left alone together as their children become independent. This raises questions about the quality of the couple’s relationship.

Is the bond between the couple strong enough to maintain their relationship when they no longer have to put so much energy into being parents? Some couples find that they have drifted further apart than they had realised, and a crisis is triggered off in their relationship. This may lead to separation, but it can also lead to a fresh commitment to the relationship and a growth in intimacy. Adolescence is a time of questioning for parents as well as for adolescents!

For more information on parenting, go to the Family Skills Courses/Parenting Programs page.


With people living longer and retiring younger, more of their relationship will be lived in retirement. We tend to focus on the practical aspects of retirement such as housing and financial needs. Retirement, however, also poses yet another hurdle for the relationship.

How will they spend their time? How much time they spend together and how much apart? What joint interests will they have, and how much will each partner pursue their own interests? How will decisions be made now that finances are more restricted? How will the domestic chores, from which there is no retirement, be shared?

Unless these sorts of questions are faced and talked about, couples may become disappointed and withdrawn. There is less divorce in the post-retirement age group, but there is often considerable hidden marital unhappiness.

Unexpected Changes

Nobody knows what the future holds. Many couples find themselves faced with unexpected changes in their lives that present a challenge or threat to their relationship.

Common examples are migration, an inheritance or business failure that has a big impact on the financial situation or a serious illness or death, perhaps of a child. Whatever the event, the couple need to adjust to it, and come to terms with their feelings.

If they don’t, the issue may become one that simmers beneath the surface of the relationship, and eventually leads to them growing apart instead of becoming closer.

All relationships change over time

Couples who can talk about how their relationship is changing will be more in control of the direction it is taking. They are less likely to be caught out by change, and will find it easier to adapt to each new stage of their relationship as it comes along.

Sometimes the issues are too complex, or the feelings too painful or confusing, for talking together to be successful. Counselling can, at these times, be of great value.

A relationship counsellor acts as an independent guide to help the couple talk things through. The presence of the counsellor makes it possible to say the things that are otherwise too hard to put into words.

If you feel your relationship has changed and you are concerned, consider talking to a counsellor.
It makes good sense to spend a little time talking to someone about your concerns instead of waiting until things get worse.

Ending relationships without using violence or abuse

Ending a relationship can be a traumatic experience for all people involved, and it can also sometimes be a dangerous time. Sometimes the use of violence or abuse can become worse around separation, as one partner takes out their anger and frustration on the other, or tries to use violence, threats or coercion to get the partner to stay.


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