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What Are the Four Stages of Relationships?

four stages of relationships

If you’ve been in a long-term relationship, then you’re familiar with the ups and downs of a romantic relationship. It’s normal to start off riding high with sparks in your eyes. Every minute you spend with them feels like the best minute of your life! And then things settle down, and you find a happy routine. Eventually, though, that routine feels suffocating, and you wonder if you’ve made the right choice. You start to fight more and may drift apart. However, if you make it through this turbulent time of questioning, you’ll find yourself in a relationship deeper than ever before. 

These are common experiences, but is there any science behind them? Yes! For the past few decades, Helen Fisher, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and Senior Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute, and Lucy Brown, Ph.D., a Clinical Professor in Neurology at Einstein College of Medicine in New York, have been working to explain the phases of human romantic love—why we love, how we love, and what happens when we love. Through a series of studies looking at the brain activity of people as they fall in love and continue a relationship together, they mapped out the course. 

This is what they found.

What are the 4 stages of a relationship?

Most relationships track along the same 4 stages that are spread out between the initial meeting and 15 years later. During these stages, the brain releases different hormones that help you fall in love and form deeper connections. The stages are: 

  • The Euphoric Stage: 6 months to 2 Years
  • The Early Attachment Stage: 1 year to 5 years
  • The Crisis Stage: 5 years to 7 years
  • Deep attachment: 7 years and beyond

This article dives into these four stages and provides tips to help you and your partner get to that deep attachment stage.

Stage 1—Euphoric Stage: 6 Months to 2 Years

This is the classic Honeymoon phase. You still have butterflies when you meet them and sometimes your palms sweat. You can’t stop thinking about them, it even keeps you up at night. It feels like you have boundless energy, and you don’t care about anything besides seeing them again. 

You might see their flaws, but you just don’t care. Everything they do is okay because they make you feel so good. Flaws can be forgiven and forgotten. 

Fisher and Brown found a decrease in prefrontal cortex activity during this stage, particularly relating to judgment of other people. This stage is also marked by high levels of dopamine, producing a response in your brain akin to taking cocaine, according to some researchers. This phase is addicting, and some people break off their relationship once it fades to search for that next spark, or hit of dopamine. 

However, this phase can also be stressful. It’s a lot on your body, which is why it’s also known to increase feelings of angst and anxiety. 

This stage typically lasts between 6 months to 2 years, but for a small portion of the population (between 14 and 30%) it can last up to 15 years.

The Early Attachment Stage: 1 year to 5 years

During this stage, you start to settle into a routine and learn more about each other. You start becoming a part of each other's lives, rather than taking over it. Personal goals stand out more, and you may get into more arguments. You see their flaws more clearly now.

But, this is also the stage where true love starts to take place, at least in the brain. More advanced parts of your brain start to take over and produce neurochemicals such as vasopressin and oxytocin kick in. Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as “the love hormone”, and is increased after sex or skin-on-skin contact. Vasopressin is linked to behaviors that produce long-term, monogamous relationships. 

This stage involves memories of the good and bad, and often a deeper, richer love. It’s not just the feeling of love, it’s loving them: the good, the bad, the messy, and the beautiful.

The Crisis stage: 5 years to 7 years

Everyone will enter a crisis stage at some point. It is when couples drift away from each other, sometimes violently (in case of affairs or ending it to chase another love-high). It is the ultimate “test” of your relationship. Will your turn away from each other and lean further inward? 

This stage does not necessarily last 2 years. It will last however long it takes for a couple to work through their crisis. However, it typically occurs between 5 to 7 years into a relationship, sometimes called the “5 or 7 year itch”. 

Signs you’re in the crisis stage include:

  • More frequent arguments
  • Arguing about the same things 
  • An urge to see other people 
  • Discontentment in your relationship
  • Wondering if you made the right decision
  • Feeling like you see their flaws more clearly

If you are currently in the crisis stage, know that it is normal. You can choose to work through this stage with your partner, and you’ll likely come out the other side stronger for it. However, wether or not this relationship is good for you is your decision. 

If couples can make it through this initial stage they enter something even deeper:

Deep attachment: 7 years and beyond

The stage that will last the longest. At this point, you’ve handled the crisis together. You understand them for better and worse. You’re not blind to their faults, but you don’t hold their flaws against them either. Love is built on trust, understanding, and the knowledge that you will have each other’s backs forever. 

This deep attachment does not mean your relationship is void of conflict altogether. Instead, it means that you have formed a deeply committed bond of mutual trust. Conflict is less likely to result in the question “Should I leave them?”. You have tools you use to work through conflict as a couple together. You know you’ll be by each other’s side no longer what.

Can I stay in love forever?

Yes! A 2011 study found intense dopamine-rich activity in the same area of the brain for couples who have been together for decades as newly-in-love couples. This proves that you can be madly in love with your partner years after the initial “spark” wears off. 

Also, these researchers found that it is possible to reignite love. If you’ve drifted apart because of work, kids, and the daily stress of life, it is possible to reignite that love.

How to keep love alive?

Whether you’re navigating the crisis stage or trying to get some of the spark back from the euphoric stage, here are a few tips to keep the love alive: 

  1. Do new things together. Novelty has been shown to be a huge component in long-lasting, fulfilling love
  2. Surprise them. Remember when you were first dating, and you wanted to do all sorts of little things for your partner? Bring back that same energy. Buy them flowers, cook them dinner, tidy up their room, give them a back massage. . . it doesn’t have to be big! But little surprises will remind them of your love. 
  3. Respond to bids for connection: The Gottmans, a husband/wife pair that extensively studies couples and is known for creating the Gottman method of couples therapy, found that they were able to predict if a couple would get a divorce based on how frequently they responded to each other’s attempts at connection. For example, if one partner said “Oh, this is cool!”, they are asking their other partner to engage with them. A healthy relationship will turn inward, towards each other: “What is it?” An unhealthy relationship will ignore or block these bids: “I’m busy” or “not right now.” 
  4. Learn something new together: Your brain likes learning new things, it releases positive emotions, and when you learn new things with your partner, you’re associating your partner with those new things. Plus, you get to have a good time together!
  5. Laugh often: Laughing with your partner can increase relationship quality, closeness, and social support. So do things that make you laugh together!
  6. Learn their love language: Have you ever cleaned the house for your partner because you knew they had a long day, but it didn’t seem to help? While the gesture was probably appreciated, it wasn’t quite what they wanted. Love languages is a popular way to give and receive love in a way that is most meaningful to you. They are words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, gift giving, and acts of service. So while you may feel most loved when you’re receiving acts of service, they may prefer gift giving or quality time. Showing your partner the kind of love they respond to best helps them feel loved.

Express gratitude: Expressing gratitude might just be the golden ticket to the Deep Attachment stage. Studies have found that showing gratitude in a relationship improves connection and relationship satisfaction and predicts how much time you’ll spend together. So thank you today for everything your partner does.

Can couples therapy save my relationship?

Maybe you’re in the crisis stage or maybe you’re just going through a rough patch. Regardless, if your relationship is in trouble, there is hope. It is possible to get back to those butterfly feelings of new love and the stability of a secure attachment. 

While couples therapy is not a guaranteed cure to any of your relationship issues, it can help. Marriage therapy has a positive effect on 70% of the couples who attend. 

Couples therapy can help you: 

  • Heal from infidelity
  • Work through conflict and learn healthy conflict management skills
  • Deepen your attachment 
  • Provide good communication skills
  • Help you align your values and future goals 
  • Transition through a big life change 
  • Prepare for the next step, like having a kid or getting married 

Couples therapy is a tool you can use to help you and your partner heal and grow together. For more information, reach out to Lifebulb’s couples therapists. We can get you matched with a therapist who will meet your needs and help you towards your goals. 

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Conclusion

Relationships change as they age. It’s normal that you don’t feel exactly like you did when you first started dating. Remember to turn inward and towards each other when you have conflict. Conflict is a natural part of any relationship and not a sign that you’re doomed. Instead, work together to solve the conflict. You might find yourself with an even healthier and stronger relationship than before.

Frequently Asked Questions

 Relationships often develop and evolve through distinct stages. While experiences may vary, the common stages include: 1) The Euphoric stage, characterized by excitement and infatuation; 2) The Early Attachment stage, trust and commitment deepen; 3) The Crisis stage, where couples start to drift apart; and 4) The Deep Attachment Stage, marked by a sense of true partnership and mutual growth. Understanding these stages can help navigate the ups and downs of a relationship.

 Yes, it is possible to rekindle a relationship that has lost its spark. Rekindling a relationship requires both partners to be willing to put in the effort and communicate openly. Re-establishing shared interests, spending quality time together, and seeking professional support can all contribute to reigniting the connection and intimacy within a relationship.

 Building a healthy relationship requires ongoing effort and communication from both partners. Here are some key elements to consider: 1) Foster open and honest communication, encouraging active listening and expressing emotions respectfully. 2) Practice empathy and understanding, valuing each other's perspectives and needs. 3) Establish and respect boundaries, ensuring both individuals feel safe and respected. 4) Nurture trust and intimacy through quality time, affection, and shared experiences. 5) Foster a sense of partnership and teamwork in decision-making and problem-solving. Remember, healthy relationships are built on mutual respect, support, and ongoing commitment to growth and understanding.

 Yes, couples therapy can be a valuable resource to help save and strengthen relationships. A trained therapist can provide a safe and supportive environment for partners to explore their issues, improve communication skills, gain insight into patterns of behavior, and develop strategies to resolve conflicts. Couples therapy can enhance understanding, promote healthy compromise, and provide tools to navigate challenges, ultimately working toward a healthier and more fulfilling relationship. It is important to note that success in couples therapy relies on both partners' willingness to engage with the process and make positive changes.

At Lifebulb, we believe in the power of healthy relationships and offer guidance and support to individuals and couples striving to live their brightest lives. Our therapists are highly educated, experienced, and passionate about helping clients navigate the complexities of relationships and personal growth. We are here for you every step of the way.

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