Relationship has been viewed by researchers as a sequence of developmental stages, a process through which the partners strive for balance between their need for individual autonomy and their desire for togetherness. This particular description of relational stages has been adapted from the work of California psychologist Ellyn Bader.
The better a couple understands the goals and challenges of each stage, the more successfully they can move towards deeper intimacy while remaining true to themselves, their needs and values. As you might expect, these stages do not unfold in a smooth linear fashion, and there is often stress and angst along the way.
Stage 1: Coming together or symbiosis
Developmental task: Exclusive bonding
During this initial, blissful merging experience, “We” and “Oneness” hold center stage. We focus on on what we share and have in common; partners are on their best behavior, showing their best sides. Each experiences most intensely the ecstasy of giving and being given to by someone who has chosen him/her for his/her specialness. Our own beliefs, behaviors and personality may be temporarily suspended in order for the “We” to become primary. Differences are minimized, and similarities are emphasized.
During this romantic period, love is somewhat blind. This is a crucial stage as it contributes to forging a strong, exclusive bond based on trust and togetherness.
Stage 2: Differentiation
Developmental task: Managing anxiety over emerging differences.
Eventually, as each individual re-emerges, dormant differences begin to emerge. The partners may begin to experience disillusionment and disappointment as they discover that their beloved is far from perfect. They begin to identify values, desires, and behaviors in the other that are disturbing or irritating. The partners may begin to crave more time alone or more time with other friends.
This can be a difficult and stressful time, and couples cope differently. Some rise to the challenge by developing effective means for dealing with differences. Others, yearning for the earlier blissful state of “symbiosis,” hide or deny differences to avoid conflict, or engage in angry, escalating arguments, hoping to convince their partner that their opinion/approach is the correct one. Still others decide to end the relationship.
Where the couple shares a fundamental and strong compatibility, these sources of tension and differences can actually hold the greatest promise for personal growth and deepened intimacy.
Stage 3: Exploration
Developmental task: Moving from “We” back to “I”
Partners who are able to resist the pressure to return to a symbiotic state, begin to reestablish their own identity and self-esteem that are independent of how the relationship is faring. The “We” loses its dominance, and the balance shifts strongly toward the individual. This vital and important stage can present a real crisis, as it may suggest that love and caring have all but disappeared, and the partners may often feel isolated and emotionally disconnected.
When timing is different for each partner, the difficulty of this stage is exacerbated: The more one distances, the more the other may cling. When both distance simultaneously, the relationship may begin to feel more like that of roommates than lovers. The objective of this stage is to redefine and sustain one’s identity under stress, a process that will bring greater richness to the relationship and form a new foundation for reconnection.
Stage 4: Reconnection
Developmental task: Achieving a more sustainable level of intimacy
In this stage the partners have strengthened their separate identities and learned to maintain their own points of view without hostility. Each partner can think more productively about differences and disagreements rather than reacting (and over-reacting) automatically and negatively. This is often accompanied by an enlivened sexual relationship, and greater feeling of mutual support. Frequent statements of “I need” are replaced with “I would like,” and every disagreement is not viewed as a harsh, personal rejection.
Though there may be moments of back and forth oscillation, this is a time when “We”-ness takes on a new and refreshing quality, one which includes a respect for, and tolerance of, the differences of two separate individuals.
Stage 5: Synergy
Developmental task: Achieving a healthy balance of independence and inter-dependence
Intimacy deepens as the partners increase their skill at managing their emotional reactions when differences arise and cause tension. They are now capable of, and committed to, relating in ways that are true to their most deeply-held values and beliefs. They can actively support their partner’s right to do the same, even if this is at times uncomfortable or inconvenient. The flow between the individual and the “We” is becoming easier and more natural.
The relationship is now more vital than either partner separately. Each benefits from the synergy, and the “We” takes on an energy of its own. Partners desire to create and give back to the world. Deep intimacy, vulnerability and emotional sustenance abound.