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Healthy Relationship Stages

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Relationship stages follow a predictable developmental process. It is important to remember that whether or not the relationship fully develops depends on the investment of each partner – it doesn’t “just happen”. In fact, most relationships don’t make it to the final stage and very few make it to the third stage. According to divorce statistics, less than half make it out of the second stage. Healthy Relationships take work.

Stages of a Healthy Relationship

Human growth and development occurs in stages – We refer to them as developmental stages. There are developmental stages for every important aspect of being human:

  • Stages of Childhood
  • Stages of Adolescence
  • General Life Stages
  • Stages of a Healthy Relationship

We use these stages as a compass to mark where we are in the process of growth. We can also have some idea of what to expect… or what’s “normal” in a healthy relationship for a specific stage of growth. You may be interested to know that each of the developmental processes listed above fit into stages of one specific, predictable, and recurring developmental process… They are “stages-within-stages” if you will. These higher-level stages are:

  • Healthy Codependence

    • Childhood – Infancy, co-dependent with mother during infancy.
    • Adolescence – Individuation, co-dependent with a peer group or a romantic involvement.
    • General Life Stages – Generally codependent during childhood
    • Long-Term Relationship Stages – Healthy Codependence during courtship
  • Healthy Counter-Dependence

    • Childhood – Toddler, counter-dependent… “terrible two’s”.
    • Adolescence – Separation, counter-dependent with family
    • General Life Stages – Generally counter-dependent during adolescence years
    • Long-Term Relationship Stages – Healthy counter-dependence during Disillusionment & Conflict stage
  • Independence

    • Childhood – Pre-school, more able to play away from mother.
    • Adolescence – Rebellion, helps break childhood bonds
    • General Life Stages – Young adulthood, out on their own
    • Long-Term Relationship Stages – My Life, Your Life, Our life…Stops blaming spouse having established healthy boundaries
  • Interdependence

    • Childhood – School-aged, getting along with peers and learning how to be part of a group
    • Adolescence – Cooperation, begins to cooperate with the world by working together with others to reach personal goals.
    • General Life Stages – Middle Adulthood to Wisdom
    • Long-Term Relationship Stages – Intimacy, can finish each other’s sentences while maintaining sense-of-self

Below is a chart summarizing how these developmental processes fit together… Each period of life represents the degree of separation one is able to establish… each developmental period is also an opportunity to rework separation issues from the previous period.

If a child is not allowed to establish enough separateness by the end of the infancy period it sets the stage for unhealthy codependency in all the other stages. If a child is not allowed to establish enough separation by the end of the toddler stage it can lead to problems with unhealthy counter-dependency in all the other stages.

Externalizer is another term for unhealthy Counter-dependent.

Internalizer is another term for unhealthy Codependent.

John Bradshaw outlines four general of long-term, healthy relationship stages…

  • Infatuation – This is the “Honeymoon” or courtship period. It’s a time when the biological processes involved with procreation are most pronounced. Bradshaw points out that this is when the brain is being bathed in testosterone, dopamine, and other internal feel-good chemicals… Some people even report feeling dizzy or like their head is spinning during this stage. There is a healthy codependency as the two merge emotionally into one. This over-connection is intoxicating. They may want to spend all their time together… can’t stop thinking about each other, etc. In this period it may actually be “cute” to notice that your new partner has a habit of leaving the cap off the toothpaste. Since the feelings are so strong there is a tendency to idealize the other person because “no one else can make me feel this way”. There is peace and harmony because your new mate “can do no wrong.” But eventually the chemical bath subsides – usually, in three to six months – it paves the way for disillusionment and conflict…
  • Disillusionment & Conflict – In this stage, the balloon bursts and reality sets in as our bio-chemistry returns to its normal steady-state. Now I suddenly realize that leaving the cap off the toothpaste really bugs me… It’s not cute anymore and I don’t have to take it! Even healthy relationships go through this period of conflict early on. It’s a time when neural networks are being updated and new ones created in order to adjust to living with someone. There is an instinctive jockeying for position in the newly forming status-quo. Just remember…it’s a normal relationship stage and “this too will pass”.The fighting in this stage is healthy counter-dependency… It’s healthy because it helps us to separate a bit from the over-connectedness of courtship. Major life changes always bring on extra stress…even good changes. When we are under ongoing stress the “fight-or-flight” response can be triggered easily and often.If we are aware that this relationship stage is normal it’s much easier to work through. If we are unaware, then we might wake up one morning and say…”Oh…migod! What have I gotten myself into!” (isn’t it interesting how we automatically want to pray when we’re in trouble!) In this relationship stage, we have gathered a list of negative things about our partner that we “never noticed before”. It’s a good time to remember this statement…”Whoever you are in a relationship with says as much about you as it does them.”I mean this as a reminder of what I refer to as the subconscious synchronization of compatible neural networks... When we “click” with someone it is because our “Love Maps” meshes with each other on a conscious AND a subconscious level. (By the way, if you were aware of that it wouldn’t be subconscious)
  • “My life, Your Life, Our Life” – If we make it to this stage we have a good chance of staying in it for the long haul. This is where we establish healthy boundaries – a balance of separateness and connectedness. I have my life, you have your life, and we have our life. We have pretty much accepted most of the blemishes of our partner and love them anyway. People in a healthy relationship can do that you know – love someone even though they don’t like some things about them. It’s called differentiation and it is a sign that you are very close to true intimacy.
  • Intimacy – This is the most elusive of the relationship stages. In my opinion, true intimacy is the ability to share who you really are with another person. This implies they are able to share who they really are with you. The relationship stage of Intimacy may take up to 15 or 20 years to develop… depending on the investment both of you make in your relationship. In this stage, you know each other so well that you can finish each other’s sentences… but you still enjoy talking to each other anyway. Longevity is no guarantee that a couple can achieve intimacy… there have been many people married for 25 or more years who never really knew one another. If you have grown up in a less-than-nurturing home then you may have trouble with this one. You must have access to your True-Self before you can share it with another. It may help to read all four parts of the “Iceberg” if you cannot fully answer the question… “who are you?”

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