What Does The Development Of Intimacy Look Like In Relationship?

By Posted in - Blog & Relationships May 19th, 2015 8 Comments

My relationship coaching practice experience has shown that every couple goes through clear and predictable developmental stages within their relationship. However, this is not common knowledge. Not sure why this is, but I think it has to do with how overpowering and attractive the first stage (romance stage) is for most of us.

We love romance stories! Great movies and books are based upon budding romances and newly formed relationships. It is exciting. thrilling, and passionate. We get to vicariously experience the juicy, neurochemical high from all the romance.

Rarely, do stories focus on the actual terrain of a long-term intimate relationship. If a storyline develops around an established couple, the plot is usually about some major pitfall within their relationship (i.e. an affair, health issue, financial hardship, etc.). Understandably, these scenarios make for good drama and entertainment.

When we do not have a clear sense of what to expect in relationship, it can be a confusing, upsetting, daunting, and sometimes unsuccessful journey. Especially, when trying to counteract mass media messages of erotic passion, happily ever after, and less than satisfying relationships.

A vague and general sense of love and happiness does not offer enough guidance and direction. Like a road map, you will want to know where you are going and how to get there. There will be unexpected challenges and bumps in the road. If you have a destination in mind and a clear route, you will be better equipped to navigate and meet challenges, as well as tolerate some rough terrain.

fan-palm-283152_1280 copyResearchers and psychologists have long published findings to support five developmental stages In relationship. In Bader and Pearson’s book, In Quest of the Mythical Mate (*Amazon Affiliate link), they offered five developmental stages that couples go through based on their clinical observations and work of Margaret Mahler, a developmental theorist and psychiatrist. In Campbell’s popular book, The Couple’s Journey: Intimacy As a Path to Wholeness (*Amazon Affiliate link), she identifies five stages that couples typically evolve through in becoming more conscious about their relationship.

Each stage has it own challenges to accomplish before proceeding to the next developmental stage. Advancing to the next stages of relationship will hold an additional level of complexity and opportunity for transformation. Many couples get stuck within a stage and do not develop beyond their current level because they:

  • aren’t emotionally able
  • don’t have the capacity to surmount the challenge.
  • do not have the awareness and understanding of what is required of them to develop further.

If you adopt a growth mindset, you may be able to use these developmental stages to create a different paradigm of what to expect within your relationship. Holding a growth mindset can motivate you to gain strength and skill to overcome the challenges. Adopting this approach can also help you feel more confident about your relationship journey and development.

Check out this Relationship Map for a 1 page cheat sheet.

Five Stages Of Relationship

1. Romance Stage

This stage usually starts with an intense attraction and an uncontrollable urge to be with your partner. In this honeymoon period, couples seek closeness, uncover their similarities, and begin falling in love. This is a beautiful time of bonding, connecting, and feeling a sense of “we-ness.” Typically, there is a great deal of passion and mutual giving and receiving. (As mentioned before, most couples I work with in my Relationship Coaching often get caught-up with the media fallacy associated with this stage.)

Couple gentle touchIn the first stage of relationship, partners often deny differences and overlook flaws, envisioning their mate as ideal. We imagine that we know them. We have a fantasy of who they are and what they will be like.

Neurochemicals, like dopamine and oxytocin, support this ecstatic state of being in love and help us form a powerful bond. However, this stage is temporary, just long enough for us to solidify our bond and connection. Research has shown that we physiologically cannot sustain this level of intensity forever. Our nervous system would be completely fried. Even still, we glamorize this stage and idealize it as the ultimate experience of love.

This initial stage of romance and attraction helps couples develop a powerful bond that sets the stage for lifelong partnership. However, more elements are needed to build a solid foundation that can sustain lasting intimacy and personal growth. Usually the romance stage lasts several months, averaging about 18 months.

2. Power Struggle

In this second stage, the romantic illusion is replaced by disillusionment because partners do not live up to each other’s fantasies. Differences are apparent, and flaws become more visible. Couples in the power struggle stage often feel pained and panicked as the conflict and struggle does not fit into their mental framework for what a relationship is supposed to be like.

Partners will usually resort to ineffective ways of mitigating the challenges. Avoiding the conflict is one strategy, thinking, “if we don’t rock the boat, things will get better.” Trying to change the other is another strategy, saying, “if you would only ___________, we wouldn’t have these problems.” Trying to change the self is another common approach, thinking, “Maybe if I change ___________, we will be better.”

Flicker | @ Nathan RupertCouples who think about their relationship from a “unity” mindset will find the conflict very unsettling. They will have less relationship satisfaction and are more prone to separating and ending the relationship.

When couples focus on problems, they are more likely to get caught in vicious cycle of battling and fighting, resorting to destructive patterns of hurt, blame, shame, and punishing. Other difficult dynamics will emerge, like the distancer and pursuer dynamic. The distancer will withdraw and the pursuer will attempt to engage the distancer. This can escalate tensions and difficulties, as it activates more pain, hurt, and fear.

A high percentage of couples will not make it beyond this power struggle stage. Some couples will get stuck for years and years, and some couples will seek to end the relationship. This is an incredible difficult phase that requires people to deal with intense feelings of fear, anger, disappointment, and frustration. This is where couples will mostly likely seek therapy.

A central task of this developmental stage is finding ways to resolve conflict. Another goal of this stage is to establish differentiation or autonomy within the relationship. This stage can last a few months to several years or forever (depending on your willingness and ability to overcome challenges together). *Most of us do not have previous skill sets to meet these challenges, so this stage requires us to mature and develop both individually and relationally.

3. The Stability Stage

In this third stage, couples begin to acknowledge their differences. They focus less on trying to change each other and more on trying to understand each other. They start to develop a mutual level of respect and consideration for one another.

Ρanayotis | Flickr

© Ρanayotis | Flickr

Partners will find a new appreciation for their differences. They will start to see how their differences can be complementary, and how they can learn from one another.

Partners will not see their conflicts as an inherent problem. While they may feel some discomfort with a conflict, they will not see the conflict as threatening or catastrophic.

Couples view challenges and differences as part of the path of long-term intimacy. They will look for the learning and opportunities within the relationship challenges. They value the relationship growth and personal growth that comes from working through conflicts together.

Partners feel more comfortable expressing their unique attributes and interests. Respectively, they place a value on their autonomy, fostering their individual competencies, esteem, and growth.

As couples increase their appreciation for one another, personal freedom, and authenticity, they will feel more passion and intimacy together. Partners can also learn forgiveness, boundaries, and harmony within this stage.

4. The Commitment Stage

In this fourth stage, couples negotiate the sensitive balance between intimacy and autonomy more easily. They value the importance of personal space and independence as well as the importance of closeness and intimacy. They are more skillful in communicating and advocating for time apart and time together.

Couple looking sunset beachCouples accept each other more fully. While they might not agree with their partner’s approach or outlook at times, they will honor and respect their partner’s perspective. Together they will give space and credence for each of their perspectives.

When differences and conflicts occur, couples will seek to understand each other more deeply. They will work together to find mutually compatible solutions, and the couple will strive for win-win outcomes.

Commitments in this stage are genuine and well-informed. Partners have a much better sense of what is involved with their commitments and sincerely say “yes” to each other. They have the opportunity to continue to deepen their level of commitment and consciously “choosing in” over and over again.

In this stage, partners learn acceptance, deeper levels of commitment, and how to creatively solve conflicts together.

5.  The Co-Creation Stage

This stage involves a quality of synergy, where the couple’s collective effort results in an effect that is greater than the sum of their individual contributions. This phase of development embraces true intimacy, recognizing that the power of the union is greater than the sum of its parts.

Hands projectIt is estimated that only 15% of all couples reach this stage. In order to achieve intimacy and mutual satisfaction in relationship, couples must be willing to become mature, and nothing forces us to accept our inner tendency to grow. Most couples will not admit that it takes work to maintain intimacy because in the early stages of relationship, intimacy is attained effortlessly.

Growth requires conscious choice and active involvement. It takes a tremendous amount of courage, integrity, and faith to take the risk to reveal one’s vulnerably for the interest of growth. (You will develop courage, integrity, and faith to take the risk of being vulnerable from my Relationship/Marriage Course.)

The growth of love is a conscious choice on the part of both partners because it requires a reciprocal amount of energy invested into self and in the relationship. They do not hold back their love and engagement, because they know that it would compromise the level of intimacy and the potential of their relationship.

In the co-creation stage, partners work well together. They are able to reach bigger goals and accomplish great things with their combined efforts. Couples might take on projects, where they make contributions to the world beyond their partnership. In this stage, partners learn the powerful effect they can have when they work in synergy.

The Paradox Of Love

As the self searches out and finds a partner, it enhances and enriches itself. As people deepen their self-knowledge, they deepen their capacity to share intimacy with their partners.

Hopefully, these relationship stages can offer you an understanding of what you might expect within the development of your relationship. Knowing the relationship stages can offer you motivation to tolerate some of the discomfort and encourage you to put forth the effort and dedication to overcome challenges.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Please leave me a comment below. What do you think about these developmental stages? Do you find them helpful to consider? Are you able to locate the stage your relationship is in?

Thank you for taking the time to learn and contemplate new ways of relating to improve the quality of your relationship. Get your Free Relationship Guide: Relationship Map To Happy, Lasting Love, and you will also be subscribed, so that you can stay up-to-date on the latest relationship tips and Podcast episodes.

Thank you. ❤

*With Amazon Affiliate Links, I may earn a few cents from Amazon, if you purchase the book from this link.

(8) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Colleen - Reply

    December 29, 2015 at 11:53 am

    Wow, I wish I had read this article years ago. I was stuck at the power struggle stage for 20 years with my ex before I finally decided to end it.

    I’m now in a new relationship with a guy that really cares for me, but can see i’my in the power struggle stage with him too. Here’so hoping i figure out how to move past it with him!

    • Dr. Jessica Higgins - Reply

      January 2, 2016 at 2:33 pm

      Hi Colleen,

      Thank you for your comment. Great awareness! Yes, negotiating the power struggle phase can be challenging! However, I believe this is where the real growing and intimacy happens. Please let me know if I can be of any support. Wishing you all the best!!!

  • Patty - Reply

    August 28, 2017 at 7:52 am

    My partner and I have not had a Romantic Stage, as we had decided to wait a period of time (3 months) before any sexual activity. Now a year and a half later, I feel like this stage has been skipped and we are in the Power Struggle stage (I should say she is in this stage.) Is it possible to experience the Romantic Stage if/when the relationship moves out of the Power Struggle stage? I really enjoy intimacy (hand holding, cuddling, etc., not just sex) and have expressed that to her many times. We haven’t even had a passionate kiss in almost a year. When I ask her about this, she says she really doesn’t think about it. I can’t believe that a person who says they love you doesn’t think about kissing their lover. I have tried to end the relationship, but she tells me she would be absolutely crushed. She said she views me as the person she has been looking for all of her life and knows that I am her lifetime partner. It has crossed my mind that she may be a narcissist. I struggle with putting more time/effort in this relationship (will it get better) or moving on.

    • Dr. Jessica Higgins - Reply

      September 6, 2017 at 9:26 am

      Hi Patty, Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your sharing and patience in my reply. My hard drive crashed, and it has put me way behind schedule. Okay to your question. The stages are not linear, as couples will move from one to the other depending on life events and circumstances. The goal is to progress in the developmental process. Here is a one page chart that may help. You may also benefit from listening to Empowered Relationship Podcast, particularly about differences, conflict, and love languages. If you are interested in getting more support, I would be happy to meet with you. You can contact me via email [email protected]. Thank you.

  • Suzanne Staples - Reply

    May 30, 2021 at 8:43 am

    Helpful information! If only I had access to such knowledge back in my 20s and 30s! I shall pass it along to my nieces ; – )

  • Melissa L Smith, PhD - Reply

    September 24, 2022 at 9:53 pm

    Interesting read! Remarkably similar to Tuckmen’s observations about group developmental dynamics. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_86.htm

    We can sure get stuck in our developmental tasks.

    • Dr. Jessica Higgins - Reply

      September 25, 2022 at 3:35 pm

      Hi Melissa, Thank you for taking the time to comment. So true! I have never thought about this similarity before! Thank you for pointing this out. Usually, the process happens on a different timeline in a group vs an intimate relationship…but the similarities are there for sure. I hope you are well!!!

Please leave a Comment

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication.

Stop the criticism loop, learn new ways to communicate
and strengthen the connection with your partner.


Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching