Before going on any trip, it can be helpful to know where you are starting and where you are going to end up. Mapping your journey as a couple is equally valuable. All committed relationships have stages of development. And, if you can identify what stage your relationship is in, it becomes much easier to define what is “normal” versus what is a problem. The Six-Stage Change Cycle of Committed Couple Relationships will help you understand the process of how a couple evolves together and individually throughout the years. (Keep in mind, this isn’t a one time, linear experience. You will go through this cycle again and again as you grow and redefine your relationship.)

Stage 1: You and Me (Attaching)

In old Hollywood film terms, this stage is the “meet-cute” when a couple, destined to be together, connects for the very first time. Passion rules at this point as partners give in to a process referred to as “falling” in love. There are emotional and physiological chemical processes that help bind the connection while also suspending critical thinking. Often couples in Stage One experience intense and intentional communication with a hyper-focus and complete, rapt interest in their partner’s thoughts and feelings. This experience creates an intimate bond that will become the adhesive property that holds the relationship together as it propels through the next stages.

Stage 2: We (Establishing)

Once a couple establishes the exclusivity of “We”, they begin establishing patterns or ways of being together. Decisions are made concerning where we live, responsibilities we share and the tasks they require, and how we negotiate boundaries financially, sexually, spiritually, relationally, and socially. A new, shared world that never existed before begins to emerge. Establishing the “We” builds comfort and assurance that this is a relationship that will go the distance. This stage solidifies the relationship beyond emotion and plants roots in each other’s day-to-day realities, writing both implicit and explicit contracts for how “We” will operate with each other long-term.

Stage 3: I and I (Individuating)

“I and I” moments begin once the bonded “We” couple feels the freedom to again focus on individual self-discovery and development. As partners start exploring personal pursuits with new energy couples often need to renegotiate how to balance “We” and “I” time in the relationship. This stage typically isn’t threatening but instead, revitalizes a couple, bringing variety into their shared world. Necessary and impactful personal development not only keeps individuals growing and thriving but also affirms the security of the couple bond as partners support each other’s life goals and pursuits. This stage can be experienced any time throughout a relationship as partners seek to enhance their identity.

Stage 4: The We/I Plateau (Stabilizing)

For most couples, these are the years that stabilize life together—building a family, career, financial security, and community ties. Often illustrated as a montage in the movies, this period layers multiple moments into a rich story of life. Some common experiences rule the “We/I” Plateau as couples often feel like they are going through the motions with little time to focus on each other the way they used to. It is also a resting place in the relationship where couples find ease in the consistency of day-to-day life.

Stage 5: The D-Factor (Differentiating)

Differentiation is the process we all go through to develop a confident, well-defined identity. This identity development begins in earnest during adolescence, continues throughout adulthood and often accelerates in our intimate relationships. A primary way that we understand who we are is by contrasting our similarities and differences with those around us. Over time, we become more comfortable maintaining our true self with others, rather than needing to comply with or rebel against them. Stage Five is an identity development growth point when partners wrestle with “Who am I?” versus “Who am I in this relationship?” They struggle as they ask if these two versions are still compatible. This process often creates dramatic waves of change in a couple’s relationship and requires time, patience and critical communication.

Stage 6: Us or Me (Integrating)

The final stage happens in micro and macro experiences throughout the relationship as couples ask the fundamental question, “Should we stay or should we go?” Believe it or not, this question isn’t as threatening as it sounds, and we ask it more often than we think. It is a stabilizing question that reflects the normal and healthy decision-making process couples continuously go through when evaluating their commitment to each other. Sometimes this question is asked and answered quickly as couples cycle out of the “We/I” Plateau and assimilate their years together with life-cycle changes. Other times it follows the birthing process of the D-Factor and requires painful consideration for one or both partners. Ultimately, the answer to this question is what leads couples to decide to either end their union or move back into the change cycle stages with each other, creating a new version of “Us.”

The Six-Stage Change Cycle is a typical experience that all couples go through. Understanding these stages and being able to identify what stage your relationship is in today can be very helpful. Often, without this knowledge, couples perceive “normal” issues as isolated problems. In turn, problems are blamed on a partner and the relationship, creating even greater difficulties. It doesn’t have to be that way. If you want to increase your understanding of how to navigate change with your partner and cultivate a healthy relationship, pick up your copy of Relationship Reset today.

Until we meet again — Love each other well,

This article was originally published in Thrive Global.


Relationship Reset reveals the secrets to becoming a better couple through exposing valuable information from current research and identifying critical insights that make relating easier.

Learn More