love cycles

Science of Love: 5 Stages of a Relationship

If you’ve never heard of the 5 stages of a relationship then relationships and love might become more clear after reading this. 

You might find that falling in love is easy and romantic, but you notice that after a while, you stop being attracted to what you thought was your perfect partner. And then, the work starts. Or worse – the relationship comes to an end. 

While it would be nice to always stay in that euphoric honeymoon stage of the relationship, just like many things in life, relationships and love have seasons, or in this case, stages. 

Introducing Love Cycles: 5 Stages of a Relationship

What Are Love Cycles?

A veteran couples therapist, Linda Carroll, MS, is the author of Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love and the inventor of the relationship model that breaks down all relationships into five stages or as Carroll calls it “love cycles”. 

According to Carroll’s relationship model, the 5 stages of a relationship are:

  • Stage 1: The Merge
  • Stage 2: The Doubt and Denial
  • Stage 3: The Disillusionment 
  • Stage 4: The Decision
  • Stage 5: The Wholehearted Love

It’s also important to note that while these stages often go one after another in this order, the way love and relationships develop is not linear, but rather cyclical. 

This means that you will repeat the cycles more than once throughout the duration of your long-term relationship. It’s not a one-off thing where once you’ve gone through all cycles, the blissful happily ever after awaits you. 

Why Is Understanding Love Cycles Important? 

The way we see love and relationships has been greatly influenced by Hollywood and other forms of media, where we only see the honeymoon stage. Because of this, we tend to have unrealistic standards for the way relationships develop in our personal lives. 

Understanding love cycles might help you break out of a cycle of relationship hopping, where you leave right after the honeymoon phase ends.

“Love is a feeling. A long term-relationship is full of cycles, full of seasons,” Carroll says. Learning about those cycles will increase your awareness of what stage you and your partner might be in so that you can act as a team to move through them. 

Understanding the 5 stages of a relationship also gives you tools to cultivate a healthy, happy, and sustainable love with your partner. “Love is not enough for a sustainable relationship. You need a skillset,” explains sexologist and Head of Relationship Research at couple’s wellness app Arya, Nicholas Velotta. 

5 Stages of a Relationship 

Let’s dive deeper into what characterizes each stage:

Stage 1: Merge

The merge is essentially the stage of the relationship that we often refer to as “the honeymoon phase”. It’s when you look at your partner through rose-colored glasses and they seem too good to be true. 

During this stage, your brain is basically high on love. “You can take a person in love and look at their brain and it’s different from the person’s who’s not in that first stage,” says Carrol. 

Research shows that during that first stage of love, our brain produces chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins. That’s why we feel euphoric, want to have sex with our partners, and might even be slightly obsessed with them. 

This stage might last up to 2 years for some people, and this is the stage that’s most often talked about when it comes to relationships. It’s also the stage that’s most often portrayed in the media as the ultimate relationship stage. But as you can see, it’s only the first stage of a relationship. 

Stage 2: Doubt & Denial

Once the honeymoon phase wears off, we enter the second relationship stage which is doubt and denial. This is where things get a little more complicated. 

“Think of the first stage as this idea that we found our other half, and then the second stage is that we find out that’s not our other half. In fact, there are a lot of ways we don’t fit and we start to notice that,” Carroll explains. 

Realizing all the ways in which we’re incompatible with our partners is not a positive experience, so we tend to avoid that negativity through denial. We also tend to make excuses on behalf of our partner for the things that don’t satisfy us.

“At some level, love has to be a bit delusional for you to put somebody else as a priority in your life when everything around us tells us we need to focus on ourselves. And in that doubt and denial, you have to hold onto that delusion to keep yourself in the relationship, because otherwise, those doubts become major issues,” says Velotta.  

This is also the stage where you might notice conflicts arising. It’s important to know that conflicts in relationships are completely normal, as long as they get resolved in a healthy manner. And just because you might disagree with your partner on certain things, it doesn’t mean the relationship has to end. Finding a partner that has the same opinions as you on all matters is unrealistic.

Stage 3: Disillusionment 

After doubt and denial, we enter the disillusionment, where many relationships prematurely end. “Stage three is – everything is wrong. Everything becomes evidence. We don’t fit together,” Carrol explains. 

It’s an extremely hard stage for many people and for a good reason. “This stage can feel powerless, there’s just so much you need to talk about that it feels insurmountable,” explains Velotta.   

While this stage isn’t pleasant, it can be used in a positive manner to strengthen your relationship, but it requires work. This stage allows you and your partner to re-assess your relationship and look at it with realistic expectations.

Stage 4: Decision 

The decision stage is a pivotal stage in any relationship. It’s the stage that determines the future of your relationship as well as the dynamic moving forward. 

“We’re getting to be in charge. Do I stay? Do I go? Do I push it under the rug and say ‘Okay, we’re going to give up the idea of intimacy, we’ll figure out how to live with each other and stand it’, or do we learn how to be wholehearted?” explains Carroll. 

While in the last stage you might have felt powerless, during the decision stage you regain your power and commit to moves that affect both of your futures. 

“It is time to take stock and figure out whether you’re dealing with a love that’s sustainable and that you want to invest in or if you’re dealing with a love that is truly irreconcilable with who you are as a person,” says Velotta. 

You might want to ask yourself these questions in trying to determine if this person you’re with is worth being in a long-term relationship with:

  • Are your morals and values aligned?
  • How do you get along with their friends and family? And how do they get along with your social circle? 
  • Are you compatible in the bedroom – is the sex good or and is your partner attentive to your needs? 
  • And most importantly – is your partner willing to do the work your relationship will require with you? 

Stage 5: Wholehearted Love

In the final phase, you’ve made peace with your partner’s flaws and made a decision on whether you want to invest in each other, and now you both get to reap the fruits of your hard labor. 

Carrol describes this last stage as “I learn how to love an imperfect person perfectly.” That’s when you understand that while your partner is not perfect, they are perfect for you. And you choose them. 

That being said, just because you feel wholesome with your partner, there is still work that needs to be done. “You’re going to take the knowledge that you gained going through the decision phase and figure out what the pinpoints are that you need to work on in your relationship,” says Velotta. 

The relationship work you both need to do is not bad or negative, and if you made it to this stage, then it means you and your partner are willing to work as a team to sort out any issues you might have and enjoy the process of strengthening the relationship.