The Three Phases of Relationships: Understanding Psychology to Heal from the Past

19 May

We’ve all been there. After leaving a relationship, no matter how amicably, the next one  all too rapidly goes down that same, doomed path. Historic concerns riddle you with anxiety and you wonder if you’ll be happy in a relationship again.

Two people, man and woman heterosexual couple taking a walk on the beach.

Our previous romantic relationships and experiences can have an incredibly significant impact on how we behave, feel and think within our current relationship. However, according to psychologist John Gottman in his groundbreaking 2015 book Principia Amoris: The New Science of Love, every relationship will generally follow the same fundamental template. Understanding what stage you and your partner are at can be far more useful in warding off the ghosts of your past than you might think.

The three phases of relationships

Gottman proposes a trinity of distinct, natural phases in the lifetime of love. He further asserts that, within each phase, we will regularly encounter so-called choice points, forks in the road which will lead to either an even stronger sense of attachment or the dissipation of the entire relationship.

Phase one: limerence

Is there any other emotional state more quintessentially human than limerence, otherwise known as the honeymoon period? Limerence entails overwhelming, all-consuming infatuation with our partner at the beginning of the relationship. It’s limerence that is responsible for us excitedly burbling to our friends about the potent, devastating chemistry that fizzles like a firecracker between us and our significant other.

Limerence is a truly beautiful thing, of that there is no doubt — but ain’t it always the way, too, that it’s during this period of pure, unadulterated obsession that most red flags will go either disregarded or entirely unacknowledged? During limerence you are more trusting, at least in part because you just so want them to be the idealised, fantastical individual your love-sozzled mind has made them out to be.

Phase two: trust

After the honeymoon period in relationships has subsided and lucidity has somewhat returned, there comes an immense feeling of trust in your partner. You know — or at least believe — that they are thinking and behaving in ways that ultimately serve to maximise your interests as well as their own. They may even prioritise your happiness at the expense of theirs. They’ve got your back and you’ve got theirs — or so you hope.

Somewhat tellingly, however, it is also the trust phase that will see couples argue and fight most frequently. The relationship is still in its nascent days and both parties are vying to figure out whether they are truly important to the other, or whether their partner has just come along for the ride.

Phase three: commitment

There’s no denying it anymore: the two of you are well and truly sticking together on this journey. If the going gets tough, this contract you’ve entered into means both partners will work equally and passionately to get the romance back on track. At least, that’s how it should be. Whether your respective efforts are genuinely equatable could remain to be seen.

If the relationship encounters rocky waters, it’s important to try to hold back from comparing your significant other unfavourably to your previous partners. This will not help the situation and will serve only to place distance between the two of you. Instead, encourage your partner — and yourself — to focus on one another’s positive qualities. Remember why you fell in love in the first place, and seek to nurture the good in your relationship. Throw out the bad stuff by way of a frank and honest conversation about where the dynamic is failing.


When looking back on your past relationships, Gottman recommends identifying whether you ever experienced flooding, a sensation of being both physically and psychologically overwhelmed by your partner’s words or actions. Because we often value the opinion of our significant other more than that of any other person in our life, a damning character assessment from them can leave us speechless, defenceless and defeated.

The first step in warding off the negative effects of flooding is to remove yourself from any situation that brings those bad memories back. Take yourself to another room or outside and calm down for a while. Self-soothing and a focus on calming both body and mind through meditation or deep breathing exercises are often the most effective ways to get back in the present. Remember that you are no longer with the person who made you feel so low about yourself. Your new partner is not the same person, so do what you can not to conflate the two individuals.

Is your past preventing you from finding happiness in relationships?

Every couple experiences issues at some point, but if your previous partners have left you unable to form a happy and meaningful long-term relationship then it may well be worth seeking professional help. The Vida Consultancy’s in-house relationship psychologist Madeleine Mason Roantree has over 15 years’ experience helping individuals overcome the barriers we put up that prevent us from finding love. Get in touch today to book in a coaching session, and together let’s help you overcome the past and look forward to the future.

by Rachel Vida MacLynn

Founder & CEO

Rachel Vida MacLynn is reputed as being a world-leading matchmaking and dating expert. Registered as a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society, Rachel advocates a professional matchmaking approach based on psychological principles and professional consultation.More by this author

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