(1) The Phases of Relationships
All people change over time. We are familiar with the way children change
through their physical growth and the development of their personality.
We are, however, less aware of the ways adults change. These changes are less
visible and less obvious.
If, however, you were to think back five, ten or twenty years ago you would
find your attitudes, your expectations of life, your self-confidence and your
interests would have changed in many ways.
This page provides information about relationship issues, to help couples
think about their relationship, to share their thoughts and to explore together
ways of making their relationship happier and more fulfilling.
It does not attempt to give answers, because what works well for one couple
may not work well for another. Instead, issues which trouble most couples at
some stage in their relationship are described, as well as possible ways of
tackling these issues are suggested.
Change for adults is gradual, but is still very real. Because adults change,
their relationship will also change.
People sometimes complain that their partner has changed. 'They're not the
person I met all those years ago!' No - they're not. Chances are they have
(2) Relationships and Change
Most relationships change a great deal over the years. It is important for
couples to realise this, and to be ready for change. Otherwise, perfectly normal
changes in their relationship may be seen as a threat or disappointment. This
can lead to tension and difficulty in their relationship.
Three types of change occurs in relationships:
- changes in the pattern of the relationship;
- changes caused by the stage of life the couple have reached - the
`milestones and hurdles' of committed relationships; and
- changes caused by some of the unexpected events that can occur in anyone's
life, such as the unexpected death of a family member.
This page will briefly describe each type of change. Although these changes
happen to many marriages, there will be exceptions. The important thing is not
how well your relationship fits the following pattern, but how well you are
coping with whatever changes have occurred for you.
(3) Changes in Relationships
In love ...
Many relationships begin with an exciting and often intense period of falling
in love. This is a time when couples wear rose-tinted glasses, they idealise
each other, can't spend enough time together, and make light of any differences
between them. Love will conquer all. The first phase of the relationship is
important as well as enjoyable.
It provides a powerful bonding of the couple that will carry them through
more testing times in the future.
Recognising differences ...
Eventually couples move onto the next stage of their relationship. This can
happen early in their relationship or sometimes not for a year or two. Couples
begin to be aware of the differences between them, and become more realistic in
their view of each other. Arguments that are more than `lovers tiffs' will often
This phase can be quite frightening for some couples, especially if they
weren't expecting it, believing that the honeymoon would last for ever. The
earlier experience of being in love, and the bonding together of the couple, now
comes into play and serves to re-assure couples that their relationship will
I want to be me ...
In the previous phase of their relationship, couples began learning how to be
two separate individuals within a relationship. This process continues for most
couples in the third phase, when much of the energy of the two partners will go
into establishing their own lifestyle - as parents, in their work and in their
interests outside the home.
This is often a time when the relationship seems to coast along and the
partners want less from each other. They know the relationship is there, and it
is safe to be busy in the 'outside world'.
Together by choice ...
The fourth phase is a process of finding each other again, of seeking greater
intimacy and deepening the relationship. This is vastly different to the
intimacy formed in the earlier part of their relationship.
The partners now have a stronger sense of themselves as individuals. They are
choosing to be together, to be dependent and intimate at times, rather than
needing to be together.
This phase represents the end of the journey from being "in love" to
"loving". There is a growing balance between 'I' and 'us'. The relationship is
based on choice rather than need - two partners, who are not afraid to be
independent, who choose to be together and to be intimate.
(4) Milestones and Hurdles
Whilst couples are working out how to be together and yet still be two
individuals, other changes will also be demanding their attention. All
relationships have a series of turning points and hurdles they must get over. At
each of these turning points practical changes in the couple's lifestyle will
need to be made. There are also less obvious challenges to the couple's
Becoming a couple
The first hurdle a couple has to face is the task of becoming a couple in the
sense of placing a boundary around their relationship.
This involves separating from the families they each grew up in. This is not
always easy to achieve. Parents are still important, but being a son or a
daughter has to become second to being a partner. Otherwise, jealousy or
resentment from their partner may develop.
From partners to parents
For most couples, the next turning point is the birth of the first child.
Many practical adjustments need to be made. There is also a change in the
couples relationship as parents. Until now they have been able to focus their
attention and energy on each other. This now has to be shared with their baby.
Less of their effort goes into being a couple and instead goes into being a
mother or father. This is a point when some relationships run into difficulty as
some couples find it hard to adjust. Resentment and hurt can creep in, with one
or both partners feeling that they are no longer cared for in the way they were
before the baby's birth.
Wives may feel that their husbands don't help as much as they should,
especially when the demands of motherhood lead to exhaustion. Husbands often
feel they are playing second fiddle to the baby and that their wives no longer
have the same interest in them as companions and lovers.
Many practical changes in family life occur when the children become
adolescents. How does this affect the couple's relationship with each other?
Parents are faced with their children's sexuality in adolescence. This means
couples will need to re-examine their own relationship and how satisfying it is
to them, both emotionally and sexually. Adolescence also signals that soon the
couple will be left alone together as their children become independent. This
raises questions about the quality of the couple's relationship.
Is the bond between the couple strong enough to maintain their relationship
when they no longer have to put so much energy into being parents? Some couples
find that they have drifted further apart than they had realised, and a crisis
is triggered off in their relationship. This may lead to separation, but it can
also lead to a fresh commitment to the relationship and a growth in intimacy.
Adolescence is a time of questioning for parents as well as for adolescents!
For more information on parenting, the relationships Australia Family skills
education course or visit the Family and Children Services parenting site
With people living longer and retiring younger, more of their relationship
will be lived in retirement. We tend to focus on the practical aspects of
retirement such as housing and financial needs. Retirement, however, also poses
yet another hurdle for the relationship.
How will they spend their time? How much time they spend together and how
much apart? What joint interests will they have, and how much will each partner
pursue their own interests? How will decisions be made now that finances are
more restricted? How will the domestic chores, from which there is no
retirement, be shared?
Unless these sorts of questions are faced and talked about, couples may
become disappointed and withdrawn. There is less divorce in the post-retirement
age group, but there is often considerable hidden marital unhappiness.
(5) Unexpected Changes
Nobody knows what the future holds. Many couples find themselves faced with
unexpected changes in their lives that present a challenge or threat to their
Common examples are migration, an inheritance or business failure that has a
big impact on the financial situation or a serious illness or death, perhaps of
a child. Whatever the event, the couple need to adjust to it, and come to terms
with their feelings.
If they don't, the issue may become one that simmers beneath the surface of
the relationship, and eventually leads to them growing apart instead of becoming
All relationships change over time
Couples who can talk about how their relationship is changing will be more in
control of the direction it is taking. They are less likely to be caught out by
change, and will find it easier to adapt to each new stage of their relationship
as it comes along.
Sometimes the issues are too complex, or the feelings too painful or
confusing, for talking together to be successful. Counselling can, at these
times, be of great value.
A relationship counsellor acts as an independent guide to help the couple
talk things through. The presence of the counsellor makes it possible to say the
things that are otherwise too hard to put into words.
If you feel your relationship has changed and you are concerned, consider
talking to a counsellor.
It makes good sense to spend a little time talking to someone about your
concerns instead of waiting until things get worse.
(6) Ending relationships without using violence or abuse
Ending a relationship can be a traumatic experience for all people involved,
and it can also sometimes be a dangerous time. Sometimes the use of violence or
abuse can become worse around separation, as one partner takes out their anger
and frustration on the other, or tries to use violence, threats or coercion to
get the partner to stay.
Women who are leaving an abusive relationship need to be very careful around
safety issues, both for themselves and for their children. Attending a family
violence women's group can help resource women to leave safely and can give them
information about where they can go and who they can contact for help.
A men's family violence group can help contain the men so that their do not
feel the need to continue the violence and allow their partner to leave
This information is provided by Relationships Australia who are
Australia's leading provider of professional services to support relationships.
It is a not-for profit community based organisation. Our Mission: Relationships
Australia is committed to enhancing the lives of communities, families and
individuals by being the leading professional provider of quality relationship
support services. Our Goals: To work in partnership with others to ensure a
society which supports positive and respectful relationships; To serve a more
diverse range of clients; To provide relevant services that meet the needs of
clients; To adopt business practices that enable the delivery of efficient and
effective services; To ensure a positive work environment that delivers outcomes
for clients; and To be financially robust to achieve our goals.
You can contact the national office of Relationships Australia on 1300 364
277 to find your closest state branch.