Wondering if your relationship will go the distance? Whether a couple lasts may depend on how braced it is for change, science tells us. That’s because most happily committed partners tend to follow a five-stage course of development, which begins with primal lust or attraction, and ultimately ends with unconditional love. However, not all relationships get a happy ending—and the ones that go wrong usually come off the rails around the same time in their development. Most breakups take place during the third stage of the relationship’s growth, known for disappointment, adjustment and hard work.
But let’s back it up to the beginning. At the start of the relationship, you experience the honeymoon phase, viewing everything through rose-colored glasses. Desire is at an all-time high, and you exist in a perfect bubble of romance. While this stage helps the relationship gain momentum, we tend to ignore any red flags from our partner during this time.
In the second stage, you settle in a bit. Both partners begin to grow out of the infatuation phase and learn more about each other as people. This stage forces a couple to decide whether they’re actually compatible beyond physical attraction, and can lead to a deeper sense of comfort and compatibility if it’s a match.
Stage three is when things can get complicated—and for many couples who feel they’ve made a genuine connection, it can come as quite a shock. During this time, people often notice the shortcomings of the relationship and question whether a different partner would better fulfill their emotional needs. However, experts warn that in many cases, fundamental compatibility isn’t the problem. Instead, many people questioning their relationships during this stage are feeling the natural limitations of all romantic relationships—the things we cannot solve without us working on ourselves and addressing our own emotional needs.
Margaret Paul, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in relationships, recently told Bustle, “This is the stage when couples need to do their inner work to learn to take responsibility for their own feelings.” This can be easier said than done if one or both partners have any latent abandonment or commitment issues, or if the couple struggles to communicate during this process.
The good news is that if you can begin to acknowledge these issues and work toward resolving them, your relationship should emerge stronger. The next stage is one of comfort and companionship, allowing you to build a life together without fear of catastrophic change. If you can keep the spark alive during this stage (which, admittedly, is no small feat), the final prize is within reach: unconditional love that endures life’s ups and downs.
So, if you find yourself questioning your relationship, take a step back before you throw in the towel. Ask yourself whether you expect the relationship to fulfill all of your needs, or if you’re willing to work on finding some of those solutions internally. Only then can you know if the problem with your relationship will be any less of a problem with some other partner. And for more on relationships, check out The 33 Most Common Reasons Relationships Fail.