When Transitioning Between Stages of a Relationship, Practice Adaptability

Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

A relationship is like a perennial plant; both become more resilient as they learn how to balance the contradictions required for growth. Under the earth, the plant needs sturdy roots. Above, it needs to be able to dance on the wind. It needs sunshine and rain. It needs attention and space. It changes with the seasons, dying back and growing up over and over again. And when it outgrows its pot or plot, it needs to move. 

Moving a plant is a careful process. We have to consider its internal needs and how to prepare its new home. We have to prioritize what will help it survive the transition and adapt to its new circumstances. When we’re preparing ourselves to move from one relationship stage to another—from casual to serious; dating to engagement to marriage; or partner to parent—the same considerations are necessary. 

Every relationship, every person, and every living organism straddles stability and change. If our relationship doesn’t change, it fossilizes and dies. But if it changes too much and too fast, it dysregulates and becomes chaotic. Navigating this back and forth between old and new, order and surprise, roots and buds is the key to adaptability within relationships. 

We’re Changing Faster Than Ever Before

Over time, how we balance stability and change in our romantic relationships has evolved. As strict gender roles have faded in the western world, our roles and responsibilities have become less fixed and more fluid. For most of human history, there was very little ambiguity about how to transition from one relationship stage to another. Religious and societal rituals around birth, puberty, courting, marriage, pregnancy, and death made life’s additions and subtractions a neat and predictable equation. 

These days, many of us have kids or move in together before getting married, have multiple long-term relationships, or are raising our families in multi-generational households. To put it simply, we are making up the rules in real time. The rise of egalitarianism, autonomy, authenticity, and personal growth has become part and parcel of modern love. And that means that our relationships are in a constant state of development. This transition—from institutional regulation to intra- and interpersonal responsibility—has left us expecting more from our romantic relationships than ever before.

We still want the traditional elements of companionship, economic support, family life, and social status, but on top of that, we also want our partners to be a salve against our existential loneliness, a passionate lover, an intellectual equal, and a person who will help us become the best version of ourselves at every stage of our lives. Many of us don’t just want stable and lasting relationships; we want successful relationships. To meet these romantic aspirations, we find ourselves having to confront change constantly. And change is rarely easy. Now, as founder and director of The Couples Institute, Ellyn Bader, says “the task is to learn how to be open and authentic with each other about what you think, feel, and desire, and to be able to hold still while your partner does the same thing—and then to learn how to manage those differences successfully.”  

Growing Through Stages of a Relationship Together

Ever heard the phrase “opposites attract?” It’s not always true, but there is an element of that phrase that exists in every relationship and at every stage. If we’re a big planner, we may find ourselves attracted to a person who goes with the flow, loving the spontaneity our partner brings out in us. But the easy-going nature which once filled us with possibility may induce anxiety when planning our first big vacation. A minimalist boyfriend may love his girlfriend’s maximalist style until they move in together. The couple who initially prioritized their independence may struggle when getting pregnant necessitates a massive redistribution of resources, energy, and attention.

The couples who stand strong in their convictions and hold tight to who they’ve always been, or how they were in the beginning, are the ones more likely to walk away in separate directions when confronted with change. On the other hand, extreme compromise—in which one partner tosses their own needs to meet the others’ demands or to avoid conflict—doesn’t work either. We may not walk away from each other, but we won’t be happy if we stay. In a healthy relationship, the solution is almost never to demand that our partners change while we stay the same. To be more adaptive, we must ask what we’re contributing to the existing dynamic. And then we must ask each other the fundamental questions that will help us become more adaptable. 

Questions to Build Adaptability

  • Does this arrangement still work?
  • What will help us survive and thrive during this transition? 
  • What do we want to take with us from our previous relationship stage into our next one? 
  • What do we want to leave behind? 
  • What do we want to try that we never have before?
  • What does it mean to consciously move forward into a new relationship stage together? 
  • What conversations need to be had?
  • What affirmations need to be given?
  • How do we redistribute our resources to meet this moment?
  • What do we do when we’re finding it difficult to adapt?
  • How do we remind each other that we’re in it together?

Adaptability in couples is about responding to life’s changing circumstances with good communication and a lot of flexibility. Just like a big body stretch, pushing past our resistance helps us become more flexible. Think about all of the changes you’ve made before: how you’ve grown around the change, how you’ve held it. Transitioning through relationships stages means growing around the change together, keeping the roots sturdy while giving the buds room to dance. Being adaptive is a constant engagement with the unknown—but also with possibility.

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