The 5 Stages of Love: Why Too Many Stop at Stage 3

Real lasting loveWe all want real, lasting love, whether we are in our 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, or beyond. Yet too many marriages fall apart and most people don’t know why. They mistakenly believe that they have chosen the wrong partner. After going through the grieving process, they start looking again. But after more than forty years as a marriage and family counselor I have found that most people are looking for love in all the wrong places. They don’t understand that Stage 3 is not the end, but the real beginning for achieving real, lasting love:

Stage 1: Falling In Love
Stage 2: Becoming a Couple
Stage 3: Disillusionment
Stage 4: Creating Real, Lasting Love
Stage 5: Using the Power of Two to Change the World

Stage 1: Falling in Love

Falling in love is nature’s trick to get humans to pick a mate so that our species carries on. It feels so wonderful because we are awash in hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen.  Falling in love also feels great because we project all our hopes and dreams on our lover. We imagine that they will fulfill our desires, give us all the things we didn’t get as children, deliver on all the promises our earlier relationships failed to fulfill. We are sure we will remain in love forever.  And because we are besotted with “love hormones,” we’re not aware of any of this.

When we’re in love, we dismiss naysayers like curmudgeon George Bernard Shaw who cautioned:

“When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.”

Stage 2: Becoming a Couple

At this stage our love deepens and we join together as a couple. This is a time when we have children and raise them. If we’re past the child-rearing stage, it’s the time when our couple bond deepens and develops. It’s a time of togetherness and joy. We learn what the other person likes and we expand our individual lives to begin developing a life of “the two of us.”

During this phase we experience less of the falling head-over heals “in love” feelings. We feel more bonded with our partner. We feel warm and cuddly. The sex may not be as wild, but it’s deeply satisfying. We feel safe, cared for, cherished, and appreciated. We feel close and protected. We often think this is the ultimate level of love and we expect it to go on forever. We are often blind-sided by the turn-around of stage 3.

Stage 3: Disillusionment

No one told us about Stage 3 in understanding love and marriage. Stage 3 is where my first two marriages collapsed and for too many relationships this is the beginning of the end. This is a period where things begin to feel bad. It can occur slowly or can feel like a switch is flipped and everything goes wrong. Little things begin to bother us. We feel less loved and cared for. We feel trapped and want to escape.

We become more irritable and angry or hurt and withdrawn. We may stay busy at work or with the family, but the dissatisfactions mount. We wonder where the person we once loved has gone. We long for the love we once had, but we don’t know where it went or how to get it back. One or the other partner wants out or sometimes people go on “existing together,” but without really feeling intimate.

This is a time we often get sick in body, mind, and soul. In our marriage, Carlin and I both began having problems with our hearts (heartache?) and were diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. I began having serious problems with erections. To be truthful, there were times when it was miserable, and we both thought about leaving the relationship.

But we didn’t give up, we kept going. There’s an old adage, “When you’re going through hell, don’t stop.” This seems to be true of this stage of life. The positive side of Stage 3 is that the heat burns away a lot of our illusions about ourselves and our partner. We have an opportunity to become more loving and appreciate the person we are with, not the projections we had placed on them as our “ideal mate.”

Carlin and I have now been together over thirty-five years. We’ve moved into the next stages of love and feel blessed to have learned the skills for negotiating the stage of disillusionment and can truly enjoy the later stages of love.

Stage 4: Creating Real, Lasting Love

One of the gifts of confronting the unhappiness in Stage 3 is we can get to the core of what causes the pain and conflict. Like most people, Carlin and I grew up in families that were dysfunctional. Both my father and mother suffered from depression and my Dad tried to take his own life when I was five years old. Carlin’s father was an angry, violent man. Her mother left him in order to protect herself and her daughter. We all have wounds and the wounds need healing if we’re to have a relationship that is real and loving.

Ongoing research from The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study demonstrates conclusively that childhood trauma can impact our physical, emotional, and relational health. For the first time I made the connection between my father’s attempted suicide when I was five and my adult depression and erectile dysfunction.

Carlin and I learned to be allies in helping each other understand and heal our wounds. As we began to heal, the love and laughter we thought we had lost began to flow again. We began to see each other as wonderful beings who had suffered greatly in the past and had come together to love each other and help heal our old wounds from childhood.

There’s nothing more satisfying than being with a partner who sees you and loves you for who you are. They understand that your hurtful behavior is not because you are mean and unloving, but because you have been wounded in the past and the past still lives with you. As we better understand and accept our partner, we can learn to love ourselves ever more deeply.

Stage 5: Using the Power of Two to Change the World

No one has to remind us that the world is not doing too well. There are continuous wars and conflicts. Racial violence seems to be everywhere. We wonder whether humans can survive. I wondered, “If we can’t even find peace between two people who love each other, what chance do we have to create a world that can work for all its peoples?”

But now I look at the flip side of that question. If we can learn to overcome our differences and find real, lasting love in our relationships, perhaps we can work together to find real, lasting love in the world.

I believe that every couple has an opportunity to use the “power of two” to address some aspect of the world’s problems that touch their lives. Carlin and I are particularly tuned to issues that face men and women at midlife. We are writing a book, You Two: Renewing Your Mid-Life Marriage for Real Lasting Love. If you’d like more information about our work, drop us a note through our website,

We’re also interested in your own journey. Please share your own experiences on the path of real, lasting love. Together we can make a difference in the world.

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  1. Its amazing that when so many couples get to ‘Stage 3: Disillusionment’ one of them gives up leading to separation & divorce, and in some cases one has an affair at Stage 3 leading to separation.

  2. I have been to stage 3 once, no more. It was for 1 and Half year while stage 3 stuck us after 5 months of us getting in a relationship but still we tolerated until a time when she didn’t anymore but I still did as a result we broke up and that thing that she left me over with is the thing that I hate the most in life. I hate her more than ever. I have moved on but I won’t fall in love again ever. Atleast I learnt 1 thing. Don’t love without limits. See theirs and yours and do not lose self respect.

    • Divyank, We do have to love ourselves and that often means setting limits of what is right for us. Loving another doesn’t mean giving ourselves away. Continue to heal your own life and be open to love when you’re ready for it again.

  3. Brittanie says:

    I’m currently at stage three with my boyfriend. We’ve pushed through parent’s disapproval, long distance, disagreements and confusion but right now I feel oppressed by the emotional strain. What I really want to know is how do you ultimately get pass this stage? What helps?

  4. I don’t know how to react, actually. I even don’t know how to feel about this. I’m married for five years already,,,, legally… but my heart belongs to him for 7 years. and now,, just this week,, this weekend,, I have decided to go home in our hometown and talk to our parents about separation,,, not legally cause its too expensive and I can’t afford it for now but formal separation at least. It’s been a year already almost 2 years actually that I’m thinking about it. I’m done, I gave up on him….. I’ve been trying to work it out for years but he didn’t help me. He’s not a man of his word,, he doesn’t even realize how bad the results are,,,, but I lost myself, I am psychologically and mentally tortured. He don’t realize how bad it is.,,,,,,, and I wanna find myself again, give respect to myself, earn confidence and wanna see light again.

    • Anne,

      Absolutely you need to find yourself again. Its not uncommon to lose ourselves when we’re in a long-term relationship. Whether you need to leave, that’s a more complex problem. Everyone disappoints us at some point because we are humans and we can be dishonest, hurtful, and hateful at times. As I say in the article, we all hit periods of disillusionment in Stage 3 and we may go through Stage 3 many times as we trigger things from our past wounds from growing up in our particular family. Sometimes it takes some good counseling to help sort things out.

  5. My fiance and i have been on a fast track from the beginning. We have been friends since childhood and a year and half ago decided to become a couple. We were head over heals for one another and within 6 months i had moved half way across the country to be with him. He has a little boy and over night i became a mommy. I love both of the with all my heart. Life has thrown is some pretty crazy curve balls the past year and half. Over the past few months the stress has taken it’s toll on both of us and it seems like we have begone to take that stress out on one another.
    The other night we had the worst argument. I deeply regret some of the things I said. I dont know, I love him with all my heart and I truly beleave we are right for one another but being in our relationship has not been much fun. Is this just one of those grin and bare it deals? If so when will it give? Is there anything we can do?

    • NSP,

      These kinds of arguments are part of being married and in a close relationship. We inevitably trigger anger and hurt that can explode like bomb. The question is can you get re-connected, forgive yourself and your partner and have forgive you? Often these outbursts are tied to feelings from the past. 90% of our conflicts involved what I call “shadows of the past.” These are feelings that actually originate in childhood, but are triggered by our present marriages. We inevitably touch on these past hurts and the opportunity in Stage 3 is to heal them. We often need help from a good therapist, but many can do this healing on their own. My new book, The Enlightened Marriage, and my Enlightened Marriage Masters Class are both good resources to consider, as well as counseling which I offer. Feel free to contact me if you want more information.

  6. Me and my partner we are in stage 3 and she was confused and wanted to give up, then l gave her an opportunity to think through what she wants either to quit or work on the relationship so l gave her about 6 hours to just do that, after 6 hours she came back and said l have made up my mind lm willing to try again and work on this, so l asked what made her changed her mind and she said , because l still love you

    • Sir yash,

      That’s a very touching sharing. Really taking some time to go deeper, often is the opening to real, lasting love. I’ve developed a course to assist individuals and couples, The Enlightened Marriage Masters Class. It will begin soon and you can get more information at

      Hope things continue to deepen in love for you and your partner.

  7. This article makes it sound like every relationship that experiences stages one and two should last forever if they just know how to make it through stage 3. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that way. There is a reason for stage 3. Stage 3 exists to weed out bad couples. If you make it through to stage 4, then you found the right person. If your gut tells you that you want to be with the person despite the bad feelings in stage 3, then fight for it, but don’t fight for it just because you think you are supposed to.

    • Marc,

      Some couples last and others go their separate ways. I think the purpose of Stage 3 is to help people recognize the projections we place on our partner of what we hope to get to replace the wounds we received in childhood. The disillusionment has a purpose. It forces us to go deeper and to be willing to heal the wounds from childhood as we learn the real reasons we can’t get along with our partner. Not everyone is willing to do that. But those who do find that Stage 4 and Stage 5 give us the best love we’ve ever known.

  8. My husband and I have been married for 5 years, together for 10 and living together for 8 of those years. For the past 3 years it seems we have been stuck in stage 3. My husband has an extremely stressful job , and he really isn’t good about talking about his emotions or feelings, me on the other hand I could talk about my feelings all day long. Recently I have suggested counseling and he says he doesn’t want to talk to a stranger about our issues, we’ve even discussed divorce. Even though we both are unhappy ultimately divorce is not something we want. But we cannot continue to be stuck in this stage. What are your suggestions to help us move on from here? Especially when my husband isn’t a big one on talking about his feelings.

    • Meagan,

      Not everyone feels comfortable doing therapy. As you point out, you find it easy to talk about your feelings and opening up to a stranger may not be that difficult. For others, including most men, recognizing feelings, naming them, talking about them, and opening up with someone they don’t know, is terribly uncomfortable.

      My suggestion is that you seek help. I’ve found that one person can change a relationship for the better, since we are deeply connected. In the program I’ve developed I get the woman involved first. I help her stabilize things, give her guidance on how to heal herself and also how to help her man even if he is resistant, and finally how to get him involved without causing him more fear. Happy to share more about how I do that. Just drop me a note.

  9. I have been in a marriage bad marriage for 23 year the communication has alway cause problem any question asked he becomes upset. Looking back I should have left earlier. He is a captain at fire department never home only one income . Five years he serviced me divorce papers said he need to teach me a lesson my kids where in the 8th and 12 th grade I told my kids divorce meant determination we can’t get this time back so let’s cry and forgive him and keep in our destiny my daughter got in to Usc my son got the school he want for high school . I went back to school at some point he seem normal later found out he was text lots of women hotel and concert receipts and receipts with women clothes when I confront him said I lie I print out cell phone record and he denial. I have tried to be normal I can’t find a consistent period over six month I feel he isn’t trustworthy and I have readed all kinds of information. That fact he doesn’t admit to anything is painful . I want to divorce him when my is out of high school. He is at work 25 to 20 days of the month in the last five years. I realize I don’t no him I pointed it out to him three months ago. I travel to Europe at 26 lives on my own worked in cooperate world stay home to rise kids. It was what we agreed to. Th need to degrade me has cause heated disagreement there is no living trust. I feel he has to many secret with other women I handle the financial part. He is good with his kids I feel disconnected and a lack of intimate and attention he is always tried I realize work is long but ther is lots of time to call home and communicated .. I feel the need to just walk out the door the mental abuse is too much. When I ask about the marriage oh we are going to retire and have a good life we go on yearly trips along .. I just decover I am not compatible with him I have overlooked so many situation earlier in marriage put now I am frustrated

  10. Vicki,

    Sounds like a painful process and one you’ve hung there for a long while hoping that things would improve. You’ve had a lot of courage and now it looks like you have come to believe that taking care of yourself and putting yourself first is important. I wish you well and support your self-care. Keep it up and keep going.