3 Stages of Relationship

It’s all your fault, then it’s all my responsibility, then we’re both just imperfect humans.

It’s all your fault, then it’s all my responsibility, then we’re both just imperfect humans. Emily Nature


photo courtesy of VegterFoto

filed under Advice, Fighting


One day, after having twisted my brain for months to come to terms with a relationship issue, to no avail, it struck me that every time I felt stuck, it was because I was trying to transcend and bypass my messy humanness. I started wondering:

What if the purpose of two people being together is not to have an enlightened relationship, but to have a human relationship? What if the point of the game is not enlightenment, but enjoyment of our humanity?

That’s when it occurred to me: There are three stages in how we do relationships.

Stage 1: Unconscious Relating

We all know what this stage looks like: codependency, victimhood, identifying our partners as the cause of our feelings. I was here in my first long-term relationship, and it was nasty. We bickered, shouted, accused, pointed fingers. Some very glaring examples:

  • Looking down on my partner’s capability, scrutinizing his every move and making him wrong
  • Meeting my partner’s concerns with the suggestion that he grow up and get over himself
  • Getting into repetitive fights: “You keep doing X and that makes me feel Y. How many times have I told you to just stop doing X?”
  • Feeling upset when being called upon to examine my behavior: “Why should I be the one to change? Why should my partner get away with it? He did me wrong. Why should I let him off the hook?”

In Stage 1, I insisted on being right and held tightly to my beliefs. My mantra was: “This is who I am. I refuse to change. If you want to be with me, you must change.”

Stage 2: Conscious, Growth-Driven Relating

Many of us move on to this stage after a few years of attending personal growth workshops, reading self-help books, and meditating. It’s here that we learn to take responsibility for our feelings and stop projecting onto our partners. We learn to communicate with respect. We are given the opportunity to look at our shadows and bring them out into the light, to begin to feel whole and complete as a sovereign, separate being.

My Stage 2 relationships were driven by growth and characterized by a commitment to transformation. Each relationship was a container for evolution, a vehicle for transforming the unloved parts of myself. I saw my relationship triggers as a chance to do inner work with abandonment, attachment, betrayal, self-worth, childhood wounding, and so on.

Stage 2 is necessary, but it can also be an insidious hamster wheel with no way out for the spiritual bypasser. Armed with the knowledge that we have the power to create our experience of reality, it’s tempting to slip into self-denial.

  • Jealous? No, I should not be jealous.
  • Angry? No, I can have a better thought.
  • Insecure? Anxious? Clingy? It’s my stuff to deal with. Let me practice more unconditional love, non-attachment, and acceptance toward my partner.
  • Feeling rejected, taken for granted, or underappreciated? What does it say about how I’m treating myself? How can I step up in loving myself more? How can I turn the finger toward myself and work through my own issues so this will no longer be a problem?

In the name of growth and inner work, I’ve seen women stay with emotionally and verbally abusive partners. I’ve also seen men sticking it out with partners who treat them like upper-fixers, who kept wanting them to be a more “evolved.” As for myself, in wanting to be enlightened, I eventually mastered the art of invalidating my feelings. I stayed far too long in relationships with uncommitted partners who were not available to fully engage with me.

The common thread here is that we have ignored our feelings and intuition, steamrolled over our frustration and anger, and convinced ourselves that we could become awakened and conscious enough to be happy in these relationships. After all, our happiness does not depend on what’s going on outside!

The consequence is we might just end up again and again in relationships that perpetuate the same cycle of constantly stretching the limits of our humanity in an attempt to “grow.” When you’re stuck in Stage 2, relationships are hardly ever fun or juicy; they are ceaseless hard work.

Stage 3: Conscious, Human Relating

One day, an insight hit me: What if the goal is not for me to be an all-evolved partner in the relationship? What if the goal is not to aim for perpetual equanimity? What if the goal is the opposite: to find peace amidst all the ups and downs, contractions and expansions of my humanity?

I got stuck when I tried too hard to be awakened and get ahead of myself, to feel all Zen-like and positive. The truth is, I am still human. I am living in a human body with its frailties and foibles. The point is not to transcend it, but to embrace it wholeheartedly.

I started embracing the fact that I still feel vulnerable and scared in love, I want an exclusive commitment, and I may feel attached and bonded—even when it goes against my “spiritual” mind, which says that desires, fear and self-protection are disempowering.

I started embracing the fact that it usually takes a while for my heart to heal from a breakup, and I have no control over how long it takes—even when it goes against my “spiritual” mind, which says that everything I need is already within me, so I should have gotten over it by now.

If I’m feeling angry, restless, or insecure, I’m aware that those feelings do not come from my partner; they are internally generated. While that understanding tells me what’s going on, and helps me not to blow up at him or break dishes, it’s not a prescription for what to do. It doesn’t tell me whether I should talk to my partner about it, whether I should put up with his behavior, whether I should stay or leave, whether this is the right relationship for me.

At Stage 3, I’ve learned that my feelings might be pointing out a deeper wisdom, which I can honor without acting compulsively on my feelings or ignoring them completely.

Maybe this is exactly the last leg of the journey to enlightenment: To allow myself to be human for once. We’re not here to escape the mess. We’re not here to have perfect, evolved, enlightened relationships.

We’re here to be real, and to be met exactly where we are, here in the ever-evolving state of humanness.

Emily Nature helps smart people have joyful, delicious relationships with themselves and with others.


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