The Dating Timeline: The 3 Phases of Relationships

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Getting the Love You Want" by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does a typical dating timeline look like? How do you feel about your partner during these different phases?

In Getting the Love You Want, Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt give a basic timeline of dating that is similar to a novel’s structure. These stages include the honeymoon phase, an unwelcome transition, and the beginning of the conflict.

Keep reading for an in-depth look at Hendrix and Hunt’s three-phase dating timeline.

The Timeline of Relationship Dating

Your subconscious mind thinks it has found a “perfect partner” who will resolve all your issues from childhood. Hendrix and Hunt state that you’ll naturally experience an emotional high, followed by an inevitable slide to disappointment as the reality of your partner’s imperfection sets in. Much like the structure of a novel or a play, a relationship is marked by a dating timeline. This timeline follows a basic structure: intense emotional rise, an unexpected turn, and a downfall into conflict.

The Honeymoon Phase

According to Hendrix and Hunt, the feeling of reconnection with your idealized parental figure lets you see your partner through rose-tinted glasses. Meanwhile, your body releases a flood of hormones that create a natural euphoria. While the effects of the hormones are biochemical, their release is triggered by your unconscious, which believes that its deep-seated childhood needs will, at last, be met.

For instance, when you say to your partner, “You complete me,” you acknowledge that being with them allows you to reconnect with your own repressed feelings. When you say, “I can’t live without you,” you’ve made them responsible for your survival, just as it was once the responsibility of your parents.

An Unwelcome Transition

The second part of this dating timeline is an unwelcome transition. As your romantic connection grows stronger, you continue to view your partner through the lens of your unconscious parental image. In addition, you also project a false image of yourself to come across as more giving and less needy. As a result, neither you nor your partner ever see each other as you truly are. Both of you have the unspoken expectation that the other will meet all your emotional needs freely.

As soon as cracks begin to show in this illusion, and you realize that your partner isn’t as perfect as you imagined, resentment creeps in. Now your subconscious has recreated your childhood. It now worries that you’re about to relive all of your childhood hurts and disappointments. Unfortunately, this shift usually takes place shortly after you decide to commit to each other.

The struggle that follows is similar to the prior romantic stage of the relationship in that both of you are driven by your need to feel loved. In the beginning, you thought love would come without effort. Deep inside, you both feel angry when you realize it won’t. You either react by withdrawing or by trying to force your partner to meet your emotional needs.

The Conflict Begins

As a relationship starts to lose its shine, some traits you once found attractive in your partner now become abrasive. Hendrix and Hunt point out that those traits are usually the ones that fill in parts of your “lost self,” but over time they activate your repressed feelings, and with them comes all the anxiety and pain that taught you to keep those feelings at bay.

For instance, David is active and outgoing. As a child, he had to be to get his parents’ attention. He was attracted to Patty’s calm and reserve, a luxury he’d never had growing up. However, in the third stage of their dating timeline, he starts to see their quiet time together as wasted time together. The more Patty awakens his inner need to slow down and be still, the more anxious he becomes. The repressed child within him equates stillness with an absence of parental affection.

Because you unknowingly chose a partner who shares similarities with your childhood caregivers, they will at times do or say something that resurrects painful memories from your past. Reawakening these hurtful episodes triggers a fight-or-flight response as if you’re in physical danger. Depending on your upbringing, you may respond in one of two ways:

  • Some people withdraw, hoping the danger will pass (flight).
  • Some people attack, hoping to provoke the relationship to get back on track (fight).

(Shortform note: Hendrix and Hunt return several times to the idea that the part of our nervous system directly tied to our fight-or-flight instinct doesn’t differentiate between physical and emotional pain. MRI scans of people who have recently experienced emotional rejection show that the same regions of the brain are triggered as in people experiencing physical distress. Furthermore, similar studies suggest that emotional stress may cause physical sensations of pain in young children.)

The Dating Timeline: The 3 Phases of Relationships

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Here's what you'll find in our full Getting the Love You Want summary :

  • Why rifts often open between your romantic partner and yourself
  • How your childhood defines your future relationships
  • How a struggling couple can learn to talk to each other, heal, and grow

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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