This essay was written for the Carnival of Aces, which is this month themed on “relationship stages”.
There are strong cultural norms regarding the proper trajectory of a romantic relationship. In my mind, they start with initiation: one person asks the other person out. The couple has a few dates, and then they “go steady”, whatever that means. Eventually, they meet each other’s parents, they start living together, they get engaged, and get married.
Since these are cultural norms, you’d expect them to be everywhere. You’d expect to find lots of popular articles describing them as the way “all” relationships work. But when I recently searched “relationship stages”, I found something different.
For instance, these two articles describe the five stages as “Romance”, “Power struggle”, “Stability”, “Commitment”, and “Co-creation”. Another article describes “Attraction”, “Infatuation”, “Enlightenment”, and “Commitment”. A third article lists nine stages, including “Infatuation”, “Moulding”, “Doubting”, and “Complete trust”. I could go on, but at this point I decided it was mostly bullshit.
Let’s put aside how terrible these relationship stages sound. (Does every relationship seriously need a “power struggle”?) I want to talk about the bigger distinction between these articles and my expectations. It is not merely that we put the relationship stages in a different order, but that we are operating under entirely different definitions of “relationship stages”. When I first reflected on relationship stages, I thought about the mechanical steps–what does the couple do? But these articles instead use relationship stages to describe an emotional trajectory–how does the couple feel?
Perhaps the reason I focus on the mechanical stages of a relationship is because those are the ones I actually understand. Take dating. At its most basic, dating is time that people spend together with the intention of getting to know each other. It’s difficult to deny the utility of dating in a long-term relationship. But how are we supposed to feel about dating?
As a gray-romantic ace, I’m bound to find dating confusing. I don’t experience crushes. That confounds expectations. That’s a problem.
But if only it were that simple! The bigger problem is I don’t even know what expectations I’m confounding, or when. There are multiple conflicting narratives about when crushes are supposed to occur relative to dating. In many romantic stories, a person develops a crush, and eventually they come to admit it to themselves and to their crush. This would imply that by the time they’re dating, they’re already in the middle of their infatuation stage. On the other hand, lots of people have first dates without strong expectations that they’ll lead to second dates. Also, blind dates are a thing (how I met my boyfriend, and how my parents met each other).
Without the personal experience to go by, I had little basis to sort the narrative fact from fiction. And I had little basis to guess the feelings of my dates. Most people won’t say outright how they feel, you know?
Given my confusion about dating, it bothers me when people act as if there is only one consistent set of expectations about relationships. Even critics will act like there’s just one set of expectations, all the better to reject them as too narrow. In reality, there are so many conflicting expectations that they are incoherent.
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So I’ve been reading a lot of Marxist historiography and may have lost it a little at “power struggle.”
It’s interesting that I also tend to think about relationship stages in terms of action rather than attraction, but, hey, I’m also greyro. But I also think that my romantic relationships have two stages–“decide date” and “date.” Which people tend to find confusing, because my relationships tend to go from 0 to 60 and then…stay at 60. Whereas when I look at, say, my roommate, she seems to ease into romantic relationships and her romantic relationships change over time in a way that mine don’t necessarily. My relationship with my girlfriend now doesn’t look that different than it did when we first started dating.
Oh, wow. Several years ago I needed to know that information for a test (I was a communication studies major), but clearly I did not even think about the material since I didn’t remember until you mentioned it. First of all, the site links you used are based on half-ass(ess)ed psychology. If you’re ever searching for more credible sources for a report or something on the fly scholar.google.com is your best friend. So with a more scholarly approach in mind I typed in “stages of intimacy” instead of “relationships” because in the the scholarly world “relationships” is too broad of a search term. Secondly, I was able to confirm my original hunch: Nobody agrees on anything. Even the relationship “experts” can’t agree on what the stages are or how many of them exist. Most of the research conducted and data collected are from heterosexual couples several years ago. With the fast evolution of technology and online dating becoming more mainstream by the time any physiologist got their data collected and printed, it was already old and useless. People like to think that relationships are just an easy 1 + 1 = 2, but it’s really more like calculus. It you and everything you like, hate, value, expect, believe, and your life and habits moving at a rate of x towards a potential partner with an unknown set variables heading at a trajectory of w, solve for y. At least that’s what I think it feels like. But there is hope. If you try coming into a relationship with *values* instead of expectations and make you’re values clear to your potential partner and the two of you go at a pace that works for you, see what happens.
The point in looking up articles was not to learn about the scholarly understanding of relationship stages. It was to learn about popular expectations about relationship stages. Trashy pop psychology articles were exactly what I wanted!
Heh, I totally also focus on the practical aspects of relationship commitment (finances, moving in, marriage certificates, scheduling) rather than the intimacy stages (feelings??? idk). I’ve never know if that’s because I’m ace or if that’s because I tend to be a more practically than emotionally minded person in general.
In terms of how other people think about relationships, though, I find it more useful to think of it as that there are certain larger set “scripts” that people pick and choose from – sort of like tropes in fiction. There’s the “slow burning secret crushes get all angsty until they confess their love and find out it’s mutual and rushed to the altar” script. There’s the “met on a blind date, weren’t sure at first, but hit it off after the third date, lived together for a couple years, and eventually got married” script. There’s the “had a hot one night stand, accidentally got knocked up, got married, turns out they hate each other, got divorced and had a giant custody battle” script. And so on.
Lots of these scripts conflict, and they don’t follow the same rules or patterns. It’s more that, for each of these scripts, we can see it play out in several common examples from fiction or tabloids or friends of friends or whatever. So, like, on the one hand, “crush to confession” and “blind date” relationship scripts seem to follow different theories of relationships – but they are still both tropes that appear over and over again with certain identifiable elements in each. “Met on the internet and formed a stable financial, nonsexual partnership in order to co-parent children”, on the other hand, does not fall under any relationship tropes I know of, which Is why I think of it as “expectation-defying”.
Yes, I think that is an apt way of describing the situation.
I like this point a lot too.
This is such a good point! And I like how you distinguish between the acts and the feelings, I also get the sene that those are both important tracks with expectations, like, “if you feel this way obviously you should be doing x/y/z” or “if you are doing this obviously you must be feeling x”, even though like you said there are many different scripts that the person speaking could have in mind. When it comes to “relationships,” it seems like most people assume the only motivation for how you engage in a relationship is how you feel, so they try to interpret your feelings based on your behavior or dictate your behavior based on what you say you feel (or don’t feel). I’m glad you brought this up! Just shows that “relationships” and how the develop are way more diverse than a lot of people seem to think.
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