Seven Stages Of A Fulfilling, Intimate Relationship

“Cry and wait for the sun to come out, because it always does!” — Maria, “The Sound of Music”
Cloud Heart In The Sky And Butterflies


Polite modern stories and air-brushed Disney films do little to prepare us for the realities of our dynamic loving and intimate relationships. As we all know, relationships are complex, and often don’t go as we would wish — they really do have a life of their own.

I have read Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run With The Wolves so many times that my copy has fallen apart and lost its cover. In my recent re-reading, I found this helpful nugget about seven stages of relationships, which deserves deeper exploration.

These seven stages are fundamentally about acknowledging the constant and surprising nature of change. A relationship is not a fixed thing. It is not an object.

Relationships are dynamic, chaotic and alive. They thrive when the wisdom of the wild goddess is included. Facing this truth helps us be appropriate and successful in navigating the ups and downs of relational terrain.

Constant change is the essential creative pattern of nature. Life/death/life is our ancient and instinctual rhythm. You know it well from observing the seasons in your garden, your own childhood experiences of excitement and disappointment, and perhaps from seeing it play out in your family around you.

It also lives in the many natural cycles of your own intimate relationships — finding and losing, merging and separating, responding and asking, giving and receiving.

For a relationship to succeed we need to become friends with the cyclical nature of the world, the necessary small deaths and startling births that make up a relationship — not just our wished-for fantasies.

To love, one must not only be strong but wise. Strength comes from the spirit. Wisdom comes from our experience with constant changeability, life and death.

Watch for these seven stages of relationship to unfold as one soul learns to love another deeply and well.

1. Accidental Discovery Of A Person As Spiritual Treasure

All lovers in the beginning are blind. At first one may simply not realize what has been found. While the ego is probably looking for fun, the lovers have meanwhile often entered sacred psychical ground. There can be an uncomfortable struggle between the surface sense of identity and the realms of deeper unconscious soul.

In this first stage, illusions and expectations eventually die, and greed for having it all or wanting it all to be beautiful, die. To love means to stay with what is, as it is.

Amidst the passion, many new lovers worry about small disappointments of things that don’t meet their conscious expectations and prepared lists of “what I want in a relationship.” Perhaps the lover is unexpectedly bald or has as rounded belly. Oh no, what shall they do?!

The impulse is to run from the not-totally-perfect. But stay awhile, it can be a magical wonderful time.

2. The Chase And Hiding — Hopes And Fears For Both

Reality is perfectly imperfect. We and the other person are, of course, flawed. In this stage, we may wish for someone better, a lover who is a bit more this or a lot less that. We may not want to give up our independence. One partner may run away, the other may pursue them. This dance can bring a lot of life into a relationship.

But there may not actually be anyone else that is better for us; there may not be anywhere to hide from the love. If one wishes to love, one will have to accept and embrace the uncertainty of life.

To love truly, one needs to be able to manage one’s own fear of the unknown. This may mean consciously concentrating on calming and grounding — sensing the body, breathing more fully, practicing extra self-care, such as an exercise class, a bath with scented oils, or reaching out to chat with a friend.

3. Understanding There Is Life/Death/Life

If the relationship is love, then we are willing to touch the usually abhorrent not-beautiful in another person and in ourselves. Perhaps their anxiety or grumpiness, perhaps our fear or arrogance, our laziness or mess. We are both revealed as our vulnerable child self, as well as our capable adult self.

In both fairytale justice and the psyche, kindness to that which seems to be “less than” is rewarded by goodness. When we move forward, daring to come into contact with the apparently not-beautiful, we are rewarded, expanded, enlarged. In this seemingly risky movement, we unravel the knot, the profound pattern for renewal. We learn the constant cycle of life and death. We deepen together.

A wild and generous patience is required in this stage by both lovers to discover this valuable pearl of great price. Take it slowly.

4. Relaxing Into Trusting

The next stage is a transition, a healing and rebirth through the relationship, as we willingly show each other our vulnerability, and rest in the shared safety.

The lovers return to trust — to be innocent, hope and dream. They love despite the fact that they may still be nervous, unsure the partner is enough. They have been wounded before and fear the unknown shapes of the future.

A step towards commitment is the end of one kind of life and the beginning of another. Trust in our own instincts is required that this relationship is good. One ending is another beginning, whatever will be, will be transformative. Trust yourself.

5. Resting In The Presence And Goodwill Of The Other

At this stage the lovers let their hearts break open. A Sufi prayer says, “Shatter my heart so a new room can be created for Limitless Love.” Enjoy!

6. Sharing Past Sadness And Future Dreams

The lovers’ hearts begin to sing new life. Heart symbolizes our spiritual essence. When you realize that the inevitable life/death/life cycle is a teacher and a lover, she becomes your ally. You know there will, of course, be yet another unknown and unexpected relational chapter to traverse, and there will be a regeneration through song, rhythm and pulse.

Pneuma (breath) and psyche are both words for soul — expansion and increase — allowing the heart of the relationship to be sung, lived and danced. A real pleasure.

7. Intermingling — The Dance Of Body And Soul

Love in its fullest form is a never-ending series of deaths and rebirths. We let go of a phase of love and enter another. To love is to embrace and to withstand. To be generous, yes, and let me also give you this, yes, and let me also give you that.

To make love, is to dance with both life and death as partners.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes cautions women not to give of their body accidentally, but to insist on all phases. Then, she says, the time of body union will come in its own right time.

To make love is to merge breath and flesh, spirit and matter, one person with the other. To surrender. It is to come into cooperative relationship with that which one fears. Breathing consciously is a real help, allowing fears to move through.

Giving one’s entire heart to the process of each partner transforming the other means they both will be nourished to the end of their days. Delighted.

I imagine this cycle of seven stages repeats in different forms within a relationship lifetime, as well as in the time when we are in-between specific relationships.

It is our instinctual nature that has the ability to live through the up and downs and still maintain relationship to self and other. Unpredictability must be allowed into a relationship for enduring love. Not us but the instinctual wild goddess knows when it is time for the next cycle of the relationship to begin. Trust your own deepest knowing.

At the end of “The Sound of Music,” the nun turned lover and mother is asked by the teenage daughter what to do when a romance ends. She confidently affirms, “Cry and wait for the sun to come out, because it always does!”

Julia Paulette Hollenbery is a bodyworker, therapist, mystic, healer, and facilitator, who has guided countless clients into deep confidence and self-authority for more than 25 years.  Her new book, The Healing Power of Pleasure: Seven Medicines for Rediscovering the Innate Joy of Being is internationally published by Findhorn Press. Julia lives and works in London.