As a society, we are obsessed with breaking things down into stages or categories. We want to know what generation or demographic or identity we belong to or how to process our feelings.
To aid us in this journey of discovery, we have the five stages of grief and the 12 steps of addiction recovery. We want to know when we have moved from one step or stage to the next, as it signifies progress for us. We are getting closer to whatever our goal is.
Well, in dating, there are steps we go through as well. You don’t just meet someone, get married, and call it a day. There are lots of steps along the way. Heck, I met my now wife two times before I actually remember meeting her, so even meeting her had steps involved.
The steps of dating can be broken down in a lot of different ways , and many experts have chimed in with their own versions. This is the way I have broken it down and how I teach my clients, and I think it’ll help you navigate the journey you’re on.
1. A Spark is Lit
Typically, the first way we meet anyone is through our social and professional networks. Perhaps you and a potential date live in the same city or know some of the same people. Perhaps your work or personal lives overlap. Perhaps they’re a friend of a friend.
You may see him or her at the occasional party and see their name float around your online social networks, but you’re not too close to them. However, you’re intrigued by them and wouldn’t mind spending more time with them. You find excuses to sit next to them at events, or you show up somewhere that you know they are going to be.
Everything is on the surface level at this point. You may talk about typical things like the news, your friends, work, school, etc. While you initially want to know more about them, this is the sussing out part where you look to see if your views and likes are similar. You ask lots of questions, learning about who this person is.
Since you think this person might be a romantic prospect, your adrenaline and dopamine will be firing when you’re around them or even thinking about them. Not the huge fireworks of romantic love, but the spark is lit. Maybe it’s time to ask him or her on a date…
2. Attachment Forms
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a human being’s need for a sense of connection ranks right below his or her need for freedom and self-esteem. Human beings are social creatures who need connections to thrive.
Maybe now you’re starting to realize that you have a lot of things in common with this person who’s caught your eye. You share a lot of world views, your five-year plans have a lot of similarities, and many of the same things make you smile.
Instead of just running into each other as fate willed it, you’re now making time to see each other. You are still making sure the other one is going to the group events, but now you’re trying to make time to see each other just one on one.
Now you are starting to develop that oh-so-important chemistry. When you are around them, your nerve cells release dopamine and serotonin, which are your happiness chemicals. Also, oxytocin (aka the bonding or love hormone) is starting to course through your veins.
As you trade stories of growing up, you start to think, “Hey, this girl is amazing! What could she possibly see in me? Whatever it is, I like spending time with her. Not really interested in hanging out with any other girls.”
3. Lust Turns to Love
This is when dating starts to get good! In the comfort stage, you and your new partner are supporting and helping each other. This is when the romantic love with butterflies and obsessive lust starts to morph into a mature love.
At this stage, comfort is both a noun and a verb. The other person IS a comfort to you. You love knowing that you’ll see them after work. When you have a bad day, they will comfort you. As opposed to being two individuals, now the third entity, “us,” starts to develop.
As the honeymoon period ends, the real work of the relationship starts. For the good relationships, this comfort stage is when you can be more relaxed and be the real you.
This can also be when a lot of couples break up. As the passionate love dissipates, all of the red flags may start flying.
4. True Emotional and Physical Intimacy is Reached
This is the gold star of all our human relationships. We crave intimacy, touch, affirmations, and validations. According to many studies, intimate relationships differ from casual relationships in seven distinct ways.
Knowledge: You really get to know each other and know a lot of personal information about one another, including dreams, fears, history, trauma, and goals. And you STILL like each other!
Interdependence: Most, if not all, decisions are influenced by what your partner thinks. There are lots of compromises and trade-offs. You are beginning to depend on each other.
Care: You genuinely, deeply care for this person and will do just about anything in your power to keep them from harm. This could be physical or emotional harm.
Trust: You can usually feel this in your gut. When they go on a business trip, you’re not fretting over what they might get up to. Even though you disagree sometimes, you have faith that the other person takes your happiness into account.
Responsiveness: You understand and support each other in sickness and in health, in good times and bad. You sense when they’re unhappy and strive to cheer them up.
Mutuality: This is the full version of the three entities: you, me, and us. You both recognize a close connection. You have joint bank accounts. Instead of saying “Gene and I,” you say “We.”
Commitment: Feeling commitment to each other allows you to build toward the relationship’s future. You commit to continuing in the relationship indefinitely, and your trust deepens. You may be ready for big decisions (i.e. moving in together or having kids).
Dating and Relationships Take Work, But It’s Worth It
One of the problems I run into sometimes with my clients is that, especially after a breakup, they want to skip over some of these dating stages and jump right into the comfort of a relationship. Yes, it’s awesome to watch movies on a cold and rainy Sunday, but, to get there, you’ve got to create the memories and connections that happen in the first few stages.
If you have a romantic connection with someone, and you want it to go further, perhaps it’s time to put in a little effort. You can do this!