Stages in Relationships

This is my second submission for the January 2016 Carnival of Aces, which had the theme “Relationship Stages”. For more information on the Carnival of Aces, click here.

[Content Warnings/Notes: Mentions of death. Discussion of abusive relationships. Brief mentions of sexual assault in a section about virginity.]


If you go to Google and start searching for “Parenthood stages” you will find PDFs like this one on 6 distinct stages: or, to my dismay, an article from bigoted/anti-LGBT group Focus on the Family on there being four “phases”. You’ll find various books published on the topic and various academic articles at .edu websites on research people have conducted.

Clearly, it’s not just romantic relationships that either seem to have stages. I could think of many ways a relationship between a parent and a child seems to usually… “evolve”, “progress”, etc, much like it has its own kind of relationship escalator. There are ideal stages for kids and parents to be at depending on the age of the child, and this extends until the death of the parent, which is “supposed” to happen prior to the death of the child. Obviously the child dying first is one way the stages won’t happen “according to plan” or according to “how things should be”.

But in truth, there are many ways for parent and child relationships to not follow society’s ideals for the stages. A child having a disability or being neurodivergent can easily throw off the course of the stages, slow them down, prevent some from happening, and the same is true if the parent is like that. A parent dying too soon means not all stages can be completed. Sometimes people just don’t follow the stages for no obvious “Reason”, but the world around them still judges them as doing the whole “being a family” thing wrong. You’re supposed to be exactly the right level of aware of what is going on in your child’s life, but not be overprotective or overly strict or overly bragging, obsessing about your kid when in social contexts, etc, and also you can’t be neglectful, distant, not involved enough, “oblivious”, etc. As a child, you are supposed to respect your parents, but also not be a clingy child one could make fun of with terms like “momma’s boy”.

You’re supposed to become friends with your parent once you reach adulthood, and people who don’t have good relationships with their parents need a good explanation, need an excuse, as for why they don’t. The default is that you would. Deviating from that norm is not usually accepted. People will wonder why the deviation has occurred.

One common reason for a deviation from that, a reason to not have a good relationship with your parent(s), is if they were abusive to you.

Abuse is something that has stages too. More specifically, abusive relationships of many different types, from romantic to familial to queerplatonic and many other types of dynamics as well, have specific recognizable stages.

Here’s the first article that came up when I searched “stages of abusive relationships” on Google:

These four stages have been documented in many places and many areas. They are also, probably more commonly, known as “the cycle of abuse”.

Unlike romantic relationship stages, or the stages of parenthood, there is no ideal when it comes to abuse. The stages aren’t goals either party is going for, the stages are rather descriptions of what being in this kind of relationship is like. The calm is the start, but the calm is also the end, and it’s cyclical, not linear like the elevator is. Things do ALSO usually get worse and worse in a more linear fashion in abusive relationships, but these “stages” are not about that. In this case, stages are used to describe what is almost inevitable if your relationship happens to be abusive.

As Siggy pointed out in his post for this month’s carnival, often when you search about typical relationship stages, you find articles describing the typical ways romantic couples feel and how that changes over time. My brother, when trying to decide whether or not to break up with his girlfriend a few years back, Googled stuff about “how long does the infatuation period last?”, wondering if that “stage” of his relationship was over now and if that explained why he didn’t really feel the positive stuff in his relationship that he used to feel.

I think stages can be useful when used to explain or describe typical ways human beings experience things. The first time you go through a significant loss of a loved one, or maybe if you just want to understand want someone else is going through, or how to write a character in a work of fiction more accurately, you might look into the stages of grief because you trust that maybe, just maybe, people are similar enough that the information to help you better understand it is out there. Maybe, if you’re lucky, stages can work as a method to categorize feelings, to categorize experiences, to connect the world more and make people feel less alone, to feel more prepared for what’s to come, to feel like they have a map to guide them as they try to navigate the world of dating or parenting or whatever it is.

The problem is that the generalizations don’t work for everybody. This is the carnival of aces, where asexual people write every month about issues that are relatively unique to asexual people. Why are issues unique to us? Because most human beings are not asexual.

Typical “stages”for other people often don’t apply to us. People make assumptions that everyone has a stage in life when they are a virgin, and another stage in life when they are a happy sexually active adult. (Assumptions that most people don’t ever have to deal with sexual assault and sexual abuse prevail as well, unfortunately. Survivors are usually forgotten in the generalizations, in the simplistic pictures painted, too.) Heteronormativity/cisnormativity plays a huge role here, and people who want to have non-heteronotmative sex have to hear about the stages that most people experience in life and try to adjust those scripts to fit their own bodies and/or sexual orientations.

Sex-ed instructors, peers, parents, etc will speak of a young teen not having had sex “yet” as if every person will get to that “Stage” eventually. But just because most people will get to the stage described, it doesn’t mean everyone will. And even if some aces do get to that stage, that doesn’t mean they fit the typical descriptions of what the stages are actually like. Most asexual-spectrum people feel a disconnect when they compare their actual, lived experience to what they were told the stage would be.

A percentage of aces might have even liked the sex, but they still didn’t find their partner sexy in the way that the world told them always goes hand-in-hand with the experience. Other aces might not have been able to get aroused even when everything was just right and they felt full of love for their partner, and the sex might’ve been awful, painful, stressful, etc even when they were consenting. They might have felt the opposite of fulfilled and satisfied and closer-to-their-partner than ever after they finally “lost their virginity”.

And some aces – more and more asexual people all the time, I would imagine, might end up choosing to not have sex with anyone, more and more aromantic spectrum people choosing not to even try dating, because more people are finding out about these orientations when younger, and accepting that they probably won’t be able to experience the typical “Stages” even if they go through the motions, because a big part of the stages is about how you feel. Some of the asexual-spectrum people might realize that it will be more tricky to get to the point of experiencing the stages, take more time or more effort or even just more luck.

Most self-identifying asexual people would get to the point of realizing that the typical stages at least might not apply to everyone in the way they thought the stages would, and would reflect on the assumptions that the stages are true for everyone. Regardless of how well the stages do or don’t match up to their own lived experiences, learning enough about asexuality that you feel ready to adopt the label usually requires some degree of worldview shifting, and that includes realizing that just because the majority of people’s relationship experiences may be pretty accurately described by certain “stages”, it is important not to forget that minority of people out there who need to carve their own path, who need to write their own blog posts/books/etc in order for their own lived experience to be accurately described.


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