What Does A Typical Relationship Timeline Look Like? All The Stages, Explained

Like searching for a rare gem, finding true love is a precious life goal for many, especially if you're already navigating a relationship stage. Though love occurs at different times for different people, we all engage in similar relationship phases when it comes to cultivating a strong, healthy romantic bond. The most common phases are the honeymoon phase, the going steady phase, the decision-making phase, and the commitment phase (this is how long it actually takes to fall in love), all of which have to do with the hormonal chemistry in your brain. 

The National Library of Medicine states that the stage of a relationship is determined by the levels of oxytocin — the love hormone. For instance, during the dating phase, there may be a more steady neurohormonal level of brain activity due to the growth in closeness and intimacy between both partners. In fact, each individual stage is marked by its own distinct level of neural activity. The honeymoon stage, for example, is linked with having greater neural activity on the left half of the brain compared to the later decision-making stage of a relationship, where tension tends to rise and get more serious.

Ultimately, this leads to changes in relationship stages and their durations. Still, whether you're a hopeless romantic or one grounded in realism, stages of a relationship are undeniable, and physically happen to everyone. So, what are the exact stages and how do we know we're in them?

The honeymoon phase

A common relationship stage for many, the honeymoon phase is the beginning of a relationship that leaves two individuals excited, exhilarated, and very publicly affectionate. Still, the honeymoon phase doesn't have to have a label on it — the feelings often present in this phase can happen whether you're officially in a relationship or if you're just hanging out. This is mostly determined by the high levels of oxytocin that occur, especially when one is eager to spend time with their new partner. In fact, other neurotransmitters are produced at this stage as well. 

Dopamine, known as the "feel good" neurotransmitter, contributes to the high of the honeymoon phase, because our bodies generate it as a reward system, according to Cleveland Clinic. Just like when we work out, dopamine signals the body with extreme levels of pleasure and achievement. This is a huge reason why we, by nature, want to return to the source of the high and get consumed by constant thoughts, needs for touch, or intense feelings for that other person. This, in turn, encourages honeymooners to ignore red flags and vulnerability — surefire signs the honeymoon phase is over — in an attempt to prolong the perfection of the romance. However, the longer the relationship continues, the more likely the levels of dopamine will drop, making the euphoria of lust may dissipate. Still, this is a natural and beneficial thing, because it allows the relationship to move on to the next stage, and for the partners to clearly see each other's strengths and weaknesses.

The going steady phase

You've probably heard of this phase too, but rest assured, it is still prevalent and not left to the sock-hop lure of the fifties when your grandparents were dating. In the going steady phase, the relationship transitions from eager mystery to steady comfortability, also known as "passional love," Alexander Goldberg, Ph.D. explained to LabTag. This can either be casual or more exclusive, though deciding what category the relationship falls under is between both partners.

This stage shows us many of the usual dating activities of two interested partners: going out to dinner, seeing movies, holding hands, and other casual, yet intimate scenarios. Insider suggests that in this stage, walls are broken and vulnerability increases as each partner get to know the other on a deeper, more personal level. Neurologically, oxytocin and adrenaline levels dip, though dopamine and serotonin levels remain high because of the relationship's mixture of comfortability and lingering newness. 

The decision making phase

Psychotherapist and author Rachel Wright told Shape that the decision-making phase is an important, and somewhat serious stage where, as the name implies, important decisions involving risk and responsibility are made. "This is when some people decide that they want to stay in the relationship for comfort and familiarity regardless of their significant issues and differences," she said. Correlated with 2-3 years of emotional and physical commitment to your partner, this stage can include weighing several possibilities: some common examples being choosing whether or not to move in together, adopt a pet, meet each other's families, and other long-term relationship goals.

In turn, this can also increase stress levels, and later decrease levels of oxytocin. The National Library of Medicine states that at this stage, our brains are constantly weighing pros versus consequences due to an increase in dopamine. However, because of the increase in risks that are being taken, adrenaline also rises. The extra boost of adrenaline also tends to boost feelings of excitement and passion in the relationship.

The commitment phase

Similar to the decision-making phase, the commitment phase is the final leap in a relationship where partners act on serious promises to one another, like meeting families, proposing, and getting married. It's the final "I do" of two people telling each other that they are in the relationship for the long haul and are very much committed to making the relationship work. This is also the stage where we see a spike in oxytocin, and another neurotransmitter called vasopressin (also known as the pair-bonding transmitter via My Med), which promotes long-lasting, monogamous relationships. A commitment of any kind — be it physical, like sex, or emotional, like a proposal — can produce vasopressin, which, similarly to serotonin, stimulates feelings of happiness, but also develops feelings of intense attachment and belonging. 

Regardless of how long you've been together at this stage, there is a full sense of security between each partner, and this is also the stage where we see the most emotional availability and empathy arise. Despite this deep connection, Better Help warns that you may see a drastic difference in desire compared to the honeymoon phase. Remember that this shift is perfectly normal, based on your hormonal levels. When it happens, communicate it with your partner and work together to find new ways to be intimate with each other.

A personal timeline

All in all, the stages of a relationship don't have to be linear and can transition quickly from one to the next, based on the natural chemistry and circumstances of that relationship. Some people don't always experience each stage, either. There's never one specific timeline for each person, but for the most part, these stages — the honeymoon phase, the going steady phase, the decision-making phase, and the commitment phase — have been scientifically and socially common among short and long-term relationships. 

Which stage you find yourself in is determined by the natural brain chemistry you're experiencing, as well as the outside factors of your relationship, such as the future plans you have with your partner, or the level of intimacy you both share. Still, wherever you find your romantic relationship, enjoy the stage of the relationship that you're in and celebrate how far you've come, or will come, with your special someone.