Understanding the Phases of Change
Relationships, like life, are full of change. If you desire to shift any dynamic in your relationships, you must be prepared for and understand how to navigate the natural stages of change.
If your partner in a romantic relationship is attempting to shift his or her behavior such as breaking an addiction, changing long-standing communication patterns, or being more present when with you, fully understanding the process of change, and the fact that it might not be a linear, progressive path, is essential. As I outline the six fundamental stages of change in this post, as coined in The Transtheoretical Model (Prochaska, DiClemente, & Norcross, 1992), I hope to prepare you for what to expect during each stage. Let’s start with an example.
A common challenge that couples experience is spending the right amount of time together to satisfy both partners. Oftentimes, one partner prefers more time together than the other, which can lead to feelings of abandonment, insecurity, and resentment. If the partnership is strong enough to identify, address, and work to resolve this misalignment, the stages of change might look like the following:
1. Pre-contemplation - Not ready
The origins of change in a partnership usually start with a conversation (or an argument). At that time, one partner will most likely share how they feel hurt or misunderstood, and in this case, the feeling that their partner is not spending as much time with them as they would like. They might express a fear that a lack of enough quality time together is detrimental to the relationship. The parties may have different attachment systems, and therefore different needs related to the time they need to spend together. In this phase one, both parties simply air their grievances related to the problem at hand.
2. Contemplation - Getting ready
In this stage, there is a deeper awareness and more contemplation about the problem at hand. Parties may be considering the implications of the issue, and the consequences of not doing anything or what can be gained with change. This stage can last from a day to an infinite amount of time. In this example, the couple may start to wonder whether a lack of change (not spending more time together) could result in the relationship ending, and how that might feel.
3. Preparation- Ready
In this phase, the parties involved are getting ready to change, they know change is necessary, and they are looking for specific tools and tactics to facilitate successful change. In this phase, one or both parties must acknowledge that there is a problem, although they are still not one-hundred percent sure if they are ready or willing to make a change. During this phase, both parties feel heard and are beginning to think actively about the consequences of the problem at hand. For example, the parties might be aware of and vocal that the relationship could possibly end if the misalignment in spending time together cannot be resolved.
4. Action - Taking Action
This is the stage of action! Generally short-lived, this stage is marked by actively pursuing strategies and behaviors related to the change desired. In this stage, a couple may agree to “ground rules” or guidelines about spending time together, such as “we’ll always spend one weekend day together and two nights during the week” and might take action to add this to their respective calendars, or make plans for activities together. They might employ the help of a relationship therapist to keep them on track. This stage is generally accompanied by enthusiasm.
5. Maintenance - Monitoring
During this stage, the couple is either successful at the change they have committed to, or they slip into old habits and patterns. Regular therapy dramatically improves their chances of maintaining new relationship behaviors. Change takes time, trial and error, and a firm commitment to the new patterns. It’s not uncommon for couples to work toward a change throughout a relationship and maybe not fully maintain their new behaviors. This might look like spending quality time together regularly for months and then reverting back to old patterns. Whether there is a small step backwards or the new patterns are completely abandoned, the relationship may end up in the next stage: relapse.
6. Relapse - Reworking
Relapse is a normal part of the stages of change of any kind and realizing this will help you and you partner recoup losses and get back on track sooner and easier each time. When there is a relapse in behavior, a couple might revert completely back to their old patterns. In our example, they might not spend the time together that they committed to, get “too busy” to maintain the change, or feel that it is not a priority anymore. From this stage, one might have to start the cycle over again from the pre-contemplation phase, or could move back into the action phase.
This is the phase in which one or both parties are likely to feel the most frustration and feel a sense of defeat. A relationship therapist works with varying levels of motivation – be it contemplation, action, or relapse – and facilitate a partner realizing reasons for the change and reigniting motivation essential to moving forward with a desired change.
The stages of change are a fluid experience and important to recognize as you strive toward shifting relationship behaviors. The framework helps couples determine whether one party truly gave up or is just rather back in the preparation or relapse phases. It’s normal and healthy to move within these stages, with the goal and vision for the partnership to always be stage five: Maintenance - always working to maintain the change even after the “work” seems over.
If you have struggled to make lasting change in your relationships, contact Center for Shared Insight. Our team of committed and experienced therapists can help guide that process using these stages and other wisdom and insights gained from our active work in relationship therapy. Schedule a free consultation today.
Prochaska, J.O., DiClemente, C.C., & Norcross, J.C. (1992). In search of how people change: Applications to the addictive behaviors. American Psychologist, 47, 1102-1114. PMID: 1329589.