Part One: There Are Stages to Relationships?
Basic Interpersonal Communication Theory: Every relationship has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
You meet, you develop connection, you go your separate ways.
The beginning, middle, and end can occur in an endless amount of manifestations over a large variety of time frames, but its basic tenet remains the same — every relationship follows this arc.
Here, then, is a typical situation that fails to acknowledge this process.
Person A and Person B meet in school. They become really close friends — often spending days at a time with each other. But then, Person A gets in a romantic relationship. Person A stops spending as much time with Person B. Person B gets angry.
Or another situation.
Family A and Family B have been friends for awhile and now they both have children. They go on vacations together, they do holidays together, and are consistently involved in each other’s lives. But then the children get a little older and more children are added and they stop seeing each other as much. Family A still wants to go on vacations and live life as they used to. Family B claims that they aren’t able to do that as much anymore because of the heinous amount of activity that their children’s schedules demand. Family A feels like they have lost their friends.
But have they?
Part Two: Ending Vs. Changing Relationships
Relationships do end, but it is much rarer than people claim. In fact, it usually takes something extreme like setting up a boundary to never see or talk to the person again or, as is more common, death, for a relationship to actually end.
In both examples above, the relationships have a clear beginning — they meet and begin interacting — however, there is no actual end to the relationship.
There is only an evolution.
The relationships have simply changed in form. Their interactions and bonds are different than they might have been, but they are still there.
For a relationship to end, it usually requires a death, an intentional conversation of breaking away for good, or the setting of a boundary that eliminates any further contact. For the majority of our relationships, this is actually rather unusual.
We often confuse a relationship “ending” with a relationship “changing”. It is still in the middle even though it may be taking on a different form that we previously experience. Just because we don’t like the change in form does not mean the relationship has ended.
So when Person B gets angry or when Family A feels like they have lost their friends, it might be helpful to recognize that they haven’t ended the relationship — they have only ended the style of the current relationship. If the beginning of a relationship is a small blip on a spectrum and the end of the relationship is a small blip to the other side, the middle of the relationship is the wide space in between — it morphs and changes, but most of our time is spent there.
Part Three: Dealing With Evolution
What does this mean for you?
Those moments when you are frustrated that your relationship with someone else is not what it used to be, we must recognize that the relationship didn’t end…it has simply evolved.
It is different now.
And this might feel like a loss and what is different can certainly be mourned, but our next response should simply be re-framing the relationship for what it still is.
We spend much of our time in anger that our friendships and connections aren’t how we want them to be when we should be spending time discovering the possibilities of what our relationships could be in their new, evolved form. When your relationship evolved from acquaintance to intimate friends, that wasn’t a bad thing because you liked the changed. We have to acknowledge that just because we don’t like the other side of an evolved relationship doesn’t mean it is wrong or evil or a failure. It might be a compromise to what you wish the relationship was like, but the evolution doesn’t have to be bad.
Our common complaint that a relationship has ended is usually just a guise for our feeling that we don't like the relationship's current form.
What relationships do you have that have changed in dynamic over time?
Do you have any current relationships that are evolving? How can you engage that evolution in a healthy way?
If you have had relationships shift that have brought anger or that have felt like an “end” — can you re-frame with appreciation or celebration what the relationship has shifted to now?
Simply put, we need to get better at navigating the middle section of our relationships — knowing that change doesn’t mean an end and, rather, that we need to learn to adapt when they evolve.