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The Ultimate Dating Timeline for Every Stage of a New Relationship

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Nov 08, 2023

The Ultimate Dating Timeline for Every Stage of a New Relationship

There is nothing quite like the beginning of a new relationship. You’ve finally fallen head over heels for some queer hottie you are dating who you want to share your life with. You’ve got new relationship energy coursing through your veins, and it feels like nothing could stop you. Maybe you’re still in the honeymoon phase, or you’ve decided to take the plunge and move in together. 

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Either way, you might be wondering what’s next for you and your boo on the relationship timeline? As Greek Philosopher Heraclitus reminded us, the only constant in life is change. While every relationship has its own organic timeline, one thing all relationships have in common is change. Navigating changes in our relationships can be one of the most difficult, terrifying, and extremely rewarding processes. 

Generally speaking, there are five stages of a relationship—initial attraction, the urge to merge, reality check, big decisions, and acceptance and commitment. The timeline for each of these stages of dating is not necessarily linear and will differ greatly depending on the relationship in question. In this article, we are going to explore how dating apps have changed modern dating, unpack each stage in a relationship, and compare queer dating culture vs. hetero relationship timelines.

 How has dating changed over the years?

If it’s been a while since you’ve been on a dating app like HER (or if you’re a newcomer to LGBTQIA+ online dating), you might feel intimidated at the prospect of meeting people. After all, online dating doesn’t come with an instruction manual. According to data from the Pew Research Center, almost half of Americans think that dating is harder than it was 10 years ago. But how has the dating game changed over the last decade, and is it truly harder to date now? 

Back in the day, dating timelines used to be more about courtship and getting to know one or two people over a few weeks or months. These days, dating has become more app-focused. The internet has also changed the social fabric of our lives including how we approach love and relationships. 

Digital matchmaking on apps like HER can open your world up to meeting people you never would have in real life. However, a bigger dating pool doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easier to meet people. It can sometimes be hard to determine online if someone is using the apps for casual sex or hookups or if they are looking for a long-term relationship. 

The sheer amount of potential matches may also lead to a higher likelihood of experiencing online dating burnout or getting ghosted. There is also no universally agreed upon dating app timelines, which can make it confusing to know when to message, when to meet up, and when to move on from a potential match.

As gender roles and expectations have shifted, many people are also queering relationship timelines and moving away from more traditional heteronormative dating tropes. This has led to a shift in people focusing on their careers, having kids later in life or not at all, and being more comfortable with the concept of being single.

Even with these modern shifts in relationship timelines, there are still five basic stages of dating that you will experience no matter what kind of relationship you are in. Here is what you can expect from each dating phase and how to make the most of whichever one you are in right now.

The 5 stages of dating

1. Initial attraction (first few dates)

The initial stage of dating usually happens over the course of the first few dates, and it should feel like nothing less than a firework show inside your body. The initial attraction phase is where you feel the rush of desire, physical attraction, and excitement. Whether you’re on your first, second, or third date with someone, the chemistry during this stage should be palpable and sizzling hot. 

We’re talking palm-sweating, heart-thumping, mount-weathering type of chemistry that makes you wanna rip their clothes off or stay up for hours just talking. Maybe you’ve already had sex and can’t stop replaying the orgasms in your head, or maybe you’re saving that for a little further down the road. Either way, you should be attracted to this person in more ways than one throughout the first few dates together.

How to make the most of the initial attraction phase?

You should be smiling and laughing a lot during this phase, feeling optimistic and hopeful. Whenever your phone vibrates, you secretly hope it’s a text from them. You look forward to seeing them again and are already planning the next 60-hour date in your head. Maybe you’ve already made them a sapphic seasonal playlist on Spotify, but you haven’t sent it yet at the risk of seeming too keen.

Pro-tips: Allow yourself to get excited and stay in the present moment. This is the part of dating that is meant to be fun, so don’t get too caught up or bogged down in overthinking things. Let yourself relax, daydream, and enjoy having a crush on someone. Feel free to make a list of things that you want in a partner and start to see if they are ticking boxes.

Two queer women in the honeymoon phase of their relationship timeline laughing and drinking Jarritos outside of a shop in New York City.

2. The urge to merge (3 to 6 months)

This next phase, which I call the “the urge to merge,” is also known as the honeymoon phase. The honeymoon phase is characterized by being completely and utterly goo-goo gaga for someone. You’ve fallen madly in love, and you never wanna get up. 

“In the early part of a relationship—the falling in love stage—the other person is the center of your life. You forgive everything in these early stages. The other person has faults … but it doesn’t matter. Good things outweigh the negative here.” 

Lucy Brown, Ph.D., a clinical professor in neurology

This usually starts anywhere between a few weeks after dating up to 6 months into a new relationship.

During this phase, the other person can do no wrong. You find yourself wanting to spend every waking moment with them. This is a popular time when many U-haul lesbians, under the spell of romance, sign a new lease on that Bushwick apartment they absolutely can’t afford. This likely is also the LGBTQIA+ dating phase where you start sharing all your clothes.

What to expect from the urge to merge the relationship phase?

You literally can’t stop thinking about this person. You want to know everything about them and share your heart and soul with them. Little things throughout your day make you think about them. You might be exploring each other’s bodies sexually or developing a deeper, romantic connection, but either way, it feels like you’ve found your perfect match. What could go wrong?

Pro-tips: Allow yourself the joy, pleasure, and lust for life that comes with the honeymoon phase. At the same time, notice where you might be projecting an idealized fantasy onto the person you are dating. Consider defining the relationship to make sure you’re both on the same page. 

It’s also good to be aware of heightened emotions during this time and continue to question whether this person has the qualities you are looking for in a partner. Keep an eye out for red flags. Ask for candid advice from your besties and don’t rush into making any big decisions during this phase of dating. Take time for yourself and keep doing the things that make you feel good outside of this new relationship. 

Two women, one white and the other light-skinned, in the stage of dating known as the reality check. They are both arguing with each other in a heated disagreement.

3. Reality check (1 to 2 years into a relationship)

The next phase of the dating timeline is something I like to call the reality check. This is when the reality of who your partner actually is sets in, and you start to understand each other better. This is the time in the relationship when you start to have conflict, and disagreement, and learn how to compromise. If you didn’t define the relationship during the honeymoon phase, you might decide the status and future of your connection during the ‘reality check’ phase. 

This part of the relationship timeline may come with uncertainty and fears. Maybe your libidos are different, or you don’t see eye to eye on a number of cultural or political topics. You may have also started to intertwine your lives more deeply, and you rely more on your partner for emotional and logistical support than you used to.

It’s natural to feel anxious or scared during this time in a relationship.

“Dependence is an essential ingredient of connection. But it’s [also] a producer of terrific anxiety, because it implies that the one we love wields power over us. The power to love us, but also to abandon us.”

Psychotherapist Esther Perel

How to check in with yourself during the reality check dating phase?

It can be easy to feel disillusioned or emotionally drained during the reality-check phase of a relationship. You are learning about each other’s communication styles, triggers, weaknesses, and areas of growth. It’s important to balance the hard conversations with fun, lighthearted dates and quality time together. 

Pro-tips: Don’t ignore the problems or grievances that come up during this time. Sweeping things under the rug will only create more problems down the line. Be honest with yourself and with your partner. Practice gratitude for the things you do well as a couple while holding space for improvement. Consider talking with a couples counselor if you are finding it difficult to work through problems on your own.

4. Big decisions (2 years to 5 years)

Once you’ve made it past the reality check dating phase, you’ve probably decided that you see potential in this relationship to become a long-term thing. You’ve likely gotten all the dyke ex drama, miscommunications, and conversations about incompatibility out of the way. Usually, at this point in the relationship timeline, you start to make some big decisions together about your future as a couple. 

You’ve probably considered whether or not this person is right for you at this time in your life, and now comes the phase where you make decisions together about where you’re going to live, what your careers and work/life balance looks like, and whether or not you want things like marriage, kids, or pets together. In this relationship phase, you are either re-affirming your commitment to a shared life together or you are realizing that things are not aligning. 

What to expect from the decision phase of a relationship?

This is when you are testing your relationship to see if you both have the skills and desire to turn it into a long-term partnership or potential marriage. This often requires a lot of work to understand each other’s point of view, attachment styles, and ways of handling conflict. You likely trust and love each other a lot, but this phase of the dating timeline is more about your long-term compatibility and problem-solving as a team.

Pro-tips: This is a great time to really commit to doing your own self-work. Consider seeking out a therapist, learning about codependency, or joining a recovery space to recognize and heal some of your own patterns. Listen to your partner and respond instead of reacting in time of heightened conflict.

Try to figure out what you need to make the relationship work long-term and be honest with your partner about those things. Make sure you don’t try to change each other, but instead are building a respectful partnership where you want to be the best versions of yourself and feel appreciated for what you bring to the table. 

A photo of two interracial sapphic women’s hands intertwined, one with an engagement ring on her signifying the committed phase of a relationship timeline.

5. Acceptance and commitment (5 years+)

The last stop on our relationship timeline is the holy grail of what we all dream for in a relationship: to be loved, accepted, and cherished for exactly who we are. This phase isn’t called acceptance and commitment for nothing! This should be the deepest phase of love in your relationship.

During this time, we’ve come to terms with our partner’s flaws and love them despite any shortcomings. You have decided that the good outweighs the bad, and you learn to make peace with the parts of your partner that you struggled with in the past.

“[Commitment] is not the end of romance, it is the beginning.”

Esther Perel

How to make the most of the acceptance and commitment stage?

This is the time when you start making your future goals happen. This might mean buying a house (in this economy? okay, maybe just a van), moving to a new city, or traveling the world. You might start making steps toward your fertility and family planning journey or talking about adoption. Maybe at this point in the relationship timeline, you’ve already picked up a few foster pets. 

No matter what your goals are as a couple, at this point you should be experiencing peak relational security. With this added security, you will feel more comfortable being on your own and focusing on your own personal or career goals. At this point, your partner should feel like your best friend. 

Pro-tips: Make sure to nourish your sex life and intimacy at every step of the dating timeline, but especially during this one! Some couples find that the longer they stay together, the less sex they have as the day-to-day routines take over.

Carve out time to reconnect with each other sexually. Find new ways to be intimate with each other. Keep showing your partner that you love them every day, and find ways to keep the fire going. It’s also okay to change your relationship structure, if that’s something you both want.

Two lesbian women with their rescue dogs in an autumnal photoshoot with fallen red leaves all around.

Source: Unsplash

Should you follow a relationship timeline? 

It’s good to learn about the different stages of dating so that you can get an idea of what to expect as a relationship progresses. Relationship timelines can be helpful to make sure that our connections are deepening over time, but you never want to be so rigid in your expectations that you don’t allow things to develop naturally. 

Know your boundaries and limits, but leave room for your connections to unfold and allow yourself to be surprised by someone. Remember that change is good and healthy for a relationship. The goal isn’t for two people in a relationship to stay the same but to stay connected to each other as they change.

One of my favorite quotes about relationships is from a psychology writer Heidi Priebe.

“To love someone long-term is to attend a thousand funerals of the people they used to be… But it is not our job to hold anyone accountable to the people they used to be.  It is our job to travel with them between each version and to honor what emerges along the way.” 

A psychology writer, Heidi Priebe

Good luck on your relationship travels babes!

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Dusty Brandt Howard is a writer & a fighter. He is a trans masculine cultural narrator who builds worlds with words. You can follow his thirst traps on Instagram, his writing on Substack, or find him at your local queer bar in northeast LA.

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