Psychology of Social Connection

6 Relationship Stages That Only College Students Will Understand (#3 Will Shock You!)

October 23rd, 2020 · 4 Comments

Let’s start off this post the way Prof. Perry started off the lecturette for this week: with music. Who listens to top music tracks?? College kids. What do college kids like?? Dancing, partying, having sex, listening to music, drinking and, well, other such substances. But mostly, ~romance~. What are pretty much all top 40 most popular songs about, going back to the 1960s?? Everything I just mentioned college kids like, but again, mostly ~~romance~~ (Christensen et al, 2018). This isn’t a coincidence. Most humans love, well, love. And Kat and I figured that since we’re all probably missing the spicy moments of meeting or crushing on a potential romantic partner on campus, we’d remind you (and ourselves) of the typical on campus love story. 

So, here are the 6 stages of a college romance. 💙


Stage 1: The Butterflies. 💚

You look at the top-right corner of your screen and 3 digits haunt you: 1:01 AM. You look at the bottom-left corner and breathe a sigh of resignation: 53 Words. Espresso in hand, you look around the quiet floor of Lamont Library and you see them. It seems like you see them everywhere, after all, you’re in two of the same classes. Here, they’re wearing jeans and a Patagonia sweater, but still manages to get your heart rate up and release butterflies in your stomach. You see their head buried in John Stuart Mill and start to wonder, maybe I should also find a Patagonia sweater (and no, unlike most Harvard students, you actually don’t have a kink for Patagonia fleeces) and read about liberty… That’ll make a good conversation topic.

Welcome to your crush! To you, they feel like they’re the one and the sole person you’re attracted to. But if you believe this is just a simple coincidence, there’s evidence that there is more going on. Moreland and Beach (1992) found that people are more attracted to people who they are more familiar with. Yes! Merely seeing someone more (you don’t even have to be interacting with them) might make you more attracted to them. But this isn’t a bad thing, it doesn’t mean that you don’t truly like them, it’s simply your brain trying to protect you against the scary unknown. So, go ahead and try to impress them. But be careful, make sure to be yourself. Especially if your crush is a close friend or someone else who means a lot to you, it’s normal for your identity to shift to include a bit of them, but that overlap shouldn’t get too big. (more on that soon from Gracie!…)


Stage 2: The Question. 💚

You ironed your Patagonia fleece this morning before putting it on (just kidding, you don’t own an iron) and you read your philosophers. You’re ready for anything. In your mind, you run through all the pleasantries and brief conversations you had with them, more importantly, you run through all the ways to say the words “do you have any plans Friday night?” Then, the perfect opportunity comes. Just as you’re exiting Sanders Theatre, you see them. You walk over and they say hi to you. You’re feeling good, it’s time. “Hey, are you doing anything Friday night?”

Well done you! You’re on your way to success. But you might wonder, did you do the right thing to ask this question? An important thing to remember is that asking someone out, even if it seems like a simple question to you, might put your crush in an uncomfortable position. In fact, Bohns and DeVincent (2019) found that both men and women underestimate how tough it is to be asked out by someone when the feeling isn’t mutual. Certainly, do ask your crush out and who knows, your feelings may be reciprocated, But be aware of the context. If you’re in a professional relationship with this person, consider any power dynamics or simply make sure that you’re creating an environment of respect. Also, give your crush a way out if they’re indeed not interested, you might be putting more pressure on them to say ‘yes’ than you intend.


Stage 3: The First Night. 💚

That night you toss and turn in your bed. You’re excited, they agreed to have dinner with you on Friday!!! But you’re also nervous, what are you going to do? How are you going to get them to like you??? Exhausted from the day, you finally fall asleep. But the next morning, you open up your laptop and start searching….

What could you search for? Well, one thing that you might want to look at is the 36 Questions (Aron et al. 1997b). Sure, you can talk about anything and you don’t have to use all 36 questions, but don’t just talk about whether or not it’s Patagonia weather (it always is). Instead, be vulnerable. It’s hard to do so during the “first date,” but give it a shot. Take some time, brew some tea, and dim the lights. Sure, you don’t have to talk about your deepest and darkest secret, but ask meaningful questions, be human. Or maybe take some inspiration from a robot…


Stage 4: The Consistent “Thing.” 💙

Kat calls this stage the “putting 2 Twin XL beds together” stage, and yeah, that pretty much sums it up perfectly. Are we friends, are we friends with benefits? Are we not friends, but have benefits? Are we official, are we exclusive, am I monogamous, do I want to be tied down, am I having a relationship crisis?!?!? Who freaking knows, but at this point, you know you like this person. You wouldn’t be spending all this time together if you didn’t. Who even cares if you don’t have all the details figured out yet (the day WILL come when you have to tell them you aren’t all that into Patagonia), because you’re in this state of euphoria. Nothing about this person is sending you running (away, not towards them, to be clear), and this is good news. But why do we keep going back, wanting more of this person, and each day, falling harder??

This might have something to do with Aron & Aron Self-Expansion Theory (1997a), whereby we have a tendency to want to become very close and intimate with someone for a few distinct reasons. We want to expand our self-concept, and this can be done by essentially taking on a bit of another person and using that to help define ourselves. Additionally, we want to expand our group circles, and by coming close with someone else, we expand our circle of people to include that person’s as well. This helps us feel like we belong, and it’s progress towards the next step, making it official. 


Stage 5: Making it Official. 💙

[Midterm] seasons pass, the weather changes, the Patagonias remain, and the thing (that we don’t have labels for because it’s 2020 and labels are lame) that you’ve had with this person is going steady. But one thing is to remain: When is one of you going to pop THE question? 

Becoming official in a relationship seems (or feels) like a stamp of approval, an official seal, of belonging. And that’s what this class is all about right? Humans have a fundamental need for belonging (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), and becoming official with someone is like making a pact to provide each other with consistent love, nurturing, and enjoyment. Finally becoming official with another human who you have an intimate relationship with may not be the only belonging we need, but it’s definitely an exemplary feeling of belonging. Let me know if I’m out on too far of a limb here, but this also reminds me of the Pickett, Gardner, & Knowles (2004) article we read in Empathy week, which found that people who are craving belonging are more sensitive to different aspects of social cues such as vocal tone. Is this not us, on the edge of our seat, wondering when we will get our seal of approval??? Just a thought.  


Stage 6: The Married Couple. 💙

Honeymoon phase is over. You’ve been through all those awkward pubescent-like stages of forming a romantic relationship and now here you are, married. Well, not actually, but you know what I mean. You’re off the market, you’re #committed. Things are normal! There’s less nerves, this person is now your person, and at this point, there’s probably not much that your boo doesn’t know about you (minus maybe the terrible Patagonia truth). Routines have developed, and who knows, maybe you’ve even dropped the “L” word. 

A friendly reminder though. Your S.O. still can’t read your mind (no matter how cool they are) and they still need help interpreting your thoughts and feelings. Not going to recommend couple’s therapy to an undergrad couple because that seems, idk, too soon? However, there are a few things we can learn from couples who went through Theory of Mind training (lovingly referred to as “ToM.”) In this week’s reading, we learned that conscious effort, focus, and attention on developing ToM abilities in couples was a success. Steady couples who underwent an 8 week program that focused on developing skills associated with cognitive and emotional empathy, as well as perspective taking, showed significant improvements in all these in comparison to the control. In addition, couples who went through the ToM training program were better able to ascribe and be sensitive to their partner’s mental states and emotions (Ramezani et al, 2020). While this may seem like a lot of work, it suggests that in an intimate and romantic relationship, empathy, perspective-taking, and mind perception play a big role in the viability of a meaningful romantic relationship.  


And you lived happily ever after. The end. Unfortunately, our childhood dreams of fairytale love and miracles don’t always turn out to be true. But you can get close. Having read through all six stages of a relationship, you’re ready to love and be loved. But there’s one more thing we missed. In fact, if there’s only one thing you take away from reading this, it’s to have gratitude. It’ll make you happier and it’ll grow your relationship (Gordon et al. 2012). 💚


💙 – Gracie

💚 – Kat



Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1997a). Self-expansion motivation and including other in the self. In Handbook of personal relationships: Theory, research and interventions, 2nd ed (pp. 251–270). John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997b). The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363–377.

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.

Bohns, V. K., & DeVincent, L. A. (2019). Rejecting unwanted romantic advances is more difficult than suitors realize. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(8), 1102-1110.

Christenson, P. G., de Haan-Rietdijk, S., Roberts, D. F., & ter Bogt, T. F. M. (2019). What has America been singing about? Trends in themes in the U.S. top-40 songs: 1960–2010. Psychology of Music, 47(2), 194–212.

Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(2), 257–274.

Moreland, R. L., & Beach, S. R. (1992). Exposure effects in the classroom: The development of affinity among students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28(3), 255–276.

Pickett, C. L., Gardner, W. L., & Knowles, M. (2004). Getting a Cue: The Need to Belong and Enhanced Sensitivity to Social Cues. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(9), 1095–1107.

Ramezani, A., Ghamari, M., Jafari, A., & Aghdam, G. F. (2020). The Effectiveness of a ToM Training Program in Promoting Intimacy between Married Couples. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 1–18.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • Anonymous // Oct 24th 2020 at 10:25 pm

    Hey Kat and Gracie!!

    Let me start off by saying WOW. This post was absolutely brilliant.

    I love how y’all played off of that classic blog/tabloid/online magazine format that walks the reader through steps and has a title draws the reader in (omg what could #3 possibly be?!). Dividing it into stages made reading it both easy and interesting, and the content was *chef’s kiss.* It was SO spot on, and you both did an amazing job of weaving together research with a storyline in your own voices. Y’all catered to your audience perfectly.

    Kat, I love how you start things off so specifically, putting us in Lamont with Espresso at 1:01 AM with 53 words written. You describe exactly what the other person is wearing and doing, and I honestly felt like I was reading a novel. The whole wondering what one can do to start conversations is toooo real. One thing I’m wondering about is this: when you talk about giving them a way out, I’m curious to hear what different people consider a way out. I think of saying something like “Oh it’s totally fine if you’re busy already or don’t want to, no pressure!” But I’ve always wondered if this actually creates more pressure because then they may want to deny that they don’t want to (and thus will have to go out with you), rather than admit it because that sounds rude. Perhaps just sticking with if they’re already busy is the move.

    Gracie, your series of questions in Stage 4 mimics that feeling of confusion perfectly. There are sooo many questions, but no one wants to be the one to ask “what are we,” because, like you said, labels are lame. But confusion is pretty lame too. You do a great job of navigating how this feels! Also, I definitely am onboard with your idea about and reference to the empathy week article about being more sensitive to social cues when craving belonging. The phrase “seal of approval” fits super well; if this is the one person we really want it from, it makes sense that we would be feeling a little uncertain about our sense of belonging until we know where we stand with them.

    All in all, this was an awesome and really fun read. Y’all killed it.


  • hannahpearce // Oct 26th 2020 at 10:07 pm

    Hey Kat and Gracie,

    Your blog is amazing. It was so entertaining and easy to read. I think your title was really clever and you were right #3 did shock me 😀 I have never seen the Billie Eilish and the robot interview before so that was really interesting. I loved the idea of the 6 steps – I think you do a really good job of defining exactly what happens when you first start crushing on someone and you feel all the feels and how that crush evolves into marriage #commited.

    You both did a really good job of describing relatable scenarios which made it really easy to picture the scene. Like being in Lamont at all hours of the night and seeing the one person you see everywhere. Also the Patagonia theme you keep throughout is so true. You both also do a really good job our integrating the sources and their results to enhance the different steps in a relationship. They flow really well together. I really liked the way you bring in the theory of mind training into the Married couple step. It is very clever and I think also really important as it is good to practice taking the perspective others and empathizing with others because after all we need these two to form any relationship not just romantic. I agree with your final statement that gratitude is so important.

    Your post does a really good job at covering what we discussed and read about this week. I really enjoyed the media links you put in. I also have Justin Bieber’s boyfriend stuck in my head so thank you for that 🙂

    It was really well done and I loved it!


  • Anonymous // Oct 27th 2020 at 12:41 am

    Hey Kat and Gracie,

    I am so impressed by this post and loved the little blue and green hearts!!

    This post put actual meaning and research supporting the efforts of the stages of early relationships and the reasoning behind them.

    I loved hearing more about the Self-Expansion Theory because I think it’s something that holds so true. It’s interesting to see that there is actually a named theory behind the expansion of ourselves through taking on parts of another person. I feel like the more time you spend with someone, the more the things they do start to define who you are.

    I really liked how you compared becoming official with someone to a pact – such a great and important comparison. I also agree about the article from empathy week. We are always searching for seals of approval in our every day life, especially in this context – when you really, really like someone and are praying they want what you do!

    Great post!


  • Rachel // Oct 27th 2020 at 1:29 am

    Hey Gracie & Kat!

    First off, the clickbait title had me cracking up 🙂 Is this a class blog or a youtube influencer’s vlog? Who knows !

    Anyways, I really enjoyed reading this! I thought it was a unique way of approaching our content from this week – focusing on the the progression of a single romantic relationship rather than just more ~generally~ forming & maintaining multiple relationships. It was especially nice to see how well you blended very relatable aspects of college relationships with the actual literature.

    I also thought Gracie’s mention of the Pickett, Gardner, & Knowles (2004) article from Empathy week was an interesting connection to bring in. I definitely relate to feeling like I’m much more sensitive to social cues when I’m in a place of craving belonging (are they laughing at my jokes? did their tone suddenly shift? why are they suddenly using periods in their texts???). Especially in a stage like stage 5 when things are shifting from casual to ~for real~, this transition brings to mind again how much this need to belong can affect us.

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