The three stages of transition

A young couple is showered with confetti at their weddingWhether we like it or not, every significant change in our lives, comes with an accompanying psychological and emotional transition. Some of these are large, others small.

The first person to understand these transitions was Arnold van Gennep. In the early 1900s he studied the traditional rites of passage associated with the life transitions of marriage, death, and the shift from childhood into adulthood. What he discovered was that we never go straight from State A into State B: there is always a third, invisible, intermediate stage — a place where we are no longer in the old identity but not yet fully in the new one either.

He called this intermediate phase the Liminal Zone from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold. In this stage we are crossing the threshold from one identity to another. This is the chrysalis between the caterpillar and the butterfly: a time of uncertainty where the old identity has gone but the new one has not formed.

If you want to achieve successful changes in your life it is important to be aware of these three stages and to manage them carefully.

Getting married provides a good example.


Three Stages of Transition

The first stage of transition is called Separation. This is where we start to let go of our old identity (being ‘single’) and come to terms with the idea that we are going to take on a new one (‘married’). This is the period of Engagement.

The second phase is called the Threshold or Liminal zone. This is the Wedding itself, a process that in different cultures can last anything from a few minutes to several days. Here we cross the threshold zone and officially become ‘married’. We have lost our old identity but we have not yet taken on the new one.

The third stage of transition is called Consolidation. This is where we start to find out and integrate what ‘being married’ is really going to mean for us: for who we are, for how we behave, and how the world behaves towards us. This is where the work of becoming ‘married’ really begins. This phase begins with the Honeymoon.


Every time we start a new job, a new school, or create a major change in our lives we move through these three phases. We separate, we cross the threshold, and we consolidate. The better we understand and manage and nurture them the more successful our changes will be.

In a world that is constantly changing this becomes pretty much a constant priority.

When was the last time you experienced a significant change in your life? Looking back, can you see a time of Separation when you came to terms with the idea that the change was coming? Then a Threshold period of uncertainty? And then a period where you Consolidated what the new way of life was going to mean for you and how it was going to work? Would you like to be able to manage that process more smoothly next time?

Adapted from Inner Leadership: tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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Photo adapted from Walter via

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