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 small, others large. And in a time of nearly-constant change it becomes important to understand these transitions and manage them carefully.

Arnold van Gennep discovered these emotional transitions in the early 1900s. Studying the traditional rites of passage associated with the life transitions of marriage, death, and the shift from childhood into adulthood, he realised that we never go straight from State A to State B: there is always a third, intermediate stage — a place where we have lost our old identity but are 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 our old identity into a new one. This is the chrysalis between the caterpillar and the butterfly: a time of uncertainty where the old identity is lost but the new one has not formed.

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 and come to terms with the idea that we will take on a new one. This is the period of Engagement, where we let go of the idea of being ‘single’ and prepare to take on the identity of ‘married’.

The second phase is called the Threshold 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, step out of our old identity, and officially become ‘married’. We are no longer single, but we have not yet taken on our new identity.

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 be like for us: for who we are, how we will behave, and how the world behaves towards us. This is where the work of becoming ‘married’ really begins. It starts with the Honeymoon.

Every time we started a new job, a new school, or moved home we moved through these three phases: we separated from the way things were, crossed the threshold into uncertainty, and then consolidated the new way of living.

In a world of nearly-constant change the transitions are happening almost constantly — to us or to the people around us. The better we understand and manage them, the more successful the changes in our lives will be.

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 how the new way of life was going to work for you? Would it be useful to be able to manage this 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 StockPholio.net

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