The three stages of transition

A young couple is showered with confetti at their wedding

Every significant change in our lives comes with an accompanying psychological and emotional transition. Some of these are small, others large. And at a time when nearly everything in our world is changing, it becomes more important than ever to understand these emotional transitions and manage them more carefully.

Arnold van Gennep discovered transitions in the early 1900s. He was studying the traditional rites of passage associated with big life changes such as marriage, death, and the shift from childhood into adulthood when he realised that we never go straight from ‘State A’ into ‘State B’. There is always a third, intermediate stage: a place where we have lost our old identity but not yet fully gained our new one.

He called this intermediate phase the Liminal Zone, from the Latin word limen, which means ‘threshold’. In this intermediate stage we are crossing the threshold from our old identity into a new one. 

Getting married provides a good example.


The Three Stages of Transition

The first stage of transition is called Separation. Here we let go of our old identity and come to terms with the idea that we are going to take on a new identity. In marriage this is the period of Engagement, where we let go of our old identity of being (legally) ‘single’ and come to terms with the idea that we are going to become ‘married’.

The second phase is the Threshold zone. This is the Wedding ceremony itself, which can last anything from a few minutes to several days, depending on the culture we live in. Here we cross the threshold, step out of our old identity, and officially become ‘married’. Now we are no longer who we once were but we haven’t become who we are going to be either. This is the chrysalis stage between the caterpillar and the butterfly, a time of uncertainty.

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

These three phases have happened to us unconsciously throughout our lives. Every time we changed school, started a new job, got a promotion, or moved home we first got used to the idea that change was coming by ‘separating’ from the way things used to be, then crossed the ‘threshold’ into the uncertainty of a new beginning, and finally we worked to ‘consolidate’ and build our new life.

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

When was the last time you experienced a significant change in your life? Looking back, can you recognise periods of Separation, Threshold, and Consolidation? Would it be useful for you or the people around you to be able to manage this process more smoothly next time?

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

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Photo adapted from Walter via

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