The three stages of transition

Every significant change in our lives is accompanied by a psychological and emotional transition. Some of these are small, others large. But when nearly everything in our world is changing all at once, it becomes more important than ever to understand and manage these accompanying transitions.

Arnold van Gennep discovered transitions in the early 1900s when he was studying the traditional rites of passage associated with big life changes such as 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 where we have lost our old identity but not yet fully taken on the new one. He called this intermediate phase the ‘Liminal Zone’, from the Latin word limen, which means ‘threshold’.

Getting married provides a good example.

The Three Stages of Transition

The first stage of transition is called Separation. Here we know that change is coming and we begin to come to terms with the idea that we will take on a new identity. In marriage this is the period of Engagement. Here we stop being ‘single’ and instead become ‘engaged’.

The second phase is the Threshold or liminal zone. This is the Wedding Ceremony itself which might last anything from a few minutes to several days, depending on our culture. Here we cross the threshold and officially become ‘married’. But although we’ve lost our old identity, we haven’t yet fully stepped into our new one. We haven’t yet become fully ‘married’ in the way we will be in a few years’ time. So the wedding ceremony 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 establish and get used to what ‘being married’ is really going to mean for us: for who we are, how we behave, and how the world behaves back towards us. This is where the work of becoming truly ‘married’ really begins. Traditionally this begins with the Honeymoon.

These three phases have happened many times throughout our lives. Each time we started a new school, got a new job, a promotion, or moved home we first got used to the idea that a change was coming (‘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 this new stage of our life.

In a time of nearly constant change these emotional transitions are happening almost constantly — either to us or to the people around us. 

So the better we can understand them, the better we can manage them, and the smoother and more successful the changes in our lives will be.

When did you last experience 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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