The three stages of transition

A young couple is showered with confetti at their weddingLike it or not, every significant change in our lives comes with an accompanying psychological and emotional transition. Some of these transitions are small, others large. And in a time when nearly everything is changing, all at once, it becomes more important than ever to understand these emotional transitions and manage them more carefully.

Arnold van Gennep discovered these transitions in the early 1900s, when he was studying the traditional rites of passage associated with the big life changes such as marriage, death, and the shift from childhood into adulthood. 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 are not yet fully in the new one either. He called this intermediate phase the Liminal Zone (from the Latin word limen, which means threshold). In this stage we are crossing the threshold from our old identity into a new one. 

Getting married provides a good example of the three stages.


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 start to let go of our old identity of being (legally) ‘single’ or ‘in a relationship’ and prepare to take on the identity of being ‘married’.

The second phase is called the Threshold zone. This is the Wedding ceremony itself, which (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 have let go of whatever we were before but we have not yet taken on the full impact of what our new identity will be like. This is the chrysalis stage between the caterpillar and the butterfly: a time of uncertainty where the old identity is gone but the new one has not formed.

The third stage of transition is called Consolidation. This is where we start to discover and integrate 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 ‘married’ really begins — and it starts with the Honeymoon.

These three phases have happened to us every time we started a new job, got a promotion, changed school, or moved home: we got used to the idea that change was coming and ‘separated’ from the way things were, crossed the ‘threshold’ into uncertainty, and then worked to ‘consolidate’ and build the new way of living. Sometimes we did that better than others.

In a world of near-constant change, these emotional transitions are happening almost constantly — either to us or to the people around us.

The better we understand and manage these transitions, 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 now, can you recognise a period of Separation when you came to terms with the idea that the change was coming? Then a Threshold period of uncertainty, where things had changed officially but you weren’t sure what that meant yet? And then a period where you Consolidated how the new way of life was going to work for you? 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.

You can sign up to daily posts here.

Photo adapted from Walter via

Leave a Reply