The three stages of transition

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 and manage these 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 gained our 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 begin to come to terms with the idea that we will take on a new identity. In marriage this is the period of Engagement, where we stop being ‘unmarried’ and become ‘engaged’.

The second phase is the Threshold zone. This is the Wedding ceremony itself. Depending on our culture, this might last anything from a few minutes to several days. Here we cross the threshold and officially become ‘married’. But although we have lost our old identity, we haven’t fully stepped into our new one yet. 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 define and get used to 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 this is the Honeymoon.

These three phases have already happened many times throughout our lives. Each time we started a new school, got a new job, a promotion, or moved home we first had to get used to the idea that change was coming (‘separating’ from the way things used to be), then crossed the ‘threshold’ into the uncertainty of a new beginning, and then finally we worked to ‘consolidate’ and build this new stage in our life.

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

The better we can understand and manage them, the more successful the changes in our lives can 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 StockPholio.net

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