When you’re in one, a romantic relationship can feel like an intensely unpredictable experience. Will this one be “the one” that you settle down with? Or is this going to result in a breakup that makes you drop everything and spend a year traveling solo?

While relationships can come about and form in a variety of ways, they actually tend to share a common framework, according to researcher Mark L. Knapp.

According to his relationship model, relationships typically go through five stages as they develop. Of course, not every relationship follows this exact path. This model can offer a useful way to think about how relationships progress and the pitfalls that can pop up along the way.

Here’s a look at what those stages involve and things to keep in mind as you navigate them.

You run into someone for the umpteenth time at your favorite café and give them a gentle knowing nod. Maybe you’re in the middle of sipping a latte, but you glance up and casually say “nice to see you.”

That short pleasantry, according to Knapp, is actually a script many of us follow when first meeting someone. You’re acknowledging their presence, sizing them up, and also trying to make a good impression.

Things to keep in mind at this stage

  • Mind the vibe. Setting plays a big role in the kinds of conversations you’ll have. You’re much more likely to extend a formal, non-personal greeting to someone in an office setting, for example, than at a bar during happy hour.
  • Timing is everything. Quickly saying “hello” when briskly passing that same stranger on the street isn’t the same as stopping by their table to ask what they’ve been up to.

As the name of this stage implies, here is where you begin testing the waters. You’ll try asking your co-worker if they’ve tried out that new Thai restaurant downtown, or if they’ve checked out the new Star Wars film.

In other words, small talk is the name of the game and depending on how they respond, you’ll see if they’re receptive or share any of your interests.

This stage also lets you know whether to pursue any future interaction or not.

Things to keep in mind at this stage

  • Remember body language. Pay attention to the other person’s body language and tone of voice. Do they turn around and face you? Meet your questions with cheery politeness? Or do they look away and feign interest? All of these are subtle cues that can help you know how to approach them.
  • Expect more small talk. Small talk can happen in developed relationships, too. When you’re going over your day with a parent or partner, you’re easing your way into discussing deeper, more substantive topics.

You’re finally ready to let your guard down and emotionally invest in the other person. According to Knapp, you open up more in this stage. You begin sharing intimate secrets and spend more intense personal time together.

In other words, you allow yourself to be more vulnerable.

You might also start to develop inside jokes, nicknames, and other casual forms of communication.

Things to keep in mind at this stage

  • Slow and steady wins the race. This stage can happen over a period of weeks, months, or even years, but you don’t want to rush this part. Instead of immediately asking that new friend to vacation with you, ask them over for dinner first.
  • Listen to your gut. You’re more willing to grant favors in this stage, such as giving them a ride home from work or helping them move their belongings. Take note if the other person is asking for too much too soon and doesn’t reciprocate, which can quickly lead to relationship deterioration.

You begin depending on each other more and feel a sense of merged identities. This is especially noticeable in romantic relationships, but it can also happen between BFFs or close family members.

In this stage, you go everywhere together, watch all the same movies, share oddly specific opinions about restaurants, and plan trips to faraway lands.

Things to keep in mind at this stage

  • Maintain a sense of self. People will start to view you both as a single unit. You might even start generously using the term “we.” But take care to maintain a sense of individuality by spending time with friends and keeping up with your hobbies.

This last stage primarily focuses on romantic relationships and represents the highest level of closeness. Here, you publicly commit to each other exclusively, whether that’s through marriage, a commitment ceremony, or some other public display.

Now, this is where Knapp’s theory, which came about in the 1970s, starts to feel a bit dated. Today, plenty of folks are finding that marriage and exclusivity aren’t necessarily requirements for successful relationships.

For people in polyamorous relationships, for example, loving commitment doesn’t have to involve exclusivity.

Whatever your situation, this final step involves long-term commitment. For some people, that might be marriage. For others, it might be a private conversation about intentions and commitment.

Things to keep in mind at this stage

  • Public commitment can happen sooner. Bonding rituals, whether it’s a huge wedding or an intimate commitment ceremony, can happen at any stage of a relationship and don’t necessarily mean a relationship will work out long-term.
  • There’s no “right” approach. This final stage can involve a lot of outside pressure to take big steps, such as getting married or having children. Try to keep your focus on what you want for your future with this person to look like. As long as there’s mutual love and respect, you can’t really go wrong.

Every relationship is unique, but most of them tend to follow a similar path involving 5 stages. If you’re not sure where your relationship fits into this model, don’t sweat it. Remember, some relationships blow through stages at a fast pace, while others take years to move through each stage.

When meeting someone new, keep testing the waters and continue to trust your gut. Keep in mind that at the end of the day, being a little more vulnerable with those around you will go a long way in helping you find your tribe.

Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala. She writes often about the intersections between health, wellness, and the science of human behavior. She’s written for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Quartz, The Washington Post, and many more. Find her at cindylamothe.com.