Love comes in many different forms, and some relationships take more work than others. Sure, you love your friend, but you (probably) don’t have to live with them. But maintaining a healthy romantic relationship with a partner does take some effort. Between kids, and carpool, and work, maintaining that “magic” is not as easy as it used to be.
Part of being able to effectively communicate and work together is understanding the three stages of love, and where, exactly, your relationship is at the present. By taking the time to think about the unique characteristics of your relationship, it can ensure that you and your partner are on the same team. Here are the three stages of love, and why each is important in your relationship.
Falling in Love and Lust
Ahhh, beginnings. Everyone is on their best romantic behavior, doing what they can to impress the other person. You know you’re attracted to them, but aren’t fully aware of their faults yet. This glorious phase is marked by lust and attraction, or “limerance” — which can involve “physical symptoms (flushing, trembling, palpitations), excitement, intrusive thinking, obsession, fantasy, sexual excitement, and the fear of rejection,” according to Dr. John Gottman. It occurs on a chemical level, too, involving:
- Phenylethylamine: a natural form of amphetamine our bodies produce and has been called “the molecule of love.”
- Pheromones: which influence sensuality rather than sexuality, creating an inexplicable sense of well-being and comfort.
- Oxytocin: aka “the cuddle hormone,” which stimulates the secretion of dopamine.
The good news is that these chemicals feel great. The bad news is that they can also cause poor judgment.
Learning to Trust
The second stage of love is learning how to trust your partner while accepting their flaws. Those little things you may have been able to overlook when you first met are looming large now. And yes, being physically attracted to someone is great, but you also want to start building trust in order to have a solid relationship. According to Gottman, whether or not couples are successful in this stage of love has everything to do with how they communicate with each other — including when they argue. To help couples navigate this potential minefield, he has created a model of communication that helps partners attune to one another:
- A for Awareness of one’s partner’s pain
- T for Tolerance that there are always two valid viewpoints in any negative emotions
- T for Turning Toward one partner’s need
- U for trying to Understand your partner
- N for Non-defensive listening
- E for Empathy
“The most important things for couples to do to survive this phase is to be empathetic, to understand each other, to accept flaws, to compromise, to make a partner’s needs apparent, and to listen without judgement or toxicity,” Michelle Gillen writes on Working Women. “This will help build trust and bring a relationship to the final stage.”
Commitment and Loyalty
So, you’ve made it through the first two stages of love, but you’re not out of the woods yet. In order for a relationship to remain strong, both partners have to be committed and loyal to one another. The idea is to continue to develop a love that will last a lifetime, and according to Gottman, this stage is all about fairness. “The sense that power is fairly distributed in a relationship is what the fairness metric is all about. It is very difficult to establish deep and lasting trust in a relationship that has an unwelcome power asymmetry, one in which the distribution of power feels unfair to at least one person,” he writes. “Although love appears to be a process that is highly unpredictable, my decades of research and the research of my colleagues have discovered that the opposite is true.”
In other words, even though love may seem like something beyond your control, by understanding its different stages, you and your partner can work towards a long-lasting and committed relationship.