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. This stage usually lasts about three to six months, depending on the couple, and that impaired judgement means we tend to concentrate on our similarities while disregarding or glossing over our differences and your partner’s flaws.
Couples in this phase also tend to avoid conflict, which is easier to do if you’re not yet sharing finances, living under the same roof, and not navigating division of labor, among other realities. While nitpicking your partner’s every little flaw is not good no matter the stage of love and relationship you’re in, it’s also not right to led big signs and red flags slide. Enjoying this early phase while also staying aware and being true to your feelings is important.
Be alert for toxic, possessive, and odd behavior, even as you find yourself giddy with feelings of new love. Is your new bae never leaving you alone? If you read about some of their behavior in a book would you think it worrisome and bordering on gas lighting and unhealthy? If a behavior would be a huge red flag a year into the relationship, it should not be glossed over early on.
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.”
A less scientific way to look at getting through this stage is to consider the Buddhist take on love, which can be appreciated by anyone. The Buddhist word for love is Maitrī, which means benevolence, loving-kindness, amity, good-will and active interest. The basic idea is that to love someone means to always want them to be happy. When you fight, is mutual happiness the goal? When you watch your new partner walk through their lives, are you quick to judge their wrongness? Or are you taking into account how their lives shape the decisions they make? That, in essence, is Maitrī.
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.”
Going back to the Buddhist examination may help make things a little clearer here, too. Legendary Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh said that “understanding is love’s other name.” That line, “in order to love someone else, you must love yourself” comes into play here. What makes you happy? Does your partner understand that? You don’t have to find happiness in the same things, but you do have to be understanding and accepting in how each of you finds that joy. If your partner’s happiness depends on something you can’t understand, you’re going to be unhappy. If you can support the things that make your partner complete and they make room for your happiness, the balance of power is more even.
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.