By Joan Miller, Ph.D.
Sue saw Jim across the room. He was handsome. His brown eyes were gorgeous. Her heart raced as she walked over to get some food.
Jim saw Sue approaching. As she walked, her soft blond hair bounced softly. She was stunning in her red dress.
He was disappointed when she reached for a plate. He’d hoped she was coming over specifically to meet him.
“The broccoli dip is great,” he said. “I’ll try some,” she replied.
And so the relationship began. The next six months were filled with romantic dinners, lots of laughing, beautiful flowers, and a great deal of passion.
Then, each of them slowly began to notice their affection waning. Jim forgot their sixth month anniversary. Sue had sometimes been too tired to talk on the phone into the middle of the night. They didn’t always see eye to eye on things.
Sue looked across the table at Jim as they discussed possible weekend activities. His eyes didn’t sparkle like before. As Jim glanced back at Sue, he wished she wouldn’t have cut her shiny, beautiful hair.
The honeymoon seemed over. What happened?
Let’s go back to the party. When Sue looked into Jim’s eyes, she saw an ideal prince; and that’s who she fell in love with. And, likewise, as Jim looked back as Sue, he fell in love with an ideal princess.
But within months, they both begin to discover that they had become involved with another human being and not an ideal prince or princess. Most people don’t want to recognize nor make adjustments to such a disappointing reality.
But, in fact, it is essential in developing a satisfying and sustainable relationship. The natural stages in a developing relationship include: (1) magnetism, (2) ecstasy, (3) reality, and (4) compassionate loving.
When you first meet, you are attracted to certain characteristics that match your unconscious template of a partner. This includes personality traits, movements, gestures and attitudes. You may feel that you already know your “soul mate.” In your delight and excitement, you are often oblivious to what else is happening. Your feelings of affection and sexuality are intense.
You often say that you have good “chemistry.” And actually, during this time of attraction, scientists say you are producing various chemicals that cause flushed skin, quickening pulse, and heavy breathing.
As you get to know your partner, you savor your time together. You have a feeling of oneness. You cherish the idea that your lover adores you all the time. This “falling in love” stage is sometimes referred to as “passionate love.” You’re unaware that you’ve actually fallen in love with a fantasy (not the reality) of your partner.
During this time you notice various qualities about your lover and you, and will probably assume that your partner will always be thoughtful, kind, happy, agreeable, helpful, and caring. If certain traits are absent, you may assume they will be there if needed. Or, if you observe some negative traits, you may assume love will change your partner.
As you deepen your connection, additional chemicals are being released (including phenylethylamine, norepinephrine, and probably dopamine), producing a “natural high.” Sharing all of yourself with your lover feels comforting. You feel elated, euphoric, and exhilarated. You can stay up all night talking and making love. You’re sure that the two of you will “live happily ever after.”
Unfortunately, over time (from two months to two years), your body tapers off its production of these stimulating chemicals and your euphoria wanes.
Although you’re unaware that your chemistry is changing, you no longer feel as ecstatic nor passionate. You begin to see the reality of your lover, including the negative traits you overlooked before. Because your lover is human (and not ideal) you become disenchanted. You experience shock, confusion, disappointment, irritation, and fear. You may begin arguing. In the struggle for power, you may try to coerce your lover to change. You may “grit your teeth and bear it.” Or, you may withdraw and sulk. You become resentful and bitter. You believe your partner has changed, that you’ve “grown apart” and that you have “fallen out of love.” You may have even doubt your original love.
Although your partner may have changed slightly, in reality your perceptions and your feelings of affection have changed more significantly. At this point, with the loss of your fantasy and your dwindling euphoria, you relationship may end.
But, if you can adjust to the foibles of each other, you might be able to enter the phase of real loving in which you abandon your fantasy and learn the truth about your partner. You also explore common goal setting, communication, and problem solving. Compassionate love is when we care for others as they are, as well as support their growth. In the context of real love, you can create a respectful, supportive, satisfying and sustainable relationship.
You notice there’s room for individual differences, for personal growth, as well as for a connection. You can see that problems can be viewed as opportunities for growth.
As you learn over time to love the whole person of the other and feel reciprocal love in return, the brain releases an endorphin, which are like endogenous morphine. These chemicals produce a general sense of well-being, including feeling soothed, peaceful, and secure. Additionally, during lovemaking, oxytocin is released, producing feelings of satisfaction and attachment.
Although this final phase is not as stimulating and ecstatic as the first two stages, it can be extremely satisfying. As you learn more about the natural development of love, you can create and sustain a fulfilling and enduring relationship.