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Understanding the Stages of Love

Love in its earliest stages can be exhilarating.  It inspires much of our sweetest music, our most cherished fables, our most heartfelt hopes and dreams.   But if we don't understand the normal progression of love throughout the lifespan of a relationship, we can end up disillusioned, joyless, and resentful.

The normal stages of love are not difficult to understand.  But rarely are we taught what they are, why they exist, and how to weather the unique challenges of each normal stage.

Learning About Love, Part 1

My own education about the stages of love was not simply academic.  Like many of you, I fell headlong into love - not once, but many times, with a number of different dating partners over the course of my youth.   I'd heard the love songs, watched the Disney shows and movie musicals, read the romance novels. So I recognized all those familiar signs and symptoms of love - that fluttery feeling of being on air in his presence;  that special sparkle in his eyes, and in mine; that uniquely delicious agony when we were separated.  

Time after time, with guy after guy, those intense feelings led me to believe that he was "the one" - only to find myself downcast and alone a few months later.  Then I resonated more with that handful of depressing post-love songs:  "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling;"  "You Don't Bring Me Flowers Anymore," and so on.   Love felt exciting but fleeting - thrilling, but ultimately dangerous and untrustworthy. 

Over time, I became terrified of love - afraid that it was just a setup for another devastating heartbreak.  But then I met one more guy, while I was going to graduate school to become a counselor.  He was already trained as a counselor, and was working in the social work field.   Falling in love with him was slower, quieter, less dramatic - and ultimately, far more lasting.  Steve and I have now been married for over 30 years.   We had an early period of harmony, exhilaration, and being fully in love, anticipating a lifetime of perfect joy.  That blissful period, in our case, lasted about 3 years.

Then, we became parents - and everything changed.  Sleep deprived, testy, missing our prior freedoms, and sometimes resentful that the other person wasn't doing more to help, that early exhilaration faded, and was gradually replaced by daily conflict.   We were both nice people, well trained in the arts of communication and polite discourse.  So we didn't openly fight.  But we privately fumed.  And we silently grieved. What had happened to our special, beautiful love?  Had we married the wrong person after all?    Was our marriage now doomed to fail, like so many others - or could it still be rescued and regenerated?

Crashing into a Crash Course on Love

A few months after our child was born, I took a new job at a local counseling agency, and for the first time, was asked to provide marriage counseling.  At first, that seemed ironic in the extreme.   My own marriage felt more disappointing, conflicted, and endangered than it had ever been.  Yet at that very time, I'm supposed to provide guidance to others, to help rescue and improve their own marriage relationships?  

It was humbling at best those first few weeks at that new job to sit quietly listening to the client couple on the couch in front of me, describing their most recent conflict - and to silently realize, ironically, that the negative things they were saying to about about each other precisely matched things that had passed between my husband and me only hours before. 

I knew that - but those clients didn't.  They were paying for professional marriage counseling - and I was determined to deliver what they needed.  So for the first few sessions, I just quietly listened, emphathized, and took notes.   But to fully provide the help they sought, I would need better, more powerful tools.  So I went to the local library, and dove intently into research about marriage relationships - what endangers them, what saves them, and what can be done to rescue an at-risk relationship.   Happily, the things I learned in that intense crash course didn't just save my clients' marriages.  Ultimately, it saved and repaired my own.  

30 years later, I look back with profound gratitude on the information I discovered  in that time of crisis, that had not only taught me how to protect and strengthen my own marriage, but also those, over the three decades since then, of many hundreds of couples. There are many elements in that relationship-building information.   But today, I'd like to share one of the most powerful and transformative of those insights.

The 3 Stages of Love

During my period of research, I encountered several unique references to this concept, though the various authors didn't quote each ofher or any other referenced source. It is basically this.  Over the lifespan of a relationship, we tend to proceed through 3 very different stages of love, as follows:

  1. The In-Love Stage:  This is the stage popularized in most romance movies, songs, and novels.  During this stage, we feel blissfully happy in each other's presence.  We feel a sense of perfect oneness.  We want all the same things.  We can complete eaach other's sentences.  We call each other endearing, childlike names like "Sweetheart" or "Honey" or "Snookums."  Pnysical touch between us is electric.  Even simple eye contact is drenched in meaning, passion, and emotion.  

    Without even trying, we naturally do things that delight and please each other.   We become our best, most attractive selves. We put on our nicest clothes and our nicest manners.   We avoid doing anything that might repel, disappoint, or create conflict with our loved one. We sacrifice other relationships and other interests, to make room for this all-consuming, immersive relationship.   We give up parts of ourselves that might be undesireable or disappointing to our loved one.  We are on our best behavior, and in our highest emotional state.  And we do it all without trying.   It is literally a state that we "fall" into. This is generally the state we describe as "being in love."  

  2. The Power Struggle:  What no one tells you is - That consuming in-love state is designed to be temporary.   It is designed to create attraction, and to keep the human race going through procreation.  But the truth is - No one can spend an entire lifetime being on their best behavior, giving up core pieces of themselves, or neglecting other relationships and interests.   Sooner of later,  life crashes in, demanding attention.  Work, children, and other responsibilities demand time and focus, that diverts from the all-consuming romantic focus that characterized Stage 1.  

    As that occurs, those electric feelings fade.  We miss the person we fell in love with. We want to be our full, authentic self, even with all our flaws and quirks.  But we want our loved one to remain the person we fell in love with - which is not their total authentic self.  Conflict ensues.  Differences emerge that were not visible before.   Power struggles develop.   And before long, we may start think about calling a divorce attorney, thinking we made a mistake, and need to abandon this relationship in search of our TRUE true love.   Or, we just settle into quiet resentment and distance, living parallel lives, staying together for their kids or the community, but not really feeling connection anymore.   

  3. Mature Love: Fortunately, as I learned in my research, there is a healing path out of the power struggle.  It is not to return to the blissful ignorance of Stage 1.  What you have seen, you cannot un-see.   Once differences, conflicts, and weaknesses are revealed, they can no longer remain hidden.  In Stage 3, we remain mindful of all we have learned about ourself, our loved one, and our relationship in Stage 2.  But then - mindfully, intentionally, consciously - we go to work to rekindle connection.  

    It is harder in Stage 3 than it was in Stage 1.   It is no longer automatic - no longer something we "fall into."  Now, in Stage 3, love is a daily decision.   We learn what works, and what doesn't - we do what creates connection, and refrain from doing what escalates conflict.    At the same time, we learn to be more true to authentic selves, and the the rich breadth of experience we enjoy with our other interests and relationships.  We learn to balance the needs of our primary love relationship with our other needs and our other relationships.  Over time, Mature Love becomes delicious, stable, fulfilling, and sustainable for the long haul.  It is thrilling to love and be loved at that deep, unpretended, authentic level - warts and all. 

Moving Joyfully Through the 3 Stages

Once you know that these 3 stages are normal, you can stop seeing Stage 2 as a disaster.   You can recognize where you are in the sequence, and decide intentionally to move forward towards Stage 3.  It doesn't happen all at once.  It can't be hurried or forced.  It happens a little at a time, over the process of time.  It isn't all sunshine and roses.  Sometimes there are still hard discoveries.  Sometimes there still are conflicts.  But we learn over time to resolve them respectfully, balancing the needs we each have as individuals, with the need for unity and closeness in our relationship.   It takes a while to learn and achieve that crucial  balance. 

Over time, we can learn to be respectfully curious about our partner's uniqueness from us.   From our differences we can learn to forge not conflict but synergy - drawing on each other's unique strengths to intentionally build something together that is better and stronger than what either of us can build alone. 

Knowing that these 3 stages are all normal in the life cycle of a relationship can make us more resilient, forgiving, and patient with each other.   We recognize that in most cases, we didn't get a "defective model" as our partner, and that we didn't "make a mistake" in our selection.  We are simply going through a known, universal, unavoidable stage of growth and discovery, as each of us becomes more authentic with ourselves and with each other. 

As delicious and delightful as Stage 1 love can be, ultimately it is not as sustainable, stable, and satisfying as love that is built on genuine knowledge and respect.  There is nothing more joyful than loving and being loved, for your true, full, authentic self -  year after year, decade after decade.  That is the beauty, and the hope, of knowing about the 3 Stages of Love - and of the hopeful, growth-producing path through them. 


HappinessToolkit book thumbnail-- Carrie M. Wrigley, LCSW 
     Counselor, Speaker, Performer, and Author of
     Your Happiness Toolkit: 16 Strategies for Overcoming Depression, and Building a Joyful, Fulfilling Life

   > For more complete Information on this topic,  see the book,