Sunday, October 21, 2012

Stages of Love

Illustration by Mikael Häggström
I write and read a lot of romance and have been searching for some template as I to of what the stages for romantic love are.  This is what I can tell you so far:  there really isn't one.

We're getting better at understanding some of the biology of love, and the different neurotransmitters, hormones and chemical reactions that accompany attraction, lust and attachment.  Some (actually) many people mistake these for the stages of love, but they're not--they all could happen in the course of an intense 24 hours or less (think of the movie Speed, I think that took place in less than 8 hours).  It's really the Stages of Sex, even for those in long-term relationships--flirting, hook-up and cuddle.  Still, if you search for "Stages of Relationship" or "Stages of Love" or even "Phases of Marriage" these three will come up.  Don't be fooled because it's obviously a bit more complicated than that.

I thought about the five stages we use for dealing with stress, grief, illness, addiction and/or death (Denial, Guilt, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance courtesy of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, 1969) and how though they don't apply to everyone, and lots of more recent research says we jump around between these phases and ultimately most people are resilient and don't "work their way" through them as stages at all, they still help.  They're aspirational in a way, so we know that there's light at the end of the tunnel, we can get to the place where we've adjusted somehow to whatever life trial we're facing.

We also know something about life stages in general, much courtesy of  Erik Erikson who was trying through the forum of Ego Psychology to show how getting stuck at different phases, not getting needs met there or working through the problems made later stages more complex.  It also is really helpful let me tell you, when trying to figure out why a sixteen-year-old child you have nurtured and ferried and devoted years of your life to suddenly pretends you don't exist when you're at the mall together.  Oh, yeah, social stage, got that.  Isn't he developing so nicely?

Approximate Age[2]
Significant Relationship[2]
Existential Question[2]
0–2 years
Can I Trust the World?
Feeding, Abandonment
2–4 years
Is It Ok To Be Me?
Toilet Training, Clothing Themselves
4–5 years
Is It Ok For Me To Do, Move and Act?
Exploring, Using Tools or Making Art
5–12 years
Neighbors, School
Can I Make It In The World Of People And Things?
School, Sports
13–19 years
Peers, Role Model
Who Am I? What Can I Be?
Social Relationships
20–24 years
Friends, Partners
Can I Love?
Romantic Relationships
25–64 years
Household, Workmates
Can I Make My Life Count?
Work, Parenthood
Mankind, My Kind
Is It Ok To Have Been Me?
Reflection on Life

This "Romantic Relationships/Can I Love?" life stage can take a large chunk of our waking attention for the majority of our adolescent and adult life, from listening to "Couples Court" on the radio in the morning to "Delilah" at night and just about every movie, song, book and significant-other interaction in between.  We want to be good at relationships.  We want to love and be loved.  Yet we don't have a clue much of the time as to how to go about it.  Isn't that interesting?

So, here's my attempt to synthesize some of the theories that make the most sense to me.  Tell me what you think.  

1.  Infatuation--See Attraction and Lust, above.  This is a very exciting stage.  It lasts--not that long.

2.  Accommodation--He likes football games on Sunday, you like walks on the beach.  This stage is all about trying to find the ways to get both your needs met.  It doesn't always work, and that leads to power struggles, squabbles and hurt feelings if you don't feel cared about.  Most relationships break up at this phase, as one or the other person doesn't feel the fit is right.

3.  Challenge--Most people don't feel comfortable moving forward to a commitment without facing a hurdle and managing to get through it as a couple.  This can be anything from facing student loan debt to the illness of a parent or the re-appearance of an ex.    If you make it through, you have strengthened your attachment to and dependence on each other and are typically ready to work towards the next stage.  

4.  Commitment--This is when you both say to each other that you are in life together.  Merging of lives happens here, with all its accompanying bumps in the road.  This takes varying amounts of time but once you're there, you know it.  In this stage you dance back to Accommodation and Challenge phases, often out of sync and you're just working it through.  Or not.  After commitment is the highest risk time for infidelity, but this is because breaking up and walking away become very difficult and often the dissatisfied partner wants to try something else first (or wants to try to have the committed relationship and the infidelities both). Typically, this stage involves some combination of engagement/ living together and/or marriage.  Families are blended, checking accounts merged.  Many models of love stop here but this isn't the end, it's really just half-way.

5.  Life Balance--From here forward, almost every life decision made by one partner has an impact on the other, and the back-and-forth between the two of you is almost constant--this job or that?  One kid or three?  You sleep in or me? Sex now, later or both?   And which of us is going to take our adult child to the Emergency Room for an all-night, three-bag IV rehydration when he gets heat exhaustion by not drinking anything for a few days and working out in the sun?  Oh, sorry, inserting my life there for a moment (it wasn't me, BTW).  This is the bones of a long-term relationship.  Those of us who manage it stay together.  Those who don't break up, simple as that.  Though he calls it something different, I like what Marty Tashman says about it: 

Once couples reach this stage they have already experienced some challenges (e.g. medical or money problems) and now other life decisions will have to be made (e.g. to have children, where to live, how to spend money). This stage is different from the Challenge Phase because a number of challenges have already occurred and the couple has learned how each other responds in these situations. The emotional patterns of each are clear and they have established patterns of dealing with their differences. It is common for problems to arise in this stage, but because you have already experienced a great many shared challenges, you stand the best chance of working through these issues.  

If you do, you stand the best chance of getting to the final (and best) stage.

6.  Unconditional Love--Unofficially, love gurus quote about 15% of couples as eventually getting to this phase.  It is the phase beyond the Life Balance where you are no longer doing something for your partner in the expectation that you will get something in return.  You are doing it because their welfare is as important to you as your own.  You know them, and understand them, and accept them with all their flaws as your life partner, (relatively) uncritically, and with total love.  Doesn't is sound great?  Isn't this the place you want to get when you commit to someone?  Isn't it important to see the light at the end of the tunnel of love?  I'll go back to Marty on this as well:

In this phase, couples learn how and when to compromise and they truly (not on the surface) accept areas of differences with minimum resentment. In this stage couples learn to re-appreciate and re-love each other and:

• Focus on what is right with each other;
• Give each other the benefit of the doubt in conflict situations;
• Successfully manage and truly accept frustrations, disappointments and hurts; 
• Agree to disagree and fully value each other even if they are totally unable to see things the same way;
• Have a give and take sexual relationship on a regular basis;
• Communicate in such a way they really listen to and hear each other;
• Can disagree with each other and be O.K with that;
• Recover from their disagreements within a short period of time;
• Constantly find things to appreciate about each other;
• Spend time relaxing and having fun on a weekly basis;
• Spend time talking about issues that come up in their relationship. 

Isn't this the place you want to live if you are in a long-term relationship?  What, truly, is the point otherwise? This, to quote the therapist Sean in Good Will Hunting, is the good stuff.  

How on earth did Ben Affleck and Matt Damon write that scene when they were single guys in their early 20's?  The answer is they didn't.  Much of this "Idiosyncrasies" scene was ad-libbed by Robin Williams.  

Have a love-ly night, Lisa


  1. So interesting Lisa. There are so many levels to love that we don't always think about in our writing and our lives. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This is fascinating. I'll be bookmarking this!

  3. Love is a work in progress, right?
    Thank you for your thoughts, my romance writing friends.

  4. Loved this Lisa. Very well done.

  5. Wonderful...Thanks for this.