Couples form initially from a personal sense of physical attraction. They talk, there’s some emotional intimacy. Out of that, if both feel an attraction, comes a mutual desire for companionship and more conversation. Mutual respect and trust increases and romantic love may ensue. Romantic love is commonly viewed as the first stage of an intimate relationship. We see it all the time in movies, TV shows, etc. It’s love at first sight, true love, and Romeo and Juliet personified. Younger people, and not a few older folks as well, are enamored with the idea of romantic love.
Romantic love is wonderful, it’s easy, it’s almost effortless, it’s spontaneous, conflict-free, and makes you feel alive and wanted. You see your partner as perfect, and your partner views you as perfect as well. Neither can do any wrong and nothing needs to change. Both feel the other will meet all their needs, expectations, and assumptions about a long-term intimate relationship. It’s a time of near-constant bliss and infatuation. You maximize your similarities and minimize or ignore differences. You’re joined at the hip, do everything possible together, spend as much time together as you can, share friends, interests, activities, hobbies, possibly showers, and maybe even clothes. It’s physical closeness and thinking about each other constantly. The feel-good hormone, oxytocin, is flowing freely and your mirror-neurons (didn’t know you had those, did you?) are linked and communicating at such a high level that it almost feels like telepathy.
It seems almost too good to be true. And it is. Romantic love, unfortunately, is the shortest of any of the stages of love, and generally lasts from 6 months to 2 years. Romantic love simply doesn’t last. That’s a big dash of reality, now isn’t it?
What we often initially admired in our partner we come to see as liabilities. Conflicts all too often ensue and companionship declines. We criticize, become defensive, view our partner with contempt, and stonewall or withdraw from companionship and communication. Joined at the hip, sharing everything, comes to feel like being smothered. Now we’ve come up against the brick wall of reality and have to make a choice – do we bail or do we tough it out.
Do we adjust to reality and stay or do we separate and look to repeat the feel-good cycle of romantic love with someone else? Any intimate relationship is hard work, it’s a commitment of time and energy. And it’s also a time for learning and growth both as an individual and as a couple. Many, and divorce statistics show this, choose to try and repeat the cycle.
They set aside the opportunity to learn and grow individually and as a couple, may never experience any of the other stages of love, and may spend their lives endlessly searching.
The decline of romantic love is not necessarily the end of your relationship but rather a new beginning into another stage as your relationship develops. It can get better, but in a different way. Not all relationships are fixable. Too much harm has been caused, trust has been destroyed, respect has been lost. But if I’m not willing to at least try to work through the tough parts and learn about myself in the process I’ll repeat the cycle again and again.