Something terrible occurred today in the company of my partner; I experienced a profound sense of indifference when he wrapped his arm around me on the train. We are five weeks into a ten-month overseas trip, and our train was soon arriving at our home for the next nine months, a small university city on the southeast coast of Italy. Of course, there had been some understandable tensions between us over the last few weeks, as we endured the trials and tribulations of traversing unknown lands, but these were all easily overcome and looked past. Over the past week or so however, I’d noticed myself becoming increasingly annoyed by things that before had either enamoured me further to my partner, or had gone completely unnoticed. He had not fundamentally changed, and nor had I, but something between us had. I found myself dwelling on the past, in which the simple announcement of a text message or suggestion to get dinner would drive me crazy with joy. As we sat shoulder to shoulder, my gaze turned inwards, I wondered if my lack of elation meant I was making a mistake here. Sitting in his arms, I reasoned and drew on my memory of the literature I’d been exposed to through university, colleagues, and therapy. I realised it’s not that I am worried I have made a mistake in being with this person. What I was feeling, I believe, was associated with the realisation that our honeymoon phase may be over. How, I wondered, could I get it back?
The Five Stages of Relationships
Relationships take many forms; monogamous or non-monogamous, long distance, separate sleeping, marriage averse or marriage destined, reproductive or child-free, to name but a few. Though, researchers and relationship professionals would suggest that no matter the type or nature of relationship, certain patterns, or stages of love and attachment, tend to prevail. The general consensus within relationship literature is that the health and satisfaction we feel, depends on the relationship’s ability to navigate around four-to-six phases of connection – for ease, we have summarised into five main stages:
Stage 1: The Euphoric Stage.
Commonly referred to as the ‘honeymoon phase’ as it is associated with feelings of intense intimacy and elation. You have been shot by cupid’s arrow, and perceive your partner as a gift – a flawless creature who can do no wrong. Professionals explain this stage as characterised by a ‘suspension of negative judgment’, whereby the pre-frontal cortex (the area responsible for logic, rational thinking and accordingly, negative judgment) reveals a significant decrease in activity.
Stage 2: The Reality Stage.
This is the reality check stage in which your partner’s attractive points and flaws alike, which were always there, finally become visible to you. This is a process of figuring each other out and trying to decide if the partner(s) are worth committing to. Mutual pro-active communication and respecting each other’s physical and emotional needs will see the couple move on to the next stage. A lack of this could lead to conflict, resentment and drifting apart.
Stage 3: The Early Attachment Stage.
The more evolved brain regions start to take over in this phase. While dopamine and serotonin are responsible for the love ‘rush’ we feel during the euphoric stage, attachment hormones like vasopressin and oxytocin take over at this later stage. This change occurs as you develop a deeper and richer attachment to your partner through both positive and negative shared experiences. Researchers say this is when you can sleep again, in other words – you’re not thinking of your partner 24/7 anymore, and may start to crave some space for yourself.
Stage 4: The Crisis Stage.
The crisis stage is one of drifting apart and, depending, can result in drifting out of sight or returning to one another even stronger. The course of the relationship is heavily influenced by the tools developed in the partnership, such as open communication and emotion safety. Crises can be obvious like infidelity, re-location, or children, or it can be more subtle and pervasive such as personal change that’s led to communication or intimacy misalignment. If a couple can survive the crisis, they will often move onto the next stage.
Stage 5: The Deep Attachment Stage.
A welcome calm after the period of crisis, uncertainty, turmoil and distance. You know each other inside out and may have even stronger ties, having been through a significant down period together and overcome this as a team. You are in this stage because you’ve communicated and probably also developed a plan for future crisis. You are in the deepest level of secure attachment, trust, and calm.
Intimacy is Often at the Root of Relationship Issues
Problems in relationships at any stage are often said to come down to one vital component: Intimacy, and there are two different kinds. Emotional intimacy is when you connect on a deep non-sexual level. Physical intimacy reflects our physical need as humans for touch, for example kissing, hugging or hand-holding. Levels of physical intimacy naturally vary from relationship to relationship, however, when there is a complete absence of physical connection, intimacy may struggle to survive. This is one of the key challenges of long-term, and long-distance, relationships. Emotional intimacy, on the other hand, is characterised by mutual feelings of trust, love, security, and safety. This is often harder to build than physical intimacy, as it requires a foundation of trust in the relationship. Problems with intimacy often don’t arise from obvious conflicts or butting heads, but rather from comfort and complacency that comes from breaking down barriers. This in and of itself is not a bad thing, however can lead to unhelpful routines forming, making time for one another become increasingly inaccessible. The cure for a lack of intimacy is to plan, communicate and prioritise each party’s needs around conversation, physical touch and play.
A lack of physical or emotional intimacy in the early stages is very different to when it occurs in a long-term relationship or marriage. However, the former will more often lead to a relationship breakdown as you may not have invested as much time or resources into the relationship. Thus, in light of the creeping disillusionment post their honeymoon phase dopamine-high, many will panic, believing the task of reviving intimacy to be too hard, and react by throwing in the towel. This disillusionment in the reality phase must be approached with caution, as it is not necessarily a sign you’re with the wrong person. That is, you might be closing the door on something very promising. How you treat yourself and your partner in this phase should also be considered carefully, and with curiosity. This stage will inevitably arise in the next relationship you have and the one after that and so on, so it is worth exploring what shows up for you in different dynamics – it is called the reality phase for a reason, after all. Nevertheless, the loss of physical and/or emotional intimacy in any stage of a relationship is serious. If you are invested in the other person, it should be addressed together compassionately, and/or with the help of a professional.
Novelty is Key to Keeping Intimacy Alive
One of the most effective means of keeping intimacy alive is novelty, aka, NEW experiences! This becomes obvious when considering how exciting and intimate the honeymoon phase was, back where it all began. Relationship experts and husband and wife, Dr. Art and Elain Aron, explain that in courtship and beyond, not only are we experiencing attraction to the other person, but we are literally expanding who we are as people – otherwise known as the ‘Self Expansion Model’. We intimately observe, absorb, and share another person’s way of living and perspectives on the world. The duo say that the honeymoon phase is so strong partly because the experiences shared together are so challenging, novel and seemingly endless. While this period must, eventually, end, the relationship does not need to be over; it just means the novelty must continue to be cultivated in other ways. Indeed, studies testing the self-expansion model have found that introducing new, novel, exciting and challenging activities boast huge benefits for couples.
What else can I do to Support my Relationship?
If you’re feeling complacent, lacking intimacy or otherwise in a relationship rut, remember you’re not alone and there are many ways to improve the situation. If you think you’ve got a good thing going, why not try out some new activities together? Work on your intimacy, and consider the following:
- Resist putting the romantic relationship on a pedestal, and try to undo those unrealistic expectations, which are more often than not a product of Hollywood. All relationships are difficult, conflict is essential and anyone who tells you otherwise is misled, and in fact, they’re probably quietly miserable.
- Resist running away at the sight of trouble and dwelling on the negative. Trust your initial instinct and think about all the reasons you love them, it may just exceed the reasons they annoy you.
- Don’t be foolish in thinking you’re the only one with doubts – your boo might also be panicking or doubting, or have done so in the past. Communicate, and you can both feel validated = instant vulnerability and emotional intimacy!
- Look after yourself. Remember all relationships are made up of unique, and individually worthy humans in their own right. Remember to respect each other’s individuality. And, you owe it to the other person and the relationship to work on your own personal issues, mental health and self-esteem. If you can’t understand why you behave or think in a certain way towards them, then you haven’t dug deep enough – it can help getting professional support with this by speaking to a psychologist.
- Communicate with honesty, respect, and transparency. Talking about your doubts, irks and personal issues will only help you develop solutions and come out of conflicts even stronger.
- And finally, flirt, for the love of god, FLIRT. Doing it once doesn’t mean you can’t do it again. Woo your partner every day if you can, they deserve this.