Love can bring with it an intoxicating and powerful mix of emotions and chemicals that change a person’s perspectives, thinking, and feelings instantaneously. Love can turn people into writers and poets and into gentler, more empathetic, and attentive versions of themselves, but as we know, love doesn’t always work. We are all too familiar with the frequent stories of failed love, people reporting the honeymoon suddenly ending, and noticing all the annoying habits of the other. With conflict escalating the relationship soon falls apart.
Can current research shed light on what is happens to love?
To answer that question, Dr John Gottman identified the three phases of love and what couples can do to move through each phase.
The importance of love in relationships has only taken precedence in more recent history taken precedence. Many ancient cultures described romantic love in very negative and dark terms, involving a sense of falling apart or irrational and obsessive thoughts and behaviours. Marriage historian, Stephanie Coontz, describes how in the past the arranging of lifelong partnerships was viewed as far too important to be left up to love. Marriage was a blend of social, commercial, and heredity contracts. Families used marriage as a stable platform to acquire lands and to create legacies on which their next generations could build. Love and it’s unpredictably had no place in such important deliberations. This perception changed in the 1700s when during the Industrial Revolution the rise of wage labour freed young people from their families and gave them more autonomy to decide whom to marry.
In Dr. John Gottman’s book entitled Principia Amoris: The New Science of Love, he explained that there are three different phases of love. These stages of a romantic relationship do not only involve falling in love, but rather deepening love relationship into a lifetime journey.
Phase One: Limerence
Psychologist Dorothy Tennov in her book Love and Limerence introduced the term “limerence” for the first stage of love, (the falling in love phase). It is commonly associated with having a crush or puppy love or the honeymoon phase. Limerence is the involuntary part of being in love with another person. Tennov described a range of physical and psychological symptoms such as flushing, trembling, palpitations, excitement, intrusive thinking, obsession, fantasy, sexual excitement, and the fear of rejection.
Not just anyone can set off the cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters in limerence, the mate we pick has to look, feel and smell right, and be just right to cuddle. Then, and only then, will the cascade get started.
Here is a summary of some of the chemicals at play in Phase 1:
The cascade of “in-love” hormones and neurotransmitters of Stage 1 is also generally accompanied by a lowering of fear and an increase in poor judgment, so one tends to overlook or ignore the red flags that they will inevitably confront in Phase 2 of love.
It is also a mistake to assume limerence is a prerequisite for lasting love. Limerence does not guarantee long-term marital satisfaction, any more than its absence indicates a relationship disaster.
Phase Two: Building Trust
In his research Dr John Gottman found that the basis of conflict for newlywed couples was trust, ‘will you be there for me when I need you’. Trust, the building of trust, and the maintenance of trust doesn’t just occur overnight in a relationship. What John Gottman’s research shows is that trust is built slowly over time through small acts of turning towards each other, being there for your partner, expressing compassion and empathy for one another’s feelings. Interestingly in new relationships many conflicts concern the defining and building of trust, ‘are you there for me when I call when I am worried, upsetting, hurt or angry’. When new couples can turn towards each other with understanding and gentleness, even when negative emotions are expressed, trust is built. Whilst new couples may believe trust is strong from the start it can quickly evaporate when a couple turn away from each and negative conflict escalates. Trust is grown by small moments of being there for your partner in good times but most importantly when negative emotion is expressed. ‘When you are in pain, feeling sad or angry my world stops, and I try to understand what is happening for you’
Thus, the success or failure of Phase 2 is based on how couples argue. If the ratio of positivity to negativity exceeds 5:1 during conflict discussions, a couple is likely to stay together.
John and Julie Gottman have developed a model of communication that helps partners attune to one another.
The word “ATTUNE” is actually an acronym that stands for six processes:
Phase Three: Building Commitment and Loyalty
Relationships can be a place of great discovery, a journey of building emotional connection and attachment with your partner over years, really knowing one another, understanding the fabric of each other personalities, values, and philosophy, creating a deeper meaning about what the relationship stands for, what it holds as important, what it honours and dreams about. Phase Three is about building true commitment and loyalty. The traditional wedding vows of in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, speaks to the requirement of commitment and loyalty in a relationship to provide long term and ongoing stability and connection. Commitment is about cherishing your partner over time.
In Phase Three, John Gottman identified the importance of the ‘fairness metric’; the sense that power is fairly distributed in a relationship and that there is a high level of emotional responses between the couple. It is almost impossible to have deep commitment and trust in a relationship when a power asymmetry exists and the distribution of power feels unfair to at least one person.
In Phase Three, people have stable, satisfying relationships. They have families in a safe and loving environment, leaning into the depth of connection and care with one another. It might not be fireworks every night or as emotionally high as limerence, but it’s stable, predictable and it lasts a lifetime.
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