Falling in love is easy. Relationships are hard—despite what Hollywood tries to sell us. Like anything else in life worth having, relationships take work. Some couples will successfully weather the storms that inevitably arise, while others will simply drift apart.
When it comes to coupling, there is no instruction manual. Remember that old playground mantra: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes so and so and a baby carriage? If only it were that simple. Though many continue to follow this traditional trajectory, more and more are choosing otherwise. Fewer couples are getting married, some are having children before marriage, and some are choosing not to have children at all. Every relationship, like every individual, is unique.
Regardless of the path one chooses when it comes to romantic relationships—whether it’s down the aisle or across continents—the inherent stages of love and attachment essentially remain the same. How well couples navigate these stages is key.
Based on the work of top neuroscientists and “experts in love,” below are the four stages of a relationship—from falling in love to living happily ever after (or for a while)—ways to successfully navigate them and, most importantly, how to keep the spark alive.
1. The Euphoric Stage
This is your brain on love.
For the past several decades, Helen Fisher, Ph.D., neuroscientist and Senior Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute, and Lucy Brown, Ph.D., Clinical Professor in Neurology at Einstein College of Medicine in New York, have been studying the brain activity of people in love, from the early to the later stages. Brown says:
“In the early part of a relationship—the falling in love stage—the other person is the center of your life. You forgive everything in these early stages. The other person has faults, and you see them, but it doesn’t matter. Maybe they leave their dirty dishes in the sink, but they make you laugh at least daily, so it’s okay. Good things outweigh the negative here.”
One of the most significant findings in their brain mapping studies determined to be a key factor in relationship success involves what Brown refers to as the suspension of negative judgment. “In this early stage, many people show a decrease in activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that has to do with the negative judgment of people.” The longer a couple can maintain suspension of negative judgment toward each other, the better the chances of success.
When they followed up with participants, they found that couples who had stayed together for three years or more had the most decreased activity in this part of the brain. Perhaps something for all of us to keep in mind.
How long does the romantic phase last?
Studies, Brown says, have estimated this euphoric stage to last anywhere from six months to two years. Although a small portion of the population—approximately 15 to 30 percent—say they are still in love and that it still feels like the first six months, even after 10 or 15 years later. According to Brown:
“We don’t know why this is. I don’t necessarily think it’s because they have found their soulmates. I think it’s the person. Some people have an easier time rekindling the earlier stages. Not to say the rest of us can’t.”
But for the general population, the intoxication of new love will eventually morph into the next stage—that of early attachment.
2. The Early Attachment Stage
In the previous stage of euphoric love, unconscious factors like attraction and the activation of the reward system take over. In Fisher and Brown’s studies, the brain scans of couples in the early stages of love showed high levels of dopamine, the chemical that activates the reward system by triggering an intense rush of pleasure. According to the authors, this has the same effect on the brain as taking cocaine.
In this next stage, however, the more evolved part of the brain begins to take over, including the ventral pallidum, the region of the brain linked with feelings of attachment, and the attachment hormones, vasopressin, and oxytocin, sometimes referred to as “the love hormone.”
You know when you’ve reached the early attachment stage when, according to Brown, “You can sleep! You’re not thinking about [your partner] 24 hours a day. It’s easier to do other things in your life.”
Couples who were married at least one year described love differently. “It’s richer, deeper, it’s knowing them better.” Says Brown. “Memories have been integrated—both positive and negative—you’ve gone through some difficulties, and you’ve developed a strong attachment.”
3. The Crisis Stage
This is the make or break point for most relationships. What happens at this stage is crucial to what comes next. Brown refers to this as the ‘seven-year or five-year itch.’ “Almost every relationship has a drift apart phase,” she says, “Either you will keep drifting, or you will come back together. You need a crisis to get through and to be able to talk about it together—you’ve both grown and changed.” For some couples, having children could be the fork in the road that will either solidify the relationship or cause so much stress that the relationship falls apart. If a couple can overcome a crisis successfully, they will then move on to the next stage of deep attachment.
4. The Deep Attachment Stage
The deep attachment stage is the calm after the storm. You know each other better now. You’ve been through the inevitable ups and downs, and you know you can deal with crises. And you’ve made a plan about how to deal with them in the future. When describing this stage of relationships, the term that Brown reiterates is “calm.” “When couples have been together for many years,” she says, “it’s just very very calm. And it’s secure.”
The deep attachment stage can last a long time. If you’re lucky, it can last a lifetime.
Keeping It Going
So how can we keep love going, even a little bit? According to researchers, one of the single most effective ways of keeping the spark alive is a novelty. Studies that have followed couples for years have found that doing new, exciting, and challenging activities together have huge benefits for relationships.
Dr. Art Aron, one of Fisher and Brown’s chief collaborators, and his wife, Dr. Elaine Aron developed the “Self Expansion Model” that offers insight into the early stages of love and partly explains why the first few months of a new relationship feels so intoxicating. “When you enter into a relationship, you literally increase who you are. You take on/share in your partner’s perspective on the world in addition to your own, their social status, their resources. The benefits of new and challenging experiences together are enormous. And they last.”
Suspension of judgment, rekindling of the early stages and maintaining novelty, just maybe the keys to cracking the code of lasting love.