People often refer to the “honeymoon phase” as the pinnacle of happiness in romantic relationships. However, psychologists and relationship experts would probably tell you different. The first few years of coupledom may be lovey-dovey, but a deeper and more intimate bond is formed after a couple has weathered some storms and entered the committed phase of their relationship.
There’s something to be learned from every stage of a relationship. Here’s what experts have to say about how we fall in love and how to keep it that way (if we so choose).
Phase 1: The Romantic Phase
The first two years of a relationship tend to be blissful and exciting. When we fall in love with a new partner, our brain chemistry propels us to bond with them. Adrenaline (which fuels excitement and passion) and oxytocin (which is released after orgasm and also when we cuddle) work together to create an extremely strong drive to be near our partners as often as possible. Our brains also release dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and happiness.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), this brain cocktail is only extremely strong for the first year or so of a relationship. Most experts pin the demise of this phase around the 2- or 3-year mark. After that point, a couple’s longevity is truly tested.
Phase 2: The Realistic Phase
After a few years together, couples’ true compatibility and ability to work together start coming to light. Experts don’t have a general consensus on the name of this stage; eHarmony terms it “Realistic Love,” while relationship expert Bruce Muzik subdivides it further, compartmentalizing it into a “Power Struggle Stage” and a “Stability Stage.”
Regardless of what you call it, the idea is pretty much the same: Couples start seeing each other’s flaws and paying more attention to their differences. Without the rose-colored glasses of the Romantic Phase, couples begin seeing each other for who they actually are.
Muzik says that this realization tends to lead to partners trying to change each other.
“ … you get to work trying to change your partner back into the person you thought they were, or punish them for not being that way, or both. Often one partner pulls away and withdraws, needing space… and the other partner needily chases them feeling emotionally deserted.”
Muzik recommends taking this time to establish your own identity outside of your relationship without letting the bond between you and your partner become compromised. When a relationship becomes long-term, both partners must realize they will still be existing as independent people outside of it; they must bring that individuality into their relationship in order to bolster their connection with their partner.
Phase 3: The Commitment Phase
When a couple learns to appreciate each other’s differences, stop trying to change each other, and be thankful for the connection that they have, they move toward a phase of commitment. Muzik says that if a couple is strong enough to make it to this stage, the in-love feeling begins to return, only in a deeper and more mature form than it took in the romantic phase.
Muzik divides this stage into stability, commitment and co-creation. First, partners learn to accept each other as they are. Then, they decide to choose each other and prioritize each other in their daily lives. Finally, they begin to create a life together, whether it takes the form of a business, a family or a home (or anything else the couple chooses for themselves).