As a love and life coach and therapist to couples for 35 years, I’ve learned to spot the distinctive stages we travel through over the course of an intimate relationship. I wrote my book Love Cycles to share the five key stages that we move through: the Merge, Doubt and Denial, Disillusionment, Decision, and, finally, Wholehearted Loving.
These transitions aren’t new discoveries. They show up in poetry, mythology, and literature as well as in psychology and mythology.
According to myth, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, had a son called Cupid. Whenever his mother asked him to take aim, he dipped his arrow into a secret love potion and shot it in to the unsuspecting person that was the target of his mother’s scheme. Without fail, the two gods succeeded, and the wounded human fell madly in love with the first person that he or she saw.
We finally know there IS a love potion that puts us under a spell when we fall.
It filled with chemicals, hormones and brain changes, including PEA
(Phenyl ethylamine, a natural amphetamine also found in chocolate and marijuana!)
Is it any wonder that falling in love feels euphoric (and a little bit crazy?)?
In time this magic bubble will pop.
As the chemical high fades we will come down off of our cloud to see our partner is far from the perfect soul mate we once believed. We may discover that the seductive power of this stage led us into an attraction with an inappropriate partner. Even if our partner is a good match, we still need to deal with the difficulties and annoyances that two human beings inevitably bring to one another as we enter the second stage.
Stage Two: Doubt and Denial
Where we once saw only what was right we now begin to see only what is wrong.
As our doubt increases that this is really the right person, so does our denial. It’s too painful to let go of the dream of the perfect soul mate, so we deny that these feelings are happening and convince ourselves “everything is fine”.
As differences continue to emerge, the doubt gets stronger and the power struggles get more frequent and often, nastier.
Welcome to the third stage: disillusionment.
Stage Three: Disillusionment
In this third stage, we must give up our dream of unconditional love.
The story we told ourselves in which our partner always sees the best in us, says the right thing, never embarrasses us, and reads our mind is replaces by a story about EVERYTHING being wrong.
As our disappointment escalates, so do our biological responses to stress.
This looks like criticizing often (fight), stonewalling (flee) or withdrawing or denying any problems exist (freeze).
Once our similiarities seemed endless now our differences seem to define the relationship.
Here, the “Why aren’t you me?” argument gathers momentum, where our complaints, power struggles and feeling the impossibility of working anything out reaches full capacity.
Stage Four: Decision
A life lived in the painful loops of circular conflict can’t go on forever. Most of us come to the breaking point; a decision needs to be made. We are living in a toxic soup, which causes us so much stress, and unhappiness we have to do something differently. Do we leave, live totally parallel lives or learn the skills, which help love, thrive, before deciding what to do.
Many people I work with often want out of the pain, not out of the relationship.
Once they learn how to manage their conflict loop, learn and practice the essential self-awareness and communication skills of wholeheartedness, they may experience a rebirth of the relationship. Even if they don’t stay with their partner, the freedom of old patterns gives them a new chance for a better relationship in the future.
Stage Five: Wholehearted Loving
If during the fourth stage, you decide to stay together, the work you have done will take you to the joy of Wholehearted Loving.
To love with a whole heart you need to remove its obstacles; a closed heart, half a heart or a broken heart.
No longer two halves that struggle to make a whole, you recognize yourselves as two complete and separate people with uniqueness and overlap. In the process, passion, safety, and generosity return to the relationship, along with humor and empathy. What you saw when under loves spell begins to deliver the rich promises from the beginning.
Three Essential Truths
These five cycles of love form a spiral, not a straight line.
The first time we go through them we can stay stuck in each stage for a long time. If and when we reach the stage at which we learn how to love wholeheartedly, we don’t necessarily stay there, either, any more than we stay in perfect balance throughout our lives. But the tough times are easier to get through, and we learn that the rougher seasons of love are normal and can repair with a lot more ease.
LOVE IS AN INSIDE JOB.
The health of our relationships depends mostly on what goes on inside us: our inner resources, our lingering demons, and our motivation to grow and to change.
We are here to learn to love and it often takes a lifetime of work.
We live in a time where there are road maps to show us the way; we just need courage, willingness and openness.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke says it best:
For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of our tasks; the ultimate, the last test and proof; the work for which all other work is but preparation.