by Linda Carroll
As a counselor to couples for many years, I’ve come to recognize five distinctive stages we travel through over the course of any intimate relationship: the Merge, Doubt and Denial, Disillusionment, Decision, and, finally, Wholehearted Loving.
Love Cycles and Choices
The first stage, the Merge, is fueled by a delicious and powerful love potion and marked changes in brain chemistry itself, causes people to become obsessed with the wonder and delight of their new partner. Its as though a veil covers our rational brain, and all we can see is what is magical about this person and the relationship. The seductive power of this stage may also cause us to fall in love with an inappropriate partner. With consciousness and effort, we can choose what to do with our feelings. Do we fan the flames of a potentially dangerous fire, or do we control our passion and turn our attention elsewhere?
Even if our partner is a good match, this will not eliminate the difficulties and annoyances two human beings bring to one another. In this first stage, we tend to see only the best, the possibilities, the magic.
If we choose to move with our partner into Stage Two, Doubt and Denial, we wake up from the trance of infatuation and begin to wonder whether this relationship is really the best choice for us. You find your feelings of love are becoming more conditional, power struggles increase and you wonder if your partner has changed. What now? We can choose to look carefully at our partner and assess his ability to collaborate, manage conflict and disappointment and accept responsibility for his choices and troubles. Can we feel strongly attracted to someone and yet admit to ourselves that this person is not a good choice for us? If so, are we able to say no to the relationship?
During this second stage, the spotlight shines on the flaws of our beloved. We now invest a lot of energy in getting our lover to become the ideal partner we thought they would be. At the same time, we also catch glimpses of our own least likeable parts — for example, how we react when our partner doesn’t agree with us. The research clearly shows that managing conflict effectively requires something different than fighting, fleeing or freezing. Can we learn these new skills?
Each of us is forced to give up our dream of perfect, unconditional love in which our partner always sees the best in us, says the right thing, never embarrasses us and reads our mind so that he or she can please us in every way possible.
As our disappointment escalates, so do our biological responses to stress: we prepare for war, retreat, or don camouflage. Welcome to the third stage: Disillusionment. As differences continue to emerge, our proclivities to defend and preserve ourselves may grow even stronger: we may believe that we’re always in the right and that everything should be done our way.
Alternatively, you may be the kind of person who cannot bear conflict. You shut your ears to every dissonant chord and pretend that everything is wonderful — or at least tolerable.
The point is, you have chosen how to respond. You will continue to make choices as you move through love’s stages. As disillusionment sets in, we can try our best to offer goodwill and kindness, even as tension thickens. As the “Why aren’t you me?” argument gathers momentum, we can consciously decide to loosen up a bit and allow more than one truth to be present in the relationship.
In this third stage, when our brain signals major alarm, it is particularly vital to choose to move from reactivity to rationality. When we are calmly present, we are free to act for the highest good of the relationship rather than out of fear and neediness.
Of course, because we’re thoroughly human, we won’t always respond to our lover from our highest selves. Then what? Can we apologize, make amends and take responsibility for how we’ve behaved, despite what our partner has done to upset or annoy us? We have the power to make that choice.
Let’s say that when we reach the fourth stage — Decision— we make the choice to part ways. Can we wish our former partner the best? If that’s too hard, can we at least not wish him or her the worst?
If we decide to remain together, we have the opportunity to learn the lessons that will help to make us the best person we can be, while also giving our relationship the chance to grow and deepen. This is where we enter the fifth cycle, which is wholehearted loving. No longer two halves trying to make a whole, we are two complete people learning about love. Passion, safety and generosity return to the relationship, along with humor and empathy.
From the Inside Out
Some of us are lucky enough to enjoy a strong connection with the same partner for a long stretch. But regardless of the quality of our intimate relationship, our emotional and spiritual life journey begins and ends within us. In this sense, every relationship is an inside job. Inside us is where it starts — and where it finishes, too.
Linda Carroll is the author of Love Cycles. A couple’s therapist for over thirty years, she is certified in Transpersonal Psychology and Imago Therapy and is a master teacher in Pairs Therapy. She lives in Corvallis, OR, offers workshops across the country, and is a frequent speaker at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Visit her online at www.lindaacarroll.com.
Adapted from the book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Wholehearted Love ©2014 by Linda Carroll. Published with permission of New World Library www.newworldlibrary.com.