The Four Stages of a Romantic Relationship: Why They Matter to Know

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A romantic relationship can, at the very least, be confusing. They take work and effort, and while a vast number of people in the world have had, currently are, or will enter a romantic relationship in their life, most of us learn little to nothing about them.

This can often lead to disaster.

While there is a whole lot of direction and topics to cover in romantic relationships, here in this article, I like to go through the four stages of a romantic relationship.

Why touch upon this specifically?

Because a lot of people do not even know there are different stages in a relationship. Understanding each one of them can significantly help you maintain and foster a long-term healthy relationship.

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 of 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 of love.

1. The Euphoric Stage

Stages of Romantic Relationship

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 this early stage. The other person has faults, and you see them, but it does not matter. Maybe they leave their dirty dishes in the sink, but they make you laugh at least daily, so it is okay. Good things outweigh the negative here.

In this early stage, many people show a decrease in activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain connected with negative judgment of people.

In this 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 which 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.

2. The Early Attachment Stage

Stages of Romantic Relationship

In this next stage, 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”.

Memories have been integrated, both positive and negative. You’ve gone through some difficulties, and you’ve developed a strong attachment.

In terms of stages of romantic relationship trouble, this can be where it begins, however you’re not aware of it.

3. The Crisis Stage

Stages of Romantic Relationship

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.”

4. The Deep Attachment Stage

Stages of Romantic Relationship

And finally, we have the deep attachment stage. 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. This stage can last a long time. If you’re lucky, it can last a lifetime.

Now, the main problem which can lead to suffering and confusion in relationships is when we assume this first feeling, this euphoric high, will last.

However, studies have estimated this euphoric stage to last anywhere from six months to two years. It’s mainly through Hollywood movies and TV series that an unrealistic idea of relationships has been cast.

Relationships are hard and take work to nurture. However, that isn’t a bad thing. Life is ever-evolving and so are relationships. Each stage of a relationship is like a journey, and it’s on this journey where true happiness and growth are acquired.

Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist and the father of psychoanalysis, came up with one of his many contributions to the field of psychology, the idea of cathexis.

It is defined as the investment of emotional energy into an object or a person, often to the extent of being unhealthy.

Cathexis happens when we intently focus on the “falling in love” aspect of a relationship. As a consequence, our love might burn with a bright flame but soon fizzles into sparks, before being extinguished altogether.

To prevent this, think of love as an action, not a feeling. 

If our love is genuine, it will not require lots of feelings at all, since it is much bigger than cathexis.

For example, in a well-functioning marriage, both partners continue to choose their spouse because they have committed to support that person and strive together towards common goals. 

Even if they disagree and occasionally get angry at each other, they do not become swayed by those passing feelings.

In this sense, showing your love is as simple as giving your attention, listening, and helping your partner reach their goals.

A quote that ties together with this is from Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, from his profound book “The Road Less Traveled”.  There he defines love as:

“I define love thus: “The will to extend one’s self to nurture one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”

If we can strive to understand our partner and help them along their journey of growth to become a better version of themselves and we receive the same back, a real sense of deep and sincere love can be established.

Combine this with how M. Scott Peck defines love and your romantic relationships can grow into something so much more than if you merely stay in this euphoric stage.

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