Dr Quratulain Zaidi of MindNLife looks at the four stages of the development of a relationship, from the giddy early days to the challenges and rewards of a long-term partnership.
Many people meet and fall in love with their prospective spouses while in their 30s. Hong Kong, like any bustling metropolis, presents challenges for young professionals trying to make their way in the world. Long working hours, pressure to succeed, and impressing the right people professionally and socially can all be stressful and time-consuming. Finding the energy to put towards the proper investment in potential romantic partners can be tough. “Investment” is precisely the term we all should embrace when considering whether to make a long-term commitment to another. Research shows that falling in love has distinct stages, and it’s regulated by hormone levels that ebb and flow in the early part of the relationship. Knowing how these processes function can be helpful in moving forward with an open heart and open eyes. Here, then, are the four stages of falling in love, and some of their characteristics.
Stage 1: Infatuation
A complex wash of hormones – oxytocin, testosterone and cortisol – rushes through our bodies in Stage 1, creating feelings of euphoria and infatuation, and contributing to strong feelings of sexual desire and gratification. This heady mix also causes love birds to see each other as perfect – an alternate state that, thankfully, doesn’t last forever. This stage, while exhilarating, is not the time to make a long-term commitment. Wait for the tidal wave of crazy-in-love hormones to subside to look at potential partners more clearly. Some people never want Stage 1 to end, and they tend to break off relationships once the euphoria has passed. By doing this, they engage in perpetual cycles of short-lived bliss, never really getting to know anyone, and sabotaging their own opportunities for long-term love and companionship.
Stage 2: Romantic love and attachment
Research shows that hormone levels normalise after 12 to 28 months of being in a relationship. Things get more comfortable and the relationship shifts toward acceptance, commitment and developing better communication.
Stage 3: Dealing with conflict or crisis
This is the time when a relationship typically starts to show its first cracks. People might feel that the relationship may not be working, or that habits or character traits – which never bothered them before – are suddenly deal-breakers. This is a difficult but critical phase, because it tests your mettle as a couple, building the final patterns and confidence in each other as life gets real. It’s also a good time to take stock and see potential partners as clearly as love allows. After two years, should you really stay any longer if your sweetheart is unfaithful, manipulative or abusive? To all these, the answer is “no”. Other issues may require reflection, and perhaps honest discussion with your intended, or someone else close to you who has your best interests at heart. Relationships may also be pressured by external forces, such as long work hours, extended business travel or family issues. It’s the first time the mettle of a relationship is truly put to the test, and it can also be gratifying to find that your partner has a formidable or admirable depth of character. So, these tests can build romantic love, creating a sturdy bedrock for long-term commitment. On the other hand, external stressors can reveal weaknesses – in particular, how well people cope with adversity. Life is full of challenges, some of which will be unbearable to you; is your partner capable of supporting you? Will you in turn be able to support him or her?
Stage 4: Beginning of a stable, longterm relationship
The Holy Grail? Sort of, but the real work is just beginning! A relationship at this stage is an art – a beautiful medley of shared goals and priorities, core values, work ethic, trust and intimacy, these last two being the most common challenge for most couples who find themselves in my office. No matter which stage you are in, you can continually invest in each other. In fact, and this may seem counterintuitive, this investment is more important the longer you have been in your relationship. A lot of couples, when they come to seek help in my office, report that they have lost that close connection with their spouse through work exhaustion and stress. People close off to each other; the working partner can feel they aren’t appreciated for all they do to provide for a great lifestyle in Hong Kong; the spouse may feel lonely or unsupported. Recognising that the stressors are outside of the relationship is important in learning to manage conflicts better, and in deescalating potential problems. Be sure to create time and check in with each other on the state of the relationship – for example, by discussing things that are working and things that can improve without laying blame, and creating small rituals of connection – how you greet each other and say goodbye, and how birthdays and anniversaries are celebrated. Research shows that emotionally intelligent couples remember all the major events in each other’s history, and continuously update their information as the facts and feelings of their spouses change. If a couple doesn’t start off with a deep knowledge and understanding of each other, it’s easy for a marriage to lose its way when lives shift so suddenly and dramatically. So, how do you deepen your knowledge of each other?
10 questions to ask each other to reconnect in your relationship
#1 How would you like your life to be different three years from now?
#2 Do you see your work changing in the future? How?
#3 How are you feeling about your jobs these days?
#4 What is the most exciting thing happening in your life right now?
#5 Have any of your life goals recently changed?
#6 What are some of your life dreams now?
#7 What are your goals for us as a family?
#8 What goals do you have just for yourself right now?
#9 What have been the highlights and low points of the last year for you?
#10 What adventures would you like to have in your life right now?
Romantic love, however wonderful it is, unfortunately has a life span. Afterwards, the shift in relationships is towards acceptance and commitment, and developing better communication understanding to resolve conflicts, while making time for each other and investing in the relationship.
Dr Zaidi is a British-registered clinical psychologist who works with individuals, couples and families in her private practice in Central, and as a mental health consultant for a number of international schools.
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This article first appeared in the Apr/May edition of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.