The Phases of Love
"Wise men say 'Only fools rush in' but I can't help falling in love with you." -Elvis Presley
Dr. Julie Gottman and Dr. John Gottman are prominent psychotherapists and researchers in the field of marital therapy. They have spent years researching, doing therapy, and developing models of how relationships succeed and fail by observing how they interact and how they tell their relationship story. As a result of this research, they have proposed a model of how couples develop love in a lifetime.
Phase 1: Falling in Love
“Limerence” is a term used to refer to the stage commonly known as falling in love and it is characterized by physical symptoms (such as butterflies in your stomach), excitement, and “can’t stop thinking about them” feelings, as well as sexual excitement, lust, hope, and fear of rejection. During this phase, there is a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters that mediate our emotions, feelings, and thoughts about the other person. This cascade may create a complex mix of affection, soft receptivity, calmness, comfort, and the many other exhilarating things that poetry has associated with falling in love. It also helps in starting the creation of a bond with the other person. On the downside, it also intervenes with judgment and clouds our reasoning. This heightened positive state reduces the secretion of cortisol (commonly known as the stress hormone), which might explain why we ignore the red flags during the early period of the relationship. However, it gradually stabilizes as we become closer and more used to the other person as we transition to phase 2.
Phase 2: Building Trust
In this phase, couples have a big question: “Can I trust you?”. This second phase is all about establishing trust. As their research showed, most of the fighting comes from failed bids for connection that reveal trust issues. Couples must develop a sense of a safe haven in the relationship, which rests on knowing that you can count on your partner to be there for you (and have your best interest at heart). Sociologists have shown that as we interact, we are continually, and automatically, evaluating the positivity or negativity of the exchange (as we perceive it). However, the building of positive versus negative affect, often because of the success or failure of bids for connection, influence the way in which we perceive subsequent interactions, as well as the way we interact with our partner.
Additionally, couples must maneuver around the rising conflicts. It might be that what was once so charming about our partner becomes irritating and annoying; we go from “You are so funny!” to “Why won’t you take anything seriously?”. As you start spending more time together, sharing the same spaces, and creating a life together, it is inevitable for conflict to arise.
Phase 3: Building Commitment and Loyalty
This third phase is about cherishing each other and nurturing gratitude for what you have together OR nurturing resentment for what you think is missing. Couples either deepen a love that lasts a lifetime or slowly nurture betrayal. When partners start making comparisons (against real or imagined people and relationships), they may be slowly directing themselves toward a cascade of betrayal. These negative comparisons foster negative emotions when a partner is in this painful state and makes a bid for connection, but the other partner turns away, or against, it furthers the negative emotions and fuels negative comparisons- which begin the cascade towards betrayal. I’d like to make a note that when we speak about betrayal and loyalty, we are not only speaking about infidelity. Betrayal can be felt in many forms, not simply on the introduction of an additional person into the partner’s life. When negative comparisons are predominant in the relationship, people believe there is something better out there, start trying to negotiate the best deal for themselves during conflict, avoid self-disclosure, and the couple starts growing farther from each other. With this lens, even when the other partner is doing something that would ordinarily be considered positive, it is given little to no credit (at best) or reframed as something negative. In turn, if they continue to nurture and express gratitude for each other and their relationship, they deepen their love for one another as they create a deeper sense of meaning within their relationship. Thaina Cordero is a Certified Sexologist and Care Coordinator at Cypress Wellness Center. She has an MS in Educational Psychology, is a trauma-informed yoga teacher, and doctoral student of Clinical Sexology at Modern Sex Therapy Institute. She has completed Levels 1 and 2 of Clinical Foundations in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. She helps individuals and couples explore their sexual expression, needs, fantasies, preferences, curiosities, and difficulties as they create more pleasurable, satisfying, and fulfilling sex life and relationships. Click here to request an appointment.
Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. (2017). The natural principles of love. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 9(1), 7–26. https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12182