Anatomy of Love

How do relationships change over time? Annabelle Spranklen delves deep into the science of enduring love

Saturday night. My husband of six years and I are slouched
on the sofa, tucking into bowls of chilli on our laps, watching The White Lotus, surrounded by discarded toys. We’ll be going to bed in
an hour, so this is our Prime Time. And by ‘going to bed’, I mean ‘sleeping’ – no hanky-panky here, thank you very much.

It’s a far cry from our first meeting in a student nightclub fifteen years ago, downing unidentifiable cocktails and making out whenever we damn well pleased. In those hazy days, we’d stay awake all night watching films, too intoxicated by a gushy, intense romance to sleep. After a month apart during the holidays, I remember my stomach leaping into my mouth when I finally saw him. Running into his arms. That kiss. That hold.

Now I get stomach flutters when I realise it’s time to do nursery pickup or when I press ‘send’ on emails chasing clients for payment. Those flutters might not relate to my husband anymore, but we’re still in love and feel it most days. It’s just a different kind of love.

So how does the way we experience love – physically, mentally and emotionally – change over time? And what causes the shift from snogging on the dancefloor to a peck on the cheek before work?

‘Fluctuations within a relationship are normal and expected,’ says psychologist and coach Dr Carmen Harra. ‘Every relationship passes through good and bad stages. With time, certain situations can test the limits of one partner’s love for the other. But they can also fortify a relationship and help the couple make progress.’

We’d all like to hold on to that fresh relationship energy forever. But,
at some point, most of us want more than just a good time. We crave intimacy, connection and a deep bond with our partners as our relationships mature.

Like most things in life, love and relationships are not linear. They ebb and flow, with obstacles and hardships that we learn to overcome.
Neuroscientists and experts believe there are four stages of a relationship that every couple goes through, from falling in love to living happily ever after – or, at least, living happily for a while. Here are the stages they’ve found, along with ways to navigate each one.

1 The euphoric stage

‘In the beginning of relationships, it’s natural that we feel a strong physical attraction and romantic passion,’ says Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, author of Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts.

‘When we first meet a person and feel attracted to them,’ says life coach Lyn Rowbotham, ‘this ignites a series of neurochemical reactions.’ That’s thanks to a cocktail of adrenaline, which enhances our arousal responses; dopamine, which increases the brain’s ability to feel pleasure and reward; and serotonin, which boosts our mood and sexual desire.

Neuroscientist Helen Fisher and clinical professor Lucy Brown have, for decades, studied the brain activity of people in love, from early to late stages, for their Anatomy of Love research. Brown explains: ‘In the early part of a relationship – the “falling in love” stage – the other person is the centre of your life. You forgive everything. The other person has faults, and you see them, but it doesn’t matter. Maybe they leave their dirty dishes in the sink, but they make you laugh at least daily, so it’s okay. Good things outweigh the negatives.’
Brain-mapping couples in this stage reveals what Brown calls the suspension of negative judgment: ‘Many people show a decrease in activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that has to do with negative judgement.’

In other words, the longer a couple can suspend negative judgement towards each other, the better chance they have of relationship success. Couples who stay together for three years or more have the most decreased activity in this part of the brain.

For most couples, euphoria lasts from six months to two years before morphing into the next stage.

2 The early attachment stage

The chemical reaction in the euphoric stage is taken over by the more evolved part of the brain that’s linked with feelings of attachment, and the attachment hormones vasopressin and oxytocin (aka ‘the love hormone’).
The signs of this stage, says Brown, are usually clear: ‘You can sleep! You’re not thinking about your partner twenty-four hours a day. It’s easier
to do other things in your life.”

Couples who have been married for at least one year describe love differently. ‘It’s richer, deeper,’ Brown observes. ‘It’s knowing them better. Memories – positive and negative – have been integrated. You’ve gone through difficulties, and you’ve developed a strong attachment.’

3 The crisis stage

The third stage is often the most problematic: ‘the seven-year or five-year itch,’ as Brown puts it. Every relationship has downs and, even in the early stages, there are times when a couple will drift apart as they notice weaknesses, differences and flaws in each other and in the relationship. This is a time of disappointment, but also learning and growth.

‘Almost every relationship has a “drift apart” phase,’ says Brown. “Either you keep drifting, or you come back together. You need a crisis to get through and to be able to talk about together. You grow and change.’

Having children brings some couples closer together, or causes so much stress that the relationship begins to fall apart. But if a couple can overcome adversity here, they’ll move to the next stage.

4 The deep attachment stage

This is the long run: the relationships that stand the test of time. By this stage, couples know each other well. They’ve been through ups and downs and know they can deal with crises when they arise. ‘When couples have been together for many years,’ Brown observes, ‘it’s very, very calm. And it’s secure.’
In this phase, it’s important to find ways to keep the relationship moving forward. Being comfortable with each other doesn’t mean your relationship has to be boring and routine. Interesting and exciting activities, travel plans and making time to connect through conversation can prevent you getting into a rut.

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