You may be thinking, “What do I do if I love my partner, but I’m no longer in love with him (or her)?” Perhaps you no longer feel the same excitement and passion that you did early on in the relationship.
In over 40 years of research with over 3000 couples, Dr. John Gottman found that there are three natural phases of love in a lifetime (these are explained in Chapter 3 of his 2015 book Principia Amoris). There are also what he calls “choice points” in the life course when love may either progress to a deeper place or deteriorate. Perhaps you are at one of those choice points.
The first phase of love is called Limerence, or “falling in love.” This phase is thrilling. This is the phase of initial, intense attraction where we can’t stop thinking about each other, we dream and ruminate about each other and the potential of how great our life together might be, we connect, we have so much in common, we are obsessed with each other, and we long to kiss, hold, touch, and join with each other.
The choice point in this phase is largely governed by a cascade of “in-love” hormones and neurotransmitters that is highly selective and multifaceted. There are few and only certain people in the world that can activate that cascade in us. Chief among the hormones that govern this stage is oxytocin, the hormone responsible for attachment. However, oxytocin also shuts down the fear system in the brain, thereby impairing our judgment and enabling us to disregard the “red flags” that may be appearing in the relationship.
This leads to the second phase of love: building trust. After an initial commitment and after the limerence cascade of hormones wears off, we begin to see the red flags and perhaps to have some buyer’s remorse. We begin to wonder if we made a mistake. According to John Gottman, the big questions of this phase are, “Will you be there for me? Can I trust you? Can I count on you to have my back?”
The answers to these questions are the basis of developing a secure or insecure attachment to your romantic partner. According to John Gottman’s research, the first two years of a new relationship are the years of the most fighting as couples struggle to work out the issue of trust.
The third phase of love is about building true commitment and loyalty. The choice point here is about either (1) cherishing one another and nurturing gratitude for what you have with each other, or (2) nurturing resentment for what you think is missing. According to John Gottman, “This third phase is about making a deeper love last a lifetime, or slowly nurturing betrayal.”
It is at this choice point that I believe many relationships flounder. Increasingly, I see couples coming to my office who have chosen to nurture resentment for what they think is missing rather than cherishing one another and nurturing gratitude for what they have with each other.
If you find yourself in this situation, I would encourage you to be more intentional about cherishing one another and nurturing gratitude. You might want to take a look at John Gottman’s bestselling book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (2015) or John and Julie Gottman’s latest book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (2019), and do some of the exercises in them together. You could also use the Gottman Card Decks app, which is available for free on the App Store or Google Play Store. You could also attend an Art and Science of Love Weekend Workshop for Couples (I offer them here in Jacksonville almost monthly and you can find them on my website at www.happycoupleshealthycommunities.com). You might also want to consider doing some couples therapy.
I recently saw a couple at this choice point. They had been married about 5 years and were married and were deciding whether or not to start a family. They had been college sweethearts and first loves and were doubting about the future of their relationship. After a couple of months of therapy in which we worked on enhancing their friendship and intimacy, modifying their conflict management, and creating shared meaning, they reported significant improvement in their relationship and decided that they were ready to start a family.
If we know anything about good relationships, it is that they take work. It takes work just to maintain a good relationship, and more work to enhance it. If you are concerned that your relationship is stale and that you are no longer in love with your partner, I would encourage you to do some of the work of maintaining and enhancing your relationship before you make a decision whether or not to end it. My hope for you is that you will make a deeper love that will last a lifetime.
© 2021 Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT, dba Happy Couples Healthy Communities