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The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love
By Linda Carroll
New World LibraryCopyright © 2014 Linda Carroll
All rights reserved.
An oceanic feeling, when everything comes together, oneself, everyone else, the world, and divinity, it is like the feeling that you get when you stare out at the infinite reach of the ocean: it is a little frightening, but it is also awe-inspiring and exhilarating.
— William James,The Varieties of Religious Experience
To fall in love feels more miraculous than anything I know. Life is infused with magic and fresh meaning. During this first giddy stage of intimacy, new lovers merge, much like a mother and her newborn child. Boundaries melt away, and the sense of "we-ness" is all there is. Our similarities seem profound, our conversations endless. If anything threatens to point out our differences, we rush to rationalize it, convinced that our beloved's qualities and quirks are just the "right" differences. Okay, so he barely talked to my friends tonight, but that's because he listens so well! I plan everything, but she's so spontaneous — just what I need to get out of my rigid rut.
Our similarities excite us, no matter how obscure. We both loved the same song in the seventh grade. We both have always wanted a golden Pekingese, and we both harbor a secret desire to climb Machu Picchu. It all becomes evidence that we are about as perfect as two human beings can be for each other.
In many ways, the advent of love is a transcendent experience. There is sacredness in this first stage; it is not simply an illusion. We are truly able to sense the other's spirit. Just as important, we experience our own brightest light. One of the most marvelous aspects of this stage is not only the idealized way we see our partner but the new, more laudable way we see ourselves. Listening closely comes easily to us, as does giving the ideal response. Our patience seems eternal, our interest in the other boundless. Who knew that we possessed such generosity, such largeness of spirit? How delightful it feels to live with an open heart, bountiful compassion, and unconditional care.
In the shelter of our love bubble, it's easy to think we can float in such pure happiness forever. Yet no matter how strong the bond may become later, the exhilaration of early love isn't sustainable. Somehow, each of us must find our way back to ourselves.
Charlie and Megan: An Oceanic Start
They make a striking pair. Megan, a high-level health-care administrator with a sharp-edged, regal beauty, is the sort of woman people might describe as an "ice princess." Charlie, a pediatrician, is the kind of big, shambling man whose gentle friendliness puts people instantly at ease. It's no surprise that children love him.
Megan remembers the first time Charlie walked into her office to introduce himself as a new member of the hospital staff. He was undeniably good- looking and clearly accomplished. He had graduated from medical school with honors and spent the next two years in Sudan, where he cared for orphans. He had every reason to take himself seriously, even to be a touch self-satisfied. Megan knew plenty of doctors like that.
Megan could see, though, that this man was different. As they chatted, it became clear that Charlie had a heart as well as a brain. Later, she was even more impressed when he introduced an animal-assisted therapy program at the hospital so that seriously ill children could cuddle and play with dogs especially trained for the program and even visit with their own beloved pets.
Charlie also had a well-developed inner clown. Megan registered this fact as soon as she caught sight of his tie, which peeked between the lapels of his white lab coat. It was the first of many "magic" ties she would see, whose cavorting animal patterns were guaranteed to distract and delight sick children. "I wish every pediatrician had your sense of play and fun," she told him.
In the weeks that followed, Megan found herself increasingly drawn to Charlie. The effect his presence had on the children in the wards touched and amazed her. As for his effect on her, he enlivened their every encounter with zany humor. His personal warmth was unfamiliar to Megan, whose family was undemonstrative. Something in her stirred. With him, she began to feel nurtured, not unlike the children under his care.
So when Charlie asked her to join him for coffee one afternoon, she readily accepted. Lunches in the hospital cafeteria followed, which led to weekend concerts and, soon, to amorous evenings at his apartment or her condo.
The delight of the unexpected left Megan giddy. She had broken through the barriers of her careful, upper-class Philadelphia upbringing to join a stranger in a strange land. She loved to listen to Charlie tell stories about life in Oregon on the farm, where he'd grown up as the son of a taciturn rye grass farmer. Hunting and harvesting were as novel to her as the bear hugs Charlie gave her in the hospital corridors. When they made love, Megan felt herself unfold. She had been taught to weigh every decision, but now there was no decision to make. She simply surrendered.
And Charlie? At first he was tempted to dismiss Megan as too highbrow, a woman whose sophistication overshadowed his simple, homespun tastes. At the hospital he often heard her tell her colleagues about the latest art exhibit she had seen. At the staff Christmas party, she said how exciting it was that "finally, we'll hear Aida this month," as though everyone else on the pediatric ward had season tickets to the opera. There was, however, something vital and alive about her that intrigued him. Beneath her reserved surface, he sensed a playful personality just waiting to emerge.
By the time Charlie met Megan, his life had changed so dramatically that he barely recognized it. He had achieved many of his dreams — to become a doctor, to travel the world, and to enhance the lives of small children through medicine and laughter. He had gained enough confidence to flirt with a woman who might well have intimidated him in the past. In fact, Megan's initial coolness only heightened his interest. When she responded, he was ecstatic. Her blue-green eyes seemed to see right into his soul.
Surrendering to Romance
When we fall in love, our rational minds may try to raise red flags to warn us that, once we step across love's threshold, there will be minefields and sinkholes. Megan, for example, dimly realized that Charlie's fun-loving nature sometimes embarrassed her. Occasionally, Charlie felt rebuffed by Megan's reserve.
Most of us know all about red flags. Experience may well have taught us that the initial passion won't last and that pain and loss will inevitably follow. But we fear the risk of greater loss if we turn away. Anyway, that's not usually an option! In the first stage of love, our emotional brain pummels our rational brain into submission. Caution and fear fall away, and we submit to the pleasure and power of romance.
Human beings possess two distinct and opposing instincts: the desire to merge with another and the need to remain an individual. Both are vital. Just as an infant and mother bond, so do newly joined lovers become immersed in each other. And just as the infant must one day push against her mother to become herself, we, too, need to eventually move away from our lover and recover the edges of our own uniqueness. For the moment, however, to push away is the last thing we want to do. We want to merge — and why wouldn't we?
Some lovers try to stay inside the love bubble as long as they can by creating their own private culture. They invent a language of their own that nobody else can understand. They share jokes with punch lines that are funny only to them. Within the perceived safety of the bubble, their merge feels at once total and eternal. It was in just such a bubble that film star Ingrid Bergman and her husband, Petter Lindstrom, named their daughter, Pia, with the three letters standing for Petter, Ingrid, Always. Alas, the marriage fell apart, but Pia's name remained a reminder of love's possibilities and its fragility — always.
Of course, not everyone experiences the "urge to merge." Some people never feel it at all. Or they enjoy an initial hit of ecstasy that quickly dissipates. Some people enter love slowly, with a friendship that gradually leads to an intimate partnership — one that may or may not be spiced with romance. Others choose a partner because they feel that "it's just time," which may coincide with the accelerating ticking of the biological clock. Still others focus on similarities based on ethnicity, race, religion, education, class, and life goals. Indeed, in many cultures, selecting a mate has little or nothing to do with falling in love. Nonetheless, so much of our culture — songs, movies, fairy tales, and novels — leads us to believe that idealized love is the norm. We await the prince who will kiss us awake or for the princess who will melt our heart and soul.
A Kind of Madness
This first stage of love has been chronicled for as long as human beings have been on the planet. Often lovesickness is cited, brought on by the intense changes associated with falling in love. Ibn Sina, tenth-century physician and father of modern medicine, viewed obsession as the principal cause of lovesickness.
We now know that he was right. The biochemical changes that take place in new lovers produce symptoms similar to those in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, including loss of appetite and sleeplessness. Charlie, for example, lost ten pounds during the first three months of knowing Megan; he found that he simply wasn't hungry. Megan, meanwhile, slept fitfully, just four or five hours a night.
How well we know the signs of obsession: fantasies of the beloved fill our days and crowd our nights. When we're apart, we feel incomplete. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, it also leads to constant chatter about the missing object of affection. This fixation and preoccupation are what others find tiresome about the love-struck. People roll their eyes and think us temporarily insane. Which, of course, we are.
In 1979 psychologist Dorothy Tennov coined the term limerence to describe this temporary state of madness and described the conditions associated with it:
overestimation of the good qualities of the beloved and minimization of the negative
acute longing for the object of one's affection
feelings of ecstasy in the presence of the loved one
deep mood swings from ecstasy to agony and back again
involuntary, obsessive thinking about the other
deep agony when the relationship ends
The list reminds me of Stu, an old client of mine (and a recovering alcoholic). Stu told me about the first time he got drunk at age fourteen: "We had beer and wine hidden in the trunk and pulled the car over to try it. My friends took their time, but the moment I took my first drink I was hooked, and I bolted down the second one almost before I had finished the first. I passed out that night and got really sick. My friends were also ill and didn't go near alcohol for months. Me, though? I couldn't wait to have another drink. Wine was all I thought of. The sun rose and set on that longing. I craved the next drink the way my friends longed for a girlfriend."
It startled me to hear how his words could just as easily have described what it feels like to fall in love. "I just had to have it" and "I just had to have her" do not seem very far apart.
New lovers do have much in common with addicts. Magnetic resonance imaging reveals that the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain that is activated in lovers, is the same part that lights up in cocaine users and gamblers when they act out their addiction.
This recent discovery brings to mind the old adage: magic is science not yet understood. What we do know, however, is that the craving associated with romantic love is very real. Greek mythology provides us with imaginative and amusing ways to describe the felt intensity of romantic love. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, had a son named Cupid. His job, as an archer, was to dip arrows into his mother's secret love potion before he took aim. Once Cupid's arrow hit its target, the victim fell madly in love with the next person he or she saw. This myth has given rise to some of the most extraordinary love legends of all time, including those of Apollo and Daphne, Helen of Troy, Antony and Cleopatra, and Romeo and Juliet. We now know that the "hit" of romance can be partially explained by biochemistry. Science tells us that the pounding heart that leaves us breathless, trembling, and longing to be with our beloved signifies an overabundance of particular chemicals and hormones in the brain and blood, including PEA (phenylethylamine), a natural amphetamine also found in chocolate and marijuana.
As they float on a sea of PEA, lovers report more sensational and adventurous sexual experiences than they've ever enjoyed before, such as "mile-high sex" (sex in an airplane bathroom) and a heightened pleasure in sensory qualities that might normally be a turnoff. Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, once wrote to Josephine, "I'm coming home. Please don't wash."
As if a generous shot of PEA weren't enough, the love cocktail is also spiked with endorphins, which boost pleasure and decrease pain, and oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding and cuddling. This cocktail infuses us with euphoria and extraordinary energy, which is why sleep and nourishment seem unimportant. Our perspective becomes so skewed that we see only what is good and beautiful in our lover; we're blind to all else.
Science notwithstanding, I think a poet can describe the situation best. Perhaps no one has captured this first stage of love as well as the English poet John Keats in his letters to his wife, Fanny Brawne. Here is an excerpt from one of them: "I cannot exist without you. I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again. My Life seems to stop there; I see no further. You have absorb'd me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving.... Love is my religion. I could die for that; I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet. You have ravish'd me away by a Power I cannot resist."
A Suitable Mate
To fall in love is natural. For love to last is not. Long-lasting love results from the necessary work that two people do — the self-work, primarily — to create a strong, durable partnership over time. Each partner must participate in this strenuous effort. We're more likely to succeed if we've chosen our partner wisely in the first place.
Alas, there's the rub. The strength of our romantic feelings does not signify that our beloved is a good partner for us. In fact, we may suffer from "love jerk syndrome," the tendency to fall madly in love with someone who is continually hurtful or who lacks emotional maturity or self-control. Or we may fall for a Narcissus, who sees only his or her reflection and cannot create a relationship that makes room for two.
Some of us may seek the excitement of unrequited love. Nothing tantalizes like intermittent reinforcement, or hot-and-cold love. A kind and faithful partner may not attract us; we fear that he or she would bore us. For some, the idea of "taming the shrew" or "loving a bad boy into a good one" is irresistible — and usually disastrous.
To choose well is harder than it looks. We are biochemically and psychologically primed to select a certain type of mate. Our DNA compels us to find and mate with someone to produce the healthiest offspring possible. Therefore, we seek diversity — someone who is different from us. At this level, whether or not our partner is a brute is beside the point; it's the genetic blend that matters. Research by Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt, cocreators of Imago Relationship Therapy, has led them to conclude that the chemical cocktail that accompanies the Merge is "nature's anesthesia, which numbs us to the knowledge that we are falling in love with an incompatible person." According to Hendrix and Hunt, every person carries an Imago, or an inner image of the combined traits of our primary caregivers — some of their best traits and definitely some of their worst. Our attraction to a particular partner is an opportunity to finish the business of childhood, to put us back in touch with our original wounds so that we can finally heal them. Our mother may have been unduly critical or our father overly authoritative, and guess what kind of person we will look for in a partner?
Recall Megan, who disarms Charlie with her blue-green eyes. Her hidden penchant for criticism and her need to take charge will be far more fateful for him than her soulful gaze. Yet such an attraction has a deeply hopeful element. In his choice of Megan, Charlie has found a person to help him resolve emotional problems that linger from childhood, which can be accomplished only with a partner who demonstrates the very qualities that most challenge him. In her choice of Charlie, Megan is faced with sorting out her mixed reaction to his childlike silliness and over-the-top humor, the very qualities she was raised to deny in herself.
Two things are going on here. For psychological reasons, we gravitate toward a person who can help us heal old wounds. For biological reasons, however, we're not fully in charge of what attracts us. If we have such limited control over our selection process, is there really any such thing as choosing a partner wisely? Yes — up to a point.
Excerpted from Love Cycles by Linda Carroll. Copyright © 2014 Linda Carroll. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsContents
Foreword by Sam Keen
Chapter 1. The Merge
Chapter 2. Doubt and Denial
Chapter 3. Six Essential Skills
Chapter 4. Disillusionment
Chapter 5. Seven Normal Troubles
Chapter 6. Decision
Chapter 7. Couple on the Edge
Chapter 8. Our Sexual Cycles
Chapter 9. The Fine Art of Differentiation
Chapter 10. Wholehearted Loving: The Barriers
Chapter 11. Wholehearted Loving: The Bridges
Chapter 12. Love Is an Inside Job
What Love Stage Are You In?: A Quick Quiz by Pepper Schwartz and Linda Carroll
About the Author