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Stages of Love


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An article on the levels of love and commitment as a couple progresses through a relationship.

 Have you fallen 'in limerance?'

Barbara Beebe
    When we experience the initial exhilaration of new love, life looks great. Suddenly, hope is renewed, the future looks bright in every way, the present is filled with wonder and awe, self-confidence is abundant, and it seems that love will last forever. The all encompassing sense of well being radiates from within as if to permeate every cell of body and soul.
    In actuality, research experts tell us that that's pretty much what happens. What used to be thought of as a state of mind, a time when the desires of our heart takes over rational thinking and our bodies follow helplessly, is more aptly seen, according to scientists, as a physiological state. It's true that while we think of love as an emotional experience, our bodies respond with symptoms of physically exhilaration. Loss of appetite, decreased need to sleep, enhanced sensorial awareness, and a sense of physical yearning are symptoms historically assigned to someone helplessly under the spell of love. Love provides a sense of both power and powerless at once. One may experience a sense of being somewhat out of control, driven, as it were, to be physically close to their object of desire, sometimes commitments of time to friends, family, and even employment, take a back seat in order to satisfy this need for closeness. In spite of a sense of throwing fate to the wind, being stung by cupid's arrow is so sought after that some will go to all lengths to place oneself in cupid's way. And others, in a desperate effort to avoid love ending will attempt to recreate the "rush" with someone new prior to "coming down" from their present relationship. Romantic addictions fit this second scenario. The experience of love has the power to transform even the most cynical to a believer. Myths such as 'love doesn't always last' and 'the crash can be devastating' are replaced with sounder notions of 'this time will be different' and 'together we will make love last.'
    But now, researchers and social scientists are adding a whole new dimension to our understanding of this state of being. What historically poets have referred to as "love," scientists are telling us is not love at all but rather the physical state of "limerance." When "in limerance" our bodies are producing a narcotic-like chemical named phenylethylamine, or, PEA for short, along with the 'hormone of love' oxytocin. Evidently, this chemical is so powerful in the human system that both the mind and physical body are altered; in this overall state of 'exhilarated well-being,' mood and creativity are enhanced, the body becomes more efficient, our level of tolerance is heightened, goals become easier to accomplish, the fulfillment of dreams are in reach, etc. It's effects are so desirable that even those witnessing someone who is experiencing the intoxicating effects of PEA are momentarily paralyzed with awe and envy. Far-reaching future implications of this discovery have sociobiologists talking about designing a psychochemical cocktail capable of triggering a "loved-up and blissed-out" experience for our post-human successors.
    While today, our bodies have their own prewired, and sometimes mysterious, manner of selecting who qualifies as a personal object of desire just who will trigger our natural oxytocin, future chemists are anticipating a time when anyone we lay eyes on, or recollect, may become an unconditionally "loved one." In the not too distant future, the love potion of folklore may become a sociochemist's reality.
    Further, studies show that while the body is only able to produce high levels of PEA and oxytocin for a limited amount of time ranging from months to 3 years at the outset, if certain relationship conditions are put in place during that time frame, and what us traditional folk refer to as 'love' is protected, the body will shift it's production to a PEA related chemical characterized by more opiate features which promote a sense of 'tranquil well-being', comfort, and spiritual at oneness.
    So what does this all have to do with our present understanding of love and relationships? It's seems that the state of limerance is conducive to achieving the first stage of a meaningful relationship, laying the groundwork for love to last, and creating the right conditions for PEA's relative to kick-in. This first stage is what psychologists refer to as the stage of "consummation."
    Consummation may be described as a time when emotional as well as sexual love making occurs; couples talk, touch, and explore their togetherness. At this stage, each partner is motivated by a powerful desire to merge together in love, to find themselves in a whole new light and bask in each other's appreciation.
    As this stage of consummation comes to completion the second stage presents itself with a more formidable challenge the underlying dynamics of which typically go on out of awareness. Many couples are not able to successfully accomplish this stage while maintaining the feelings of the first stage in tact.
    The fallout of this second stage may be that love ceases, the couple's belief in love dies, or love is maintained all the while the couple puts their first layer of resentment in place for future discord. In order to successfully complete this second stage, a couple must facilitate love by maintaining their belief that love can last.
    What makes maintaining their belief during the second stage so challenging is that when building on the first stage, couples are prompted by a desire for increased emotional intimacy and togetherness. However, instinctively, within the state of enhanced togetherness and intimacy, partners fear losing their freedom and personal identity if they are to totally merge with another person. These threats of overwhelming love cause fears which commonly result in arguments, withdrawals, and the unconscious sabotaging of love.
    Fears may originate from experiences in past relationships, cultural ideology, or social myths about love and commitment. Whatever their origins, if the couple is able to maintain their emotional intimacy, the facilitation of love at this stage becomes a promise to put each other first and, thus, their belief in love prevails.
    Their promise represents what is perhaps the most important promise of all, the commitment to maintain the ambiance of love and an atmosphere where love can flourish. A commitment to working out differences, to listening, telling, cooperating, showing respect, and appreciating the positive outcomes of love. In short, the promise is one of remaining open to each other a promise to stay in the room when the tough stuff comes up, a promise to keep believing in love.
    When couples aren't successful in completing the second stage, it's not because they are not able to maintain love, but that they are not able to maintain their belief in love.
    As behavioral science shows, individuals will always behave in a manner consistent with their beliefs. Thriving couples begin with a desire to be happy, and a belief that they will be. Their promise, or commitment, to each other is to stay close throughout adversities. They have a picture of what love means in their lives, and they go about actively nurturing it. Their belief in love keeps their state of 'in Limerance' flourishing.

Barbara Beebe holds a masters degree in Marriage, Child, and Family Counseling. A registered MFCC intern in Santa Clarita, she works with couples and families in her practice.