Wednesday, December 7, 2011

3 Stages of Love & Keeping the Passion Alive

Good morning LOVEanese! I hope everyone enjoyed the day off (if you had one). If not, that's one more reason to come live in Lebanon: tons of religious holidays (which = no work/uni)!

I find introducing my posts is probably the hardest part of writing them. You know that I have a specific topic in mind, and you know it has something to do with the title. Well let me start this one like this. A friend of mine asked me a very poignant question a few months ago, and I told her I'd address it. But I was waiting for the right time. Now just happens to be the perfect time. The question she asked was "Does love always feel passionate?" What she means is, do you always have to feel those very strong feelings that particularly characterize the beginning of a relationship? Moreover, I could tell she was subtlety asking for reassurance and validation that she's "okay" and not doing something wrong since she still loves her boyfriend and is very happy with him, but doesn't necessarily feel that way anymore.

I've been wondering this a lot myself. I'm thinking about the feelings I have, and I just cant imagine that the intensity will ever fade. But sadly, according to most research, the intensity does fade. It does leave behind something so much better, however. In fact, anthropologist Dr. Helen Fischer have identified three "stages" of love that explain why this all happens.

In her book (Fischer, 2004) (you can find a great book review here), she explains how different biochemical processes are occurring in the brain during the course of a relationship. I've already talked a little bit about why we love, but these stages go through and explain how we progress in a relationship. Moreover, it assists in helping to understand how we adapt to relationships, how our brain regulates romance, and how love affects our body and mind. As the article points out, this is also evolutionarily advantageous as it helps maintain monogamy. These are the descriptions of each stage:

1. The first stage: Lust. This is characterized by those intense emotions of attraction and intense physical and sexual arousal. According to the author of
this website, "The first phase often is the all-important sex drive. The hypothalamus and pituitary, which lie at the base of the brain, signals the gonads to release testosterone and estrogen which stimulate libido, an important component during the "lust" phase of a relationship." The main hormones at play here are: testosterone and estrogen.

This is the "I really want to make sweet, sweet passionate love to you" stage.

2. The second stage: Attraction. While the first stage is all about being (or wanting to be) physical with someone, the second stage is the attraction stage. This is characterized more by the cliché emotions heavily portrayed in media for instance. This includes missing the person so much you feel like you're going to explode, only being able to think of the person, butterflies in the stomach, "obsessive thinking and focus on the loved one; the racing heart; diminished attention span; the need to ascribe significance to even minor encounters or communications; and the ability to see only positive qualities of the new partner" (this website). This is the stage I am in now, and this is the stage most common with new romantic partners. In my experience and interactions, when this stage of love tends to dry up, some people think that their relationship has become boring. Often what happens then is that they get bored or frustrated, and move on. What they might actually be craving though is the natural high you get from this.

"This is the phase in which the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine come into play, as well as the "stress hormone" cortisol and a substance called nerve growth factor. As brain scans show, these substances can be as powerful as addicting amphetamines. MRI scans show the brains of lovers, like cocaine users, "light up" in this phase, leading researchers to conclude that romantic love can be addictive. And as occurs with many addictions, in intense romantic love, the brain experiences: tolerance, which makes it need more exposure to the love object; withdrawal, the pain that occurs when the love object is gone; and even relapse; if a break-up occurs and--even months later--if the other person reappears, thanks to a resurgence of dopamine and norepinephrine, the partner is once again in love" (website). There are many chemicals at work here including: epinephrine (adrenaline), dopamine, norepinephrine, cortisol, serotonin, and nerve growth factor.

3. The third stage: Attachment. Remember how I said that usually, over time, those really intense feelings with physical and physiological effects wear off? Luckily, what they leave you with is something so much more important and lasting. This is the feelings of comfort, security, true, warming love. According to the same website, "the hypothalamus and pituitary release hormones like oxytocin. In women, oxytocin stimulates uterine contraction during birth and allows milk to flow during an infant's suckling, and is important for maternal bonding. The biochemical objective in this phase appears to be to foster calm, peace and security..." So basically, before you were feeling sexually attracted in the first stage, then a euphoric happiness in the second stage, but then if you make it to the third stage, you feel calm, secure, comfortable, and have a longer-lasting happiness. The key chemicals at work here are: oxytocin and vasopressin. Just an FYI about oxytocin, that's the chemical that exists in high levels among (usually older) individuals who have been happily together over a long period of time. Another interesting fact is that oxytocin is released when a woman orgasms.

There has also been a lot of scholarship on attachment styles and attachment theory (e.g., Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1979, 1980; Ainsworth, Blehard, Waters, and Wall, 1978; Hazen and Shaver, 1987, 1994; Feeney and Noller, 1990; Simpson and Rholes (Eds.), 1998) that examines the connection between attachment, attachment style, and love. Check out this website as it provides a great interactive survey that tells you what your attachment style is.

So, that's the three love stages. There are a couple other good sites related to the stages of love here and here. Perhaps it's hard to identify when you can fall in love exactly, because it's easy to misread the signs, or more than likely, identify the wrong stage of love that currently reflects your feelings and your relationship. BUT, this still doesn't answer my friend's question. Sure, you may move into the attachment phase of the relationship, but DOES that mean the passion is gone too?

The best answer is: perhaps, but it doesn't have to! Often if you've been together with someone for a long time, you've adapted to each other. This is common sense: the more you know someone, the more comfortable you are with them. Maybe you aren't wondering how much they like you anymore--you already know. Maybe you aren't tripping over your words when you see them anymore--because you can talk to them so easily. The fact is, as you get closer to the other person, you do get to know them, but we also generally get lazier. You hear things like "she knows I love her," or "I know he wants to be with me," yet people often forget to show it.

I've talked a lot about how individuals who are in a relationship can do enjoyable things together like try fun date ideas, and also stressed how compatibility is really important. In the case of reigniting passion, or keeping it going, you do have to make the effort. You probably already know what makes the other person happy. But don't be afraid to do something spontaneous like go to the mountains for a weekend, or surprise them with something, even if it's a small token of affection such as their favorite candy or a hand-made card with a sweet message inside (of course don't forget to be physically intimate either, or neglect your partners physical, emotional, or intellectual needs). There are many different sites I found that give some great tips and pointers how to do this, and entire books have actually been written on this. But I really like this site, this site, and this site. You can also check out some more fun date ideas here.

The most important thing to keeping the passion alive later in a relationship, however is communication. Communication is key! I've already blogged a lot about communication and understanding your romantic partner (e.g., here), but there's so much that communication can do. It can help you and your partner manage and organize your feelings, It can help you be open and honest about your feelings, and it can help you figure out how to continue to make the other person happy and satisfied in the relationship--as well as so much more.

I mentioned in the comments of my last post that I want to stay as objective and value-neutral as possible. While certain events in the past few weeks of my life have definitely challenged/changed my perspective on things, I can honestly say that no matter where you are--e.g., at the beginning of a romantic relationship like I am--or in the middle of a 1, 2, 3 year relationship, there is an explanation for why you feel different. But that's not an excuse! True, in the beginning, your brain/biochemistry/body/emotions give you a head-start. But later, if you're really committed and attached, the rest is up to you (and your partner).

Empower yourself. Communicate. Be proactive. Be romantic. And as always...

Spread the love,

P.S. Here's a great follow-up post.

Update: An article that was floating around the Internet in Sept. 2013 entitled "I Didn't Love My Wife When We Got Married." It's a poignant account of how the feelings of love are often misunderstood or misinterpreted, and is really a great reflection of the 3 stages. Check it out!


Ainsworth, Mary D. Salter, Mary C. Blehard, Everett Waters, and Sally Wall. 1978. Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. New York, NY: Routledge.

Bowlby, John. 1980. Attachment and Loss: Vol. 3. Loss: Sadness and Depression. New York, NY: Basic Books.

----. 1979. The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. London, UK: Tavistock.

----. 1973. Attachment and Loss: Vol. 2. Separation: Anxiety and Anger. New York, NY: Basic Books.

----. 1969. Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Feeney, Judith A., and Patricia Noller. 1990. "Attachment Style as a Predictor of Adult Romantic Relationships." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2): 281-291.

Fisher, Helen. 2004. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co.

Hazan, Cindy, and Phillip R. Shaver. 1994. "Attachment as an Organizational Framework for Research on Close Relationships Attachment as an Organizational Framework for Research on Close Relationships." Psychological Inquiry, 5(1): 1-22.

----. 1987. "Romantic Love Conceptualized as an Attachment Process." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3): 511-524.

Simpson, Jeffry A., and W. Steven Rholes (Eds.). 1998. Attachment Theory and Close Relationships. New York, NY: Guilford Press


  1. great post :) I've read that there was an expiration date on the first two stages though; that it doesn't last over two years. What do you think of that? xxx

  2. Oh Lama, I completely agree. I guess I didn't explicitly mention it, probably because it varies from couple-to-couple/person-to-person. But I alluded to the fact that once you hit the third stage, those feelings have largely worn off, or at least become less intense.

    So you're right, but I'm not sure if 2 years is the max for every single person. The best thing to say is that no matter whether you have them or not, you should still communicate openly and honestly, make time for each other, work on your relationship/put a lot of effort into it, and be proactive so that you don't get lazy in the relationship. You know?

  3. Ouf... Shoot..

    Your article is so inspiring, and I learned a lot about myself.. Turns out, I'm fearful avoidant too..
    "Fearful-avoidant adults have mixed feelings about close relationships, both desiring and feeling uncomfortable with emotional closeness."

    At least, now I know, it's the first step to finally finding a solution.

    Thank you for this Oggie :)


  4. Just want to point out one more interesting fact about oxytocin: it's also found in high levels in breast milk, and is a crucial component in mother-child emotional bonding. Add that to the list and it makes sense why it's been dubbed 'the love drug' :)

  5. P.: Happy to help :)

    S.: Haha Sarah, way ahead of you: "In women, oxytocin stimulates uterine contraction during birth and allows milk to flow during an infant's suckling, and is important for maternal bonding."


  6. Just great here, keep sharing! I will look out more from that.

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