The five stages of love

From attraction to commitment – the life cycle of a relationship

By Jane Hoskyn

Having a relationship is like travelling round the world. At first you’re mad with excitement, and you max out your credit card on new clothes. Months later, you’re gagging to ditch it all and get back to your own bed.

Many relationships go belly-up at this point. Couples stop being infatuated, and think it’s time to throw in the towel. But, say experts, the key to making a relationship work is to accept that love isn’t all lust and butterflies. Rocky bits are part of any successful relationship. Know to expect them, and you’re better equipped to stay together for the long haul.

So what can you expect? Here’s how the stages work…

Stage 1: Attraction

We’ve all felt the wham-bam of attraction. When it’s mutual, it can make you feel more alive than a box of rabbits in springtime.

Also known as the lust phase, attraction can whiz into action the moment you lay eyes on someone. It’s all-consuming, powerfully disorientating and leaves you drenched in hormones.

You may be incapable of doing a decent day’s work because you’re so distracted. Your friends will be knocked out by how happy you seem, but be warned: they’ll probably find you unbearable.

Still, blame science. Your body is teeming with the sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen. These chemicals make you fixate on getting close (and I mean close) to your new-found hottie. Meanwhile phenylethylamine, the same feel-good substance found in chocolate, tricks you into becoming addicted to the person you fancy.

Stage 2: Honeymoon

Your poor friends never even see you now, because you only want to be with your new partner. The pair of you waltz about with smug grins on your faces, inflicting your public displays of affection on the rest of us.

Behind the grin, your body is flooded with hormones dopamine and norepinephrine. Ravers pay fortunes for this stuff in pill form. The chemicals make you feel elated, full of energy and uninterested in sleeping or eating. And who cares? You’re so busy being happy that you don’t mind getting two hours’ kip a night.

You’re also chock full of serotonin, the neurotransmitter whose levels Prozac aims to maintain. Add in an extra shot of adrenaline, and you’re constantly buzzing.

When the two of you are together in private, it’s safe to say that not much washing up gets done.

Stage 3: Attachment

Your body’s chemistry set now gets all cuddly. Two major hormones are involved in this stage, and they’re both released during sex. Oxytocin produces that warm afterglow, while vasopressin makes you want to stay together.

You and your other half are now in a romantic bubble, but things are less sexually charged. It’s more about an emotional bond. You suffer separation anxiety when you’re apart, and you end each other’s sentences. You still annoy everyone. But hey, you’re in love.

You may not be in love with reality, warn psychologists. Lovers often idealise each other based on the traits they’re looking for in a partner. If you’ve always looked for intelligence, you’ll see intelligence in your lover, whether it’s really there or not. Probably not wise to rush off to Vegas just yet.

Attachment is the most painful stage to be dumped at. The emotional love bond takes much longer to get over than the lusty, not-really-love bond of stages one and two. Worse, you haven’t yet reached the stage where you see any faults in your beloved.

Stage 4: Reality

OK, now you see the faults. If during a posh dinner with your partner you’re more aware of the irritating way they hold their knife than of how wonderful they are, you’re moving into the reality stage.

Here’s where you’re getting to know them as they really are. Horror of horrors, you realise that they’re only human.

This stage has to happen eventually. Your body can’t possibly continue to produce the same levels of chemicals that it produced in the earlier stages. Reality bites; you stop feeling on top of the world.

It’s make or break time. This is the stage where you get to discover whether you really are in it for the long haul. If you come through it, the long-term prognosis is good. And if they dump you now, it’s some comfort to know that you no longer have to put up with their annoying little habits.

Stage 5: Commitment

If your relationship rides out the rockiness of stage four, chances are you’ll be together for a decent innings.

Couples who make it to stage five are friends and family to each other as well as lovers. You know each other’s faults, recognise your differences and embrace each other’s need for space.

On the downside, you may feel a sense of loss in this stage. You know that the giddy infatuation is behind you, and probably won’t happen again if you stay with this person. That realisation drives many people apart. It’s estimated that fewer than 5% of couples actually make it to this stage.

But couples who do reach this stage recognise that deep friendship and commitment is a good trade-off for those early butterflies. And of course, a bit of inventiveness in the bedroom can keep lust alive for years – with someone who knows exactly how to push your buttons. Worth waiting for, don’t you think?