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It’s a Saturday.
My wife of 5 years and I are on the sofa, pizza juice dripping from our chins onto our matching Nicolas Cage t-shirts, taking in our third or fourth installment of the Cage-a-thon on which we embarked half a day ago.
It’s a far cry from our first meeting on the streets of Edinburgh nearly 9 years ago, where we got to be that appalling couple making out wherever we damn well please.
Gross, I know. But you and your partner started that way too. No judgies.
My stomach would leap into my mouth when I wondered how I’d go in for a kiss, or whether I’d shake my friends long enough to have the opportunity, or during the moment when she said “yes” to hitting up a stand-up show while she sat next to me.
The stomach flutters I get now relate to having forgotten that it was trash day, not recycling, and wondering how I get out of it without telling my wife. But we’re still madly in love and feel it every day.
So how, exactly, does the way we experience love — physically, mentally, and emotionally — change over time?
What causes the shift from spending ages choosing exactly the right terrible floral shirt for a date to ditching dates for nights in and still being happy?
When did “CUDDLE PARTY” become the new “banging like rabbits who listen to Drake”?
How do we cultivate spontaneous fun with throwing marriage, finances, cleaning, farting competitions, and all the other fun, domestic stuff into the mix?
When my wife and I first started dating,t was a charged-up whirlwind of spontaneous trips abroad, long-distance longing, and split-second decisions to spend more time exploring the world (and each other) together.
We consumed our time together like hyenas, giggling at everything the other person said and creating in-jokes at the drop of a hat.
As the wonderful Kurt Vonnegut put it in his book Mother Night, we were a “nation of two”, a secret little club that guaranteed excitement.
Nine years on, and after a few months of lockdown and an even higher number of regrettably unsoaked bowls and plates, it’s pretty clear that we are in a different stage of the relationship. But we’re still that nation of two.
This early can’t-get-enough phase of a relationship is what’s known as the honeymoon stage, and it can be pretty all-consuming.
“In the beginning of relationships, it’s natural that we feel a strong physical attraction and romantic passion,” says Suzie Pileggi Pawelski, MAPP, author of Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts.
“When we first meet a person and feel attracted to them, this ignites a series of neurochemical reactions,” says Lyn Rowbotham, PhD, a life and relationship coach in Malibu, California.
“We can feel a ‘high’ from the surge of adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin that our brain releases.” Essentially, a whole host of horny, happy hormones wreak havoc.
Adrenaline and its close cousin norepinephrine enhance our arousal responses, providing that all-too-familiar flutter in your heart. Dopamine increases the brain’s ability to feel pleasure and reward. Serotonin sends a signal through our nerves to boost our mood and sexual desire.
It’s a cocktail of sexy good-time vibes.
But as amazing as it is, the honeymoon can’t last forever. If we want love that’s going to last, it needs to go beyond the honeymoon.
In our case, long-distance love was all well and good until we had to sit down, work out who was moving where, set up a life together, and pay for visa paperwork.
If you want to enjoy your partner for the long haul, you’re going to have to embrace boring shit and make some sacrifices.
Imagine getting married and still being on your honeymoon 5 years later — the hotel staff are being run ragged by your demands, your room bill is running into six digits, and you haven’t seen anyone else you like for 5 years.
It sure feels great, but it’s not a sustainable way to love.
“While feeling completely wrapped up in another person at the beginning of a relationship may be exciting and feel wonderful, it is the relationships that rely solely on passionate love that are doomed to fail,” says Marisa T. Cohen, PhD.
Cohen is an associate professor of psychology at St. Francis College in New York City and co-founder of the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab, a research lab that focuses on relationships and social psychology.
“While a couple is experiencing passionate love, it is important to get to know one another on a deeper level, thereby building intimacy-filled companionate love,” Dr. Cohen advises.
“Being intensely drawn to a person can take you only so far if you don’t build a strong foundation for a long-term loving relationship.”
In layman’s terms: Stop f*cking for 5 minutes and get to know the person(s) in your bed.
“At the beginning of a relationship, when you are totally absorbed in your partner, you view the world through rose-tinted glasses,” Cohen says. And once those sexy spectacles come off, it can be a pretty jarring experience.
My wife and I went from long distance to living together after about 3 years of to-ing and fro-ing.
But the transition happened almost overnight. We went from an idyllic picture of the other person to… well, real life, with its warts and fights and farts and families and complications.
Suddenly, we had to consider my lackluster DIY skills (i.e. I bought a hammer once — that’s it), cleaning attempts, emotional difficulties, and shitty call center job.
And my wife – an extremely vivacious, loud person – suddenly went from a 4,000-mile (6,437-kilometer) comfort radius to one reaching a maximum of 66 feet (20 meters).
We watched the honeymoon period physically shrink away from us. Reality had set in.
Suddenly, we faced a relationship without space and with wedding planning, bills, pressures, and daily hang-ups that could escalate at the drop of a hat.
The love was ever-present (and still is), but we were being tested. We could live up to the exciting stuff, but could we face down the boring necessities — or intense life events — and stay intact?
Dr. Cohen calls the next stage of a relationship companionate love. I call it squad goal — forming a team that really looks out for one another and understands the dynamic.
“Passionate love is intense, and when reciprocated, is an exciting and wonderful experience,” Cohen says.
“Companionate love, on the other hand, is not as intense, but involves a sense of commitment and intimacy — think total self-disclosure, not necessarily sex. Having both present makes for a successful partnership.”
The “for better, for worse” in many marriage vows isn’t an empty platitude — you’re going to have to weather all kinds of shit together.
And if you’re friends-with-benefits rather than lifelong teammates, your relationship will have a shelf life.
As we navigate through the growing pains of the post-honeymoon plateau, we start to see our partner for who they really are rather than the fantasy we believed them to be. (Believe me, I am far more attractive from 4,000 miles away.)
We get used to, say, seeing them pee in the bathroom while you’re brushing your teeth.
But we also see their growth, the ways they stick up for you, the pep talks, the support through difficult times, and the development of their understanding around your own flaws.
And there’s a quiet glow of loveliness about those qualities in a relationship that surprise you in different ways than out-of-the-blue trips to Amsterdam or getting to be intimate after 3 months apart.
Still, that transition can be tough. But that’s fine.
If you’ve ever asked your partner’s (very traditional) parents for their hand in marriage in 100-degree Texas heat, you’ll know that people weather pretty much anything for those we truly love.
(If you haven’t, don’t. Poking bears is phenomenally stupid.)
It’s only after taking these knocks that we know the extent to which we love them.
Changing feelings are part of the puzzle.
Think of an impossible Super Mario level in which the platforms are constantly shifting and evolving. You both have to risk the jump to complete the level. And you might have to try it a few times.
Eventually, though, you’ll get to the next stage, more familiar with the mechanics. And (as any ’90s kid will happily tell you) it can be supremely frustrating. But you’ll be better at the game and more in sync with each other.
Pileggi Pawelski agrees, but in less pixelated terms.
“Love evolves from the early-honeymoon, passionate stage to more mature, companionate love,” Pileggi Pawelski says.
“We can’t expect to feel the same heightened positive emotions later on as we do in the early phases of a relationship.”
When the honeymoon inevitably ends and reality sets in, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with our relationship. It just means we have to work hard to make the next level a realistic prospect.
The honeymoon phase is great. But what comes after the honeymoon is arguably even better – transition included – and we can finally get comfortable in our relationship.
My wife and I are currently in this extended comfort zone, and I wouldn’t trade it for one more second of honeymoon time.
We’ve tasted a sizable chunk of life together, having traveled, dealt with tragedy, and moved around as a team.
And the more life we experience together, the deeper our bond grows, and the more comfort and security we feel.
Which is why we can shout the word “butthole” at each other for minutes at a time. And that, my friends, is squad goals — the companionate stage.
I no longer get palpitations every time she enters a room or dress to impress. Since COVID kicked in, we no longer even go out for meals.
But the Nic Cage pizza party at the very start should give some indication of the bond we have, and we can look at homes, starting a family, getting the wiener dog we always talked about as more than flights of fancy.
And there’s a consistent, warm sense of appreciation when she sits down for days at a time to make my website or plays a co-op campaign with me on Streets of Rage 4, even though I know she’d rather be watching Drag Race.
Or when she takes time to listen to me and help me feel better about myself in my darker moments. We know we’re doing life with someone who has our back.
“With familiarity, we get more comfortable with our partner and don’t feel that heightened sense of positive emotions and arousal,” Pileggi Pawelski suggests.
“Our love moves from the higher arousal emotions of interest, amusement, and joy into the calmer positive emotions of serenity, gratitude, inspiration, and awe.”
As we move from passionate to companionate love, “our levels of adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin get back to their normal state,” Rowbotham says.
“They’re replaced by oxytocin, a hormone that’s released as a result of the physical closeness we experience with our partners.”
Oxytocin, the “hug hormone”, calms you down and makes you feel more connected to your partner.
According to one study, oxytocin can also make a person consider their relationship in a more positive light.
After 9 years together, it’s pretty safe to say that my wife and I have moved beyond that mawkish transition phase into something pretty wholesome and nourishing.
Although, as with any relationship, it’s not without its more abrasive moments.
The key is keeping that spark of excitement alive as we continue to deepen our bond — and that means continuing to invest in and work on our relationship.
“We can’t expect ‘happily ever after’ to just happen or to automatically experience the same burning desire that we may have felt at the beginning of the relationship,” Pileggi Pawelski says. “Research shows that healthy habits lead to long-term love.”
So what are some of those habits that can keep us romantically and sexually connected?
“Spend time together doing things you both enjoy, together and individually. Forgive each other by talking it out. And appreciate each other and show it,” Rowbotham says.
“Try your best to be curious about your partner — ask questions, actively listen, savor their personality, and treasure the small moments,” Pileggi Pawelski says.
According to Dr. Cohen, one of the keys to a happy and successful partnership is perceiving your partnership as happy and successful.
“Research has shown that couples in stable relationships tend to perceive that their love is growing over time,” Cohen says.
“People who experience problems, break up, or are heading toward breaking up perceive their love as declining over time.”
The way we experience love changes over time. I love my wife in a different way now than I did 9 years ago. That love will constantly transform and reshape itself over the next 10, 20, and 40 years. And I can’t wait.
Making a long-term relationship work involves dedication, sacrifice, and commitment — as well as affection for the other person and what they add to your world.
“A long-term, healthy relationship can offer a sense of security together, a deeper love and understanding of each other, less anxiety about the relationship overall, and a certain level of protectiveness toward each other,” Rowbotham says.
This applies whether you’re in a dyadic or polyamorous relationship – all relationships take hard work, effective communication, and quality time, whatever their nature.
But the rewards of a long-term connection are amazing. And I’ll take those over the honeymoon stage any day. Now back to our Nic Cage pizza party, before we were so rudely interrupted…
Adam Felman is an Editor for Medical News Today and Greatist. Outside of work, he is a hearing impaired musician, producer, and rapper who gigs globally. Adam also owns (almost) every Nic Cage movie and has a one-eyed hedgehog called Philip K. Prick.