The ups and downs of life with a partner are familiar to all of us – but do you know why the course of true love rarely runs smoothly?
‘Why aren’t things like they used to be?’ is a common question for couples after a few years, or maybe even a few months, of being together. Where once they leapt into bed at every opportunity, or went everywhere hand in hand, almost imperceptibly they start to take things more casually. Desire – at least partially – has been replaced by something else.
Before anything that can be called ‘love’ has appeared in a relationship, there is an initial stage – a kind of grey area between ordinary friendship and something special when two people tacitly agree to explore each other as potential partners. The key features of this early phase tend to be a mixture of curiosity, sexual attraction, elation and a tinge of anxiety.
During these preliminaries of a partnership it is possible to enjoy another person’s company in a fairly intimate way, but still be able to stop the whole thing progressing without causing any serious emotional pain.
For some, the initial stage might include sleeping together; others may keep the relationship open-ended for months, with only a few shared dates and most of the contact by telephone or letter.
Falling in love
After the early barriers have been broken down, a relationship may very well start to take over the couple’s lives. The feeling is not that you would merely enjoy seeing the other person, but that you actually need to see them. Somehow, those involved begin to lose control over their rational feelings.
Suddenly, the whole world is different: there is hope, happiness and heady excitement. Falling in love changes your whole being – your whole way of looking at the world. Everything your lover says or does is viewed in a special light.
Love is blind
The blindness of love at this stage of a relationship, however, can sow the seeds for disaster later. For some, the urge to share experiences with their lover and to please them becomes an urge to agree with everything their lover thinks. From here it is easy to make compromises which can eventually mask your true self. The experience of being in love can be so strong that it hides the real ingredients.
Naturally, falling in love has different effects on different temperaments, but probably the one common factor is that it feels like the first time even if it is the tenth time. What is more, it feels as if something as wonderful as this has never happened to anyone else before. And in a sense, it has not, since all relationships are unique.
Down to earth
How long can the excitement and intensity of love last? Although some might claim it can last a lifetime, this seems unlikely, since being in love is so closely connected with a sense of newness and feeling of discovery.
This second stage of a relationship is often marked by a lack of interest in the practical matters of the world. Yet sooner or later, most people tire of spending yet another night squashed in a single bed, or become resentful of the time spent apart. The now fairly committed partnership touches earth and, inevitably, the idea of marriage or living together emerges as a solution to the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’
Setting up home together marks the biggest change in the relationship, signalling the end of the ‘affair’ and the beginning of life as a ‘couple’ intending to stay together.
When a couple start to live together, whether after a wedding or because they have just decided to move in together, there is a ‘honeymoon period’. Here, the lovers are the centre of each other’s world.
This is a contented period in the relationship. The first awkward stages of intimacy are past and the couple have a chance to enjoy each other – as companions and as sexual partners.
After a while, however, the settling-down phase can bring with it disillusionment, especially if either partner is very romantic or has impossibly high expectations. This is because if it is to survive, a relationship needs to change – to exist in the context of other people and not simply turn inwards.
After the initial introspection, a couple is likely to open out more to the world, re-establishing old friendships, entertaining and perhaps even finding new interests to stop them spending all their free time together.
It is important to remember that a relationship is not finished because it changes into something different. The bonds between a couple are still there and can become deeper, if the partnership is given a chance to develop further.
For most couples, the sense of their relationship progressing often fades away as they become immersed in the business of everyday living.
As the months pass, couples living together are bound to learn more and more about one another’s ways. But an increasing amount of what they do learn may be incompatible with their vision of a faultless lover.
The paradoxical nature of living together is one of the key challenges partners face as their relationship matures. The more they share in day-today activities and yearly rituals, the less mention they might make of their own real needs and wants. The easier a couple finds it to put their relationship on ‘automatic pilot’, the greater the chance that it will eventually go off course through lack of attention.
The years between 25 and 35 are usually full of distractions – houses to do up, children to rear or career ladders to scale – all of which can force the central relationship to take a back seat.
Sometimes a staleness creeps in which is not noticed by either partner, or more likely is noticed and never mentioned, because of these and other pressing demands.
But for many couples, the importance of having someone to share the joys and crises of life far outweighs the long-term problems that must be faced.
Why did I marry him?
The greatest test for the majority of relationships comes in the lull that follows the children starting school. Often the husband’s career is established by then and the wife is able and eager to assert her own needs. Life can be suddenly much emptier for both partners with fewer common goals to aim for.
Both may start to wonder why they married the other in the first place. When a couple stop to think about their relationship after maybe years of just observing the outward form, they can be shocked by the distance between them.
For some, this distance is too difficult to repair and the marriage may break down. But for others, the sudden realization that they no longer know their partners is a signal that it is time to make positive changes.