Stages of Love

Commitment doesn't mean growing out of love or losing the passion, learn how to recapture the romance in your relationship

Stages of LoveI was going to open this story with quotes from some of my favourite love songs, but you’ve probably got ones you prefer. Plus, don’t they sound so corny when you read them in print? Instead, here’s an anecdote: my pet name for my partner is douche, short for douchebag.

His affectionate nickname for me is also douche, also short for douchebag. I don’t even know how it started, but we use it much like you may call your beloved “sweetie”:

“Douche, can you grab some roasted peppers from the freezer?”

“Hey douche, how was your day?”

“Douche, can you open another bottle of Cristal?” (Okay, Prosecco.)

Even as “douche” approaches the more family-friendly “dude” in ubiquity, courtesy of the cultural ascendance of juvenile man-boy humour a  la Judd Apatow, I guess the question is, But why would you call your spouse that instead of “honey”?

My answer would be: it suits us. It has for 18 years! I’ve been with my partner (we never married) for more than half my life now, since I was 16, and I can’t imagine life without him or our seven-year-old daughter (who has a more child-appropriate nickname, BTW).

I’m happy to announce that, although it escaped the reach of my parents, I’ve found true love. And for us, it doesn’t involve diamonds and long-stemmed roses and sweetie-this-or-honey-that. Hell, ever since our daughter was born (and until, we keep telling one another, she starts sleepaway summer camp), it doesn’t even involve a lot of, y’know, action. Nonetheless, we love one another deeply after nearly two decades, and every day this love sustains me, it sustains our family, and, atheist that I am, I thank some higher being for finding my douche.

What is love? I think if anything, it’s finding that special person who is as weird — or normal: different strokes, folks, different strokes — as you are and recognizes your unique kinship. But is there only one? A soul mate for life? That’s something everyone from poets to scholars has been trying to figure out for ages.

looking for love

Does the soulmate concept mesh with real life? In Canada, approximately 38 percent of marriages end in divorce by the 30th year (with a peak divorce rate kicking in at year three). That’s lower than the “half of all marriages end” statistic commonly bandied around, but still not great.

Common-law relationships fall apart with even greater prevalence. Does the high population count in Splitsville mean 62 percent of Canadians marry or cohabitate with someone other than their soulmate/one true love? Or that maybe your grandma was right and there really are plenty of fish in the sea — or a series of them, as you evolve over time? Or maybe that as a culture, we are in danger of just not knowing what love is anymore?

One recent University of Chicago study found that of 700 unhappy couples seriously contemplating divorce, two-thirds of those who stayed together were happy five years later. (The notable exception being those in physically abusive relationships.) Could it be that the potential for a decades-long love affair exists, but we’re just too dense to grasp that?

“What’s hard in our culture is to accept that romance usually doesn’t last. We see the romantic phase as love, and when it passes, we think we’ve fallen out of love. Instead, we’ve just fallen into a different kind of love, one that’s built for the long term,” says Susan Kuchinskas, author of The Chemistry of Connection: How the Oxytocin Response Can Help You Find Trust, Intimacy and Love (New Harbinger).

So could the cranky old lady who memorably mutters “Love fades,” in Woody Allen’s best film, Annie Hall, actually be wrong? I’m betting yes. Old love is as passionate as real love. Just not as crazy. (More on this further on.)

Unfortunately, as Kuchinskas points out, as a culture, we’re mired in that romantic-obsession stage of love. It’s what drives the Valentine’s Day Industrial Complex, sexalicious TV series — hell, even the great works of literature, and we think: I want that. That’s true love. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina threw herself under a train over it. The butterflies. The not wanting to eat. The mind-blowing orgasms.

It’s not lust per se. That’s a fairly cheap commodity (let’s be honest, it’s not hard to get laid in the era of Craigslist’s Casual Encounters).

a question of lust

Lust doesn’t have the staying power of love. They drive distinct neural systems. In fact, sexual desire can be extinguished by sex. This is why the morning-after Walk of Shame exists: if consummated sexual attraction led a priori to love, or, for that matter, even necessarily led to continued desire, the Walk wouldn’t exist. Hookups would remain ensconced in bed together like two 19th-century libertines in an opium den.

And in fact, when someone’s passionately in love (as opposed to simply in lust), they are high on something not unlike drugs. Drs. Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki of University College London in the U.K. asked lovers to look at photos of their beloved, as well as those of their buddies; when imaged in an fMRI, their brains, when gazing at their object of affection, looked a lot like those of people who’d just taken cocaine.

The neurochemicals dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin play an active role in this mad love. Elevated dopamine creates obsessive behaviour, focused attention and euphoria. Increasing amounts of norepinephrine tickle the brain’s reward centre and trigger the crazy-happy bliss that characterizes new love. Lowered serotonin levels cause obsessive thinking about the beloved, much like lowered serotonin levels cause those with obsessive-compulsive disorder to fixate on certain things.

The connection is more than sexual; it’s emotional. This is what we call love, and the fascinating thing about it is: it doesn’t have to end. Yes, it changes. But it remains.

ch-ch-ch-changes

So says Dr. Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist, author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (Henry Holt & Co.) and professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. With colleagues, Dr. Fisher recently conducted a study where she put test subjects claiming to still be in love with their spouses after an average of 21 years together into an fMRI brain scanner.

“We found activity in exactly the same brain regions that become active when you have just fallen madly in love,” she says. “But in a long-term romance, new regions also become active, brain regions associated with feelings of deep attachment. And brain regions associated with calm. So in long-term love, the person remains extremely eager to see their partner, share with their partner, and travel, live with and love their partner, but now the intense anxiety often associated with early-stage romantic love is replaced with calm,” she says.

“A long-term relationship provides a navigational map for each other. When trouble arises, I know trust and care will still be there the next day. Sex is easy and clean. And usually there is a meal waiting each day with wine,” says Ilse Kukuls, 64, married 45 years, who lives in Toronto, mother to one son who died in childhood, and a daughter, now grown, whom she is hoping will provide her with a grandchild soon.

“Our early love was fun, playful, lustful and exciting,” says Sandee Johnston, 36, a Toronto mom of three kids ages nine, four and one, who’s been with her husband for a total of 18 years (they’ve been married for 14). “Today I’d describe our relationship as everything in our early years, plus solid, trusting and secure.”

Sounds good. Sounds great. But — and there’s always a but — that’s not exactly the recipe for frisson, is it? Which is the dilemma. In a culture where welcoming the onset of companiate love (passion’s more level-headed yet happy sister), seems akin to welcoming the onset of middle age with dignity (laudable, but not my plan, sister) we feel pressured to try to capture the ignore-our-friends’-multiple-voicemails, let’s-do-it-now-then-eat-later level of passion from back in the day.

Here’s the thing. We can’t. Not 24-7. If we could, would anyone want to go to work, feed and clothe their kids, chair PTA meetings, take the recycling to the curb? Just as our reptile brains demand that we get out there and knock boots (i.e., procreate), human nature kicks in afterwards in a committed partnership to say, now let’s raise our young properly, mash up that organic squash, strap our kids into their car seats and maybe think about scheduling in a date night in two weeks. Is this it?

“There’s a paradox: couples want security and adventure. The unpredictable, playful, imaginative, unknown, but those are what family life goes against. Predictability works well for family life. The kids need to know where you are,” says Esther Perel, bestselling author of Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic (Harper Collins).

A New York City-based couples therapist, Perel also serves on the faculty of the New York University Medical Center and Columbia University. Perel’s book looks at the dilemma intrinsic in long-term relationships: the very strength and commitment we seek, over time becomes a barrier to sexual tension.

Additionally, today’s emphasis on sharing (some may say over-sharing) adds even more pressure with mates expecting their partners to be “best friend, confidant, fashion consultant, therapist,” says Perel. “You won’t have an erotic spark if you have a couple that’s “too together’ because they’ve become too familial with one another, like brother and sister,” she says.

Mystery, surprises and unpredictability disappear. The key to lifelong romance, says Perel, is finding ways to get that edge back — in controlled doses. The culinary parallel to this might be eating fugu sushi (a potentially fatal delicacy) in a licensed and inspected fugu restaurant (where the risk of poisoning is close to nil thanks to aggressive training and quality control). Create a safe place to chase adventure. Preferably one on one.

Take swinging. Although polyamory, or “the lifestyle,” has been in the public eye for the past few years courtesy of a recent raft of documentaries and the TV series Swingtown, many experts say it really doesn’t work. (I tried to chase down some swingers of my own — strictly for research, honest — but they were publicity-shy and didn’t return my calls.) In theory, the idea is, couples are able to expand their sexual horizons, but rather than cheating, they experience the novelty of letting their respective freak flags fly…as a bonding experience. They can share a night of passion with others at a private swinger’s club, or, in other cases, share a girl- or boyfriend on an ongoing basis. Practicable?

“Honestly, I have not yet had a couple who’s really been enriched by this experience,” says Mary Ann Rombach, a family and couples therapist based in Invermere, B.C. “In the office, I have mostly dealt with the detritus or fallout of these experiences. Couples get hurt and [often] split up. It’s a woeful scene,” says Rombach.

And why wouldn’t it be? Fisher, the evolutionary anthropologist, says that married couples playing at swapping are playing with fire: love, not mere sex. “A primary biological trait of romantic love is sexual and emotional possessiveness. You can train people to share, as in polygynous societies, but even there, people can become possessive of a mate, compete and even kill,” she adds.

My question is: who needs that shiz?! Also, frankly, I’m with Perel when she says “Desire needs space.” Ultimately, what is swinging but even more time spent with my partner, when we already raise a kid together, eat together, watch TV together, talk together, drive together to the gym etc? Enough already! (Please see our sidebar for expert tips on better ways to “Recapture the Romance.”)

you’ve got it

Here’s the most wonderful news. It struck me the other day when marvelling at the fact that I go to the gym four or five times a week now, get regular bikini waxes, but alas am in the middle of a bit of a …dry spell: I am loved and this too shall pass. This security in myself, in us, isn’t something I’d have felt 17 years ago. Yet (cue dramatic strings music) like the rising crescendo of the tide — or (cue cheesy analogy) an orgasm, true love is a force of nature and constantly renews itself with its own energy.

And if you are reading this article, chances are, you have found this renewable resource of passion, this love, already. Your sweetheart, your beacon of love, your very own douche is with you, on the premises or not far off, right now. Congratulations. As therapist Mary Ann Rombach, herself married for 30 years to “A man I love like a maniac,” says, “Love is always the thing you can rely on being the best that life can offer. Once you find it, stay in that space and devote yourself to it and it will go on forever like new.” Only better.

Hamilton, Ont.,-based writer and editor Yuki Hayashi and her partner, a teacher, weren’t positive they’d have enough love to go around, so they have just one extremely pampered “only.”

recapture the romance

Passionate love doesn’t necessarily die in long-term relationships. It’s just semi-dormant, buried under piles of laundry, homework, bills and errands. Wondering how to bring it to life more often? Novelty, discovery and communication rate high on our experts’ advice lists. Here are some tips they swear by.

  • “Do adventurous, exciting, even slightly scary things together,” says anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher. “Novelty and danger drive up dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain and can help sustain feelings of romance.” Skinny dip, hike in the woods, ride some roller coasters, take scuba classes, travel to a foreign country.
  • Take dance classes together. Or if one of you doesn’t want to, the other should go solo. That goes for any fun, physical activity. “You’ll still feel alive and sensual and vibrant and come back home bringing that energy into the house,” says therapist Esther Perel.
  • Email or text one another. Whether your messages are rated PG or X, communicating as lovers — not parents — creates intimacy and excitement. Use a dedicated email address, not your day-to-day one. “It’s a freeing space where you can flirt and talk about your fantasies,” says Perel.
  • Push some sexual boundaries. “We are wickedly open about sex and talk dirty all the time,” says Ilse Kukuls, a 45-year marriage veteran. “I like gay porn. The men turn me on and gay male sex is very imaginative. Exploration of sexual fantasies without blame is good for continued intimacy.”
  • Make love. “When [you] orgasm, the brain sends oxytocin through the blood stream, causing that lovely floating feeling. At the same time, it sends more oxytocin to the parts of the brain that handle social interaction. Combined with dopamine, the neurochemical of excitement and pleasure, oxytocin ties the pleasure of sex to that particular sex partner,” says author Susan Kuchinskas. “The combination of oxytocin and dopamine tells us, “It felt really good to do that with him. I want to do it again.’ It’s like forming an addiction. Over time, you get addicted to your partner. You crave being with him, touching him and making love with him.”
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