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Anybody who’s ever been one half of a long term relationship will already know: the honeymoon period doesn’t last forever, and is just one of the stages of dating that almost all couples pass through. It’s certainly a common assumption that all relationships function in a similar manner – after all, pick up any Lifestyle magazine and you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a “one size fits all” way to see how relationships progress. But is there any truth in the belief that the various stages of dating are the same for everyone?
A Closer Look at the Stages of Dating
When we are newly dating we tend to be bombarded with advice from our friends and family, keen to advise us of the need to make the most of the honeymoon period, and sagely offering snack-size chunks of wisdom on how to survive the ‘power struggle’ or loss of passion that can occur later on. Is it an inevitability that these stages should occur, though?
To gain an expert insight into the matter, EliteSingles contacted Madeleine A. Fugere, Ph.D, author of “The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships”, who works at Eastern Connecticut State University as a professor of Social Psychology.
General consensus seems to be that new relationships roughly go through an initial infatuation stage, a difficult ‘testing’ stage, and eventually level out in a new stage of lasting trust and companionship – does this seem accurate? If not, what would the stages be?
I don’t think that all couples necessarily go through the same stages. I do think that many couples go through infatuation but couples who are friends first may not. Also, some couples may not have the difficult stage. There is research suggesting that we want to maximize the benefits in our relationships and minimize the costs (social exchange theory). Infatuation may represent the period in your relationship when you see the benefits of a relationship but not the costs. When you do start to perceive those costs, that may signal the start of the difficult period for some couples.
Does the attraction in couples wane after a certain stage, and if so, is this inevitable?
Conventional wisdom suggests that passion wanes over time. However, see Shakespeare’s sonnet 117 “Love is not Love which alters when it alteration finds”. He suggests that love which declines was never love at all. However, serious researchers such as Sternberg do acknowledge that passion may wane and settle into a more companionate type of love. According to Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, ideal love includes passion, intimacy, and commitment.
There is also research using fMRI technology showing that many long term couples remain passionate about their relationships and the same areas of their brains are active as those couples in new exciting relationships. In addition, there was a project conducted by O’Leary showing that in a random sample of adults from the US who were married for 10 or more years 40% reported being “very intensely in love” as well as reporting greater life happiness.
In a separate study exploring the areas of the brain associated with long term romantic love, Acevedo and colleagues found similar areas of the brain are activated in early stage romantic love as well as long term romantic love.
At which stage, if any, do most relationships tend to end?
Social exchange theory suggests that relationships end when the costs outweigh the benefits. This can happen at different times for different couples. A common time for increasing costs is after the birth of a child, but that event also signals increased investment in the relationship which can reduce the likelihood of the relationship ending.
When couples have progressed through each of these stages, is it ‘happily ever after’?
I think couples who achieve happiness together are committed to their partners and their relationships regardless of the other events happening in their lives. But there isn’t necessarily a “safe zone” after you pass through several stages. Consider the gray divorce trends. I think couples who are successful experience relationship challenges but are committed to working through them together.
In summary, then: good news if you’re a hopeless romantic! Fugere’s responses offer an optimistic outlook on love and relationships, and the various studies she mentions throughout show empirical evidence for a crossover between lasting love and happiness. The manner in which love is expressed may change as couples become adjusted to one another, but it seems that as long as the relationship is nurtured properly through communication and commitment, love will continue to flourish.
While it may be possible to approximate the various stages of dating that a new couple will pass through, when scrutinizing your own relationship it is wise to acknowledge the fact that no two couples are the same. It seems that there are typical milestones which new couples pass through, but how successful they are in this endeavor depends on the level of communication and understanding between partners. With this in mind, it seems that the evidence given in Fugere’s answers signify that, rather than guessing at which stages of dating you may be at, your time with your partner will be better spent developing your understanding of one another, and what makes your relationship special.
If you’re looking to find the perfect partner to begin moving through the stages of dating with, try out our personality test on EliteSingles, and see who you’re a match for!