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By Joan Miller, Ph.D.
Sue saw Jim across the room. He was handsome. His brown eyes were gorgeous. Her heart raced as she walked over to get some food. Jim saw Sue approaching. As she walked, her soft blond hair bounced softly. She was stunning in her red dress. He was disappointed when she reached for a plate. He'd hoped she was coming over specifically to meet him. "The broccoli dip is great," he said. "I'll try some," she replied. And so the relationship began. The next six months were filled with romantic dinners, lots of laughing, beautiful flowers, and a great deal of passion.
Then, each of them slowly began to notice their affection waning. Jim forgot their sixth month anniversary. Sue had sometimes been too tired to talk on the phone into the middle of the night as they had before. They didn't always see eye to eye on all things. Sue looked across the table at Jim as they discussed possible weekend activities. His eyes didn't sparkle like before. As Jim glanced back at Sue, he wished she wouldn't have cut her shiny, beautiful hair. The honeymoon seemed over. What had happened?
Compassionate Counseling for Individuals and Couples
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Let's return to the night they met at the party. When Sue looked into Jim's eyes, she saw an ideal handsome prince; and that's who she fell in love with. Likewise, as Jim looked back at Sue, he fell in love with an ideal beautiful princess. But within months, they both begin to discover that, instead of royalty, they had met a flawed human being. It was disillusioning and disappointing for both of them.
In fact, it is essential in developing a satisfying and sustainable relationship that we recognize the reality of our partner, and then make accommodations to that person. The natural developmental stages of most relationships include: (1) magnetism, (2) ecstasy and passion, (3) reality, and (4) compassionate loving.
When most people first meet, you are attracted to certain characteristics that match an unconscious template of a partner. This includes personality traits, movements, gestures and attitudes. It may seem so familiar that you may think you‘ve met your "soul mate." In your delight and excitement, you are often oblivious to anything concerning or negative. Your feelings of affection and sexuality are intense. You may even say that you have good “chemistry.” Actually, during this time of attraction, scientists say you may likely be producing various chemicals that cause flushed skin, quickening pulse, and heavy breathing.
As you get to know your partner, you savor your time together. You have a feeling of oneness. You likely cherish the idea that your lover Always agrees with you and adores you all the time. This "falling in love" stage is sometimes referred to as “passionate loving.” During this time, you will probably assume that your partner will always be thoughtful, kind, happy, agreeable, helpful, and caring. If certain traits are absent, you may assume they appear later if needed. Or, if you observe some negative traits, you may assume that love will naturally change your partner to be what you want. You’re unaware that you’ve actually fallen in love with the positive aspects of the other person by creating a mental “fantasy”.
As you deepen your connection, additional chemicals are being released (including phenylethylamine, norepinephrine, and probably dopamine), producing a "natural high." Sharing all of yourself with your lover feels comforting. You feel elated, euphoric, and exhilarated. You can stay up all night talking and making love – and still feel alive and focused the next day. You’re convinced that the two of you will “live happily ever after”. However, unfortunately, over time (from two months to two years), your body tapers off its production of these stimulating chemicals and your euphoria wanes.
Although you're unaware that your chemistry is changing, you no longer feel as passionate and ecstatic as you did before. You begin to see other aspects of your lover, including the negative traits that you overlooked. Because your lover is human (and not ideal) you become disenchanted. You experience confusion, sadness, disappointment, irritation, resentment, bitterness and fear. You may begin arguing or withdrawing. In the struggle for agreement and happiness, you may try to coerce your lover to change. Or, you may "grit your teeth and bear it" hoping things will change with time. Or, you may withdraw and sulk, hoping your lover will notice and return to being sweet and accommodating. As you grow apart, you believe your partner has changed. If feels like you’ve fallen out of love. You may have even doubt your original experience of love. Although your partner may have changed slightly, in reality your perceptions have changed more significantly and that leads to a lessening of your feelings of affection. At this point, with the loss of your fantasy and your dwindling euphoria, you may believe you’ve made a poor choice; and your relationship may end.
However, if you discover ways to become more effective partners, including making accommodations, you may then create compassionate loving that is based on reality, abandoning your distorted fantasies. You can explore common goal setting, improved communication, and creative problem solving. Compassionate love includes mutual respect, caring for others as they are, as well as supporting their growth.
As you learn to compassionately love your partner and feel reciprocal compassionate love in return, your brain released endorphins which are like endogenous morphine. These chemicals produce a general sense of well-being, including feeling soothed, peaceful, and secure. Additionally, during lovemaking, oxytocin is released, producing feelings of satisfaction and attachment.
Although this final phase is not as wildly stimulating and ecstatic as the first two stages, it can be extremely satisfying and sustainable. As you learn more about the natural development of compassionate love, you can create and sustain a fulfilling and enduring relationship.