The Love We Build After the Excitement Calms
Love. L-O-V-E. That little four-letter word that’s so ambiguous, always a mystery, no matter how potent its impact on our lives. It lurks constantly in the background, like a dormant virus waiting to strike, and, as modern science has shown, falling in love is much like a viral assault, with the immune system kicking into high gear to fend off any would-be offenders.
Recent scientific studies have shown that our body’s immune system treats falling in love as if it were an outside threat, which stands as a testament to the all-encompassing power of love — that it shakes us to the core of our being, including the cellular and genetic levels. This change takes place through modulations on the genetic level. The body responds to the experience of love like a virus. It sends out the troops, it defends against perceived threats.
Even more interesting, the results showed that the effects were present regardless of sexual contact (or lack thereof) and proximity, or even factors such as social isolation, something we're all going through in the age of COVID-19. You don't even have to be close to someone for this process to happen. It can happen over the internet from the other side of the globe.
Love comes on like a tsunami and upends our lives. It changes us on every single level. And eventually, it wears on you and grows up. It's not the same kind of love that kept you awake for nights on end, yearning for the other's presence.
The ancient Roman poet Ovid wrote 2,000 years ago:
A sweet form is fragile, what’s added to its years
lessen it, and time itself eats it away.
Violets and open lilies do not flower forever,
and thorns are left stiffening on the blown rose.
What he's saying here is that time wears on the body. It makes sense that it would wear on love too, because time wears on all things.
But it's a mistake to think of love as just the romantic rush that consumes us. That kind of love can be dangerous sometimes, too. Love is a series of stages that we transition through and grow into, as we find the kind of love that will last. Understanding these stages is how you can set yourself up for success in your long-term relationships.
Love in Stages
But as Helen Fisher has shown with her work, this isn’t the whole story, but rather, just the beginning. You see someone, your seemingly magnetized to them, then you spend a little time together and you’re like two subatomic particles which have just attained super-symmetry, then, BANG, next thing you know, everything is back to normal again.
You noticed things about them that are different, that you would have noticed about any friend or coworker, things you might have overlooked while you were riding the wave, and suddenly, it almost feels like you’re with a completely different person — the real them. According to Fisher, all three of these stages, lust, attraction, attachment, have their own corresponding sets of hormones in our brains that facilitate the feelings of each. The attachment phase of this process is what this story is about.
What’s to Love about Attachment?
As we grow to attachment it’s like finding a sweet gentleness, a beautiful calm body of water that we can peacefully bathe in, and if we allow ourselves to tap into the subtlety, we can harness an awesome power for happiness in our lives. “The comfortable phase,” as I like to call it, is personally my favorite phase of any relationship — the moment the two of you are just raw together, naked, intimate, vulnerable — the chaotic atoms of the energetically charged relationship slow down and begin to form something a little more concrete as time goes on.
This is the point where we get the privilege of experiencing our partner for who they truly are, in all of their cute little quirks and incidental uniqueness. We get to finally see the part of them that’s tucked away from the world, that part that, if we nurture it and provide enough support and security, will shine brightly, much to our amazement.
As we begin our journey with a newfound lover, everything is turbulent, or, as Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek put it, “a permanent state of emergency.” When this chaos turns to calm, all-too-often people find it wanting — as if they were cheated out of something extraordinary. But that’s not the whole story; Slavoj Žižek mentions that this state of emergency, “ruins all small pleasures,” pointing out a shift in focus away from the little, everyday things in life, to the monumental. A return to the enjoyment of the small things, like our independence, our hobbies, our friends, and all of the things we’ve likely neglected, or even altogether avoided while focusing so intently on our partners is not at all a bad thing.
And this shift in focus from the slow sculpting of a chaotic passion into a monumental achievement, towards a more sustainable life with the monumental achievement that we’ve actually already built, is a testament to how far we’ve progressed with our love interest. We can still enjoy the rich, rewarding moments of chaos with our special someone, but we do it on our own terms. It’s controlled chaos, much like stunt actors perform stunts in a controlled environment where their safety isn’t unnecessarily jeopardized, we too can tap into those chaotic moments as we choose to with a little bit of conscious effort.
Once a relationship slows down and becomes more relaxed, we find a new security we hadn’t had before. Like a statue ready to endure the elements, so too do we fuse ourselves with another human being and prepare ourselves for the long haul — together. When a relationship enters the attachment phase, it’s time to change our expectations in order to see the true value in something enduring rather than fleeting.
The powerful subtlety that we can harness lies in the joint project, our mutually shared goals, aspirations, dreams, and of course the mutual sharing of the enjoyment of each of those things becoming a reality in our lives. I constantly tell my friends, “Celebrate your friends’ victories — ALWAYS.” There is something to be said in sharing a joy one party is feeling with another, and on a deep level, celebrating in mutual victories touches us on a deeply human level, as a social species. No place is this connection and mutual enjoyment of success in life more prominent than in our love lives.
Beyond this, we have now finally scaled back our “emergency” and can now simply enjoy the small things in life, a sunset, a breeze, a good book, our overall personal inner-world of experience, which in turn experiences the richness of the universe, the lush outer world which bombards our consciousness at all times — and we finally have someone to share this beauty and splendor with. That’s the real power — having someone to share the very fundamental fabric of your existence with and getting to know them on that very same deep, intimate level as they experience you.
Set Yourself Up for Success
Setting yourself up for success is as easy as being realistic about what love is at the outset. A lot of our failures come from us placing unrealistic expectations on love. Love doesn't lose any of its magic simply because it becomes more enduring, a process of caring and security, rather than all-night lovemaking and kissing sessions. Just like Ovid said, we'll all be like violets and open lilies, not forever flowering. We grow, we go through changes, we become new people. We go through four stages of love just like we go through four stages of life.
Uncertain and insecure childhood is like the very beginnings of us "catching feelings." Our adolescence is like the rush of romantic love, when we explore and get to know the world and one another. Maturity is the next stage of life, where we become secure with what we have. Life gets a lot more ordinary and less exciting, but we get to enjoy our lives without constant distractions or emergencies. Then we have old age. That's when security is the most important thing to us, just like in love. That's when we settle down for the long haul and we find ourselves grateful for the things we do have with much less pressure to attain things.
Understanding this is the key to your success.