How love and intimacy changes over time

A common phrase we hear in our consultations with clients who report being ‘unhappy’ in their marriages is “We just don’t have the spark anymore”.

A couple may be 2,5, or 10 years down the track, and start to feel like the passion has died, there are too many problems taking hold, and it’s time to start talking divorce. Whoa! Stop there!

Before you start making any life-changing decisions based on a loss of ‘passion’ in your marriage, you need to read this first.

Because what a lot of people don’t realize about love is that it changes, and is SUPPOSED to change, over time.

Marriage is hard, and sometimes you will go through stages where your relationship feels empty, lifeless, and tense.

But the thing is, if you can stay strong and keep working on it, the reward of developing a love that is true and complete in every way will be waiting for you at the end.

1. Infatuation

This is the sweet, wonderful, addictively euphoric stage of intimacy that you probably experienced when you first got together with your wife or husband.

This is the time where lust, attraction, excitement and passion takes over – when you can’t get your partner off your mind and want to be with them 24/7.

You feel like you have met the love of your life, and you can’t imagine that feeling ever changing. Loving your partner is as easy as breathing, and in your eyes they can do no wrong.

During the infatuation phase your brain and body becomes flooded with a euphoric mix of feel-good chemicals, which basically addict you to your lover like a drug.

Dopamine helps to create that crazy, euphoric, ecstatic chemistry with your lover, as well as increasing energy levels and reducing the need for food or sleep.

The next ingredient in this addictive cocktail is serotonin, the ‘feel-good’ chemical that fuzzes out any pain or stress and makes you feel happy and relaxed in your lover’s presence.

We then have adrenaline, the ‘stress response’ chemical which makes your heart race, mouth go dry, butterflies flutter in your stomach, and heightened awareness and arousal throughout your body.

Finally, there is oxytoxin, the ‘bonding’ or ‘devotion’ hormone released by men and women after orgasm, or whenever you cuddle or feel particularly close with your partner. Oxytoxin creates powerful attachments between people, giving rise to irresistible feelings of love and security.

Based on all of these feel-good chemicals rushing through the brains, it is no wonder that couples in the infatuation stage can’t keep their hands off each other and spend so much time making love.

Somewhat unfortunately, the infatuation stage usually only lasts from around 6 months to two years. Although it is an amazing stage in your relationship and should be fully enjoyed and cherished, this stage is not true love.

While it is full of passion and intimacy, it can also cause what is known as ‘lover’s blindness’ – where a couple who are infatuated with each other are unable to recognize each other’s flaws, or roadblocks to their relationship working out long-term.

Which brings us to the second stage of intimacy: where ‘reality’ sets in.

2. Reality sets in

Eventually, the infatuation has to wear off.

Your body can’t physically and emotionally keep up that level of emotional intensity without getting burnt out. So eventually, all of those lovey-dovey hormones from above take a well-deserved rest, leaving our mind clear from their haze.

When this buzz of infatuation fades, this is where people can tend to experience the sensation of tumbling down from their perch in the clouds and landing back on the cold hard ground.

Basically, this is when people start really noticing that their ‘perfect’ partner actually has flaws, and start viewing their relationship a lot more clearly.

“Since when did he become so selfish?” “I hate how long she spends in the bathroom.” “I used to want to be around him all the time. Now I just want some time for myself”.

Reality kicks in, and you may experience feelings of confusion, disappointment and loss, due to the sudden decline in passionate feelings you have for your partner.

This is the time when a lot of couples can come to the conclusion that they have ‘lost the spark’ and can even call it quits.

At this stage along the road, loving your partner becomes a CHOICE, rather than mutual infatuation sparked by all of the hormones and chemicals which had been flowing through your brains from the time you started seeing each other.

It’s also a time where you may find your needs as individuals suddenly become more of a priority again, and you may start wanting to regain some independence. For example, spending more time with your friends, sports team, or keeping up your hobbies.

But reality doesn’t have to be all bad - in fact, some people feel relief when the anxiety and obsession associated with infatuation wears off, and they can become a little more relaxed in their relationship.

Plus, it’s not likely you’ve missed any deal-breaker flaws in your partner during the infatuation stage, it may just be little things which start to cause more annoyance and frustration than they used to. “I wish you wouldn’t leave your gear lying round in the lounge”.

I’m sure you can all think of examples of habits of your spouse’s that didn’t bother you at the beginning, but sure do drive you up the wall now.

Unfortunately, dealing with your relationship not being as passionate and exciting as it once was is not the end of the challenges a couple must go through on the path to achieving real love.

The next stage is even harder (dealing with all of the real-life issues and conflicts), but if you can get through this one then it should be all up from there.

3. Dealing with conflict and life challenges

This is an interesting phase where commitment to each other usually strengthens, but intimacy and passion can take a backseat as the struggles of day-to-day life become a main feature in your relationship.

By this stage, your relationship has become a very real part of your life, where you and your partner are fully intertwined in each other’s lives.

You know about their problems at work, their health issues, their family relationships, and their living habits. You know majority of the significant people in their life and are viewed by everyone as ‘Brangelina’ rather than ‘Brad’ and ‘Ange’.

This is a stage where some very real conflicts can come about, especially when you are living together. Conflict may be brought about by many things, including differences in how you like to do things in the household, differences in priorities and goals, financial pressure, or feeling like particular emotional needs are not being met.

And constant bickering about who should be doing the dishes, who’s spending more, and who’s working too much or not enough can definitely take its toll.

But learning how you deal with and work through conflicts is an important learning curve for any couple, and can set the stones for how your communication and conflict resolution will continue into the future.

This means being able to be completely open and honest with each other about what your needs are, and working through any negative feelings.

When couples get STUCK in this conflict stage, this is when the real problems arise. Couples may need outside help in order to help them to learn to develop more effective strategies for conflict resolution, or to get to the root of a problem.

The important thing to remember during this stage is that it might take extra effort on both of your behalves to keep the romance and intimacy alive. Amongst all the routine and chaos, try to still factor in quality time as a couple.

Keep some evenings and weekends free so you can focus on just enjoying each other’s company, and doing some of the things you enjoy doing together. And keep some of that passion alive by making your sex life a priority. Remember, although the chemistry may have dwindled somewhat, oxytoxin is still being released every time you have sex with your spouse, which helps to strengthen the bond between you.

Unfortunately, couples can come back to the conflict stage even after they have moved on from it in the past. But the better than you have learned to effectively communicate and resolve conflicts the first time round, the less likely you are to keep returning to this undesirable point in the relationship.

4. Second honeymoon

The great news is, if you can make it through the conflict and life challenges stage with your partner, you’re in for a treat. Because this stage is usually followed by what has been coined as the ‘second honeymoon’ – in which you have weathered the storm and in doing so, gained a new sense of love, trust and affection towards each other.

This stage may also arise at different times during your relationship after resolving a large problem together, experiencing the loss of someone in your life (or coming close to losing your partner), successfully going through relationship therapy, going through a life-changing event, or experiencing a particularly amazing date or night of passion with each other for the first time in a while.

Suddenly, your eyes are again open to how gorgeous your partner is, how amazing they are to you, and how lucky you really have it.

You start becoming excited to go out on dates with your partner again and make more of an effort to give the little surprises, gifts and displays of affection that show them how much you care.

Getting through the stage of conflict and life challenges means that you now know where you stand with each other, are able to resolve issues, and as a result have developed a great sense of stability and trust in your relationship.

This is the point at which you really embrace your partner for all of their flaws and assets, and love them completely as they are. You have accepted that one another is not perfect, and find that you can truly call them your best friend.

Again, it is important during this phase that you truly make the most of these loving feelings and show how much you appreciate one other, rather than taking things for granted.

5. Real love

This is the part that every couple strives towards: finally finding true love with the person by their side.
This is the stage which is labelled as ‘consummate love’ on psychologist Robert Sternberg's love triangle: where passion, intimacy, and commitment are combined to form a ‘complete’ form of love.

Consummate love is the real deal, where each person finds true security, happiness, trust, affection, stability, honesty, and respect in their relationship. It is estimated to start blossoming around the fifth year of a relationship, provided that you have made it through the previous stages.

By this stage, you have most likely supported each other through good times and bad, faced challenges as a team, and have developed maturity both as individuals and as a married couple. Your goals have become well aligned, and you are working together as a team to make their dreams happen.

This is the really warm, deep type of love, where people can look at the way a couple acts around one another and see instantly that they are soul mates. They are the couples who argue with affection and are deeply content with their lives together.

They are comfortable, relaxed, and affectionate in each other’s presence, and maintain a satisfying sex life. They have no doubts about their feelings and can rely on one another, without being overly dependent.

You can achieve this real love in your marriage, just as long as you can first make it through the rough patches.
But like all things, even a relationship that has reached the stage of real love still needs effort and nurturance to keep it healthy.

It is possible, and even likely, that a life-long relationship will at times go back through some of the previous stages of intimacy, due to changes in situations or a period where the relationship is taken for granted.

For example, something such as finding out that you are unable to have children can really throw a relationship into disarray, and shatter some of the ‘perfect’ visions that you had of your life together.

However, as long as you keep looking after each other and having a committed and giving mindset, you WILL be able to return to this settled and deeply loving place in your relationship.

Brooke Ryan

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2 comments on “How love and intimacy changes over time”

  1. I like this but is it possible to get back to real love if you have been living not so much in a conflict stage but a life/family/work got in the way of us stage (and caused an affair) and to get back to the real love stage. Our conflict stage has probably lasted 5 years out of a 20yr marriage and 30 yr relationship and yes he is leaving because he just doesn't care anymore

  2. Me and my partner have been together for 10 years, we have been through a lot of stress in the past 10 years and my partner is thinking of leaving, she does still love me but cant see away out from the problems that we have, I have told her that things will be different and that im making changes as we speak i just only hope that she will see this and make this our last shot at it. I don't know what else to do. Someone please help

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