I’ve found myself speaking a lot recently about the early stages of courtship. We are all fascinated with this period. We love asking couples how they met, and we love telling others our own story. We remember the bliss of those first months, filled with the thrill of new love, dampened by nothing at all. These early months, which we like to call falling in love, really have nothing to do with love, and that’s the part I’ve found myself explaining. It seems to fascinate everyone. So pull up a chair, boys and girls, and listen to my tale.
When first we meet someone new and our eyes lock across a crowded room, our attraction signals a myriad of chemical reactions. Biology claims dominance and we embark on a set of behaviours as old as primordial ooze. These are quite unconscious, although some part of us registers the signals. The pupils of our eyes dilate, for instance, which makes us appear more interested and interesting. The tilt of our head changes, as do inflections in our voice. We get high on attraction….actually, we get high on chemical endorphins triggered by our attraction, but that sounds so much less romantic, doesn’t it? And we love romance.
If our initial encounter goes well and we see this captivating person again, we continue to feel as if we’re floating on air. The mixture of desire and uncertainty makes a heady cocktail, and our sexual urges impel us to get and stay closer to our new object of desire. We are fascinated by everything they say, insatiable hearing their life stories and telling them our own. We can’t believe our luck at finding such a perfect person. We can think of nothing else. We become deaf, dumb, blind, and stupid. Our feet barely touch the floor. Our enchanted grins alert the world that we are ‘falling in love.’ Never before have we found such a match. Never before has the romance been more sweet, the anticipation more electric, or the sex hotter. We seem to agree on everything, and our few differences are all complementary. Perfectly mated, we are.
This intoxication marks the beginning of almost all of our romantic endeavors. Each time we make love, each time we gaze into each other’s eyes and melt with emotion, each time the excitement of sex bonds us again, we feel closer and more fulfilled. Surely, we vow, this love will never fade.
But there’s the rub….fade it does. The first six to eighteen months of a relationship are defined by what Dr. Dorothy Tennov called limerence (Love and Limerence, 1979), and what social scientists are now calling NRE (new relationship energy). While we are drunk with fascination, we spend as much time as possible with our new love. We learn all we can and judge how that knowledge melds with our own lives. Our rose coloured glasses distort our view, it’s true, but though we maximize the good news and minimize the bad, we still filter the evidence as to the fit of our new couplehood. If the fit is good, we continue on; if not, we break up.
It is at this point, if we continue, that we begin to see the beloved as a real person, another imperfect human being. Our vision becomes clearer and we see them warts and all. We weigh what we can forgive. We decide if we are amused or annoyed by their foibles. We decide how well we can accommodate our differences, and how well our commonalities mesh. We feel less compelled to spend every minute in bed making love, because now we are drawn to venture out into the world together, to announce our union, to establish our circle of mutual friends and to recontact our friends we’ve ignored for the past months. Life becomes more normal, more daily, and our original heat cools to an abiding and comforting warmth. Eventually, we realize this other person has built an irreplaceable nest in our heart, and we joyously fold our lives into each others.
THAT’s love. It offers it’s own rewards and sports its own features. As limerence burns itself out, love builds on itself and becomes stronger as our intimacies grow. Limerence is the magnet that pulls us together while love is the glue that keeps us so.
Too often we mistake NRE for love, and our society promotes that confusion. If, as time passes and we learn that our ‘limerent other’ isn’t nearly as funny, bright, or sexy as we originally imagined, we are filled with disappointment and long for the good old days when the sun always shone on us and everything was effortless and perfect. We bemoan the fact that ‘love’ has betrayed us, when actually we just consumed all the available limerence.
Or our long term relationship hits bumps and we miss those uncomplicated, heady months. We believe that the two people who danced so seamlessly could not now feel such pain at exercising our different selves. We need to realize that limerence/NRE, as beautiful and unforgettable as it was, lacked the substance we have now developed. Like childhood and adulthood, each stage is necessary and different, each has value, and each brings great gifts. The trick is to recognize each for what it really is and not try to make it anything else.