Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships — with romantic partners, family members, co-workers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q. I’ve been seeing someone for a couple months and things are going well — but I constantly feel nervous that he’s about to end things. Sometimes things seem to be great, and then sometimes I feel like he’s losing interest. Am I just being too fearful, or does he have one foot out the door?
A: You say you’ve been seeing this person for a couple of months and things are going well. Hey, that’s actually great! But the amazing feelings in this first stage of a relationship also have a way of skewing our perspective.
Weirdly, the neurochemistry of attraction, excitement, and desire can trigger a lot of anxiety for some people. Big changes are going on inside your brain and body, along with some lifestyle changes, as you’re making this relationship more of a priority.
You might find yourself imagining a future together. When the reality of the present doesn’t line up with that projected image, painful confusion can result.
When I met Claudia (name has been changed to protect her identity), she was fully in the throes of a similar upheaval in the early stages of a relationship. Claudia and her new man weren’t even exclusively dating yet, but her heart and her body didn’t understand that her potential partner wasn’t cheating on her when he took a backpacking trip with a group of old friends.
The internal distress signals put her in fight-or-flight, and drove her otherwise open mind into negative, black-and-white thinking. She wanted to solve the problem quickly and was tempted to confront her new beau with her flood of hurt feelings. Fortunately, she was wise enough to come see me instead. Together we managed to broaden her view and bring her inner peace.
Together, we looked at John Gottman’s book, Principia Amoris: The New Science of Love.
According to Gottman’s research, love has three distinct phases. You, like Claudia, are likely in the first phase called “limerence,” characterized by physical symptoms (flushing, trembling, palpitations), intrusive thinking, obsession, fantasy, sexual excitement, and the fear of rejection.
I hope that simply realizing this fact helps you begin to calm down. You really aren’t alone, and you aren’t crazy. Your feelings are not “red flags,” but are more an indication of the limerence stage of the relationship than a predictor of the future.
Should your relationship continue past the first stage, you’ll want to be prepared for what follows. The second phase of love involves building trust. It’s often the most painful stage, but necessary for creating a lasting bond. Couples emotionally wrestle with one another around big, important questions of loyalty: Are you in my corner? Do you have my back? Am I your #1? Are you going to be there for me?
Trust-building can last about two years, and harbors some of the most painful emotions like frustration, disappointment, sadness, and fury. Most relationships in this stage will also experience more conflict as couples learn to express difficult feelings, discover raw spots, and hopefully learn to support growth and change together as a result of this process. Phase two negotiations will determine whether the third phase — building commitment and loyalty — is viable.
I helped Claudia by teaching her to first soothe her nervous system. We used breathing, yoga, and mindfulness techniques to help her body and brain relax. As she learned to be present in the moment, Claudia was able to engage more fully in the enjoyment of simply falling in love. With this calm and open perspective, she could put the brakes on her tendency to worry and anticipate the future. She stopped interpreting every move from her paramour as a prelude to rejection.
Claudia was able to accept that feelings of worry are normal during the limerence phase of a relationship, and she could uncouple those feelings from the anxious thoughts that seemed to automatically come with them. She learned to tolerate a bit of insecurity, without believing it meant her guy was no longer into her. When we soothed and calmed her nervous system, and she could access her rational mind again, she was able to show up in the relationship most genuinely as herself. I hope you can do the same.
What’s interesting is that as she stayed grounded, Claudia grew more attuned to her own feelings. She was able to notice ways this new partner wasn’t always a great fit for her. Rather than experiencing herself as the needy one, desperate with worry that he might leave her, she was able to consider whether she really wanted to stay with him. They actually did continue the relationship, and are now happily in stage three, but she was empowered through her commitment to healthy self-awareness to become a mutual partner, rather than a dependent one. This also better equipped her to tune in to him, which created a stronger relationship.
Whatever happens in your situation, I wish the same for you. Remember, looking for evidence of commitment before its natural time is a setup for anxiety. Caring for yourself with mindfulness will help you relax and notice what you’re actually feeling and experiencing in the now.
Enjoy the loveliness of this limerence phase with openness and curiosity about what could be coming next, but stay present in the moment to tune in to what’s clear and truly best for you.
More from Asking for a Friend here.