Bill loved women, but the wrong way. He spoke endlessly about love, about himself, and everything that interested him, but he never asked his dates what they thought. He was totally into himself, and so stayed that way in his love life.

Felicity fell in love with the idea of falling in love, and moved from one love partner to the next. Once the honeymoon phases of her relationships were over, she could not handle the challenge of commitment.

Larry and Sandra had a good relationship, even in bed, but they began feeling bored and wondered if there was something missing. They were very different in their personalities, sense of security, and interests. It never dawned on them to develop shared activities and grow together.

Sexual intimacy is a psychological act as well as a physical one. In a couple, it involves two people relating in tenderness and abandon, with their psychologies meeting as much as their bodies. You have physical needs, but you have psychological and social needs, too, and all these needs meet in the sexual act with your partner.

You might think that I am carrying this too far—sex is sex and desire is desire. However, although the act might be especially physical, it happens between people, not automatons. Moreover, the period of excitement and decision to continue with and then achieve the act, is highly individual, psychological, and personal. As you engage with a person and create a partnership that leads to sex, your humanness is exposed and connected as much as your body.

In my forthcoming book—entitled Development and Causality: Neo-Piagetian Perspectives (Springer SBM, 2011)—I described five stages in human development: (1) physical development in the newborn, (2) emotional development in the infant, (3) cognitive development in the child, (4) conscious development in the adolescent, and (5) spiritual development in the adult. This manner of presenting the stages is a simplified version of a more complex model based on the models of Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson, in particular.

Based on this model, I developed another one for the stages that couples go through. For relationships, I have proposed a five-step sequence of: (1) physical attraction, (2) emotional attachment, (3) commitment (facilitated by thinking through it), (4) individual growth (for example, in consciousness), and (5) mutual growth (for example, in spirituality). As with the developmental model, the stages for a couple offer a universal sequence, but one that takes on an individual character for each person.

The first three steps in this model of the development of a relationship are standard ones in the field, and the last two indicate that as you develop into a long term relationship, this allows personal growth in each partner. Then, the growth transforms into mutual growth in the partnership—each aspect of growth in one partner feeds the growth of the other partner in a growing cycle. You grow beyond what you can do on your own, because living with a partner can help you grow psychologically. Moreover, mutual growth in your relationship could involve higher-order values, such as spirituality and morality.

For each of the five stages of the relationship model, two extremes are possible. For example, for the first stage of attraction, you could be overly attracted and then shift to being overly critical. For your relationship to flourish, a good balance across these extremes is required at each of the five steps.

Let's imagine you are a therapist for two couples that need a push to the next level.

In the first couple, Ginny is totally amorous of Johnny after they first meet, and he seems perfect according to her. She is idolizing him, but is she headed for a crash landing? Or, is it him? Because once she turns in her opinion of him without any real reason, he could become too confused and forget about their relationship. By looking at the stages in a relationship that I have described, as her therapist, you might have her develop a more realistic appraisal of her dates right from the beginning.

In the second couple, you are one of the partners! You are trying to develop a sense of emotional security in the relationship, because the stage of attraction went well and you are seeking commitment. However, the game your partner is playing is cat and mouse—create trust and then undo the trust, or offer a sense of security but undermine it, too. You examine what you know of the stages in relationships, and discuss with your partner what seems to be happening. This opens up a discussion of the partner's past relationships with parents and prior partners. Because of this discussion, you solidify the commitment that you are seeking. You have helped your partner with some difficult issues that had not yet been discussed with anyone, and your relationship blossoms.

Sex goes through stages, too. It greatly reflects the attraction stage at the beginning, and helps to cement it. The highs are immeasurable, but can they last and do they lead to you wanting to give emotional security to your partner? If sex becomes a warm, fuzzy feeling as much as a physical climactic one, it helps foster great emotional feelings in a couple, but can it lead to the commitment that you so much want? Do you and your partner really seek commitment or have a love-hate relationship with the idea? If commitment is achieved, does it last, or does each partner become bored and jaded, seeking something else? Is there cheating going on, not just for physical satisfaction but for psychological satisfaction? Are you helping the other person grow and are you growing together?

Sex is part of the bonding that can lead to long term growth in a couple. But long term psychological growth in a couple—and the sharing and rejoicing in that growth—is the best way of preserving and growing the bonding in a couple. Moreover, the sharing of mutual psychological growth in your couple could help promote the best and deepest feelings in sex in both partners.

About the Author

Gerald Young, Ph.D.

Gerald Young, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at York University.

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