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Mating

The 3 Stages of Dating

Dating has its own terrain. Knowing what to expect helps you navigate it.

Source: publicdomainpictures
Source: publicdomainpictures

Tasha has been dating Sam for three months and it has been the best time in her life. They immediately felt connected, the chemistry was hot, it was easy to see that he was a kind and considerate soul. She obsesses about him all day long. They text all through the day.

Chris has been in a relationship with Kara for the past year. While the first six months were great, it seems lately that things are beginning to slide. The sex life has taken a downturn, it feels like they talk past each other at times, her moodiness is irritating him more, and she is complaining about the weekends he sometimes needs to work for his job.

Just as marriages move through stages, so too do dating relationships. By mapping out the stages you can know what to expect and anticipate the challenges ahead. Here they are:

Stage 1: Oxytocin or bust

This is where Tasha is at. At this stage of the relationship, chemistry, both emotional and physical, is at the forefront. The emotional side is finding that you have a lot in common, that your views of the world are the same, that you share a sense of humor or like the same music. Running along this is finding in each other what you most need – someone who listens or someone who seems decisive; someone who is gentle or someone who is strong and confident.

And the physical chemistry is about… well, literally chemistry, in this case the oxytocin that fuels the sexual attraction and attractiveness, the obsessing about the other, the feelings of falling in love. Affection is easy, sex, if you go there, is great. What’s not to like?

Dangers

One obvious danger or downside is that you never get beyond one or two dates. You find you have a lot in common but her personality reminds you too much of your ex. Or you have a lot in common but there is no sexual attraction; you try to shift the relationship to friend status.

But the bigger danger is that it does all click and both are so caught up in the greatness of it all that neither one wants to rock the boat and spoil the magic. The danger? That both partners hold back – you don’t bring up that he was late, or that she tends to dominate the dinner conversations even though it bothers you. Physical distance keeps the potential emotional conflict at bay: You bite your tongue and by the time the next weekend rolls around your irritation has receded.

Challenges

If the chemistry isn't there, there isn't much to do except perhaps give it one more try and see if something clicks. But if you are feeling particularly lonely or desire to move forward in your life, you may convince yourself that your expectations have been too high, that this relationship is "good enough." The challenge is being honest with yourself, taking the time to reflect and sort through your true feelings, not compromising or watering down your life.

And if you have been biting your tongue and fearful of rocking the boat, your challenge is to resist the temptation. No, you don’t want to emotionally slap someone up the side of the head on the second date because he talked with his mouth full, but if this is truly one of your pet peeves, don’t hold off till three years after the wedding to bring it up. The issue isn't about chewing and food, but about bringing honesty and realness into the relationship from the start so the person gets a true sense of who you really are and what is important to you. This is the only way of knowing whether or not you are truly compatible.

Stage 2: Unsettled settling

As Chris has noticed, the landscape has changed. Sex is down, irritation is up. This is not about fault or blame and more about, once again, chemistry – the oxytocin has dropped. Researchers have found that oxytocin levels naturally drop in couples somewhere between 9 and 18 months.

What this all translates to for couples is the natural experience that things are settling or a winding down. Routines set in, the hot chemistry is okay, but less hot. But with this is also a relaxing of that walking-on-eggshells behavior. Chris and Kara are more open about what bothers them, especially if they are living together and can’t use distance to water down their irritations. Here is where partners begin to see patterns – that that crazy drunken night and intense argument wasn't a one-time event after all, or that your partner’s wanting to spend six days with her family at Christmas is part of a bigger pattern of pulling in relatives anytime she has more than two days off from work.

With all this can come the triggering of each person’s emotional wounds. Here is where what each person is particularly sensitive to – criticism, control, lack of appreciation, not getting enough attention – begins to stir: Chris starts to feel micromanaged, or Kara feels abandoned and is increasingly resentful of his working weekends. Here is where couples can begin to argue about who is more hurt, who is too sensitive, arguments that can seem endless or destructive.

But wait, there's more – literally more life. Often by this time in the relationship real-life experiences become part of the mix and challenge. Here Kara loses her job or Sam's grandmother dies and he is devastated, or Chris has a medical crisis. The couple is challenged to respond as a unit – to be supportive about the job, to come or not to the funeral, to face the medical issues together – all a testing of the strength of the relationship and each partner's ability to deal with crises and anxiety.

Finally, this is the time when the couple starts to have serious conversations about the future. Here they talk about priorities, whether to have kids or not or how many, whether to focus on careers or whether a job is just a job and they'd rather raise chickens as a hobby. This is where commit-a-phobia sets in: One partner wants to move forward, the other may say slow down, give me more time.

Dangers

The pink clouds of the first stage are fading; reality is rearing its head. This is big stuff, the real test of the relationship. Are we on the same page about our visions and priorities? Can you support me in the way I need to be supported while I struggle with the loss of my grandmother or the loss of my job? Can you understand how sensitive I am to being micromanaged and back off, rather than arguing with me that I’m being too sensitive?

The bigger issue is whether we can productively have these conversations without rancor and tit-for-tat. Can we solve these problems and reach solutions that are win-win for both of us?

Challenges

The obvious challenge is having the courage and making the commitment to slog through all of this and hopefully find that you both can accommodate without merely giving in, that you can have these difficult conversations rather than sweeping them under the rug or blowing up.

Some couples will and some will find that they can't. They will break up either because it is all too difficult or because they discover that they are truly on different pages.

Stage 3: Moving forward… or not

You move through this emotional valley-of-darkness and come through the other side. A bit rough at the edges, some lingering regrets or resentments perhaps, but the positives heavily replace the negatives. You both were honest, you both learned to be assertive and compassionate, you both are able to understand the humanness of the other. You enter into the final lap towards a commitment or marriage with a realistic perspective.

Dangers

You believe that your relationship has reached this point, but in reality you essentially skipped all of Stage 2. You are still accommodating and not speaking up, thinking perhaps that once you are married or live together that things will magically work out, that the other will change, that it will be easier to bring things up then. The deeper and normal problems of Stage 2 don't evaporate, but linger, and like landmines, may explode unexpectedly later.

Here is also where the last-minute Runaway Bride effect may set in; at the last minute, with the closing of the door, you realize that this isn’t going to work or it isn’t what you want.

Challenges

This is the last chance to get everything on the table, to feel safe and secure and honest. The challenge is once again to have courage; the time is now to step up.

Relationships change over time because people change over time. In order to navigate the course, you need to fill in the emotional potholes that come along the way rather than falling into them. Change can be a challenge, but change is your life telling you that you've outgrown the old ways. By knowing what changes you may expect, you can keep a clear head and perspective.

And by being honest with yourself and your partner, you can both successfully move forward.

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