Hello everyone, welcome back to the Therapy Spot! As summer blossoms in the northern hemisphere, I see new couples strolling hand in hand during my nature walks. The telltale signs — goofy grins, starry eyes, and constant contact — make new love obvious. Thanks to movies, TV, and Facebook, many of us think of those signs as love itself. In real life, however, that’s just the first stage of love. Do you know about the others?

Humanistic psychologist Erich Fromm wrote The Art of Loving, which resonated deeply with me during my early college years. Speaking with couples, I like to pass on a bit of wisdom that I think Fromm might have said. My “(mis)quote” goes like this:

“There are three stages to love.

  1. Stage one: falling in love. As the name suggests, falling is easy! In this stage, everything feels effortless — even magical. Cue the goofy grins.
  2. Stage two: being in love. While it’s a less “active” verb than falling, being in love takes a lot of work. The hard work you and your partner do in this stage can last a lifetime.
  3. Stage three: loving. Things feel effortless again, because of how deeply connected you are to your partner. This is the stage we all expected to happen after we fell in love.”

I’ve met lots of couples who, if they know about the three stages, wish they could skip stage two entirely. The work of learning to love another person is just that: work! Do you and your partner have difficulty Being in love? Surely, if things are rocky, doesn’t that mean you’re wrong for each other? Absolutely not!

Along those lines, I interviewed a very special guest on my podcast this week. With a masters in communication under her belt, Rebecca Neelis works as a facilitator and coach with both individuals and nonprofits. I am also proud to say that she is my daughter! Two and a half years ago, she married her long-term — and long-distance — partner, Mike. She came onto the show today to discuss the process of moving from stage one to stage two with her husband.

“The work is part of the process”

I don’t know about you, but my school didn’t teach a class on how to have a healthy relationship. We build our own models from movies and the people around us, which can lead to problems! Movies, television, and our friends’ FaceBook updates certainly don’t reflect the reality of a relationship.

Since their relationship began at a distance, Rebecca and Mike learned that firsthand. Rebecca relocated to Mike’s city so that they could live together when he returned from deployment in Afghanistan. Both of them struggled in that time, and not only due to the stress of moving in together. Rebecca grappled with unemployment and depression, while Mike dealt with grief over the loss of friends.

In Rebecca’s own words:

“At times I wondered if we had made a mistake, diving in like we did. […] But even though it’s counterintuitive, being willing to stay in [suffering], and to show up each day really got us to the other side. I saw that doing that work can be really productive in a relationship.”

The same fight, over and over

After moving in together, Rebecca and Mike settled into an all-too-common dynamic. When conflicts arise in a relationship, one person often wants to push forward and solve the problem, while the other wants to shut down. (Sound familiar? You’re not alone.)

Instead of pausing and recognizing the need for space, pushing can cause the situation to escalate into something much larger. Once they identified their pattern, Mike and Rebecca needed to create a neutral space where they could break it down. Rebecca sums it up excellently:

  1. Instead of shutting down, request space in a compassionate way.
  2. Rather than pushing, receive that request in a respectful way.

Without the tools in place to make this happen, this might sound like a tall order! That’s why I developed a guide to taking an “adult time out.” If you reach a point in conflict where you know you can’t move forwards, it’s definitely time for a time out. Check it out here.

Not always perfect, not always pretty

Moving through the three stages of love can be challenging. Ultimately, it takes a lot of positive moments to counteract one negative, dismissive moment. That’s why it’s so important for us to choose compassion over contempt in our relationships.

Those of you who have fallen into a pattern, and currently struggle to break out of it, take heart. Every muscle in your body wants to perform the actions it’s familiar with. That’s perfectly normal. Break those old habits by forming new ones! After all, it’s easier to replace something than to eliminate it.

The payoff for all of this hard work? As Rebecca says, “I’ve loved […] having someone really be there as witness for both my failings and my triumphs. It adds a depth and a dimension to my world that I could not have had on my own.”

I couldn’t agree more. Thank you, Rebecca, for joining me this week and a big thank you to everyone listening. I will be back with a new episode of the Therapy Spot on June 27th.