Not long ago, in order to get to work on time, I’d have to get dressed in my closet with the door shut; to walk around in my underwear in front of my new husband was to miss the 9:10 A.M. train. We were that frisky. Flash forward to one morning last week, when Ted looked at me—all freshly lotioned and curvy with pregnancy, in a striped tank bra and matching panties—and declared, “You look like a Dr. Seuss character!” before kissing me on the cheek and leaving for work. At such moments, you can either laugh or cry. I chose to cry, a little bit later, in a call to my older, wiser, 10-years-married sister. “So much for passion—he thinks I’m funny-looking!” I moaned. “You’ll see,” she responded calmly. “He’ll be all over you again. Just when you think the relationship is stuck, you push through it, and it’s different—better.” Fine. But how and when, I wondered, would we reach the next level? Was there any way to predict? Actually, as it turns out, yes. There is some rhythm to the seemingly random mood swings of every relationship—or so say the friends, love experts and even perfect strangers I interviewed for this story. Every couple, they claim, encounters certain fairly predictable emotional landmarks if they love each other for the long haul. Some are fun, others test your stick-to-itiveness, but all of them let you know you’re getting somewhere. It starts with…
Level 1: Infatuation
You’re giddy, jittery-excited; you just lost five pounds without even trying. But if you’ve been around the block a few times, you know you’re not truly in love yet. Infatuation, that intense, immediate passion you’re somehow capable of feeling for a near stranger, is a deliciously superficial and selfish state. Until you find out a bit more about this person, you’re filling in all the blanks with what you’d like him to be. Between dates one and two, you imagine an entire life with New Guy, complete with children and a little farmhouse upstate. But while you may have zoomed ahead in your mind, the actual relationship is still at square one. “When I first met Nathan,*” says Ashley, 26, “I thought the fact that he owned my favorite book, Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, was a cosmic sign of our compatibility. But eventually, I realized that I was projecting my fantasy of a smart, perfect guy onto him when in fact he’d read only about five books ever and was cheating on me with an 18-year-old. I learned to trust what people do over time, rather than who they seem to be at first.” Says couples therapist Carolyn Perla, Ph.D., “You need to differentiate between being in love with the mythology you’ve built around a person and loving the actual person. Once you’ve dropped the initial fantasy, you’re a step closer to having an authentic relationship.”
Level 2: free-fallin’
“Normally, I’m very polite,” says Emma, 33, “but all my rules went out the window in the early months of my relationship with Rob. When I finally invited my friends out to dinner to meet him, the two of us couldn’t stop making out. My friends finally booted us to another table, and we didn’t even mind. We’d lost all perspective.” Don’t we all. “When you’re falling in love, your edges get very porous,” says Helen Fisher, Ph.D., author of Why We Love. “You lose yourself in order to include the other person.” “Include the other person”—that’s a nice way to phrase it, but it’s more like devouring them. Says Cara, 36, “I once had loud, downright obscene sex with my fiance while his parents were just outside the bedroom door, waiting to take us to a Christmas party. It was like our brains shut down and our bodies took over. Mortifying!” Both Emma and Cara eventually got their wits back, which is, apparently, just what nature intended. Says Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., a Detroit psychologist and host of the weekly TV show Love Doctor, “Studies have shown that the chemicals driving passionate love inevitably decline in our bodies after about 18 months. And that is probably a good thing. We need to get back to reality. We need to work. Plus, I’m pretty sure our bodies weren’t built for that much sex!”
Level 3: getting emotionally naked
Once your hormones have ebbed a bit and you’ve managed to put your clothes back on, it’s time to unwrap your emotions. Not that this is easy to do: Fessing up to your uncertainties and insecurities, your demons and lifelong dreams, is a daunting rite of passage—even when you’ve met the right person. Says Max, 34, “I was dating this amazing, funny, beautiful girl. Before her, I’d been a f—k-up with women, and I was determined not to blow it this time. But one night after we had sex, she told me about how her father had died a few years earlier, and she’d never had a good relationship with him and had never felt loved the right way. She wanted me to hold her all night, and I did—but then I didn’t call her for a week after. I guess I was clinging to the idea that she was going to be the happy, buoyant one, keeping me up. She never trusted me again after that; I couldn’t undo how I’d made her feel at that crucial moment.”Max and his girlfriend hit this tricky level and broke apart. But for Donna, 28, a little vulnerability took her relationship the other way. “My boyfriend and I spent the first six months together in a party phase—drinking and going out all the time,” she says. “The first time I saw him being insecure was when I dragged him to my superrich friend’s house in the Hamptons on New Year’s Eve. He got really quiet and finally admitted to me that he felt out of place around my privileged childhood friends. I felt more protective of him and in love with him from then on.”
Level 4: call it esp
Jo, 30, recently had this non-conversation with her husband of six years as they drove home from a dinner party: Him: “Do you have any cash?” Her: “No, but we’re stopping, right?” Him: “Oh yeah, they have an ATM at the place.” Translation: “The place” was a Baskin-Robbins, five miles down the road, where they were headed, without even discussing it, to satisfy a sudden, simultaneous craving for mint chocolate chip. I think this is the level I’m at with Ted. We often want the same things at the same times, and there’s no need to overtalk it. Being so mentally in sync feels sexy, too—even if the actual sex has slowed down while I’ve got a baby on board. One night, a few months ago, the two of us ditched our usual TV Wednesday to hear an amazing, otherworldly band. Walking home together afterward, dazed and moved and wordless, neither of us felt the need to critique the show or to ask how the other had liked it. Not to sound too corny, but the silence itself sounded a little like music.
Level 5: breathing room
“A couple years ago I went through a sort of love depression,” my sister, Cathy, tells me over the phone. “I think I was tired of being defined by my relationship.” She and I are following up on our last talk—the one in which she assured me that love really does keep getting better. But how was this better? “It was good for me because of what came out of it,” says Cathy. When my sister, a teacher, married Martin, she also married his high-profile job—he needed her by his side at countless work events every month. It was exciting at first, but then Cathy started to feel like his extra limb. When she confessed this to Martin, he was a gem, letting her out of “spouse-required” occasions, encouraging her to teach an extra class and spend alone time exercising, shopping or just taking walks. “Being out and about on my own was enough to energize me,” says Cathy. “Our marriage felt so much stronger when I had some semblance of an independent life.” Of course, some couples give each other breathing room, only to discover they’d be happier entirely split up. Thankfully, that’s not how it went with my friends Mona and Matt, advertising photographers who’ve made a great career working as a team. “Now that we’ve been Matt and Mona’ forever,” says Mona, 30, “we’re starting to take separate assignments sometimes. And when we come back to shoot together, the work looks fresher—at least to us.” It’s a metaphor for their relationship as a whole, she says, and another way of ensuring that they really are forever.
Level 6: the second fall
It may not be possible to recover the sense of blissful intoxication you felt when you were first discovering the person who now picks his nose next to you on the couch. But the long-term monogamy veterans I know say that couples can fall in love many times over, and the second time it happens is a doozy. “I’d been dating my boyfriend for six years,” says Val, 29, “when he was cast in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. I’d been feeling bored and lukewarm about us, but then I saw some publicity photos for the show, and I instantly fell in love with the guy playing the villain: He was shirtless, covered in stage blood and swinging a broadsword. Then I realized, that was my boyfriend! The guy I’d barely kissed in forever looked free and alive and totally badass. So boredom flew out the window, and as soon as he got home that night, I pounced on him and ended the cold streak.” As George, 43, says of his wife of 17 years, Lucy, “At her fortieth-birthday bash, I looked at her and realized that if we could have gone back to being 20 and shagging [yes, George is English] like rabbits, I wouldn’t have wanted to. I was so proud of Lucy that night—not just for looking so damn hot at 40, but for becoming as impressive a woman as I’ve met in my life—that I couldn’t believe my good luck. I was flying!”
Level 7: as good as it gets
So what comes after the growing apart and the reconnecting and the passage of years? Often it’s the best part, say the experts I talked to, and it’s something I find myself looking forward to with Ted. One reason I’m confident we’ll make it to Metamucil and beyond is the fact that we have pretty extraordinary role models in our parents. I love the way my dad speaks with humor and affection about being married for 46 years, as when he said to me recently, “I woke up next to your mom the other day and said, Whoa, who is this wrinkly woman in bed with me?'” It’s not exactly the most romantic sentiment, unless you consider that my mom is in her late sixties. And my dad just noticed she had some wrinkles? According to psychologist Orbuch, the empty-nest years are often a time when couples reconnect—or go their separate ways. “Some find out they have nothing in common, outside their children,” she says. “Others can’t believe all the years they’ve missed out on.” Liz, 58, sums it up: “When my youngest went to college, my long-term boyfriend and I fixed up an 1888 row house, filled it with our joint possessions and got married there,” she says. “We’d been together for years but we’d never nested on our own, and now was our time to create our own life from scratch. It was brilliant. You always get back to that love thing, don’t you?”