In his poem ‘To Autumn’ Keats describes this time of year as the ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…’ describing Autumn as having its own richness and ‘music’ that is different from, but as lovely as, ‘the songs of Spring’.
At the beginning, a new relationship can feel like an emotional Springtime – light and fresh and green. It can be a charged, optimistic and euphoric time and the world seems full of promise. But it is not just about hearts and minds, Helen Fisher describes falling in love as a powerful biological experience too. Novelty can stimulate our dopamine systems and a new love can mean we are infused with a constantly elevated level of dopamine. The area of the brain most activated by a new romantic love is the same one that is activated by cocaine and we can have the same craving for and feelings of elation from the very presence, sight, sound and smell of our loved one.
However, over time, the adrenaline begins to fade and this ‘honeymoon period’ ends. The Darwinian purpose of love is the survival of the species and the excitement of attraction needs to transform into an attachment that enables us to become long-term partners. Our emotional bonds deepen and strengthen. We feel caring and protective and concerned for the wellbeing of our partner and this closeness and connection creates a sense of emotional security. Now oxytocin, a different but equally powerful hormone, is released. The Autumn of a relationship could be described as ‘mellow’.
But both Helen Fisher and Esther Perel describe the dilemma that couples face at this stage of their relationship. Conflicting biological drives developed to meet our different human needs and they do not sit easily with one another.
Perel identifies the clash between our pull towards the warm nurturing intimacy and sustaining emotional security of a committed relationship, and the co-existing human urge for playfulness, novelty, excitement, mystery and change.
Fisher says these drives can cause confusion. ‘You can feel a deep attachment to a long-term partner at the same time that you feel intense romantic love for someone else, and at the same time feel sexually attracted to someone else again’.
We want the comfort of familiarity, being known, accepted and appreciated. However, unfortunately, that can also create an erotic flat-lining and a sense of boredom. There is a danger that everything predictable – while soothing and reassuring – can, over time, decrease the erotic charge between the couple.
Attention, interest, admiration, affection, variety, surprise, excitement (in whichever way this is defined by each of them) is required for desire to spark.
Like Autumn, a long committed relationship bears fruit. It has colour, complexity, richness and depth which a couple can celebrate. Their own particular history is a patchwork of shared experiences. However, they will always need to continue to balance the flow between similarity and difference, independence and togetherness, energetic otherness and soothing familiarity. If they can revive the romantic behaviours that were naturally present at the beginning, then they can again enjoy the pleasures of both a dopamine and an oxytocin rush.
Counselling can help us understand how our brains work and allow us to consider and manage our unconscious impulses. A couple can grow to understand the way passion waxes and wanes and the importance of constant repair and reconnection. They can then consciously and openly make the choices that are best for them – and deal honestly and bravely with the consequences.
‘Autumn Leaves’ – Nat King Cole