Whether you have just met a man, dated for a year or been married for a decade, you are sure to encounter potholes as you travel down Relationship Road. In fact, experts say they have proof that certain romance rough patches are very common, perhaps even universal. Consider the "seven-year itch." According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the median duration of couples who divorced between 1989 and 1990 was 7.2 years. Problems also pop up each time two people make the transition to a deeper level of intimacy, because fear and anxiety rankle our sense of autonomy and control, says John Friel, Ph.D.
What good does it do to dwell on the dark periods that are likely to happen as a relationship progresses? Being prepared for the normal downturns can help ease the emotional strain you'll experience, says Lawrence Kurdek, Ph.D., who has studied the milestones in the first decade of marriage. Here are four common relationship potholes:
Pothole # 1: One-Month Madness
There's nothing as sweet and thrilling as brand-new love. But along with the excitement and hopefulness comes uncertainty and anxiety — somehow we fear the other shoe will drop. "New love creates an altered state of mind in which you look at a person and see in a beautiful, soft light," says Kelly Simpson, a family therapist in Dallas. "But somewhere inside we know that our blissed-out vision isn't necessarily realistic."
The fuzzy boundaries of a new relationship can be another source of anxiety. Can you invite him to your cousin's wedding? Should you come up with something big for his birthday or play it cool? "I don't know whether it's too soon to tell him how I feel, and I don't want to seem too clingy or demanding," says Lisa, 34, who is dating a man she met a month ago.
Take a good look at your new guy through that haze of happiness and determine whether you share similar interests and values. "Also, see if your friends and family like him," advises Simpson. Remember, if you're experiencing more anxiety than joy, that's probably a red flag. "Don't overlook it if he seems dishonest or isn't that nice to strangers. You can tell a lot about a person early on in a relationship."
Pothole # 2: The One-Year Mark — The End of the Honeymoon
Around this time, many couples feel a dip in their level of joy. "Suddenly, everything seems very time-sensitive," says Debby, 37, who has been with her boyfriend for a little more than a year. "I want to have fun because it's a new relationship, but I feel like my biological and marriage clock is ticking." Relationship experts concur that the 12-month mark is often a letdown. "That electric feeling that your partner is perfect has probably ended," says Lenore Pomerance, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in Washington, DC. "This is also the time when one of you may want more of a commitment than the other ."
Accentuate the positive so that you stay upbeat about the relationship. "Focus clearly on the aspects of the person that you found so attractive at first," says Pomerance. The two of you may have been so busy being passionate until now that you neglected conversation. "Talk about your worries and concerns without blaming each other," recommends Pomerance. "You may be used to bailing out at this point, but you have to remember that the obstacles don't go away once you get married. The sooner you face your own issues, the more ready you'll be for long-term commitment."
Pothole # 3: The 30-Month Chemical Crash
Many researchers have speculated that this is the point when the chemicals in our brain that are responsible for love (dopamine, phenylethylamine and oxytocin) begin to abate. This often results in less-than-mind-blowing sex. "I feel our attraction has faded," says Jill, 54, a divorced banker who has been with her boyfriend for two and a half years. "I'm waiting for that to come back and cold feet about making this permanent."
"Love is really what happens after the chemical cocktail wears off," says Simpson. "Don't hit the wall and change partners just because the chemistry has waned. It's absolutely natural." She recommends working hard to keep your psychological connection alive. "To do this, laugh together, add some variety to your life, and decide to plan an adventure trip that involves just you two," advises Simpson. "Include your partner in the things you most love and accept his offers to do the same. It will widen both of your horizons, and you'll discover new things about each other."
Pothole # 4: The Seven-Year Itch
Experts observe that this phase is often characterized by feelings of restlessness and unhappiness over the state of your union. "Over time, people can find themselves drifting further and further apart and communicating less," says Nick Stinnett, Ph.D., professor of marriage and family studies at the University of Alabama. "The other greatest threat to is materialism. We place a great deal of value on having good jobs, making a lot of money and having a lot of nice things, but we often neglect our partner in the process."
After studying 6,000 successful marriages, Stinnett has concluded that the success of a marriage (or other long-term commitment) can be directly linked to acts of kindness. "That's as easy as sending flowers or taking the time to write a letter that expresses how you feel," he says. Make dates for just the two of you. This isn't being self-centered — it's essential to you and your family's well-being. "Think of your marriage like a business," says Simpson. "You still have to show up and put in the time and effort. A marriage doesn't run on its own. You have to look at ways to make it better."