Hollywood has painted a pretty picture of relationships. No matter the plot, the boy always falls in love with the girl, and they live happily ever after. While these rom-com endings make us believe in true love, it’s important to realize that happily-ever-after is only a part of the story. In real life, relationships go through a natural ebb and flow of relationship seasons, where happily-ever-after is actually only the beginning. Never heard of the term relationship seasons before? Read on below to find out exactly what these are, what they mean for you and your significant other, and how to get through them with flying colors.
The four relationship seasons
Spring represents a fresh start
Spring is known as the season of new beginnings. During this time, flowers bloom everywhere, and plants grow with reckless abandon. The start of all new relationships feels exactly like spring – full of joy and promise. It is often the happiest and most harmonious of all the seasons. It is also the time when couples delight in their “firsts” – their first date, first kiss, and the first time they introduce their significant other to friends and family. Love in spring is sweet in every possible way.
The human brain likes being in love. When you find someone you’re attracted to, your brain responds by releasing dopamine and adrenaline. These chemicals are responsible for the giddy feeling associated with all new relationships. The same chemicals encourage bonding and attachment, so you end up wanting to spend every waking moment with your new partner. The more time you spend with them, the more of these feel-good chemicals are released. This sounds like the best thing in the world, right? Not quite. While these neurotransmitters do make you feel good, they also downregulate the parts of the brain that contribute to rational decision-making. The end result is that you may be ignoring the weeds (read: warning signs) for the rest of the garden.
Summer represents the honeymoon phase
Summer arrives when you give a clear commitment to your budding relationship. During this time, you may decide to date each other exclusively or agree to work on a future together. Like relationships in spring, relationships in summer are characterized by general feelings of happiness. You spend your time building memories and establishing a private world. Often called the honeymoon period, summer is also the time when your partner can do no wrong. You forgive easily, endear possibly annoying habits, and are more likely to sweep larger issues (read: red flags) under the rug.
A study published in Frontiers in Psychology claims that genes may play a role in how we regard relationships. The study identified four pair-bonding genes, which, when present, made individuals more likely to participate in long-term “monogamous mating systems”. Individuals with these genes had more active dopamine pathways, which led to higher dopamine levels. People with higher dopamine levels actually stayed in love for longer. Luck in love may be a real thing after all.
Fall represents the turning point
Experts say that the honeymoon phase of any relationship lasts up to 18 to 24 months. But when the honeymoon phase is over, it may feel like a bubble popping. All of a sudden, your partner isn’t perfect in your eyes anymore. You may notice quirks you never used to that now bother you, or find yourselves disagreeing more often. What was once exciting, like grocery shopping together or visiting each other’s families, may feel mundane. These are the very hallmarks of the fall relationship season.
In the same way that leaves turn during autumn, relationships in fall go through a sort of pruning. While much less enjoyable, the end of the honeymoon period represents an important turning point for most relationships. Some couples may decide that the cracks are too big to be mended, whereas others mend these cracks with gold. In other words, the fall season is normally where couples either call it quits, or accept their differences and find a way to make it work.
Winter represents conflict
Winter is the final season. Typically cold and unforgiving with short days and long, dark nights, winter signifies detachment, isolation, and sometimes even death. At this point in your relationship, disagreements can turn into outright fights as you try to balance what is important for you and/or your partner. Difficulties can arise when you and your significant other have different priorities, as well as different approaches to finding an acceptable middle ground.
In the 1970s, researchers Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann suggested that people respond to conflict in different ways depending on how assertive and cooperative they are. Competing individuals are highly assertive but not cooperative. They argue defensively and always try to get their way. Accommodating individuals are very cooperative but not assertive. They tend to prioritize their partner’s needs and neglect their own. Avoiding individuals are neither assertive nor cooperative. They tend to withdraw, refuse to engage in conflict, and generally wait for problems to fix themselves. Collaborating individuals are both assertive and cooperative. They value teamwork in finding the perfect solution and are likely to deep-dive into misunderstandings to identify the real issues at hand. Compromising individuals fall on the mid-point of both assertiveness and cooperativeness. They generally look for mutually acceptable solutions but don’t try to dissect where these issues stem from.
How to thrive despite the season
It’s important to remember that each relationship is unique. Some relationships can stay in perpetual summer, whereas others seem to cycle through winter often. The great news is that you can take charge of your relationship seasons. All it takes is a little bit of work.
Keep in touch
And we mean this literally. Science has shown that hugging and other forms of non-sexual touch cause your brain to release oxytocin, a hormone that encourages bonding. In response, oxytocin upregulates other feel-good hormones like dopamine and adrenaline, as well as downregulates stress hormones like cortisol and serotonin. So the next time you find yourself sitting across your partner on a table, brush fingers as you’re passing the salt. Snuggle up together while you’re browsing through Netflix. Hold hands as you cross the street. The secret to staying (or re-entering) spring may just be one touch away.
Have more sex
A lot of the work that needs to be done to rekindle relationships involves falling back into the behaviors you naturally had at the beginning, and that includes having sex, especially if you’re having a lot less of it all of a sudden. If you and your partner feel like you’re stuck in a rut, consider putting sex on the calendar. Pick a time and day (before work, after work, or in between work if you’re feeling frisky), and stick to it. Scheduling sex may not feel very romantic at the get-go, but sometimes the best things in life require a little planning. We’ve already mentioned how skin-to-skin contact leads to all these happy hormones, right?
Communicate with each other
Make an effort to notice the things you love about your partner, and make sure to tell them! Focusing on the good brings a surge of dopamine and adrenaline, which characterize the spring and summer relationship seasons. Giving meaningful compliments and telling them you love them reinforces your connection with each other and stimulates their dopamine and adrenaline levels. Leave little post-it notes on the bathroom mirror or kitchen table. Sneak in mid-day texts. Set your phones away during dinner and just talk. The options are limitless once you commit to being more present with each other. If you and your partner struggle with communication, discuss it openly and try different couple exercises for healthy communication.
Plan for the future
Book tickets for a well-deserved vacation. Open a joint bank account to save up for your dream home. Talk about children if that’s something the both of you want. Adopt a puppy. Setting goals restructures how you visualize your future, and visualizing your future with your significant other reestablishes that you’re a couple. The goal here is to create a future that holds something for you as a team.
Embrace the regular
If you feel like your relationship is falling apart because you lost the spark, it may be a good time to readjust your expectations. Often, people assume that a relationship is over because they no longer feel an intense rush when they’re with their partner, but this isn’t the case at all. If you learn anything from this article, it is that our feelings are driven by our neurotransmitters. While the start of a relationship is rife with dopamine and adrenaline, which put couples in a state of constant excitement, the middle of a relationship is characterized by the presence of other hormones like oxytocin, which encourage stability and comfort. Lean into it. After all, the details of regular day-to-day life – knowing exactly how your partner likes their coffee, how they wear their socks, and how they turn the lights off (or don’t) – are the very foundations of every relationship.
Keep things fresh
Let’s face it. Dating has changed during the pandemic, but it shouldn’t be a reason to let your relationship languish through fall and winter. Start slow, and work your way up when you feel ready. Rekindle the passion in your relationship, sometimes the effort is all that’s needed. Dress up for date night. Try a new hobby together. Choose a new cuisine, and cook up a storm in the kitchen. Host a dinner for the friends you haven’t seen in forever. Go skydiving. Relishing in new experiences can remind you both of the good old days. The bonus? New experiences lead to a flood of dopamine too.
Consider couples’ therapy
If all else fails, consider couples’ therapy. There is no shame in going to an expert to get help with your relationship. There is strength in the recognition that you don’t know how to solve your problems but that you are willing to try. A lot of couples struggle, and often choosing to love and fight for one another is the harder choice than to end things. A trained professional can help mediate any recurring issues, as well as remind you of all the things that are great about your relationship too.
Dating during the pandemic may feel more difficult, a lot of our real-life dates have gone virtual and we’ve all been under much more stress, but hope is definitely not lost. Treat your significant other as your partner in the truest sense of the word, and commit to each other at every opportunity. Cycle through your relationship seasons as much as is needed, but learn at every step. After all, the best relationships are the ones wherein both parties grow.