Remaining in a committed relationship can be incredibly fulfilling and incredibly difficult, even for the healthiest couples. Our definitions of “love” and what it means to be in a satisfying relationship also weighs heavily on our ability to weather the difficult and disconnected times that can actually be a bridge to even deeper levels of intimacy.

People often confuse the rush of excitement and infatuation that characterizes the start of a relationship with true love. They are then disappointed when this rush fades and they encounter serious challenges in the relationship. These challenges, though, can be a doorway into deeper and more satisfying phases of the relationship. Here are the 3 phases of marriage (which build on each other), that emerged during Dr. John Gottman’s research:

Phase I: Falling in Love
This phase is characterized by excitement, fantasy, obsession, and intense passion caused by a flood of neurochemicals and hormones. There is an overwhelming intensity and infatuation at this phase that is similar, in some ways, to the altered state of consciousness produced by some drugs. This phase facilitates bonding but also overrides rational decision-making abilities, thus making it difficult to spot potential “red flags.” Some people confuse this stage for true love and, when it naturally fades a bit, assume they’ve fallen out of love and need to move onto the next relationship. The rush of this phase can be addictive for some. This initial feeling of falling in love can has be sustained (at least to a large degree) over the course of a relationship, if it is properly nurtured.

Phase II: Building Trust
This second phase of love is characterized by this fundamental question: “Will you be there for me when I need you?” If the answer to this question is “Yes,” a secure and stable bond forms in the relationship. If the answer to this question is “No” or “Maybe,” an insecure and unstable connection forms. This question is asked and answered in numerous way as a relationship unfolds. Take, for example, a newlywed couple where the husband’s mom makes a passive-aggressive remark about his wife in her presence. To form a secure bond, the husband would need to stand-up for his wife in some way, letting her know that he has her back. Couples who forge a secure bond also create a safe space where both can share their thoughts and feelings and be supportive of each other.      

Phase III: Building Commitment and Loyalty
This phase is about nurturing gratitude, appreciation, loyalty, and a commitment in the relationship. It’s about cherishing what each person contributes and how personality and value differences serve to enhance the relationship. It’s also about creating a true partnership, with both people sharing power and experiencing a basic sense of fairness.

As couples move through these phases over years and decades, life happens. As wonderful as it is to have children, most couples experience a sharp decline in their marital satisfaction during that time. If we live long enough, we’ll lose jobs, face significant set-backs, and dear friends and family will pass on. Our partners will inevitably disappoint and hurt us.

The marker of a good marriage isn’t whether or not the dark times will come (they most certainly will), it’s whether or not the dark times will permanently damage the relationship or whether they’re used to eventually create an even deeper level of commitment, intimacy, and sense of shared purpose.