From secret crush, to first kiss; through the honeymoon period and into the commitment of cohabitation, marriage and even having kids, every romantic relationship has a multitude of intimacy markers.

Intimacy is often associated with physical closeness, but this is only half true. Intimacy is much more about what our brain is saying than what our body is wanting.

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“Intimacy is defined as close familiarity or friendship,” says consultant psychiatrist Dr. Sandeep Singh-Dernevik, who dismisses the common belief that intimacy is synonymous with what happens between the sheets.

“It develops by a sense of exclusiveness and confidence, for example, sharing issues that we don’t want others to know about or be involved in. There is usually an expectation that intimacy is found only in a romantic relationship, but it is perfectly possible to remain intimate with friends and family also when you are in a relationship.

“Many men would be surprised about the level of intimacy that their partner has with female friends, even in discussing sexual experiences.”     

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So what’s the science behind the intimacy that happens when two people meet and sparks fly, from the hookup stage to the binge-watching-Netflix-in-your-underwear-stage?

“The research has shown that there are three clusters of neurochemicals related to relationships,” says Juliet Grayson, a psychotherapist specializing in relationship issues. “One is romantic love, one is lust, and one is pair bonding. And they’re completely discrete formulations of neurochemicals.”

And what about the age old trope ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’?

London-based neuroscientist Adele Bryant dismisses the notion that men and women experience intimacy completely differently because of differently wired brains: “We have neither a ‘male’ brain nor a ‘female’ brain, but instead a brain that has both male and female characteristics. No two brains are alike.”

So, what is the first rung on the relationship intimacy ladder?

Lust (Or The Crush)

When you first meet someone, and develop what can only be described as an all-consuming crush in which you can do little else except scroll back through to the very beginning of their social media life and wonder whether you should follow them or wait for them to follow you, there is little to no intimacy.

Infatuation doesn’t last. It is associated with temporary changes in the brain, chemically and hormonally

Everything is pure lust and based on the allure of potential. Nothing is real yet; you don’t know if they even like you back and yet you’re imagining how they could fit into your future. You are imagining intimacy. You are forecasting it. You are wishing for it.

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“There is no really good word in English to describe the strong emotions of falling in love,” says Dr. Singh-Dernevik. “Scandinavian languages use ‘forelskelse’, which is emotionally stronger than the English ‘infatuation’ in describing the passion, desire, obsession and adoration that is falling in love for many people.

“The bad news is that ‘forelskelse’ or infatuation doesn’t last. It is associated with temporary changes in the brain, chemically and hormonally. The ‘love hormone’, Oxytocin, affects certain cells and pathways in the brain, which is responsible for feelings of love and bonding.

In the lust phase, your neurochemicals are being driven by dopamine, which is the same neurochemical that cocaine addicts experience

“Some psychologists have suggested that when we are infatuated we are not mentally ‘testing’ reality. Instead, we expect our love object to be the one person who can meet all our needs, emotional, sexual, social and material and this is for most of us not realistic in the long term, although it is euphoric and fantastic, while it lasts.”

“In the lust phase, your neurochemicals are being driven by dopamine, which is the same neurochemical that cocaine addicts experience,” says Grayson. “They get a dopamine high. So you have to be careful about making big decisions based on the romantic phase or the lust phase because you can’t guarantee that feeling is going to last.”

Romance (Or The Honeymoon Period)

So. Everything seems rosy: you’ve never felt like this before, you love how each other look and smell and talk. You go out dancing. You spend the whole of every Sunday bed. You are desperate to make a good impression on your beloved’s friends and family. This will never, ever get old. You never argue because you’re so in sync on every level any two people could be in sync.

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But the honeymoon period has a shelf-life.

“So if you’re on the lust neurochemicals or the romantic neurochemicals, those actually don’t last very long,” says Grayson. “The romantic phase, for example, lasts between 6 months and 18 months. And then you move into another phase with each other if you’re lucky (pair bonding).”

The good news? There are some benefits to the honeymoon period being over. For example, not being in each other’s pockets all the time.

It also makes us a bit antisocial, we don’t really have time to spend with family and friends, unless it involves our partner

“In the ‘foreleskelse’ period, most of us like to spend 24/7 with the love object and some people find it hard to cope with being alone even for short periods,” says Dr. Singh-Dernevik.

“It also makes us a bit antisocial, we don’t really have time to spend with family and friends, unless it involves our partner, and hobbies and activities that we were passionate about are left on the wayside for a bit.

“As the brain recovers from the ‘forelskelse’ period, most of us will want to resume a more balanced life and other activities that don’t involve our partner.”  

Pair Bonding (Or Affection)

The end of the honeymoon period can be a shock. You might find yourself facing uncomfortable truths: Are they actually a bit tight with cash? Have any rogue political viewpoints come to the fore? Does it really disgust you that they rarely feel the need to change their bedsheets?

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And crucially, can you live with that? What is happening is that the giddiness of the beginning is being replaced by a more humdrum veracity, but with that should come a deeper respect.

Affection is what develops in a relationship after the period when the infatuation starts to dwindle

Someone very wise (the author’s mother) once said that the secret to long-term relationships is knowing that no one is perfect and acknowledging and accepting your partner’s flaws. This is where true intimacy kicks in.

“Affection is, for most people, a gentler and different feeling to the strong emotions that are associated with falling in love, sexual desire and infatuation,” says Dr. Singh-Dernevik.

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“Being affectionate is less mind-blowing than [lust]. For most people, affection is what develops in a relationship after the period when the infatuation starts to dwindle”

However, this phase is arguably the most important to get right: “If affection doesn’t develop, the relationship is unlikely to last after the falling in love period,” says Dr. Singh-Dernevik.

Forever More (Or, Locking It Down)

Knowing you want to be legally entwined is another level of intimacy. Lust is likely to have faded dramatically by this point, which might seem like an unpleasant reality but less so if it is usurped by the love and affection that comes with the pair bonding stage.

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“Generally, over the lifespan there is a decline from late teenage years, when [lust] peaks (associated with changes in hormones, testosterone),” says Dr. Singh-Dernevik.

“Lust or sexual arousal is also dependent on the ability to relax and it can be easily disrupted by other demands in life, such as parenthood.”

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The good news? For women especially, comfort and security outside the bedroom is a huge part of satisfaction inside the bedroom – so this stage is likely to have a positive effect on your physical intimacy. While things may not be as risqué as when you first started getting to know each other physically, they could become even better.

Some people say good sex correlates with cellulite

“Actually women’s sexual prime is when they’re in their 50s and 60s because they’re really able to show themselves and see the other person,” says Grayson. “The healthiest relationships are where we can show ourselves to each other, and that’s when the sex gets better. Some people say good sex correlates with cellulite.”

The Ordeal (Or, Threats And Tests)

Babies. Mortgages. Redundancy. Death. Major life events will also test a relationship but can make it even stronger.

You’ll never go back to what you had, the romantic phase of the relationship is gone

Harville Hendrix talks about the ‘ideal’, the ‘ordeal’ and the ‘real deal’ phases of relationships,” says Grayson. “So the ideal is the romantic phase, the ordeal is the power struggle phase which every relationship goes through, and the real deal is the pair bonding part which you get to later on. Most couples come to see me in the ordeal phase.

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“What I say when I’m working with couples is that you’ll never go back to what you had, the romantic phase of the relationship is gone, and we need to work together to create a relationship that you both really want to stay in and then you decide whether you stay together or not, rather than trying to recreate something that actually you’re not going to recreate.”

Of course, affairs are the most common test, and the hardest to come back from.

“We seek to establish secure relationships to feel safe and supported,” explains Dr. Singh-Dernevik. “If we become alert to the threat of an affair, our brain scans the environment to search for evidence to validate the beliefs we have.

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“The brain receives around 10 million pieces of information through our senses every single second, but we are only ever aware of approximately 40. If we unconsciously notify the brain that our safety of a loving relationship is under threat, a part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System in the brain stem, prioritizes the information we filter to try to understand the threat. This is responsible for the reason why you buy a new car and then suddenly start to see the same one wherever you go.”

The Real Deal (Or, Getting Older)

As you look to the future it’s important to have a shared interest beyond your offspring.

You can embrace your new-found freedom and move towards new rewards

“As children fly the nest, parents are often faced with two major concerns,” explains neuroscientist Bryant. “In the first instance, they are worried about the welfare of their offspring and can start to feel a lack of control as they can no longer oversee their everyday lives.  

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“On the other hand, they also face an identity crisis and loss of purpose – who are they after all these years [as parents]? We’re hardwired to avoid uncertainty and change and can often experience stress or anxiety because of a lack of direction.

“By creating shared meaning and setting goals as a couple, you give yourself a purpose and you can embrace your new-found freedom and move towards new rewards.”

Always wanted to take that trip to Southeast Asia? Now’s your chance to do it together – and strengthen your coupledom.