I’ve previously written about how Hong Kong is a “marriage graveyard” due to some of the unique stressors in our lovely metropolis, but it doesn’t have to be death and destruction when you find that special someone. In fact, in a pressure-cooker city like Hong Kong, a good relationship can make you healthier and wealthier! Studies have shown that couples who invest in building long-term relationships are healthier financially, mentally, and physically.
The Growth Set, couples in their late 20s to early 40s, have a unique cacophony of stressors unrivalled by any other stage of life. Career focus, finding the right partner, and starting a family are hard enough, but are exacerbated by Hong Kong’s long working hours, crazy wages and even crazier living expenses, and universal drive to get ahead and impress the right people. All of this can take a toll on Hong Kong relationships, so how can you grow strong together instead of letting your relationship crack under the pressure of it all?
It helps to start out by understanding what scientists have defined as the Four Stages of Love. Here are tips to each so you can find your way through the minefield to the land of milk and honey (aka love and money!).
STAGE 1: INFATUATION / FALLING IN LOVE
Your eyes locked across the room and you started to bubble inside. No matter if it leads directly to the bedroom or you keep it cool, the same hormones are hard at work. It’s literal chemistry. Oxytocin, Cortisol, and Testosterone (even for you ladies!) rush through our bodies creating the euphoric excitement and giddiness when people are first falling in love. Sexual desire, longing, and attaining gratification are the goals specific to this stage.
This stage doesn’t last forever in any relationship, but some people want this feeling forever and falsely believe that the cooling down of this stage signals the end. But the desire to be in this euphoric state long term, amazing as it would be, doesn’t lead to a committed relationship. This infatuated love, however wonderful it is, unfortunately has a maximum life span of ~2 years. In fact, when you start to feel Stage 1 cooling off, it’s a good time to ask yourself about where you are heading…
- Do you respect them personally and professionally?
- Are they your personal brand of cool?
- Do you still see them as almost perfect in every way?
If you answered ‘yes’ to all three of the above, you are barrelling into Stage 2. Answered ‘no’ to two or more, and it’s probably time to say farewell.
STAGE 2: ROMANTIC LOVE AND ATTACHMENT
Research shows that hormone levels normalise after 12- 28 months of being in a relationship. Things get more comfortable and routines start to form. The relationship shifts toward acceptance, commitment, and developing better communication. For those people who are in love with Stage 1, this is when they are beginning to feel that the relationship may not be working. However, for those who stick together, the rewards are great.
Deep emotional and sexual recognition is being developed and honed. Life plans and goals start to align, and couples begin to feel more comfortable making plans in the long term. Thinking shifts from ‘me’ to ‘us’ and major decisions are made together. Stage 2 is exciting in its own way, and common territory are the ‘big decisions’ including moving in, marriage, and having children.
Stage 2 isn’t all a bed of roses, though. Insecurity and fear can still run high during Stage 2, and it is a critical time to negotiate through the ‘deal breakers’ if you haven’t already done so in Stage 1. Jealousy, smoking, kids, religion, geographical mobility only scrape the surface of the major issues on which couples must see eye to eye. Disagree on a deal breaker and it is exactly that – a serious impediment to ever moving through to Stage 4.
Do not ignore a deal breaker in Stage 2 or think you can change your partner – you are just setting yourself up for heartbreak.
STAGE 3: DEALING WITH CONFLICT OR CRISIS
This is a difficult phase where relationships are tested. While Stage 3 is compulsory to building a solid relationship, you can’t plan for it or schedule it, and by definition it will happen at ‘the worst possible time’.
This stage is so critical because it tests your mettle as a couple, building the final patterns and confidence in each other as life gets real. As people and as humans, we will all face many types of difficulties, and you need to know your partner is there by your side.
This is where living and working in Hong Kong can be especially tricky. Added environmental / external stressors such as moving to another country with your spouse, becoming a ‘trailing spouse’, separation from (and having no immediate) support network, long work hours and/or extensive travel requirements can become huge sources of fragility and disconnect for one or both partners.
But, they don’t have to! If you can rise to meet this challenge head on and work to maintain intimacy and care for each other’s needs – mastering conflict and crisis – you are well on your way to the long-awaited Stage 4!
It’s OK to ask for help. Especially if you are facing a challenge without precedent in your relationship – call a professional and learn great tools and insights to help you push through and grow successfully as a couple.
STAGE 4: THE BEGINNING OF A STABLE LONG TERM RELATIONSHIP
Holy Grail? Sort of, but the real work is just beginning! Relationships at this stage are an art – a beautiful medley of shared goals and priorities, core values, work ethic, trust, and intimacy. These last two being the most common challenge for most couples who find themselves in my office.
Life gets busy. Routines are established. Left unchecked, relationships can become as exciting as dry toast. A lot of couples report when they come to seek help in my office, they have lost that ‘connection’ or ‘closeness’ with their spouse. The spark is gone, and maybe they have even started to feel like siblings… eek!
Most of the time, however, this is temporary, and it happens to everyone during Stage 4. Keep in mind, Stage 4 could last the rest of your life so it won’t all be fireworks and cotton candy!
Awareness of the shift in intimacy often comes as a surprise. It is important to recognise that the stressors are outside of the relationship instead of assigning personal blame/failure.
Here are some Key tips to working through the challenges in Stage 4:
1. Learn to deescalate conversations and manage conflicts better, together
2. Create time to check in with each other on the state of the relationship – discuss things that are working and things that can improve without blaming the other person
3. Make an effort to thank one another – even for the little things
4. Create small rituals of connections in the relationship, for example: how you greet each other and say goodbye, how birthdays and anniversaries are celebrated, carve out regular one-on-one time – even if it’s just a coffee on Tuesday mornings
5. Continually learn about your partner
So, no matter which stage your relationship is currently in, with the right work and personal investment, you can work together to build happy, healthy, and successful lives – together! Best of luck, and don’t be afraid to call in a professional to help if you are struggling. There is no substitute in life for a solid relationship.
Dr. Quratulain Zaidi (BSc. Hons, MSc, MSc, PhD) is a mother and a member of the British Psychological Society and British Association Counselling & Psychotherapy and abides by the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychology. She has lived in Hong Kong and Singapore for 12 years. She specialises in assisting families with issues including parenting, teen issues, Cybersafety, marriage guidance, post natal depression, stress and anxiety disorders, depression, bullying, eating disorders, OCD and self-harm. She is an expert in educational assessments and learning challenges in children, for example ADHD, ADD, Dyslexia and ASD.
For more related articles, read our series on “Love and Relationships in Hong Kong”