While listening to the How To Fail podcast (Season 8, Episode 2) earlier this month, I started thinking about the purpose of New Relationship Energy (NRE). Journalist Elizabeth Day was discussing relationships with writer and comedian Samantha Irby when they both realised the similarities with their current partners. Neither of them had experienced the “heart-dropping, stomach-flipping, roller-coaster feeling,” as Irby describes it – something we’re often told is the essential way to identify ‘real’ love.
Having been raised on a steady diet of fairy tales, romantic comedies and Sex and The City, both Day and Irby had expectations that they would be swept away by an instant and overwhelming tide of NRE when new love entered their lives. Instead, when Irby met her wife and Day started dating her partner, they each missed the signs that they’d found someone great because everything had felt so natural and easy. “I didn’t get it for ages,” confessed Day. Their experience raised an interesting question for me: if NRE isn’t necessary for forming a lasting loving connection, how should we interpret these heightened feelings?
What is New Relationship Energy?
Relationship coach and writer Zhahai Stewart first coined the phrase in the mid-80s when trying to describe the “heady rush of escalating emotional connection and the hot juiciness of a growing sexual attraction” that she had experienced in her polyamorous relationships. Stewart recognised how disruptive NRE could initially be to her pre-existing relationships if it created an addictive or obsessive connection between the new pair at the expense of other partners.
Obviously, New Relationship Energy doesn’t only exist in non-monogamous relationships. It’s a universal experience, commonly called the ‘honeymoon phase’: an intense period of connection at the start of a relationship. Partners often mourn when it ends because they wish they could somehow recapture that magical rush, that passion, that intoxicating fascination with the other person. NRE is often described as similar to being on drugs because, as it turns out, you are.
According to Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and Senior Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute, this rush of new-found love is due to changes in our brain chemistry. Particularly, increased levels of dopamine (our ‘chemical messenger’ that helps us feel pleasure) and norepinephrine (which produces the racing heart and excitement, but also is a part of our ‘fight or flight’ response). When we experience New Relationship Energy, we light up our brain’s pleasure centre, including addiction-like drives that make us want more and more of this new person. Hence why we often refer to people being ‘consumed’ by a new relationship. We can’t sleep, eat or work because all they can do is think about them.
New Relationship Anxiety
Take a look at the language we use to describe NRE. Falling in love. Being swept off our feet. Feeling crazy about someone. We expect new love to transform us, to an unsettling extent. Our mono-normative culture tells us that we should always be on the lookout for ‘the one’. That love is scarce and we will only know when we have discovered ‘our person’ as emotions will be instantly overwhelming. So when this lightning strikes, we must be ready to do whatever we can to hold onto it. “We dress that up as excitement but really it’s just stress,” observed Irby in the podcast.
While a certain amount of New Relationship Energy can give us a blissed-out boost that leaves us swooning for our new paramour, it can be scary when it occurs in a situation that feels unstable or causes us to willfully ignore any red flags. Often, we will project ideas about who our new partner is onto them before we’ve had the chance to get to know them. We fall for an idealised version of our new partner and panic at the thought of potentially losing them as our brain has become addicted. When we experience so much NRE that it becomes New Relationship Anxiety, this should be a big warning sign. I know this because it’s something I experienced in a new relationship last year.
My bad experience with NRE
By my third date with my New Partner (NP) last summer, I already knew I was on the fast track to developing big feelings. The chemicals in my brain were already kicking into overdrive and I was walking around like the heart eyes emoji (y’know, this guy 😍). However, by date five I was extremely anxious. As lovely and exciting as this connection was, I was also worried. I’m polyamorous and NP had a long-term nesting partner (a non-monogamous partner that they live with), which was a new experience for me. I was understandably concerned about what our feelings for each other meant as I was unclear about the dynamic. After talking about it, NP revealed they were also unsure because this was a new experience for them too.
Both this and other elements of the situation should have been red flags. A sign that we should have slowed right down and clarified our situation before continuing to build this relationship. However, we were both in the grip of New Relationship Energy, so our brains were telling us to have more, more, more, not less. While this connection could have been the start of an enriching relationship, the NRE was so intense that it stopped me from making well-considered choices. Even my subconscious was trying hard to warn me about the dangers ahead. One morning, only two months in, I woke to a clear message from my dream: move to Barcelona NOW. How incredible that my NRE-saturated mind felt that leaving the country was a more logical option than slowing down and seeking clarity.
Sadly, these warning signs were for good reason. The effect that our NRE had on NP’s other relationship was disruptive and caused their nesting partner to temporarily veto me for eight weeks, which NP agreed to. My dopamine-addicted brain was plunged into withdrawal and being suddenly shut out was traumatic. It was the most extreme level of emotional pain I have ever experienced and all interactions I later had with NP were informed by this trauma. Not surprisingly, this relationship didn’t work out.
If you’re experiencing a lot of NRE, especially if it’s causing you anxiety, this is a clear sign that you need to slow down and proceed with caution. Even though your brain is telling you to rush, your need to show care for both yourself and everyone around you by taking mindful steps. Here are four key things you should do immediately:
Acknowledge that you’re experiencing NRE with your new partner: as incredible as it is to have all these new feelings, it often feels scary to admit them straight away. Talk to your new partner about how excited but anxious you are and discuss how you fit into each other’s lives right now. Rather than blurting out I LOVE YOU on the third date, acknowledge that you’re experiencing New Relationship Energy and that you should proceed with care, simply out of kindness for each other. Make an agreement about how often you see and contact each other, to allow you both space to maintain balance in your life. Being able to talk openly and honestly will give your new relationship a strong start in terms of communication.
Talk to your pre-existing partners: if you’re non-monogamous and experiencing NRE, chances are your other partners can tell. You think you’re being good at containing your excitement, but your sparkly eyes and addiction to your phone are making it clear that you have big feelings for this new person. Make the effort to talk to your partners about this as early as you can. Acknowledge that you’re experiencing NRE and reassure them that this new person doesn’t change the way you feel about them. Ask what they need from you to help them feel secure and make some exciting plans together. Once the NRE wears off with your new partner, both of you will appreciate the effort you made to sustain your pre-existing relationships.
Make fun plans with your friends: NRE will often make you feel like you need to involve your exciting new love in ALL your plans because you get a mega dopamine kick from spending time with them. Give your brain a break and line-up some plans with your friends to remind yourself that you normally have fun with other people. Limit the amount of time you spend talking about your new love to your friends and turn off your phone, so you don’t spend this time messaging them. Be present, enjoy yourself and invest in your friendships.
Make time for yourself: now, more than ever, you need to focus on yourself. Go for long walks, meditate, do yoga – whatever helps you maintain balance and perspective. Keeping calm and centred is important so you can identify any warning signs and make decisions that are in your best interest. Hold space for yourself. Breathe. It’s an exciting and unnerving time and one day this energy will pass.