Our society pays a lot of attention to relationships when they start (first dates, engagements, weddings) and when they end (break up, divorce or death). Little attention is paid to all the parts in the middle. There are many stages to the natural progression of any relationship. The more committed it is, the more intense the experience of each stage can be.
Early stage relationships are often filled with hope and illusion. Partners tend to see the things they want to see in their beloved other and ignore the rough or unseemly bits. Each of us imagines the wonders of the individual to which we commit and then go about validating our belief through selecting the behaviors most closely aligned with our wish. Sometimes there is a wonderful 1:1 match. Sometimes it is 10 degrees off. Sometimes it is an illusion. This leads to the second stage.
People begin to realize that the day-to-day maintenance of a committed relationship requires far more work than they think it should. The wonderful partner also tends to leave their shoes in the middle of the floor or doesn’t clean the kitchen just the way your mom did. It really doesn’t matter how large or small the flaw is, it is not what you expected and the mirage begins to fade, leaving what you thought was an oasis looking like a muddy watering hole. This influx of new information is also not the truth of the relationship. It is the backlash of the original illusion. The degree to which the illusion was grand will match the degree to which things now look dismal. This leads to stage three.
In stage three, people often experience confusion. They will vacillate between wanting to fix the relationship so that it matches their dream, to trashing the relationship as a disappointment, to just treading water thinking this is all there is. Fixing the relationship often comes in the guise of therapy to fix your partner. The belief is “I’m fine. They are messed up!” This approach rarely works, since the issue is between the two of you with each of you holding responsibility for its existence. Trashing the relationship often comes with loud, damaging arguments or cold, cutting remarks. The threat of break up or divorce may be sprinkled into arguments like a spice neither of you can tolerate, leaving the relationship with a terrible case of indigestion. Treading water may be the hardest of all. Here people live in desperate silence wanting things to get better, but not willing to voice what they need or want in the relationship. Days turn into months and then into years of quiet, despairing loneliness instead of the bright, warm love and companionship hoped for at the beginning of the relationship. No matter which path it takes, eventually the relationship reaches the fourth stage.
At some point, a decision must be made about how to move forward. This is where therapy and skills training can make a huge difference. Learning how to talk about the problems that exist so that both of you understand it from one another’s point of view is a critical skill in creating success in a relationship. Developing a method for solving problems in general and using it to solve the specific ills in your relationship creates a sense of hope and purpose. Finally, understanding that both members of the relationship are human and therefore fallible allows for mistakes while maintaining the commitment.
Anyone can learn the skills to turn trouble into greater intimacy.
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