When we study the psychology of relationships, we quickly learn that every relationship has numerous stages. When an individual is trapped in the normal relationship stage, it may be very difficult for him or her to avoid falling down the (so-called) rabbit hole.
Have you ever found a romantic partner who met many of your needs, and with whom you felt completely connected, only to come and find out months (or years) later that this person is not at all who he or she once appeared to be? In fact, this partner turns out to be quite the opposite of the person you originally fell in love with. Small quirks and peculiarities that you once found endearing begin to grate on your nerves. The relationship begins to shift, and you begin to realize this is not the person you want to spend the rest of your life with.
From personal and professional experience, as well as years of studying the nature of relationships, I have come to realize that this is a completely normal – almost expected –experience. Relationships start off with a bang – this is known as the “Romantic Phase.” Both partners experience a dopamine-induced high, and that initial high is usually not sustainable. As the relationship deepens, that initial feeling of falling head-over-heels in love begins to fade. Feelings of elation and infatuation begin to dissipate, making way for something more stable and ultimately fulfilling. At this juncture, the actions that one chooses to take will be pivotal to the relationship. I often see it in my practice; clients wanting to jump ship as soon as the romantic phase begins coming to a close. My clients are often surprised to find that these feelings are normal and that they are, in fact, an expected part of every new relationship.
So then, what it is the next stage in your relationship? Reality. This is when the work truly begins.
At this stage, the relationship lacks insight, and defense mechanisms begin to appear. This is especially evident in those who seem to continuously struggle with longevity within their romantic relationships. The myth that most individuals readily buy into is when they no longer feel romantically exhilarated and infatuated with their partner, something must be wrong with their relationship. This often stems from the fact that the romantic stage stimulates endorphins like no other stage typically does, and feels so very, very right. When an individual realizes that he or she is at this stage, it is exceedingly likely that he or she will undergo several benchmark experiences. Core wounds are activated as soon as the individual begins to feel that he or she is not getting the majority of personal needs met; one person feels betrayed and/or abandoned while other feels smothered and/or controlled. Harville Hendrix, the author of Getting the Love You Want and Making Marriage Simple, suggests that our deep core wounds are being activated by the actions of our partners. This activation, in turn, initiates a dangerous dance between the individual and his or her partner. Some people may live unhappily in this dance for many years, while others decide that it is simply too hard to stay in-step, and end the relationship altogether. It is important to note that engaging in this seemingly endless tango is completely normal, and is, in fact, an essential piece of every developing and maturing relationship. How the partners in the relationship handle this struggle, however, will either make or break the partnership.
I frequently witness partnerships in which each individual is desperately struggling to get his or her needs met. When this occurs, it feels almost as if my office becomes their own private battlefield. Both parties are attempting to express why the other is not doing things “right” – what areas they feel the other can improve upon, and where the relationship is lacking. It is important to understand that this conflict is not about who is right and who is wrong; rather, it is about fully understanding and listening to one another from an empathetic and non-defensive place. The therapy modality which best addresses this aspect of relationships is the Imago Model. Imago Therapy requires that a client set aside their biased perceptions, their defenses, and their arguments so as to truly learn about and understand their loved one. As this process begins, I will assist both parties in making deeper connections when it comes to understanding their behaviors. This process will ultimately lead to each individual feeling heard and understood, and the relationship as a whole will begin to heal. The goal of this work, at its core, is to feel more connected and validated through improved understanding and communication. Oftentimes, I have to remind couples that they did not wake up wanting to hurt one another – even though, somewhere down the road, they may have ended up doing just that. Their goals are shared – they both deeply desire love and respect. In a shocking amount of instances, couples begin defending themselves, as if they are playing for different teams. In reality, they are on the same team – they often just need a little help in remembering that.
So with help, guidance, and continued learning, the power struggle can be the most profound part of your relationship – a seemingly negative component that in turn leads to immense growth and development. Instead of impulsively reacting to everything your partner does, you can begin to understand where the reactions stem from – why the reactions exist in you. In order to resolve any external issue, one must first look inwards. Inside of ourselves is where the only things that we can truly control ultimately reside. This is exactly what Harville refers to as the “start of a more conscious relationship.” Through Imago Therapy, self-love and love for your partner can be transformed into a more conscious phase of your relationship. Therapy gives couples a safe place to confront potentially explosive topics and subject matter, and having a safe space in which to work through issues is extremely important during these transitional phases. The gift of the relationship comes when both partners work through these stages together, and the result is an outcome of mutual love and understanding that is both fulfilling and sustainable.
Providing couples with a structure that will help them to succeed in the long-term is of utmost importance to me. By using both Imago Therapy and the model of co-dependency first developed by Pia Mellody, I help teach couples to overcome these challenging times and strengthen their relationships in ways they never deemed possible. Providing couples with the tools they need to practice healthy communication in their relationship (on a daily basis) can bring them to a place where functionality becomes second nature, and they will eventually be able to sustain this work on their own.
It is important to remember not to give up on your relationship – to remain open to learning new ways to better understand one another, working towards the ultimate goal of reaching a deep and more meaningful romantic connection. Try not to abandon ship before the true blessings of healthy and effective communication begin to unfold!
Jessica Baum is a licensed and experienced relationship therapist in Palm Beach County, specializing in codependency and love addiction. To learn more about love addiction or to book an appointment, please feel free to call her at 1-800-274-8106.