As we’re all still on a high from the Royal Wedding celebrations, I’d love to focus my attention on relationships and couples again. Particularly on what happens when we move passed the ‘honeymoon phase’ of a relationship, often during the first year of living together.
Most of us revelled in Meghan and Harry’s fairytale union this weekend, rejoicing in their televised happily ever after. When I was a child I often read fairytales, impatiently anticipating the archetypal happy ending. Since then, weddings have always triggered a belief that the love would endure and have couples live happily ever after.
Fairytales never show you what comes next. Often, nothing much changes if not that the couple go on to live together, but in the modern day, couples will have started living together long before the nuptials.
Let’s take a step back and look at the evolution of a relationship.
Stage I: Falling In Love
In general, a romantic relationship between a man and woman grows over time, from a narrow, laser-like focus or intensity to a more broad and expansive experience. In the beginning, the lovers set their focus only on each other and can be quick to forget the world around them. This is usually the stage where they’ll stop seeing friends and going to social gatherings. They each look to the other, certain that they’re the one person in the world who can bring them all they’d ever wished or needed. In this honeymoon stage, overwhelmed with emotional intensity for each other, lovers can lose interest in the details, duties and mundanities of daily life and turn a blind eye to the obstacles that lie ahead of them. They experience joy when their partner is joyful, distress when their partner is down. Early lovers can’t get enough of each other and struggle to spend time apart, often feeling lost if they have to.
This stage is often the the ‘enmeshed stage’ of a romantic relationship, or as Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson labelled it, the ‘symbiotic stage’ (In Quest of the Mythical Mate).
In this stage, we overlook each other’s differences and magnify our similarities. We don’t really see the other as they really are. Rather, we live them and this stage as if it were a dream. There are indeed bio-chemical reasons for this. While we seem to experience true love, the body is busy releasing hormones that activate the parts of our brain responsible for feelings of gratification (emotional dimension). It’s also de-activating the parts responsible for logical decision making (intellectual dimension).
We call it falling in love, and in a sense it really is a fall. I’d conclude that we become prone to losing our sense of proportion, swept away by dreams and succumbing to our biological drive.
This fall, which can also last after marriage (especially if the engagement doesn’t last long), makes us behave impulsively, often pushing us to make changes in our lives that no other force could have persuaded us to make beforehand.
It’s crucial to know and remember that falling in love is likely to be our first experience of giving up our boundaries, emotional and intellectual defences and/or protective armour. It is like merging into something that’s much larger than ourselves.
This stage can last anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on who the two people involved are and what their background and conditioning is.
Stage II: Waking Up
After the first year or sometimes few years of marriage, depending on the length of the engagement, we enter the Waking Up stage.
Waking up can be a disillusioning and abrupt experience, and a totally normal part of a romantic relationship. Our hormonal balance is restored in the brain and our rational, decision-making process reasserts itself.
Now, instead of looking through rose tinted glasses as we’d done in the previous stage, we gradually become aware of each other’s imperfections and ‘faults’. Unfortunately, at times the contrast from one stage to another can be so dramatic that we convince ourselves that the other has changed, deceiving or betraying us somehow.
This is a difficult transition to say the least (for most) but it’s also the moment when something more real and lasting can put down roots. This is the stage where we learn to love in a mature way. During the honeymoon stage, everything seems easy and undemanding because little is required of us. The body’s biology is doing most of the work, and our partner’s biology is covering up all of our shortfalls.
This is the stage where we actually meet our partners. We have the chance to get to know and acknowledge both the positive and negative sides, the beautiful, neurotic, eccentric and whatever aspects of each other. It’s the stage where we explore being together, growing more intimately with what may now seem like more of a stranger.
This is the stage of ‘differentiation’ (Bader & Pearson), a necessary stage for any relationship to develop healthy conflict and differences. This is what Berth Hellinger refers to as love at second sight: it is not biologically triggered and is therefore less passionate, driven by outside forces or out of our control.
Stage III: Rising in Love
After falling in love and working our way through the wake up call, we come to the Rising in Love Stage. This is the stage in which we rise above our dreams and differences and we expand our ability to include someone who we might find to be totally opposite to us in our hearts.
This is the stage when we can see, accept and most importantly love our partners for who they really are, not what we would have liked them to be and behave like. It’s the stage when we start to decipher which areas of our lives we can share effortlessly, which areas require a little more attention, care and resilience, and which areas we might be so opposite in that we can’t share at all. This may mean coming to terms with the limits that our partner might have in terms of fulfilling our expectations.
The Reality Check
For many people, this is a difficult step to take, often too much of a challenge. We often can’t bear going through the conflict that can arise in the stages that follow the honeymoon, that we end up separating. Alternatively, we develop co-dependent relationships that last a lifetime and appear to be fulfilling but are on the contrary quite imprisoning. We also can turn our relationships into what Bader & Person like to call ‘hostile-dependent’, in which both partners dislike each other and blame each other for their unhappiness but compromise and agree to carry on being together unhappily out of fear of hurting the other or having to face life alone.
Ingredients for Longevity
There are so many variables that can affect the way we navigate through these stages of love. How we grew up, the way we understood love should be, the reasons for which we want to be with the other person. There’s a long list and everyone’s relationship is different. There are three things though that are totally in our control: communication, compassion (for ourselves and our partner) and willingness. For a relationship to really work and move through each stage with less resistance and hindrance, it’s important that we are always vocal and honest, always consider the other person’s stance and opinion as well as respect our own boundaries and limitations, and most importantly that we are always willing to work together to strengthen the relationship. Without these three ingredients, we create a toxic environment wherein we might act out of vindictiveness, irresponsibility or fear.
Finally, as you’ve heard me say before, self-awareness is the foundation of a strong sense of self and will bring you to an even richer frontier in your relationship. Combining awareness with the above ‘ingredients’ will support you in being honest with yourself and your partner and acting from a place of authenticity and love. This will in turn help you and your partner, if they too learn and practice these qualities, work through the stages together, as a solid unit and bring your relationship to new heights that far outweigh the honeymoon stage in fulfilment and happiness.
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