We are all aware that the “Happy Ever After” endings to romantic comedies and fairy talestend to be filtered through rose colored glasses and are less than realistic approaches to long term loving, commitment and intimate relationship.
Neither, of course, are the tragedies of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘Tristan and Iseult’ what we hope for! The question remains; How do we navigate the ups and downs of the couple’s journey over the years? What are our expectations? Are they realistic, or skewed by either fairy tale or mud splattered lens?
I personally tend to be a bit of a romantic and harbor the belief that relationships can be loving and meaningful over our lifespan. Of course there will be issues and differences that create difficulties (unless you are involved with a clone of yourself-and that would be quite boring!). The challenge is to meet and confront these issues as they arise, doing so from a position of respect and the cooperative approach of ‘brainstorming for mutual resolution’. It is extremely difficult however to set aside the usual ‘I’m right, your wrong; My way is better than yours; If only you would… ; Once I convince her of the logic she will change; and the infinite varieties of one-upsmanship and lack of true respect for the ‘otherness’ of the other. Whether by a dismissive, demeaning comment, a roll of the eyes that clearly states ‘you are an idiot’ or sandbagging and ignoring the needs of the other, when we engage in expressions of disdain or attack as the usual response to disagreements we are clearly on a relational downhill spiral. The question remains however, How did we arrive at this place, what happened to our romantic expectations and feelings, why not ‘happy ever after’?
To explore these questions and to provide a broad overview of the couples journey I refer to “Becoming a Couple” by Schwartz and Schwartz, (Prentice Hall, 1980) We are all aware of changes we experience through the lifespan, childhood development as well as our developmental changes as adults. What we tend to not notice is the normal developmental patterns of relationship. Schwartz and Schwartz note 5 stages of relationship which can be distilled into three:
1) Handsome Prince, Beautiful Princess
i.e. illusion :
2) What is this frog doing in bed with me
i.e. disillusion :
3) Oh… he/she is wonderfully and magnificently human and has blemishes and weaknesses i.e. loving reality and hopefully I finding myself wanting to be with this person in mutual love and delight! In other words the journey is from Illusion to Disillusion to Loving Reality.
The first stage of relationship is of course Falling in Love (illusion) and being swept away by the grandeur of loving and being loved. It is a joyous time, one of feeling connected so closely to our beloved that it is though our very thoughts and feelings are one, when even the poetically challenged are able to put together resounding love sonnets, when passion, desire and sensual ecstasy take us to new heights of awareness and bliss. It is a time of feeling complete, whole and fully alive. A time when colors are brighter and even rush hour on I-95 is bearable! Even though most folks recognize cognitively and objectively that our beloved is not the perceived masterpiece of perfection, our emotions continue to support the idealized images and illusions in spite of reality. It is as though one has been smitten by a ‘magic potion’ and is no longer in control of ones’ life, which is often a great rush, as long as it doesn’t occur with someone else while in the midst of our current ongoing committed relationship.
The non-romantic view of this magical time is of course the hormonal drive towards propagating the species. As accurate as this may be, I nonetheless prefer the romantic ‘swept away’ approach. Most folks really do love falling in love, even though the quest for the ideal partner can be frustrating, difficult and at times ‘not fun’. Some folks however, can become addicted to the sensations associated with this stage and become ‘serial monogamists’.
When the Romantic stage begins to evolve into the next stages of relationship, people can become convinced that they have ended up with the wrong person, rather then understanding this is part of a natural progression towards the development of committed loving. At times of course you may be with the wrong person and the relationship needs to end. If however one has an ongoing history of falling in love with wrong persons, perhaps it has to do with our own continued search for personal ecstasy and meaning through a symbiotic relationship with the ‘other’.
Most of us are aware through self help books and advice columns that we need to find personal meaning from within rather then through the relatively short lived romantic stage of relationship, and then bring our internal personal joy and aliveness into relationship with our significant other. I support this view, yet the issue still remains—how do we get there!
During the Romantic stage we tend to project our own longings, our hoped for happiness and bliss, and often our own best traits that are not yet fully recognized, onto our beloved. When we are with him/her and the ‘two merge into one’ we feel whole, complete and fully alive. And if we can maintain this ideal over the course of an entire year, what wonderful luck! I would like to note that six months to a year is about average for the romantic stage, especially for a couple experiencing marriage or serious relationships early in their life span. A number of mid-life and elder clients in my practice, who have experienced previous marriages, report a rather briefer encounter with the ‘Illusionment’, stage and move more quickly into the Reality stage of ‘Human Love’, as opposed to Romantic idealization. For most, including myself, this involves recognizing and accepting the deep sadness, the feeling of loss, being let down and disappointed, followed by the relief and joys of discovering and sharing the blossoming of the internal aliveness previously noted.
Kicking and screaming (figuratively speaking) we slowly and surely move towards the Disillusionment stage of relationship marked by ‘The Honeymoon is Over’. This paradoxically is a time of both recognition and denial. At a gut level we recognize, intuit, and sort of feel, the crack in the cosmic egg of harmonious bliss. At a conscious level however we don’t want the intensity to decrease, we don’t want to give up the idealization of our partner, and we certainly don’t want them to give up their idealized image of ourselves! Advertising folks, who I must admit are rather psychologically sophisticated, really play on this stage. If you wear the proper clothes, the right scent, 6 pack abs, perfectly sculpted body….. not only will you attract the right person, but you will keep them, living together in eternal happiness. However the crack in the egg does exist and all the king’s men can’t repair the inevitable damage. Inevitable, because no real life human being is able to live the illusion for an extended length of time, not with the daily closeness of living together. Early on in the relationship we tend to be on best behavior, wanting to impress and attract the significant other, trying to live up to their projected images. As this begins to wear thin, we begin to doubt the other, or ourselves. We are still, however, unwilling to let go of the illusion that the other can make it all better for me, and provide that wonderful aliveness experienced in stage one, and so we try even harder! This next stage is often marked by increased romance, going out of the way to make the other happy in the hopes that I can seduce her/him into living up to my impossible fantasy expectations. Couples often will go on a second honeymoon, only to feel slightly disappointed that the magic was not quite the same.
As a quick preview of upcoming segments the next developmental stage is one of anger. It is here that couples who have only been together for a few years split up. The underlying dynamic is ‘if I’m not able to seduce my partner into living up to my illusion then maybe I can bully them into being who I think I want”. This is a really tough stage to negotiate. It can be done however as long as both folks are mindful and can develop openness and positive communication styles. More on this next month!
Advice for the month---enjoy the romance of being in love, and if you’re not currently in that place with your partner, please remember that you ‘once upon a time’ were and how wonderful that can be!
About the author: Bruce Palmer M.A., L.P.C.M.H., is a Licensed Professional Counselor of Mental Health (National Board Certification) with a Masters Degree in Psychology and has been in practice for over 25 year. Bruce provides individual and couples treatment, as well as leadership for a number of workshops and seminars. Integrating therapeutic techniques including Jungian concepts, dream work, symbolic imagery, and Embodied Gestalt approaches. Bruce combines his experience, sensitivity and training with therapeutic skills and techniques designed to enhance coping strategies, open communications, increase self- esteem and enhance aliveness. For information contact Bruce at 302 981-1303