The initial stage is falling in love and idealized romance in which we project onto our beloved our own images of hoped for perfection; in order to feel whole and complete with our significant other. As this begins to wear thin and we recognize the other as human, neither the Goddess nor Prince Charming, we will often attempt to ‘seduce’ the other into living the fantasy. When they (and I) continue to fall short, remaining a flawed human, the anger stage of relationship will often arise
If being really nice doesn’t make them change then I’ll try to bully them into meeting my desired image’. This is usually not a conscious decision, nonetheless we find ourselves becoming easily irritated and annoyed by trivial issues which we once found ‘cute’ as well as a growing awareness of the need to confront more serious difficulties and differences that arise from being with someone other than a clone of oneself. (What a choice! I can be bored to tears looking at and relating to my own Narcissistic reflection, or I can be with a strange ‘other’ with whom I disagree! I personally opt for the more alive approach.Conflict resolution skills and the coping strategies of self soothing become the important techniques to move through this rather stormy stage of ‘being with’, skills that are imperative to develop and integrate into the very fabric of ongoing relationship.
And so! The relationship has lasted 5, maybe even 7 years and we recognize this is not a ‘starter’ marriage. The couple has moved into an acceptance that the ‘other’ is not, nor will become, Ms/Mr. perfect, but hey, they aren’t so bad, could have done a lot worse. We aren’t struggling with addictions, physical or sexual abuse. We are managing ok enough, and if it’s not the most exciting relationship ever known to human kind it is still pretty good. Besides, we have a child and a mortgage and a life together, let’s hang in there and make this work. Yes. We have moved into the next (but thankfully not final) stage of relationship.
This actually is an important aspect of relationship building in which we (hopefully) learn the humble lessons of acceptance of the other, as they are in reality, not just the screen upon which we project our wishes. I know my partner fairly well by now, I can predict with some accuracy the kind of mood they might be in after a difficult day at work. I am in a familiar ‘comfort zone’, aware of the preferences and likes/dislikes of the other. Saturday soccer with the kid, still able to get out for the occasional Friday happy hour, Wednesday night yoga or Tai’chi, Monday night football at the local sports bar, hanging out with friends. This is the time to settle in with our significant other, and to solidify mutual goals, plans and dreams for the future.
There is a certain undeniable comfort in developing fairly consistent patterns, of knowing that my spouse will be home in another half hour, and if not he/she will give a call and let me know they are meeting up with a friend or having to stay late at work. This is a time of relaxing into trusting and deepening commitments to each other. My partner (and of course myself) continue to engage in the irritating and annoying ‘stupid behaviors’ that had been so difficult to deal with and were the source of numerous arguments during the angry times, but somehow they don’t seem to be quite so annoying these days. Examining life from the current perspective, dishes left in the sink, hair clogs in the shower, power tools on the kitchen floor and (my favorite) spouse not logging off the computer after
use, thereby creating an extra 20 seconds of effort on my part, while still annoying are just not worth the hassle of major confrontation.
Although we are still quite able to make pointed remarks and throw a few darts back and forth they don’t seem quite so hurtful, except of course during those times when we as individuals are most vulnerable or in the throes of our own anxieties, issues, and complexes.
There is often a tendency to revert back to earlier stages of the couples’ journey especially when we are experiencing high degrees of stress or going through particularly painful and difficult times in our lives.
Most folks recognize stressors such as job loss or change, moving, death or illness of family members, accidents and financial hardships result in difficult times and greatly strain our coping capabilities. Less recognized and acknowledged are events such as planned trips and vacations, winning the lottery, family reunions and holidays, which have also been shown to result in increased stress. Any change, even positive change, means stepping out of our carefully constructed comfort zone. The proverb “Change, a fate worse than death” does resonate for many.
The counterpoint however is also true. As folks who are familiar with the Chinese text the “I Ching” know, the Chinese word for life is the same as the word for change. Hence the title is translated as the ‘Book of Change’, or the ‘Book of Life’. Change creates the environment not only for stress, but also for the excitement of full aliveness. This paradox then becomes the background for the delights and dangers of the ‘Hanging In” experience.
When individuals experience stressful times our natural tendency is to seek comfort, usually (hopefully) from our partner. The difficulty often arises that we have so much become ‘one’ that it is easy for both individuals to move into a ‘communal stress’, each wanting the other to provide the sought after ‘magic answers’. When stressed, either from the external world or from our own internal baggage or demons, it becomes easy to revert back to the fantasy that somehow there is someone out there who can rescue or support me in a way that makes all things right.
When both individuals in the couples’ relationship are in the same place of stress and looking for rescue that is not forthcoming it becomes very easy to return to the earlier stage of feeling betrayed that the other is not living up to the initial fantasy agreements. I again note that this is rarely a conscious decision but an aspect of unconscious expectations. The path through is of course to recognize that we are caught up in our unrealistic expectations, and move back to the acceptance of the nurturance and affection that my partner does provide (at least some of the time), reconnecting with the ability to self-soothe and to keep communications open, returning to the equilibrium of ‘we’re doing ok’.
There will always be disappointments and differences within a relationship, yet there are also those truly magical moments that appear to arise out of some strange and mystical place, looking into the eyes of our beloved and recognizing the depth of our love for this person, and experiencing ‘loving fiercely’.
To use the language of David Schnarch, PhD in his book “Passionate Marriage” (W.W. Norton & Co, Inc.1997) which I highly recommend, “I want to want you and I want to be wanted by you”.
As discussed, this ‘Hanging In” stage is not so bad. It is the time to really learn how to live with someone, how to move into an acceptance of their quirky behaviors that are sometimes annoying, sometimes entertaining. A time to recognize that the proverbial toothpaste tube squeezed from the top is really no big deal in the larger schema of life. It is the time to build a solid foundation, a life together based upon mutual values and goals, respect and trust.
However, as noted previously this aspect of relationship, while feeling safe and secure can also begin to feel confining and perhaps even a little bit dull as we ask the disturbing question, ”Is this all there is?”
Our thoughts go back to the memory of Initial Romance and intense passion, when we felt so alive, excited and joyful. We want that again. Fear not! Living in full aliveness is do-able! We must however not only let go of the fantasy projection that our spouse carries the magic to ‘make it so’ but to recognize that the ability to live in aliveness is a function within myself and is not carried by any another person. We must turn inward, not search ‘out there’.
More to come on the impact this can have on relationship, both positive as well as acknowledging some traps and sidetracks to our Couples’ Journey.