The curious and interesting stages of growth experienced in the evolution of a loving committed relationship
(Illusionment, Disillusionment, Loving Reality) is well documented in the plethora of ‘happy ever after’ fairy tales and romantic comedies. Certainly a wonderful experience, and one which helps create the glue and the initial bonding that encourage a couple stay together as they navigate the more difficult and stormy aspects of relationship. The second stage, ‘Honeymoon is Over’ involves the recognition that my beloved does not quite live up to the fantasy projection that he/she should meet my
(almost) every wish and provide me with feelings of full aliveness (i.e. the way we felt during the Falling in Love stage). During this period we continue to hold onto the illusion, but with an undercurrent of desperation, trying our best to be ‘super nice’, in the hopes that we can continue the blissful romance.
The next stage is one of the most difficult. The “Angry Time” is when we move fully into ‘Disillusionment’ and often attempt to bully our partner into living the projected wish fantasy. The cognitive thinking patterns often becomes, “I’ve done everything I can do, I’ve been extra nice, tried to do everything he/she wants, and she/he still leaves shoes in the middle of the bedroom floor!” (Hair in sink, toothpaste tube tops, more interested in football than me, hours on the phone with friends…the list is endless). We begin to feel somehow betrayed; our partner is not living up to the unconscious contract of whom we believed them to be. We can become quite angry and belligerent as a result. Of course, most folks do not like the physical and emotional sensations associated with anger, so we try to repress or move away from angry feelings as quickly as possible. (At this point I must acknowledge that there are a very few individuals who become addicted to the adrenaline rush of being angry. Rather then feelings of discomfort and wanting to return to a calmer balance point which is the norm, they appear to enjoy the physical changes associated with anger, even if they later feel and express remorse. I would recommend treatment, including possible medication, for those who recognize they fall into this category) Most of us however prefer to move away from our anger and ‘make up’ as soon as possible, which is wonderful, especially when it leads to passionate interludes of renewed romance. Anger however will quickly re-surface when it becomes clear that our partner still hasn’t changed to meet our beliefs about how they should be. A more difficult style to deal with is when a person denies their anger. How often have we experienced someone growling through gritted teeth and facial grimaces, “Damnit I am not angry!!”. If we don’t acknowledge our anger/annoyance it tends to go underground and squish out around the edges like applesauce in an apple press. Anger will find a vehicle for expression and it is much easier to cope when it is up front and out from under the rug.
The positive side of this angry stage is that it provides the necessity of adopting the ongoing life skills of conflict resolution and self soothing. It is also the time to ‘normalize the process’ by recognizing that anger is a necessary part of the evolution of relationship. We do need however to express anger assertively, without aggression and judgmental putdowns. “I’m really angry at you for….vs…..You’re such an idiot” or “You put the Tupperware in the dish cabinet! I’d like you to put it in the Tupperware cabinet…. vs… When are you going to learn to put the Tupperware in the right place? (unspoken, “You dummy!”). Often questions are used as a put down. At times we have all had to deal with the, ‘What’s the matter with you anyway? (idiot!)’ comments which induce/invite shame and invariably result in defensive anger or withdrawal that interfere in building a loving relationship. “I would like, I’d really prefer, would you be willing to, I don’t like it when” are clear statements of preferences and wants that lead to a better understanding of each other. At times people tend to use passive aggressive styles such as using sexuality as part of a punishment/ reward system, or replacing interactions with our partner with sports events. While these expressions of anger may avoid direct confrontation they rarely lead to increased intimacy.
The other half of conflict resolution skill is being able to really, really, really, hear the other. Not just sort of listen but to focus upon and take in what the other is truly attempting to communicate, without becoming defensive and automatically pushing back. It is amazing how many folks believe that if someone is angry at me I need to be angry at them. If you are angry at me for something I have done (or not done) our default setting often leads us to a reverse attack. Now I will find something you have done so I also can be angry. (Usually not a difficult task!) It is like snatching a dart coming your way and throwing it back. It is my experience that mutual dart throwing contests rarely achieve anything but wounds that need healing. It is important to listen to the anger of the other and deal with the presenting issue, working towards resolution, even if it is to agree to disagree, before we toss our hat into the ‘anger ring’ in retaliation by bringing up an issue that we find annoying. “You did this…Yes, but you did that” rarely works. Individuals need to acquire the skills to ‘self-soothe’, to put our knee jerk reactions aside so our emotional charge decreases prior to problem solving. This does not imply burying issues but rather developing the ability to delay our own immediate gratification in service of love. Conflict resolution is the ability to approach difficult anger or anxiety laden situations from a position of non-judgmental respect. Self soothing includes the ability to set aside our default settings of defensive anger in favor of resolution. Self-soothing is the ability to place my immediate needs on hold, or find ways of meeting them myself, rather than expecting all my needs to be met all the time by my partner. For example, I experience a stressful day at work and feel the need for some TLC from my partner, only to find upon my arrival home that he/she also had a crappy day and is looking to me for soothing. So, feeling disappointed and respectful of the other, we both shift to finding ways of self care. It does become obviously problematic, if I or my partner, rarely if ever, is willing to meet reasonable needs. This may indicate long standing unresolved conflicts, lack of open communication regarding needs and disappointments that they are rarely met, or sadly perhaps we are with someone who may not be the best match.
The anger stage is difficult to successfully navigate and is often the source of the early demise of relationship which occurs within the first 2-5 years. It is helpful to realize that anger is a normal part of the growth of a relationship, and requires moving through by learning coping skills. It does not necessarily mean the relationship is flawed or should end. It is important at this time to reaffirm love and commitment and to remember the wonderful aspects of falling in love. As noted previously it is valuable to revisit those experiences that were shared in the initial stage of Romance as part of the bonds and glue that help a couple stay together though difficult times. Now is the time to take the second honeymoon, not as an attempt to brush issues under the rug, but rather to remind oneself that, in spite of angers and the other not living up to ‘my’ expectations, I do love this strange, unique, and at times frustrating other. To misquote Barbara Streisand, ‘I finally got my husband to be the person I wanted him to be…and then I realized I was missing the man I fell in love with.’ I invite you to remember that the woman/the man you fell in love with is still standing beside you.
And so, we move through the Initial Romance of ‘Prince Charming and Helen of Troy’ towards and hopefully through the Disillusionment stages of ‘Honeymoon is Over’ and ‘Angry Times’, and onward in the couples journey towards ‘Loving the Reality of the Other’.
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