The couple’s therapy session last night went pretty well, and I think we’re going to see her again.
The therapist mentioned the stages of a relationship, first by saying, “What stage do you think you are in?” and later by reflecting back to us that she thinks (and I agree) we are in a conflict stage, which is completely normal, after 2+ years, for the development of a long term partnership.
I spent the morning looking up articles on relationship stages. I think most of us can pretty easily identify the Honeymoon phase, or the NRE (new relationship energy) phase, which is pretty commonly discussed in my world anyway. It’s clear Kristen and I are past that … though to be honest, I feel a little sad about that, even just writing down that we’re no longer in it, I don’t want to admit that, to myself or to you, I’d rather be one of those couples that says, “The honeymoon never ended,” and be all blissful and gooey eyed at each other. I think I am grieving for that loss a little. We stayed there for a long time, certainly longer than I’ve ever been in it before, and we even were able to get back into that blissful wrapped-up-in-each-other feeling for a good year and a half into our relationship, maybe even a little longer.
I have read many books on relationships and taken some relationship classes, so it kind of surprised me that I’m not more familiar with these relationship stage theories. Some of the articles I read have four stages, some have five, some have five or six, some have eight, but all of them mention this key stage of growth, which is where I think Kristen and I are, and most of them refer to it as The Power Struggle. One place writes that it is “sometimes also known as the “Growth Struggle” by those who like to think positively,” which I think is more apt, not just because I like to think positively but because growth requires the temporary suspension of security, and that as much as many of us gives lip service to wanting to “grow,” most people don’t seem to be capable of doing so. And “growth” is what the Power Struggle actually means—we are struggling against each other, with power dynamics, monsters, whatever, and if we can work through it, it will be a huge stage of growth for us, into the next stages.
So, before I keep going into my personal reactions to these stages, here’s what I understand from my readings to be the major relationship stages, as compiled from multiple sources.
1. The Honeymoon
New Relationship Energy, Bliss, Enchantment, Falling In Love, Romantic Love—this stage has many names, but all the models I read seems to be clear and in agreement about what it does. It brings two people together, blissfully, and makes everything seem great. Better than great—wonderful.
“When you see things that you don’t like, you might deny or at least minimize them. You tend to go above and beyond what is required or expected. You feel energized, alive, and filled with new dreams.” Dawn Lipthrott writes at The Relationship Learning Center. She also explains that, “Your brain is flooded with feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine and PEA (phenylethylamine). Like most endorphins, PEA increases energy, feelings of well being, positive outlook, and diminishes pain. It increases sexual desire. PEA is what allows you to skip meals and sleep. If you usually tend to be anxious, PEA may help you feel safe and calm. If you are usually depressed, you might have more energy and see things more positively.”
Seems like most of these places say it tends to last 6-8 months, but completely vary depending on the couple and can be longer or shorter.
2. Settling In
But I think there is more to the beginning of a relationship than just the blissful honeymoon, and that most of the time, more things happen before going right into the Growth Struggle.
“The initial excitement of being together is subdued so you can actually discover who the other person really is. You and your partner begin to discover each other’s quirks and neurosis, and you uncover things that bug you about each other. You also begin to discover what you truly love and respect about one another. Your communication should deepen to a soulful level, where you begin to open up to each other,” love coach Rinatta writes.
“Roles are established, expectations are set and compromises are made,” Dr. Marty Tashman writes.
I think Kristen and I spent a bit of time in this, settling in to each other, building, working on foundations, having small fights but recovering, still holding that deep bond between us. In relationships I’ve had in the past, we skipped this stage, and I think it’s important for a strong foundation.
3. The Growth Struggle
“Eventually, for virtually all couples, the enchantment phase ends, the drugs wear off and are no longer secreted, the negative traits emerge with a greater impact, wounds and protections from childhood start being activated and the relationship moves into the “Power Struggle”. Where a partner once wanted to spend lots of time and energy in the relationship … now the partner is quiet, pre-occupied, unavailable. … Where a husband or wife was, in the Romantic Phase, kind and respectful and listening; now in the Power Struggle Phase, he or she becomes impatient, authoritative, unresponsive … somehow familiar from childhood or teen experiences. This can be very distressing and even frightening. At some point there is often the panicky thought, “What have I done? I’ve married my Mom!” from Stages in Love Relationships, Gary Brainerd
“This is the stage at which most couples split up. The power struggle can be a gut-wrenching, painful place for a couple to be. This can be a time of arguments or silence, a time that truly will test the couple’s love. Couples at this stage wonder how they got here since it can come on unexpectedly out of nowhere. This can be a shocking stage for a couple,” love coach Rinatta writes. She continues: “There are two prime stumbling blocks. One is that when couples get to this stage they do not realize it is a normal stage for all relationships, and that they can get through it. Instead, the couple thinks something is wrong – perhaps they are no longer compatible or they no longer love each other. The second stumbling block is that the couple can get stuck in this stage, with one or both partners being unwilling to move forward.”
Men’s relationship advice (I know, cheesy, but I’m only picking what I think is useful and, in my opinion, accurate) says that the Growth Struggle is “a troubled – but necessary (like puberty) – developmental stage.”
Aha—puberty, I like that correlation. Awkward, bumbling, coming of age, growing up, sometimes it feels like the world is ending.
“I like to call this stage, “The Invitation to Growth.” It’s also a struggle for protection. One of the biggest illusions in our culture is that Romantic Love will last forever, if you just find the right partner. We hear that love is supposed to continue happening ‘naturally’ and if you have to ‘work’ on it, it must not be real love,” writes Dawn Lipthrott at The Relationship Learning Center.
I think more commonly in my life there is a sense that “relationships take work,” but also a lot of confusion about how much work is okay, how much is good, and how much is too much. But I like the idea of this being an invitation to grow.
How easy it is to forget that conflict and problems are invitations for growth, change, and evolution in general! This is a basic principle of Buddhism that seems to pop up in my life frequently, but somehow I can’t seem to remember it before I am already dragged down into the mud of, “Oh my god this is never going to change this sucks argh stuck stuck stuck.”
“In this 2nd stage, you might start feeling anxious or disappointed. Things that you once liked about your partner have become sources of frustration and hurt feelings. … Anger and resentment can build. Sometimes it feels as if you are walking on eggshells. Little things seem to so easily turn into big things.” Dawn Lipthrott continues. “For some couples this stage can get to the point of desperation where you’ve tried everything you know and it seems the only option is to get out—temporarily or permanently. … This stage can be the door to deeper connection and intimacy, and a fulfilling relationship, if you learn and use some of the tools to transform it into the path to real love. Conflict is growth trying to happen to help you and your partner realize more of your potential as individuals and as a couple! Conflict can be a door to healing and personal growth. Conflict is NOT the problem. What you do or don’t do with it can be a big problem.”
“There are no simple solutions to a power struggle in a relationship. It’s a complicated phenomenon that is inevitable. But it is resolvable,” Rinatta writes.
“If your relationship is not completely compromised, this is where you need to get help! No, not well-meaning friends or a self-help book – what you need is qualified, impartial third party assistance. Choose [a] relationship counselor in your area,” writes Men’s relationship advice.
“The Power Struggle is growth and healing trying to happen,” writes Gary Brainerd.
I don’t know how people resolve this on their own. Some couples must be capable of it, but I know I can really use some assistance. I’m not sure if any of my relationships have moved out of this phase, to be honest. They always end here, often because, in the past, my conflict resolution skills have been awful, with my tendencies to shut down and run away. I am working hard on that in my individual therapy work, and I’m definitely in a new place.
Because I haven’t really gotten out of this, I’m not sure what the next stages are. But I’ll try to summarize and bring together as much as I can, according to what I’m reading.
It seems like there are two options from the Growth Struggle: unresolved, and resolution. I’m interested in what happens when people stay in an unresolved relationship, it probably would explain a lot of my parent’s marriage, for example, but I’m more interested in a model that I can possibly follow, and a place for which to aim. So you can go read up on the further unresolved stages, though I’m going to focus on what happens when a couple is working toward resolution in this particular relationship stages model.
Assuming the couple makes it out of the Growth Struggle and stays together, which it seems most couples can’t, the next step is work, work, work. And developing skills. And developing a common language to talk about our individual monsters, our needs, and our relationship’s needs.
“Couples who choose this route will find themselves learning a lot about themselves, about their partner, about relationships,” writes Brainerd. “The emotional patterns of each are clear and they have established patterns of dealing with their differences. It is common for problems to arise in this stage, but because you have already experienced a great many shared challenges, you stand the best chance of working through these issues,” writes Tashman.
“This is the stage in which you not only recognize that your relationship can be more than it is, but also that you have the power to make real changes. You choose to become conscious and intentional, and begin a whole new chapter in co-creating the relationship you both dreamed of,” writes Lipthrott. “In this stage, when you use good communication skills, you can gain new information and insights about yourself, about your partner, and about the nature of marriage or relationship. You discover the hurts, fears and unmet needs that are the roots of conflict and you can find more effective ways to address the REAL problems, not just the symptoms. … you consciously practice the skills you are learning about communication, stretching into new behaviors, creating emotional safety, etc. You become partners in the healing and growth of the relationship, your self and your partner. You hold in your mind and heart the vision of the relationship you want and you work each day to make it a reality. You also find that you are realizing your potential more in other parts of your life.”
“It takes a lot of soul searching, self-discovery, intimacy work and deepened communication to break out of the power struggle and move beyond it. Now both partners must grow emotionally for the relationship to thrive. Those who are committed to their relationship do grow, no matter what may be required of them. Think of this period as your second chance to create the relationship you have always wanted with a partner you have always wanted to be with,” Rinatta writes.
“Beyond the power struggle, in the transformation stage you understand that avoiding conflict is not an option any longer, as it makes you angry and resentful, shuts you down, and breaks the trust. You realize that guilt trips, justifications, blame, criticism, sarcasm, and violent behaviors deeply damage your relationship, brake your partner’s heart and destroy her respect. As hard as it may be, you must stop wasting time on useless distractions (TV, games, shopping, pointless activities) and start spending time with YOURSELF. Walk, run, or sit in quiet meditation; let go of your mind and enter your heart – the answers you are looking for are here. It is time to find yourself again: your needs, your wants, your passions and your dreams. Write them down. Keep refining and upgrading the old ones until you feel ignited again! Little by little, you start seeing your partner with new eyes: she is your best friend and you are both in this together.” writes Men’s relationship advice
Does that ring a bell or what? It seems like I have almost written that paragraph here lately, at least from the part about wasting time and spending time on myself. I have been feeling a strong pull to do that lately, maybe it will help me pre-build this transformation stage. Or maybe we’re already starting to be in it, since we are finally breathing a little more freely around each other, and I know I feel more hopeful that we can get through this than I have before.
That’s how the therapist last night referred to it, anyway: as in, “you hit gold,” or “you’re golden.” I forget what she said exactly, but it’s The Point, I guess. Eventually. I don’t know how long it takes to get there—probably depends on the Growth & Transformation stages, and maybe even once you hit Gold you still go back and grow and transform sometimes again. That would make sense, given that life is ever-changing, ever-evolving, and that there are always crises to deal with.
“It’s not that there will never be hard work or hard times again, but you have reached a new stage in your relationship – a stage where you cherish and treasure each other, appreciate the good, and accept the bad. You have bonded, connected, joined. Now this is what love is all about. … Life happens to a more mature, seasoned, happy and vibrant couple. You move together and separately through your life and know when you need to connect and when you need time apart. You know how to meet each other’s needs and seek increasingly deeper connection. Your relationship is the rock, the wellspring of love in your life.” Rinatta writes.
“This is the stage of deep respect and cherishing of one another as separate and unique individuals without losing the sense of connection. It is a stage of joy, passion, intimacy, happiness and having fun together. It is the stage of living out the vision of true partnership, unconditional love and safety, and of coming to see your partner as your best friend. It is the stage of moving toward the spiritual potential of committed relationship the journey toward wholeness, the love in which you taste Divine Love in whatever way you imagine or language that,” writes Lipthrott.
“The final stage … is what is sometimes called “Realistic Love”. It is a much higher level of marital or relationship satisfaction, but unlike the Romantic Phase, it is based on a mature, realistic love that is grounded in understanding, healing and growth. It is a goal worthy of the best you have to offer,” writes Brainerd.
“The stage of real love, or blissful relationship, is what follows after the winded journey of discovering each other and consistent personal growth for mutual healing in committed relationships. According to researchers, if you reach this ultimate phase of complete acceptance and love you are part of the lucky 5% of the couples who make it. Much like the first infatuation stage, blissful love is full of joy, passion, fun, and deep physical and emotional intimacy. But unlike that phase of “no control and least awareness” you now live out your vision of collaborative partnership, deep respect, and true friendship,” via Men’s relationship advice.
I know I’m giving you a lot of quotes here, but I can’t write from experience about these stages as much. I can probably summarize them (and maybe I will condense this down and into my own words, and pitch it elsewhere, as I keep thinking about it) but I’m still now just trying to understand what the phases are and how we move through them. I have a much better sense of that evolution than I ever did before—not sure how exactly I’ve skipped this theory in all my readings on relationships, or maybe it just never quite resonated because I never got to the Growth Struggle phase and thought that I would actually get through it, and wondered what was next. It was so clear in past relationships that we weren’t going to get through it, so the struggle was simply to get out, rather than to move on.
Here, though, the struggle is to move forward, to open up, to face the growth and transformation, and to keep turning toward this wonderful person who has chosen me, as I’ve chosen her.