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Relationships: Making the Breakthrough Rather than the Break-up

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by Denise O’Doherty

Relationships can be said to have three basic stages—the infatuation stage, the power struggle stage, and the reality love stage. These stages are necessary before people choose to make long-term commitments. Understanding what to expect at each stage can help us be more prepared and ready to face the challenges that each stage brings.

Relationships often start with the infatuation stage. This is a time of bliss, chemistry, and passion. Stevie Nicks describes it as being “in the sea of love where everybody wants to drown.” Infatuation is about seeing similarities and feeling understood by someone who is completely focused on you. You often hear people say, “We’re so much alike.” We are literally in an altered state, a natural high. We have more endorphins going through our system than at most other times in our lives. These endorphins give us a sense of well-being, of being excited and calm at the same time. Our sex drive increases and the ability to feel pain decreases. We have more energy. When else can get you up at 5 a.m., be at work by 8 a.m., and not feel tired? Also, people with low sex drive often say, “I’ve finally met someone who turns me on,” and those with a higher sex drive say, “I finally met someone who can keep up with me.” This stage is all about sameness. But it is not meant to remain at that level forever.

People often come to therapy disheartened, usually after 9 to 15 months of being in a relationship, saying, “I don’t think he/she loves me anymore—they don’t do the things they did for me in the beginning of the relationship.” Then they add, “I know they are really giving, devoted, and romantic because they were that way in the beginning—what happened?” The truth is that although they may have been that way in the beginning, people are more their true selves 9 to15 months after a relationship has started, when the endorphin level goes down to a person’s natural level. In the beginning, most people have their best foot forward and have a tendency to overlook any problems with their partner. It can be said that the infatuation stage is the anesthetic that prevents us from seeing the character defects in our partners. Who knew? Of course it’s not this way for everyone, but this pattern does tend to ring true for many of us.

But sameness does not allow for growth. That is why it’s a very good thing that things change. And so the next stage is called the power struggle. This is when it starts to feel like there are differences between us that can lead to many breakups. We realize that our partner isn’t as similar to us as we thought. We may even discover things we don’t like about their values, habits, or beliefs. But this is okay. This is when we need to count on our self-esteem, good communication skills, and patience. This is when we need to learn how to connect rather than overreact. This is where we learn how well our partner can (or can’t) cope with our differences. The four predictors of divorce are criticism, defensiveness, withdrawal, and contempt. We can choose these destructive defense mechanisms or make healthier choices to try and break through to a deeper understanding.

The power struggle stage is also the place where trust develops. By trust I mean that if I trust you, I know you won’t do anything for your gain at my expense and that you will care about my feelings and needs as much as you do your own. This is the stage where we are challenged to face our own fears about not being worthy or loveable. It’s where shame or any unresolved baggage from our past will be triggered. What a great time to look at these issues and work through anything that sabotages us from having the healthy and loving relationship we deserve.

Characteristics worth having in the power struggle stage are: 1) a willingness to share, hear, and acknowledge each other’s concerns and complaints; 2) the ability to assert and acknowledge each other’s personal boundaries; and 3) to be able to empathize with your partner’s feelings, meaning letting them feel heard and respected. We can hear someone out respectfully without necessarily having to agree with them.

It goes without saying that any type of abuse is grounds for breaking up. Feeling unsafe or endangered is not a basis for a healthy relationship. Neither is waiting for someone to change when you feel like a victim.

The power struggle stage is necessary and gives us the opportunity, through good communication and trust, to get to the reality love stage. The reality love stage is where both people make a conscious choice to be committed to doing their part to keep the relationship and their partner a cherished priority. It is characterized by great emotional and physical intimacy in a chosen committed partnership.

When we face relationship challenges, we have a choice to end the relationship or try to take it to the next level. If we break up, we often find ourselves at that same level with another person the next time around. It is often said that we learn more about ourselves than we do about the other person in any relationship. Therefore, the journey we take in developing any relationship has value. By not giving up too quickly, we may be giving ourselves the chance to have the result we truly desire.

Relationship Tips

1)    To get what you want from your partner, you need to make them feel safe.

2)    Speak in a way that promotes listening.

3)    Remember that criticism kills love (most people have had a critical parent, and nobody wants that from their partner).

4)    Conflict is growth trying to happen.

5)    Every time you get the love you want, Notice! Receive! Say thanks!

To assess your relationship, answer the following questions about a partner or a close friendship:

Intimacy Assessment

  1. Do I respect this person?
  2. Does this person respect me?
  3. Is this a person I can communicate with?
  4. Do we work through conflicts together well?
  5. Do we both compromise?
  6. Is there give and take?
  7. Can I be honest? Can I show my real feelings?
  8. Do we both take responsibility for the relationship’s successes and problems?
  9. Could I talk to this person about the effect childhood sexual abuse is having on our relationship?
  10. Is there room for me to grow and change in this relationship?
  11. Am I able to reach my own goals within this relationship?
  12. Is this person supportive of the kind of changes I am trying to make?
  13. Is this person willing to help me?

Denise O’Doherty is a licensed professional counselor, a licensed chemical dependency counselor, a licensed marriage and relationship therapist, and a registered nurse. For more information on appointments or her classes: relationshiptherapist.com or 713/524-9525.

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