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Making the Breakthrough…

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 …not the breakup!
by Denise O’Doherty, LCSW

On the way to long-term commitment, relationships move through three basic stages: the infatuation stage, the power struggle stage, and the reality love stage. Understanding what to expect at each stage can help us be more prepared to face the challenges that each stage brings.

The Infatuation Stage

Relationships most often start with the infatuation stage. This is a time of bliss, chemistry, and passion. Stevie Nicks, of Fleetwood Mac fame, 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 are literally in an altered state, a natural high. You have more endorphins going through your system than in most other times in your life. These endorphins give you a sense of well-being, of being excited and calm at the same time.

Your sex drive increases, and the ability to feel pain decreases. You have more energy. When else can you be up until 5 a.m. and be at work at 8 a.m., and not feel tired! If you’re a low-sex-drive person, you’ll think, “I’ve finally met someone who turns me on.” If you’re a high-sex-drive person, you’ll be saying, “I finally met someone who can keep up with me.”

Infatuation is a stage of sameness that’s not meant to last forever. And when it begins to wear off (usually in 9 to 15 months), that’s when you’re likely to become disheartened and seek therapy.

“I don’t think he loves me anymore” or “she doesn’t do the things she did for me in the beginning,” you say. “I know he is really very giving, devoted, and romantic, because it was that way at the beginning. What happened?”

The truth is that we are more our true selves 9 to 15 months after a relationship has begun, when endorphin levels go down to their normal state. In the beginning, most of us have our best foot forward and have a tendency to overlook any problems with our new partners.

The infatuation stage is the anesthetic that prevents you from seeing the character defects in your new partner! Who knew? Of course it’s not this way for everyone, but it does tend to run true for many of us.

But sameness is not about growth. That is why it’s a very good thing that things change.

The Power Struggle Stage

The next stage, the power struggle stage, is when most people break up. You’re beginning to feel like there are differences between the two of you. You realize that your partner isn’t as much like you as you had thought! You’re likely even to discover things you don’t like about their values, habits, or beliefs.

This is okay! This is when you need to count on your self-esteem, good communication skills, and patience. This is where you need to learn how to connect rather than overreact. This is where you learn how well your partner can (or cannot) cope with your differences.

The four predictors of divorce are: criticism, defensiveness, withdrawal, and contempt. You 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 stage 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 lovable, 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 relationships we deserve.

Characteristics worth having in the power struggle stage are:

  • a willingness to share, hear, and acknowledge each other’s concerns and complaints;
  • the ability to assert and acknowledge each other’s personal boundaries; and
  • the ability to empathize with our 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 breakup. Feeling unsafe or that you are in danger is not a basis for a healthy relationship. Neither is waiting for someone to change when you feel like a victim.

So it takes good communication and trust to get to the reality love stage.

The Reality Love Stage

The reality love stage is where both of you make a conscious choice to be committed to doing your parts to keep the relationship and each other a cherished priority. This stage is characterized by great emotional and physical intimacy in a chosen committed partnership.

When you face relationship challenges, you have a choice to end the relationship or try to make it to the next level. If you opt for a breakup, you’re likely to find yourself at the same level with another person the next time around.

It is often said that you will learn more about yourself than the other person in any relationship. Therefore, the journey you take developing any relationship has value. By not giving up too quickly, you may be giving yourself the chance to have the results you truly desire.

Relationship Tips

Here are four great ways to get what you want from your partner and keep your relationship headed in the right direction

  • Make them feel safe.
  • Speak in a way that promotes listening.
  • Remember that criticism kills love. (Most people have had a critical parent, and no one wants that from their partner.)
  • Every time you get the love you want, Notice! Receive! Say “Thanks”!

Remember, conflict is growth trying to happen.

Intimacy Assessment

To assess your relationship, answering the following questions about your partner or close friend is a useful exercise:

  • Do you respect this person?
  • Does this person respect you?
  • Can you communicate with this person?
  • Do you work well together through conflicts?
  • Do you both compromise?
  • Is there give and take?
  • Can you be honest? Can you show your real feelings?
  • Do you both take responsibility for the relationship’s successes and problems?
  • Could you talk to this person about the effect that child abuse is having on your relationship?
  • Is there room for you to grow and change in this relationship?
  • Are you able to reach your own goals in this relationship?
  • Is this person supportive of the kinds of changes you are trying to make?
  • Is this person willing to help you?

Denise O’Doherty is a licensed professional counselor, a licensed chemical dependency counselor, a licensed marriage and relationship therapist, and a registered nurse. For appointments or more information on her practice or classes, visit relationshiptherapistrn.com, or call 713.524.9525.

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