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I’m not afraid of death, I’m just not sure there is life after the honeymoon ~ Jarod Kintz
Are you in a relatively new, committed relationship but wondering if you are still in love with your partner? Do you find that the passion that once burned so strongly between you is fizzling out? Has warmth and closeness been replaced by conflict, distance or loss of intimacy? If so, this can be a frightening and disillusioning experience.
In the couple counselling work I do with new partners (together a few months to a few years), many people think that this kind of change signals the end of their relationship at worst, or believe that they made a mistake they are stuck with at best. You may be surprised to learn that most couples go through this type of experience in the earlier days of their relationship. In fact it’s a normal stage in the development of the relationship, and if handled effectively, can lead to a deeper, more satisfying union.
So what in fact is going on here, and how can relationships survive this uncomfortable change?
Early Relationships – Bonding Stage
Just as children go through developmental stages, it turns out that adult relationships do too. In the early stages of a relationship – also know as the Bonding Stage – partners experience a strong mutual attraction, and tend to idealize each other as they discover and focus on shared values and areas of compatibility. Couples may believe they have found the ‘perfect’ mate, one who makes them feel good and reflects mutual acceptance and adoration. Bonding partners tend to seek out and spend a lot of time together, sometimes temporarily to the exclusion of other relationships. This bonding experience is necessary in order to form a strong partnership connection.
Bonding feels good, as it is reminiscent of a positive mother and child relationship, where the baby, and sometimes mother, experience unconditional love. As humans we are naturally comforted and drawn to the ideal of perfect mother love.
But over time, as adult partners become accustomed to each other, one or both begin to become aware that they are two separate people, with different personalities and needs. Those differences may now seem at odds with the romance. Partners can experience a sense of shock or even a betrayal, as their formerly ‘perfect’ partner now has ideas or plans that seem to run counter to the blissful merged union of the bonding stage. This can feel like a major disappointment and is a source of anxiety, frequently resulting in partners starting to doubt each other and/or the wisdom of their choice to be together. In fact, this awkward time represents a transition into the next stage of a healthy couple’s development: “Differentiation”.
Differentiation begins to occur about 6 months to 2 years into a couple’s relationship. The task of differentiation is for both partners to adjust to the fact that they are two separate people who are also members of a third relationship – their partnership. The challenge is to learn how to be comfortable as separate individuals, with unique needs and personalities, within a committed relationship. Sadly many relationships break down at this time, as couples usually have an inadequate understanding of what is happening to them, or how to deal with it, other than wanting to return to the past, as the present doesn’t feel good.
Why Differentiation Is Important
Healthy differentiation is critical as it creates the foundation for all future stages of a couple’s life together. To be successfully separate while at the same time together is optimal to the well being of the couple. To feel secure and accepted as an individual as well as reliable and accountable to the partnership is where the greatest benefits lie for the couple. Problems occur when one or both partners want to stay in the bonding stage, when one partner wishes to start differentiating and the other wants to stay bonded, or when both want to differentiate but are ill at ease as it doesn’t ‘feel’ as good as bonding, and runs counter to popular myth that romantic love is the ideal.
If couples can hang in together in spite of the challenges of differentiation, there is a great opportunity to both understand how their partner is truly different from them, and to find ways to manage those differences and resolve conflict. A major challenge is for couples to learn how to tolerate the uncertainty and confusion of this time, and to manage the anxiety that is characteristic of transitioning into this stage of their relationship.
Couple’s who are able to deal with the discomfort and ambiguity of the differentiation stage often discover ways to communicate more deeply with their partner about their own needs, and become better at supporting their partner. In the end, healthy differentiation serves both the needs of the individuals as well as the needs of their relationship.
What If We Are Stuck?
As noted, many couples get bogged down in the early stages of differentiation when they don’t understand what they are going through, and/or feel at a loss about how to deal with it. Unfortunately if there is no resolution, potentially good relationships may end at this time, or lapse into ongoing unhappiness.
Here are some signs to look out for that point to your relationship being in trouble during differentiation:
- You aren’t sure you love your partner anymore, or vice versa, and wonder if you made a ‘terrible mistake’.
- There has been a big decline in closeness and intimacy between the two of you.
- It’s hard to talk with your partner about important issues or differences, without the conversation turning into an argument or withdrawn silence.
- You feel uncomfortable or resentful that your partner has different interests, ideas, friends or activities that you don’t share.
- You feel increasingly bitter and angry towards your partner as you believe they are neglecting or abandoning you.
- One or both of you has trouble being kind or understanding towards the other.
- You feel insecure when your partner spends time away from you.
- You are uncomfortable expressing yourself openly to your partner – your thoughts, feelings, beliefs and needs – and either become overwhelmed or shut down if you do.
- When you do express yourself to your partner, s/he they react defensively, angrily or dismissively.
- If your partner communicates difficult emotions, you become overwhelmed by their feelings, and respond with anxiety, anger or withdrawal.
- As partners you don’t know how to create the conditions that support healthy change and growth as a couple.
What To Do?
Moving from bonding into healthy differentiation is a challenge that most of us were never taught to do. So it’s normal to feel confused and disoriented. It’s important to remember that the confusion is not necessarily negatiive, but definitely a call for couples to learn how to deepen their communication, trust and curiousity about each other as separate people. If you and your partner are stuck or hurting, and feel like you might give up, come work with me. As a relationship counsellor who truly understands couple’s developmental stages, I can help you learn how to get through this time together with your relationship not just in tact, but stronger.
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, and Certified Addictions Counsellor, specializes in Relationship Counselling, Couples Counselling, Recovery from Chronic Anxiety, Family Abuse, Loss and Grief and Addictive Behaviors.