You’re at a party hosted by your best friend’s new boyfriend. He introduces you to his very hot and very fit Buddy. Yum! You start talking to Buddy and are pleasantly surprised to find that in addition to being deliciously good looking, he’s smart, funny and successful. Out of your league, you think. But you hit it off and he doesn’t leave your side the entire night. You exchange numbers and he calls the very next day. You’re all butterflies as you go on your first date a few days later. Things catapult from here and the next six months are a haze of butterflies, dinners, laughing and mental montages of your wedding day.
Suddenly… You start to get irritated with eachother and have your first fight… Then your second and third… The honeymoon is over and you start to notice how he slurps his coffee in the morning and leaves the seat up in the bathroom. You’re scared… You wonder how things could have changed so quickly… what it all means… Is the relationship nearing the end? Or is this normal?
Sound familiar? We’ve all been there, wondered that and found out that there is no simple answer. Relationships are tough… Sometimes this scenario spells the end and sometimes it’s just the beginning. Fighting is a normal part of every relationship and a very valuable one at that. It helps us get closer to the ultimate goal of true intimacy – where we fully accept, love and support one another exactly as we are. A completely safe environment.
John Bradshaw, an experienced counsellor and acclaimed author, states that there are four stages of a healthy relationship: Infatuation, Disillusionment & Conflict, Independence and Intimacy. Many relationships don’t make it past Disillusionment & Conflict and it can take some couples 20 – 30 years to achieve Intimacy. Here is a summary of each stage:
As in our example above, this stage is the “Honeymoon” period. During this period, the biological processes associated with procreation are most pronounced. The testosterone, dopamine and other “feel good” chemicals are intoxicating. You want to spend all your time together… can’t stop thinking about eachother… The way he slurps his coffee is cute. You idealize your partner so much, you think no one has ever made you feel this way before and no one ever will. But, within three to six months, the chemical processes begin to subside and you move forward to the next stage.
Disillusionment & Conflict
During this stage, the bio-chemistry returns to normal and reality sets in. The honeymoon is over. Suddenly, the way he slurps his coffee is so irritating, you imagine slapping the bottom of his coffee cup as he’s slurping away. This is perfectly normal – yes, that’s right… Perfectly normal! Even the healthiest of relationships go through this stage. You’ve been so consumed with eachother, it’s time to separate a little. But it can be scary. Many people become so afraid of this conflict, they take flight rather than working through it. Or, they begin to cling more out of fear of losing their partner. This is definitely the “make it or break it” stage.
They keys to making it past this stage are to take comfort in the fact that it will pass and to fight with respect. Recognize that this is the stage in which much learning takes place and in the end, you will understand eachother and become closer as a couple. This is the stage in which compromise is essential. However, it takes two to tango, so if you find yourself stuck in this stage despite adjusting based on the conflicts and “feedback” from your partner, it may be time to let the relationship go. Never compromise yourself and your values for the relationship.
In this stage, you have established healthy boundaries and found the right balance between “you”, “me”, and “us”. You have accepted most of your partner’s flaws, and though you may never learn to like the way he slurps his coffee, you love him anyway. Loving someone even though you don’t like everything about them is called “differentiation” and is a sign that you are very close to true intimacy. If you make it to this stage, there is a good chance you will not be part of the divorce statistic.
Bradshaw defines true intimacy as the ability to share who you truly are with your partner and vice versa. This is critical. You cannot achieve true intimacy unless both partners drop their masks and share exactly who they are with eachother. To establish true intimacy, you have to have created safety in the relationship during the Disillusionment & Conflict stage. This means making the relationship free of judgement and ridicule. Establishing your boundaries while showing love and compassion and without making your partner feel as though they are walking on egg shells or that they are inadequate.
It can take fifteen to twenty years to develop intimacy, but longevity alone doesn’t guarantee that you have achieved it. It takes work and unless you truly know who you are and have healed any wounds from your childhood, you will not be able to share your life with another person in a healthy way.
What stage is your relationship in?