And one particular skill that will change every relationship you have.
October 2, 2022
You fell in love.
Heaven smiled down on you.
There was nothing the two of you couldn’t accomplish together — an unbeatable team.
One was witty, kind, and caring. The other was responsible and thoughtful. One of you loved cooking, and the other loved cleaning.
You both loved motorcycles, the wind in your hair, and the bike taking you on a new adventure every time you rode together.
What more did you need to make a permanent commitment?
Nothing. You were in love.
You decided to tie the knot, or be less official and move in together, combining your stuff in one place instead of two separate homes, or having a baby seemed a good idea.
It doesn’t matter what form the commitment took which kept the euphoria going — like Christmas, there is the day after.
Pre-commitment, all we see are our partners’ strengths.
Post-commitment, how did we not see all their weaknesses??
One morning you wake up struggling, asking yourself what happened? Where’s the attentive, interested, curious, and endlessly fascinating person you committed to loving forever?
Before you decide if you want to go back to what worked in the first place, you need to understand two things:
- First, most relationships move through five distinct phases.
- Second, you and your partner are not one, nor is it possible that you will ever be one. You are two distinct, unique individuals who will never, ever, completely see eye-to-eye or fully understand each other.
Five Stages of Relationships
1. The falling in love stage.
In his best-seller Getting the Love You Want, Harville Hendrix calls this the ‘Limerence Stage,’ and Winifred Reilly, in It takes One to Tango, calls it the ‘Symbiosis Stage.’
This symbiotic honeymoon stage doesn’t last.
I repeat, the honeymoon stage will not last.
Couples fall in love with their sameness and hardly notice the differences. They hopefully delude themselves that someone will love all of who they are. You tend to put your best foot forward at this stage and subconsciously hide your limitations.
2. The differentiation stage.
Many couples come to therapy at this stage because they’ve started to experience anxiety about their differences. After trying to avoid conflict or unsuccessfully attempting to coerce each other into compliance to get rid of their differences, they feel stuck and know they need help. The differentiation stage is when our histories come into play. I’ll talk more about this later.
- The exploration stage.
In the exploration stage, couples work on developing separate selves — exploring interests distinct from each other. At this point, one or both can feel threatened because they worry they are growing apart.
4. The rapprochement stage.
Stage 4 is when a couple feels secure in their separateness, and accepts, deals with, and learns from their differences. At this point, some couples may still long for an even deeper connection which can take them to stage five.
5. The synergy stage.
Both parties know they are loved as they are and no longer need to hide what they fear are the unacceptable parts of themselves. They are comfortably interdependent.
If lucky, we make it through phases 1 and 2 and find peace in Phase 3.
But if we’re willing to continue moving through what can sometimes feel tremendously uncomfortable, we can choose to keep going, moving into phases 4 and 5.
Couples who achieve this type of interdependence have often gone through challenging life situations and losses, growing together rather than apart.
You Are Not One
As I already mentioned, the differentiation stage deserves its own section.
Of all the therapeutic skills I’ve learned, differentiation/individuation —the development of a clear sense of self that is separate from our parents and others close to us— is the skill that stands out as the most critical in my personal life and professionally, whether I’m working with individuals or couples.
Understanding that you and your partner are not one, that you have two separate neurology’s, histories, and subconscious drives, allows you to grow stronger together and expand individually from being exposed to alternative ideas, perspectives, and world views.
When someone is poorly differentiated, they often minimize their needs and preferences in an attempt to be loved. Or instead, they are all about, “This is who I am, take it or leave it!”
As adults we tend to differentiate to the same degree, or lower, as that of our parents because we learned how to be when we were children, and it’s still all we know.
Here’s How to Come Back to Each Other as a Couple.
Own your sh*t.
Get to know yourself below the level of self-image, externally imposed rules, and family history. Whether journaling, seeing a therapist, or being open to getting feedback from a trusted friend, do whatever it takes to be in charge of your life and create emotionally intimate relationships.
Under-react, under-react, under-react.
I’ve written about this over and over. The quickest way to reground when triggered is to breathe all the way out and, at the same time, soften your body. Do this exercise for three or four breaths to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. This exercise will calm you down and return you to your best, individuated, under-reactive self.
Practice the out-breath and body softening exercise even when you don’t need it, so you will be prepared when you do. Make it second nature.
Once you’ve grounded, focus on hearing your partner’s feelings–criticism, frustration, longing–without becoming flooded. You do that by putting all your attention on listening without forming rebuttals in your head.
I know. This one will take practice, but I promise, it’s worth it. Picture how you’ll feel when you’re the only person in the room who hasn’t lost it.
Use your resistance as a tool.
Remember that your partner is a mirror, as are your children. And everyone with whom you disagree.
Your resistance to differences will show you every cell of undifferentiation that remains in your body. Differences aren’t the enemy. Instead, they can be your path to self-awareness, freedom, and peacefulness.
Differentiation is your super power. Commit to accepting one hundred percent responsibility for your happiness and growth as a unique and competent adult. Give your partner the freedom to find their own unique and competent adult self.
No longer will you waste energy on trying to make them a clone of you. Instead, you’ll be grateful for what you add to each other, and you’ll end up with a relationship where the sum is greater than the individual parts.
Please get in touch and leave comments with any questions or additional thoughts on how to bring the shine back to relationships.
If you’re interested in reading more about how to create peace in your relationships, check this out: https://betterhumans.pub/how-to-turn-a-conflict-into-a-conversation-8e47c08d1aae