In the west, there is a rather common trajectory to how many relationships form and dissolve. It goes something like this…
You meet someone great – through mutual friends, the internet, or at the office. If luck is on your side and the timing is right, there is a mutual chemistry between the two of you to coalesce the physical attraction. You embark on a courtship process for several weeks or months, and the two of you are on cloud nine. The whole world appears more alive. Music suddenly sounds better, you feel more confident and motivated in your career, and your friends wonder if you started doing drugs.
The both of you agree that you like what is happening and want to keep it going, so you have “the talk.” You develop boundaries around the relationship to protect it (i.e. you agree to keep other potential mates away to not interrupt the relationship). You decide to become exclusive. Hopes are high.
Your relationship grows. You have great dates, sexual chemistry, and enjoy becoming part of each other’s lives. You even begin to profess your love for one another. Facebook statues change and Instagram selfies abound. Your friends don’t see or hear from you as much, and when they do, you are the most ebullient they have ever seen. You sing songs you used to hate and tell them that “there’s always a bright side to life.” They are wholeheartedly convinced you are doing drugs.
(Admit it, you did this little dance on the walk home. Judgment-free zone here.)
But there is something profoundly unconscious that occurs around this point in a relationship, when everything is going swimmingly well – anywhere between a few months and a year…
At the summit of your connection, the both of you unconsciously snap a mental picture of the relationship as it is currently, in all its exalted glory. The both of you unconsciously hold this picture up to the light and say: “This is what we are. This here is the standard for our beautiful relationship. Let our future together be measured by this standard here before us.” Enthralling though that image may be, there is another side to it waiting to upend.
Life continues to happen, and eventually, routine settles in. A quiet but simmering unrest begins to creep into the relationship. Neither of you are completely aware of this feeling yet, or if you are, you don’t vocalize it. After all, your relationship was rooted deep enough during the courtship phase to weather these storms, and this too shall pass.
Anniversaries come and go, birthdays pass, the holiday seasons turn the year, travel itineraries are planned and executed. You love each other still, but sex has become less frequent, arguments have become more common, and the normal routines of life pull you in individual directions. Things that you used to find appealing about each other now annoy you. You learn new information about each other that cracks the image of who you thought the other person was.
The wonderful picture you snapped of your relationship at its apogee – the one you are measuring the progression of your relationship against – is still lying around somewhere, but it appears somewhat faded now. A faint but bedeviled thought begins to linger quietly: “Did I really make the right choice?”
So, you decide to talk about how things are going. “Where are we going to be in a few years? Is this what we really want? Things have not been as good as they used to be.” You both agree you need to make more time for each other. You plan date nights, try to communicate more, introduce more variety to your sex life, schedule more time together… but over time it only seems to make the both of you more aware that things aren’t quite right. You still love each other, but you’re not sure if you’re “in love” anymore.
Your relationship difficulties begin to feel insurmountable. Resentment is building. You both oscillate between staying together and breaking up. You start to take ‘breaks’ from the relationship. Your relationship status is now hidden on facebook. You start to spend more time with your friends, who are relieved to learn after all this time you did not start doing drugs.
You start to notice more, and even entertain, attention and flattery from the sex (or sexes) that you’re attracted to. You start “going to lunch” with a coworker or a few ‘acquaintances’, but you tell yourself that “it’s not cheating because nothing physical is going on.” You start imagining your life with these new people, building an emotional bond with them while your relationship continues to spiral.
You and your partner are now practically looking for arguments and are barely holding on. You begin spending more time with other people who interest you. Often, this is where affairs enter the picture, or where some couples decide to try an open relationship. Blames begin to fly at each other for who is at fault. Things are definitely not going well.
As a last-ditch effort, you’re thinking about going to counseling, either for yourself or with your partner. This is the last straw, you say. But progress is either slow or it’s too late, and you’ve both already checked out emotionally from the relationship. You decide to break up. Maybe you get back together once or twice after failing to maintain no contact for more than a couple of weeks, but it’s just not working out, and you finally let go.
WHERE DID WE GO WRONG?
I’m often amazed just how ‘right’ of a partner people choose to form a relationship with. In a previous article, I outlined how we’re attracted to people who match our unconscious template for a partner, and that relationships are always an unconscious attempt to heal childhood wounds. When relationships work, it’s because those wounds are being healed. When relationships aren’t working, it’s because those wounds are being recreated. So, let’s put aside the assumption for a minute that we pick the wrong people to fall in love with.
Where we fall off course is typically not in the person we are attracted to, but the model of the relationship that we created with them.
Do you remember the example earlier that I gave – the one where the partners mentally snap an image of their relationship at its highest point, and then measure it against the future of the relationship? That same image, that remarkable moment, could never stand the test of time.
It was never just an image of the good times. All the expectations about the people in the relationship and the relationship itself were contained in that moment. Sometimes these expectations are explicitly agreed upon, and sometimes they are implicitly agreed upon, but they are always mutually constructed. These expectations might include things like frequency and rate of contact, how affection is expressed, how conflict is (or is not) approached, what sacrifices are to be made, and how the partners’ personalities should play out in the relationship, just to name a handful.
The reality about life is that people are always growing, evolving, and changing. At some point, that means that by default, the relationship changes too. There’s always you, your partner, and the relationship.
Typically, we’re not aware of just how powerful the expectations we created earlier on were. We constructed these expectations because we knew that our love was dangerous (after all, what else could have enticed us into each others’ lives?). We want to make the relationship safer. We want to protect it and hold on to it. However, in doing so, we obviate the very same charge of spontaneity and danger that attracted us to one another to begin with. The late psychoanalyst, Stephen Mitchell, expounded on this point once by suggesting that the early glorious ‘reality’ of our relationship is often first created by fantasy. Over time, fantasies are disturbed by how reality changes, and in turn, construct new fantasies. To put it simply, fantasy and reality are always influencing each other. Hence, the famous quote of many couples who break up: “You’re not who I thought you were.”
If the model of the relationship we chose was not-so-stalwart after all, then what else can we do? The answer is as profoundly simple as it is difficult to actually do…
BREAK UP THE RELATIONSHIP
You break up the old relationship, that is. The one that you’ve both evolved from. What you do next is you renegotiate your relationship.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting you actually break up with your partner – but that you both break up with the old relationship, renegotiate the new relationship, and be willing to move together through this process over and over again for as long as you choose to stay together. As long as both people are open to their relationship changing as much as they are open to their own lives changing, they will almost always stand a better chance at longevity than a couple that isn’t open.
It is quite common for couples to fall out of love. Unfortunately, most people assume this means that they’re not meant to be together. They equate falling out of love with the end of the relationship. But couples who are successful at staying together for decades often fall out of love with each other over and over. They ‘break up’ over and over. They fall back in love over and over..
So, to return to an earlier point: It is not that the people we are attracted to were ‘not the one’ for us. After all, their past is often a perfect match for healing our own, and vice versa. It’s the model of our relationship that we co-create with them, unconsciously, that expires. We fail to renegotiate the relationship and question the partner, not the model of the relationship. Is there any greater repetition in life than this?
I’m also not suggesting that you surrender yourself over to someone who is clearly a bad choice. You can have two different partner choices, and each are a perfect match for your unconscious mind, but one is developmentally more mature than another. One is willing and able to go the distance with you. They have the maturity and relationship skills to renegotiate relationships, to fall in love again, and thus make love last. And that is really the difference that makes all of the difference. That is what makes the difference between a mature partner and one who feels like a good fit but the relationship gets stuck and stays stuck over time.
We need to pick partners who are as open to growth and healing as we are, who are committed to their own personal growth and our own just as equally (i.e. these are not the “figure out you on your own” types). We need to pick partners who are able to transcend narcissism, who are able to speak honestly and openly – even when it’s incredibly difficult to do so. Partners who are dedicated to the truth in living, who we can fail at times and they can fail us and the imperfection of our humanness makes our love stronger…
We need to pick partners who are willing to break up with us over and over again, and who will remain dedicated with us to the process of relationships so that we can continuously fall in love together, over and over again.