By Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D.
Most people would tend to agree that to have a productive, satisfying and sustaining relationship requires tremendous intention and commitment. Relationships command a lot of maintenance in order to get through the trying times and go the distance. It is estimated that the average length of new relationships is somewhere between four and seven years and even less for those who don’t legally tie the knot. With one out of two marriages ending in divorce there obviously are significant pressures on couples pushing them toward separation these days.
How to weather the storms that peril relationships and how to ride the roller coaster’s ups and downs to the end of the ride has been the concerned focus of relationship counselors for years. Most people enter couple counseling when it’s oftentimes too late. Rather than nurturing the relationship during the early stages when there’s the open spirit of love and enthusiasm many people tend to get hopelessly locked into power struggle and wind up irrevocably closing the door to the future.
Successful relationships are an extension of the individuals who comprise them. To the extent that each individual manifests a healthy and functional lifestyle, the relationship itself will serve as a mirror reflecting how the couple expresses internal harmony and balance. An intimate relationship can be a crucible to support one on his or her own path toward spiritual awareness and development. The relationship container holds the potential for revealing the lessons that each individual needs to learn for the evolution of the soul’s growth as it expands into greater realms of consciousness.
When people feel that their relationship has broken down and that it’s time to check out and to find a replacement, the individuals are typically up against their toughest personal lessons. With the right kind of help and guidance couples usually can see what their roadblocks are to learning and open up their communication to explore the concealed truths that are inherent in their process.
There are two pure emotions, one of love and the other of fear. Pain, anger, frustration, boredom etc. arise from fear, which can cause one to protect and express unloving behavior. The path of love, on the other hand, fosters an open and safe atmosphere where learning can be fun and joyful. Moving through fear and practicing loving behavior is the ongoing challenge for all who participate in the relationship game.
Relationships go through stages as they evolve. It is common for there to be good times and it is normal for there to be growing pains as well. No relationship exists without problems and problems can be viewed as important opportunities to learn and grow. Most couples on the relationship journey seem to go through similar stages at predictable periods over the duration of their partnership.
The first stage is romance or attraction. It’s a honeymoon phase where individuals hold a common vision of what’s possible and what could be. It’s a time of great hope, excitement and expectation where fantasy plays a key role in creating the tendency to see your partner in the best possible light. This stage is typically loaded with projections and introjections where the partners strive to live up to each other’s ideal image. This stage often ends up looking like a state of temporary insanity because in the long run it fails to deal with the real world issues that are consistent with “real”, down-to-earth people.
The second stage is power struggle. In this stage one moves from the romantic vision of oneness to the di-vision that you are different than I thought, we are different than we both thought. Romantic illusion of unity becomes dis-illusionment of separateness. Here we try to get our partner to conform to our expectations, which causes us to attempt to control the other. This is where co-dependency issues arise and this is where most relationships break down or lock into dysfunctional longevity.
The third stage is stability. The power struggle stage comes to an end when we have the courage and wisdom to accept life and our partner as they really are. We stop trying to change them, and instead change the way we are dealing with them. We stop blaming and start supporting; we stop focusing on “what isn’t” and focus on “what is”. The ideal vision that came to be experienced as di-vision is now experienced as re-vision — a revised way of perceiving each other.
The fourth stage is commitment. In this stage, one makes a clear decision to work things out, to stay rather than to leave. We let go of our attachment to our fantasy of the way it is supposed to be and begin to accept and appreciate the way it really is. We now perceive our partner as basically trustworthy and feel safe to be ourselves without fear of punishment or blame. Differences are dealt with from clear communication, the spirit of cooperation, the willingness to compromise and the desire to negotiate. It is through the mutual intention to stay together in the good and bad times that allows committed relationships to endure over time, eventually leading to the co-creative stage.
The fifth stage is co-creativity. As couples experience collaborative thinking and joint decision making, they manifest the conditions for the co-creative stage of the relationship journey. The “yours” and “mine” mentality emerges as a collective synthesis of “us” which forms the partnership state. Here the couple experiences mutual support for their goals and they realize that they can produce more working collaboratively rather than solitarily. The union of the two working in co-creative alliance produces four times the amount of creative energy than one working alone. The couple gives meaning to their individual lives in the larger context, beyond the pair. They have a natural urge to co-create together through consciously raising a child, a joint artistic expression, or working together in community service. They apply the tools and skills of their relationship to include the world around them. These couples have grown to a collective maturity to include the needs of others and a desire to make a difference in the world.
Lasting relationships tend to go through distinct stages. It is important to note however, that as we evolve along the couple’s journey, within each stage, elements of each of the other stages are present. All five dimensions are potentially present all the time in different degrees. Try to flow with the ups and downs and if you can hang in there for the bumpy parts, you’ll reap the rewards as the road smoothes out.