My daughter-in-law qualified for the Boston Marathon by running in a local marathon, making it by an amazing three seconds! She was really hurting the last five miles. A stranger saw her and began to walk-run alongside her, subtly encouraging her. She could hardly speak but managed to whisper that it was helping. And it wasn’t long before she was able to dig deep again and find whatever that thing is that drives a person to persevere to cross a finish line.
It’s similar with relationships: passing through stages, getting support along the way, digging deep inside for answers and staying-power, and making it to the finish line called “real love.”
What’s the secret for getting through the stages? I recently published a book on relationships. And while writing it, I asked a woman in her 20s whether her generation would read a book on relationships. She said, “No, they’re confident that they already know what they need.” Then I asked a man in his 30s whether his generation would read a book on relationships. And he said, “No, they’ll just switch partners.” I thought about stopping my writing. Even my son said to me, “Mom, just give it to me in one sentence.”
So here’s the sentence: Getting past stage four is what relationships are all about.
Stage One: Romance
When my husband and I began our relationship, I was helping to renovate a building and spending a lot of time in the attic, shoveling old insulation into garbage bags. Since we were in romance phase, Ron was ecstatically happy to help me shovel! So we turned on music and danced on the beams. He wrote poems for me, and he learned to play “Georgia on My Mind” on a borrowed guitar. We jumped in the ocean with our clothes on. Even shopping for groceries together felt mystical.
Stage one is the romantic phase. At this point, falling in love is amazing, and we feel complete. We can’t get enough of each other. And neither of us can do anything wrong. Life is perfect, and we’re uncharacteristically positive. We’re both on our best behavior because we only want to impress and please each other. We let our defenses down. “Finally, someone who understands me!”
What’s wrong with this wonderful picture? If we build a relationship with the calculated behavior presented during romance phase, instead of who the person really is, we’ll be surprised when we meet the rest of the person.
Stage Two: Reality Check
Once, when Ron and I argued, he walked out of the driveway to take a short time-out. And he just kept walking – through the night along a country road for eighteen miles to a friend’s house! He expected me to come looking for him, but that’s not my style. The next morning, the friend called to let me know that he was OK. Ron expected me to come get him, but that’s not my style either. Eventually, he got a ride home, we talked it out, and he admitted that it had been pretty scary, walking through the pitch-dark, especially when he’d crossed the bridge and could hear, but not see, the river rushing below. Funny guy. He should’ve been way more worried about the possibility of a copperhead warming itself on the asphalt.
Stage two is a reality check. Now we wonder, “What happened to the person I first knew?” Of course, we’re no longer in a relationship with that person because now we’re interacting with the flaws that weren’t visible through our romance filter. Surprise! “This person has flaws!” What was cute in the beginning is now annoying. We’re often frustrated, and we have painful disagreements.
A helpful tip for stage two: Examine whether it’s possible to say to your partner: “I accept you just as you are, and you don’t need to change to meet my expectations.”
Stage Three: Power Struggle
It’s important to know that we don’t graduate through these stages, never to return. Instead, we pop in and out of them. Sometimes, all five in the course of a day!
I’m American, and Ron’s from Amsterdam. And we spend several months apart each year because we have children on two continents. Recently, we argued long distance, and then we didn’t speak for five days, which was really weird because we normally connect several times a day when we’re apart. On the fifth day, I was talking with a mutual friend who had just spoken to Ron. And I had that pubescent gut-reflex response – the one you get when someone knows more about what’s going on with your boyfriend or girlfriend than you do, and you feel like you got punched in the stomach. It felt like high school. And it motivated me to start the repair process. So I made the first move. I called Ron, we talked it out, and everything was OK again. Taking a time-out is usually about processing, but it can easily spiral down destructively if not checked.
Stage three is where disappointment turns into distress. We all want focused energy from our partners, and when they go on autopilot, we’ll do something to wake them up. And most of us know exactly what our partners can’t tolerate and which emotional missiles to fire at them. If our self-worth is strong, we’ll be kind. But if not – look out! Small annoyances are now big issues that remind us of childhood traumas and unresolved issues we’ve dragged along into adulthood. Hidden agendas are revealed, which turn into power struggles. We feel trapped, so resentments build. We think about divorce for the first time.
Stage three may seem unbearable, but it can last decades.
Stage Four: Resignation and Automaticity
Stage four is where resignation and automaticity are fixtures. At least there are fewer fights. There’s less friction, and differences are less threatening. We’ve both settled into autopilot, taking each other for granted and repeating unconscious mistakes.
There’s a sense of loss, and we’ve let go the fantasy of ever experiencing butterflies or rushes again. We no longer feel exclusive with each other, so we’ve re-established old friendships and outside interests. There’s the probability of giving up and drifting apart, mainly due to boredom from the predictability.
Since Ron and I spend months apart, people sometimes ask us how we keep our relationship healthy and secure. It would be easy to slip into autopilot and let our connection fade away from lack of energy. But we purposefully go in the other direction. We accept that our relationship is nontraditional, and we view that as a plus rather than a problem. We keep our relationship as our first priority, even when we’re apart. And we don’t take each other for granted. When we’re together, there’s excitement and appreciation, and when we’re apart, there’s anticipation. We both know that real love is not limited.
Stage four is crucial – it’s either stalemate or soulmate!
Stage Five: New Awareness
I’m a big fan of a technique called Marathon Talking. Two people set themselves apart from their normal routines, and they take turns talking for 48 hours. One talks for 24 hours while the other listens, and then they switch places. It sounds extreme, but it really works. Most people experience greater trust, understanding and acceptance, and they gain a new perspective. I’ve done four marathons over the years, including one with my first husband after our divorce, and one with Ron before our wedding. Ron thought it would be a good idea to bring along photos of his past girlfriends to share. Not a good idea! He made me laugh a lot though, and the experience gave us a point of reference for how to communicate well on a daily basis.
Stage five is where real love finally wins, and we’ve made a commitment to not settle for less. With everything we say or do, caring for each other is our first priority. We accept each other’s weaknesses, we collaborate to overcome challenges, and we never again blame each other for being wrong. We don’t require him or her to do something or to be something in order to win our acceptance and approval. We’re supportive best friends, and we back each other’s interests. Being together is based on shared purpose rather than need. And we share a joint vision of the future.
A helpful tip for stage five: Acknowledge that you and your partner are both right and no one is wrong, and that your interests can’t conflict because whatever is good for either of you is good for both of you.
I have some friends who are always in stage five. They never become frustrated with each other. They have a fabulous ability to laugh their way to agreement or disagreement – they don’t really seem to care which. What’s their secret? They like themselves – which makes it possible to like each other.
What’s most important to know about maintaining stage five? If we don’t love ourselves, no one else will. Not because we’re not loveable, but because it’s not possible.
This post is featured on The Good Men Project.