The Aging of Relationships
“Yes, I will marry you…..and they rode off into the sunset and lived happily ever after.” If only it were that simple. Most of us have visions of our relationships turning out this way, but that is often not the case. Somewhere between the “I do” and “happily ever after” problems arise. Over half of all marriages end in divorce. Of those marriages that stay together, a large percentage are not necessarily happy. What happens? Why do the majority of couples find it so difficult to stay together and remain happy? Just as individuals go through identifiable stages (infancy, childhood, adulthood, old age) so to do relationships pass through distinguishable stages. There are many different ways to name the stages of relationship. We prefer to use the following three stages: Romantic Love (also known as the honeymoon stage), the Power Struggle Stage, and Mature Love.
Many people are familiar with the romantic stage. This is where our lover is in our thoughts 24 hours a day and every moment apart seems like an eternity. We live for the moments that we can be together. We are aglow with love. Everything in our life seems to go well. Colors are brighter, sounds more distinct, foods tastier. We find that we need less sleep. We can stay out with our loved one dancing the night away and still be up early the next morning, energized and ready to tackle the day ahead. If we have disagreements with our partner, we are willing to listen and even let them win. We are in a state of bliss. Then something happens. Instead of continuing along happily in this state, our eyes (and our hearts) begin to shift their focus and we enter Stage 2.
Stage 2 is the power struggle. Most of us are familiar with this stage as the majority of relationships stay here a long time. It is the stage in a relationship where two individuals try to live together harmoniously while still standing up for their individual differences. This is the time when we try to combine two different ways of being and two different backgrounds into one workable relationship. It includes but is not limited to such things as combining two distinct ways of handling money, keeping house, and juggling time schedules with regard to work, hobbies, family, recreation, etc. It involves consideration of differing personal habits and parenting skills, varying degrees of sexual desire, different ways of communication, and more. Is it any wonder that Stage 2 brings to light what we perceive as flaws in our partner’s character? She/he charges too much on the credit cards, puts recreation before chores, does not understand why I need to spend so much time with my parents, or has little desire for sex. Differences are difficult to live with, especially when we assume that we are right and our partner is wrong. Our reasoning is: “I’ve done it this way all my life; can’t you see that this is the way it should be done?” Learning how to collaborate with a partner while at the same time maintaining our individuality is the lesson of Stage 2. It can be a lengthy undertaking and usually makes or breaks the relationship.
Some relationships will never go beyond the second stage. The power struggles that occur during this time put the “relating” in relationships to the test. Just as a teenager learns how to become an individual and relate to a world outside himself and his family, an adult learns how to become a partner and be in a relationship. We learn how to get along with others at work, in our community, our state, and in our ever expanding world. Most of us learn skills to go out into the workplace and perform at a job, but few of us learn the skills to communicate and be in relationship. Basic relationship skills can go a long way to move us through this difficult stage of power struggle. Tools such as “I” messages, reflective listening, and a basic understanding of the differences between men and women are an important start. We feel it is equally important to have an awareness and understanding of two basic concepts about relationship: 1) that we alone are responsible for our feelings as well as our actions; and 2) relationships can be used to either heal or rewound the individuals in that relationship.
Marilyn: Having been in a twenty year relationship that I now recognize was one continual power struggle, I can appreciate the flow of my present relationship. Chuck and I both have an uncompromising desire to be in a relationship that works, a relationship that we can use as a path to our spiritual growth. Dr. Wayne Dyer in his tape series Freedom Through Higher Awareness comments: ñif you have a choice between being right and being kind, always choose to be kind.” This is a choice Chuck and I are consciously trying to make in our relationship. When we disagree, we make every effort to deal with those conflicts in the moment. We try our best to go inside and discover how we feel and what our part was in the upset. This is not an easy task, especially since we have been programmed to value being right over being loving. We are used to looking outside of ourselves and blaming the other party. My automatic response to an upset used to be “why can’t he understand this, it’s so simple!” For the life of me, I could not understand why my partner was so dense; why he could not appreciate that this was the way it was for me. What a world of difference it makes when I can take responsibility for myself. All the blame and frustration disappears. I no longer feel that sinking feeling of disappointment and frustration that I used to feel…..that hole in pit in my stomach that asked the same questions over and over: “why am I in this relationship,” and “is it as hopeless as I feel it is at this moment?” In contrast, when I can come from the understanding that I alone am responsible for the emotions that well up within me, then I can look inside and examine those feelings. This is usually easier said than done, especially when those emotions remind me of unpleasant memories about how I was treated in the past. I try very hard to share those feelings with Chuck. Sometimes, the only word I can get out is “ouch,” but that is enough to get us started. This effort pays big dividends. It allows us to come to a resolution about our misunderstandings and prevents the build-up of resentments. It is also a path to healing the old wounds and building a new relationship based upon the trust of self and each other.
Chuck: The difference between my relationship with Marilyn and my previous relationships is my willingness to look at what parts I play in our upsets. It wasn’t long ago that I felt I was right during most of my arguments with women. I can even remember the times that I knew I wasn’t right but still couldn’t give in. This power struggle was a pattern I had followed for over 30 years and I don’t really know how it started. It has been a slow progression of small realizations that has led me to the point where my relationship is usually more important than my being right. Notice I said usually. There are still times when I know I’m not right or realize that I am hurting Marilyn and our relationship by staying mad, but cannot break out of the old pattern. Fortunately these times are diminishing.
How did I begin on my road to recovery? It began with very intelligent women calmly questioning me about my reasons for staying angry. They wanted to understand what kind of benefits or rewards I received for this behavior. Even when they questioned me during a fight, it was done in such a way that I felt their concern. It was clear that they truly wanted to understand what was happening within me. There was no blaming or ill will.
This process led me to begin to question myself. I went to therapy. I learned techniques I could use during a fight such as active listening, taking responsibility by using “I” statements, fair fighting rules, active listening and more. Finally I decided that I wanted to have a GREAT relationship. Now I work on trying to let go of my need to be right and consciously make the choice to be loving. Believe me, it takes a constant effort within the relationship to maintain that awareness, but it is worth it…..and so is Marilyn!
Marilyn and Chuck: The final stage of relationship is mature love. We have traveled the long road of power struggles to get here and learned what we need to learn from that path. We have completed a 180 degree turn, back to the peace and harmony that we felt with our partner when we first met. Our heart (and mind) has shifted away from finding fault and instead is focused on the specialness of our partner…..the uniqueness that attracted us to them in the first place. We have come full circle. We started out in the Romantic Stage seeing only the good, went through the Power Struggle Stage seeing mostly the negative, and now we are able to hold both. This is an expansive state. It is at this time that we make the conscious choice to put our relationship first and give up the need to always be right. This does not mean that we become less of an individual. It is at this stage that we become comfortable with who we are as individuals so that we no longer feel that we are losing a part of ourselves or our needs in order to have our relationships flow smoothly. In reality, we become more fully alive as we have expanded within ourselves to accept both the positive and the negative in another person.
Many of us have had the privilege of experiencing the rare couple who just seem to flow together. Their love and appreciation for one another glows from their very being. They fit together and feel right and everyone can see it. There is a calm and radiance about them that makes others want to be in their presence. This state of being did not happen over night. This couple has done a lot of work to get where they are. There is a deep level of commitment and understanding between them. For us, knowing that this depth of relationship exists gives us hope for our own relationship. When the power struggles seem overwhelming, we let the vision of this couple give us the strength to stay on our path and just let go. It is our belief that it is within all of us to have this type of relationship. It is a merely matter of choice.
This article, written by Marilyn and Chuck, is reprinted with permission from Woman’s Way Magazine. Copyright © 2001 the Relationship Specialists, Inc. All rights reserved.