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The Stages of a Conscious Marriage

(This is a talk that Gerald Drose and I presented years ago...)


We decided to call this talk Conscious Marriage although it's really about how couples develop and change.  This also happens to be similar to how individuals develop and change, only being part of a couple allows you to have support for your development and to be a part of someone else's development. It's fundamental to know that what relationships are about is your own personal growth and the growth of your partner, yet there are few

places in our culture or in our lives where we get to really witness or learn about this process.


The major theorists writing in the area have identified certain stages that couple go through and the crises that arise in each stage that must be successfully negotiated in order for the couple to move on to the next stage. 


The beginning of a relationship is often referred to as the "bonding phase."  It is the stage when couples come together in romantic zeal, drawn together by needs which may be out of each of their  conscious awareness. The prominent theory for how we pick our life partner is that you are drawn to someone whose strengths are your weaknesses and whom you unconsciously hope to learn these things from. They represent the parts of yourself which

are undeveloped.  For instance, we met and fell in love during the latter part of graduate school.  (Dina talking:) Gerald's attraction to me had something to do with the fact that I was extremely organized and was well on my way to finishing my PhD dissertation, working a few hours every day, making the idea work.


(Gerald talking:) while I was obsessing for hours reading book after book changing my ideas every month for about a year.  There was a consistent, organized part of her that worked through frustration without changing her mind, while I was a perfectionist that was continually searching for the perfect idea and she was a doer --with a less than perfect idea but a strong

need to be finished.


(Dina talking:) I realize that part of what I was attracted to in Gerald was a confidence in himself as a professional that I lacked, a belief that he could enter any complex situation and find a creative solution whereas I felt young, green and scared of leaving the safety of the student role and becoming a responsible adult. 


If you look back on your relationships you can probably identify a  part that the other person had that you felt you lacked.  This pattern is more likely to occur the younger the members of the couple are in their personal development.  It may have been the way he was with friends, or the way she took care of herself, or his confidence in the work place, or her closeness

to her family.   


That's why falling in love is often described as feeling like you have found your other half, that you have become ONE. It is like two half-people come together, fitting like the two sides of Yin and Yang and you have one whole circle.  


Many believe that this feeling defines romantic love, that his person makes you whole.  This is the illusion of romantic love that has been passed down through centuries of literature and is now firmly embedded in the unconscious of us all. The illusion is quite simple--that someone else can fill that empty part in you. 


Now you have in front of you the only two people on the planet who have not seen the movie "Titanic."  But from what we've heard about it, it sounds like one of the reasons it has so captured the hearts of the viewers is that it portrays this ideal love scenario very effectively--the wealthy, inhibited, over controlled woman who falls in love with the free, creative,

poor but passionate young man--and this was a love that never moved beyond the romantic stage and was etched forever in memory as that perfect union. We'll never know if their relationship would have survived the difficulties of the real world when they got back on dry land--but we don't even care! Last night Gerald and I saw "As Good as it Gets"--again, opposites attracting.  He saw in her the humanity, the possibility for human connection that he lacked.  It's harder to understand what she saw in him--but I think he had her the moment he said, "There is no one else who sees that you are the most incredible woman on the planet." And isn't that we all fantasize about?  That someone will see the true wonderfulness inside of us? But again, the movie ends before we ever see them trying to negotiate

the next phase (I'd give them three months, tops).   Hollywood has little interest in going there--how boring!


So you have two half-people coming together to form a  whole--and therein lies the first cost of this stage of a relationship.  While we may convince ourselves that we will integrate these aspects of or partner into ourselves--or learn from them the things they are good at--in fact after a period of time we seem to quit developing these underdeveloped parts of ourselves because it is so much easier to let the other person do it--besides, they are so much better at it than we are--and sometimes they may even criticize us when we do it (subtly at first, then not so subtly). 


This is the central conflict of the first phase of  a relationship.  If a couple comes together because of each person's expertise in a particular situation, when the other attempts to develop some expertise it can be very scary to the expert! Experts do not like to feel obsolete or replaceable. For example, (Dina talking) my role, as the organized one, was to plan and prepare meals, remembering Gerald's empty refrigerator when I first met him.

If I left town I would cook, freeze and label meals (just as I'd seen my mother do for my father) convinced that Gerald would starve to death while I was gone--or worse, go out to eat for every meal while I was gone (as the organized one I also had to be on top of how we spent money, you see). Here was an adult man with a son who had never gone hungry or broke before my arrival.  But my delusion that I was irreplaceable made me feel terribly needed and special.


This bonding phase requires the maintenance of the original illusion.  I often ask clients dealing with the end of a relationship if they remember having doubts in the beginning about this person and what they did with those doubts. Yes, they admit, there were clues very early on that this was a bad match but the little voice that was concerned about these things was

bound, gagged and thrown in a closet by that part of them that wanted the high of that romantic feeling. The desire to bond tightly is so powerful it will talk a person out of their doubts for a while. There is no drug that matches the high of falling in love--food tastes better, the sun shines warmer and every love song was written for you.  Heroin? Crack? Who needs them?  It's only when things are falling apart that a person can admit that the problems were there all along, they just wouldn't allow themselves to see it and know it because it would have killed the high and kept the relationship from ever happening.


A famous psychiatrist wrote a book about therapy called "Love's Executioner"  He titled it this because so often people drop out of therapy just when they start to fall in love--they start feeling so good that they decide they must be fine and "who needs therapy when I'm so happy," and then we see them years later when they are waking up from their dream-state with major relationship problems. The title refers to the fact that therapy can be seen as the executioner of Romantic Love--because it's about seeing reality, having your eyes open and your feet on the ground--while romantic love is about illusion, projection and denial.  Whenever I see people who are waking up and getting out of destructive relationships and afraid they will just repeat the pattern again, I tell them to commit to themselves that

they will get in therapy the next time they feel themself falling in love--as a reality check.  It certainly tempers some of the high--which for a true romantic may seem a bitter pill to swallow-- but it can help a person avoid major pitfalls down the road. 


The bonding phase is completed as the illusion is gradually replaced by painful reality.   At the start the connection was so tenuous it required constantly maintaining the illusion until there was enough security in the strength of the relationship to test it.  Somehow a silent signal is arranged between the couple that can be interpreted as meaning," Now, it's

safe, we can begin to let up a bit on this romantic behavior and get down to the real thing."  Many people remember this moment as their first big fight--and it's a pretty scary event! Our first fight happened six months into the relationship at the Atlantic House restaurant, a structure built on stilts sitting out over the ocean on Folly Beach off of Charleston, South

Carolina.  When Hurricane Hugo hit and we saw pictures of the devastation in Charleston, the Atlantic House was reduced to a pile of sticks.  Now we look back and think if every structure that we ever had a fight in was destroyed it would look like Sherman had marched through the South again!


When this honeymoon-is-over phase starts, many couples think it is the end of the bonding process--it's not.  What preceded was the prelude, now the relationship is in Act One. The prelude had to be enjoyed in order for the reality testing to commence.  The longer it takes to get to this phase, the higher the cost--the price paid being the development of true intimacy and the expression of each partners' True Self. 


A word here about affairs.  This shift from the romantic phase to the disillusionment phase is a time when affairs are most likely to occur, especially when one partner is committed to maintaining the illusion of romance in his life.  When the demands of external reality and the passage of time make it difficult to maintain the illusion, the one more desirous of that original feeling may seek it out somewhere else, telling themself that because the feeling is gone, they must have picked the wrong person--not, oh yeah, this is the natural phase that all relationships go through and that we can weather together...


Many couples do not have affairs but instead develop subtle and not so subtle ways to exit the relationship without really leaving. One may become overly involved in work rather than come home to the build-up of tension. They may spend hours in front of the TV or the computer-- numbing out rather than arguing. One may become involved in projects around the house so there never seems to be time to sit and relate. 


It's as if each fears that the relationship cannot withstand the explosion of the build-up of tension and they silently non-verbally agree to keep things at a comfortable distance--never quite resolving conflicts, storing up and holding onto resentments, never clearing the decks.  Sexual frequency may drop off, and when they do decide to be sexual it feels detached and

emotionally unsatisfying.  They learn the art of having their bodies together and their hearts far apart. 


Many times this phase begins when children are born, or struggles around money and power develop.  She might start focusing her energies in other places.  Perhaps she decides to go back to school or further develop her career.  Perhaps they have children and her focus shifts away from the relationship to the needs of the kids.   Perhaps he takes up running and

develops new friendships that take him away from her for periods of time.


Many couples "drift apart" so far they end up divorced.  More than 50% do not survive this phase.  Many people just do not have the knowledge or the skills to make this phase work.  They may have had poor role-models in their own parents. Or they were so deeply asleep and unconscious when they married that when they awoke to the reality of their partner they had no desire to stay with that person. 


This phase is lengthy and it's about:

  • How do we fit together now that we know who we really are? 

  • How do we negotiate the differences in our personalities that once attracted us to each other and now drive us nuts?

  • What parts of ourselves are we willing and able to change? 

  • Are the changes that my partner wants from me going to benefit me also, or just them?

  • Am I able to let go of some of the things I hope my partner will change and accept them for who they are and give up the fantasy that there is a better match out there for me? 

  • Am I getting enough of my emotional needs met in the relationship that it is worth the price of giving up my fantasies and illusions?   


There are a couple of important ingredients that allow couples to move into

the next phase. 

  • Number one is TRUST.  Not the fidelity trust but rather the faith that together the couple can work through difficulties--or at least is willing to risk it. This trust is an indicator of the strength of the commitment to each other.

  • Another necessary ingredient for surviving this phase is a healthy dose of TOLERANCE.  The ability to recognize that "I'm human and fallible, therefore I can accept you as fallible, too, neither of us is perfect" provides a safety net for the risky process of letting go of the illusions and being more real.  Showing ones True Self, warts and all, makes a person very vulnerable to being criticized, for having these vulnerabilities used against them at a later date, for being seen as less than perfect. Acceptance and tolerance of each other's essential imperfection and humanness makes this phase less painful and more successful.

  • A third ingredient is RESPECT. If the latter part of the bonding phase is spent building respect then the differentiation can take place without it being such an overwhelming, terrifying event.  Respecting one's partner and feeling respected allows partners to hang in there through the rough times but feel that they are not being abused.  The more respect there is, the more couples will allow  each other to expand and develop new aspects of themselves through experimenting in their careers, taking courses, trying new sports, making new friends. The relationship is less of a clinging, desperate thing but a more mutually supportive traveling thing.

For those that do survive this phase, what does the new picture look like? What happens is the couple will begin to be more honest with each-other--less afraid of upsetting each other and having disagreements or conflicts. Sex at this time begins to be less theatrical and less fantastic. Each member is beginning to reclaim or perhaps discover for the first time-- his or her True Self.  This means becoming more aware of our needs and separating them out from our partner's needs. 


Partners become more intentional in their interactions-- meaning they don't just react to each other unconsciously, but become more aware of the effects of their behavior on the other and work to find ways to communicate that increase goodwill and trust. Each partner takes responsibility for communicating their needs and desires and lets go of the fantasy that their partner will intuit their needs.  There is the realization that even when you state your needs outright there will be times when you have to meet your needs yourself. And finally there is an acceptance that all good relationships require work.


The two halves of the whole separate themselves out and become two wholes. They no longer need each other to feel like they have a place in the world. Now that they don't need each other for their survival, they are choosing to be together.


We think this bicycle analogy provides a very clear and helpful image for you to imagine when thinking about these various phases:


In the bonding stage, both partners are on the same bike, a dominant partner pedaling, a dependent partner riding on the handlebars. Eventually, the dependent partner gets sick of the bumpy ride up there on the handle bars and the dominant partner gets tired of supplying all the power. The rider may kick the peddler off so they can change direction or speed.  If

they are still trying to use the same bike but are fighting over who is supplying the power and where they are going they'll end up going nowhere!

If a couple can differentiate, they each get their own bicycle and they ride side by side.  Each is powerful and caring enough about the other one to regulate their speed.  They ride separately but together. Sometimes one can go faster than the other, but it's always with the care and respect to notice if the other is coming along so that one does not get too far behind.


When the couple survives the disillusionment phase then they move into the final phase which is usually referred to as intimacy. This last stage makes the rest of the struggle worthwhile.   Sometimes a renewed interest in spiritual concerns or a sense of the finiteness of time causes you to look at your partner with a new appreciation.  You get better at tolerating the conflicts, at apologizing and making up, at clearing the decks.   You realize you can travel more efficiently through life as two together, can negotiate life with double the wisdom and experience -- plus you get the joy of sharing the stress and the beauty of the journey with another person--which fulfills our fundamental human need to share life's journey with another.  In this way, what started as two halves becoming whole, separated into two wholes, now develops into an entity where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts--where the relationship is a third entity with a life of its own that greatly benefits each of the participants in  it.


Returning to the bicycle metaphor, this is the stage where the couple rides a bicycle built for two.  One can pedal and the other can rest, and they can switch off, as they explore new territory together.  There is a return of romance and good sex.  Sex is no longer a power trip or a sleeping pill, but a way for two people to share closeness and unconditional love.  Romance is again possible because the partners nourish each other in so many ways that

their capacity for love is increased with each interaction.


What does it take to travel across this territory? It takes the courage to allow your True Self to be seen by another human being. Beyond that it takes compassion, empathy, tolerance and the will to be more than a survivor, to be a participant in our own destiny.  The reward is the joy of loving and being loved throughout the remainder of your lives. 

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© 2020 Dr. Dina Zeckhausen