Leaving the Honeymoon

In my last post, I wrote about some reasons romantic sparks flicker out, and how that shift relates to the natural evolution of relationships, as the early crushy, head-over-heels symbiotic stage gives  way to a more mature phase of the relationship. 

This week, I’m discussing a related question: How can we navigate the transition (from super-hot to less-hot) gracefully, in ways that promote a deepening connection?

It’s important to recognize that nobody can, or should, live in the honeymoon phase forever. At some point other commitments and connections will need some attention. In order to reconnect with friends, hold down a job, and engage in solo pursuits as well as mundane tasks, we have to go to bed and wake up on time, focus on something other than the new love, and resume building and maintaining a stable life. 

The reality of this might feel a bit melancholy–falling in love is magical, after all–but falling in love can also be immensely destabilizing. Also, let’s be honest, it’s not the state from which to make major life decisions (for instance, marriage) since the rose-colored glasses are too thick for flawless judgement. If you tell yourself that you are losing out as the honeymoon phase fades, you are doing yourself a disservice. Instead, I recommend focusing on what you gain through developing further. 

I can speak from experience here. I’ve had several failed relationships, as many of us have, so I understand how difficult it can be to move from symbiosis into a more differentiated relational state. But I also have a 25-year-long resounding relationship success. I can honestly say that my long-term relationship definitely has much more depth, intimacy, and rich connection than any honeymoon phase I have ever had. 

That richness comes with being very realistic about who we are, rather than trying to change one another, or pretend to be someone we really aren’t. We each believe in personal growth, and take our own growth and development seriously, but we don’t try to change each other. Change is an individual project, and how my partner changes (or doesn’t) is something I can influence at most–not something I can control. There is a powerful intimacy that comes with knowing and being known deeply, accepting the truth of your challenges as well as your strengths, and working together to maximize your potential and support your dreams and growth over time. 

The art of creating synergistic relationships, strongly interconnected yet independent, involves some very specific skills, including: 

  • Being able to identify what you think, feel, and want, separate from what anyone else might want for you or from you
  • Being able to get grounded and share that information even if you think the other person will feel uncomfortable hearing it
  • Staying balanced when your partner tells you something you are not entirely comfortable hearing. 

For more on this, check out my blog series about differentiation of self.  

Part of the process of moving out of symbiosis and towards a more differentiated relationship involves seeing our partner more fully, flaws and all. That will involve acknowledging some differences that probably got obscured in the excitement of the early relationship. It may be that you expect a very different level of cleanliness in the house, or you have very different levels of desire for sex, or one of you is a homebody and the other wants to go out almost every night. 

To strengthen your connection while acknowledging differences like these, you first need to approach relationships with the philosophy that difference is acceptable, even enriching. This is quite different from the “Disney Relationship Model” in which two halves of the same soul meld and complete one another, happily ever after. This shift requires you to look at your belief systems about relationships. Shifting toward celebrating differences requires that we neither take these differences personally, nor catastrophize them. 

Cultivating curiosity about your partner is one of the most important skills for navigating differences: “I would love to know more about why you feel that way, because it will help me deepen my understanding of you, my love.” That can feel like a stretch when it comes to a thorny topic with strong feelings attached. But keep in mind that if the two of you stagnate in a state of too-much-the-same, it will certainly kill the spark. Learning to find the spicy, somewhat sexy aspect of even very inconvenient differences will help motivate you to get curious. 

No matter how long you’ve been together, no matter how well you know each other, there’s always room for discovery–and that discovery can be thrilling. Maybe the spark from the honeymoon period can’t last, but there’s another kind of spark that comes with watching the person you love evolve and reveal new dimensions over time.

What Happened To The Spark?

Here’s a common relationship problem, and a frequent question I get from relationship therapists: What do you do when the “spark” fades from the relationship? 

This is an interesting question, because it is actually several questions disguised as one. Here is my rundown: 

  1. Why does the spark fade? Is inevitable?
  2. How can we navigate the transition (from super-hot to less-hot) gracefully, in ways that promote a deepening connection?
  3. Is it possible to get the spark back after it is gone?

This week, I’m tackling part 1. In the next two weeks, I’ll address numbers 2 and 3.

Let’s imagine a couple who has had a blissful first year or so of their relationship. They fell in love. Everything felt like a romantic movie. But now, they are starting to have some uncomfortable feelings, experience some disappointments, or notice things about their partner they don’t like so much. Maybe one notices their sweetie leaves socks in the middle of the hallway as a regular practice, not just once in a while. Or they don’t carry their dishes to the sink, or are obsessed with sparkling clean counters in a maddening way.  Or maybe one partner starts to miss their friends, who they haven’t seen much of lately during the flurry of new love. 

Or…maybe some issues are showing up in the bedroom. Often this starts with one partner realizing they are slightly (or not-so-slightly) dissatisfied sexually. They don’t know how to talk about it, they worry about hurting their partner’s feelings, they think there is something wrong with them, they think there is something wrong with their partner, or they don’t think it is ok to discuss sex for any number of reasons. Here are some common scenarios:

  • One partner realizes there is a sexual activity they used to really enjoy, that their new partner doesn’t seem to like, or doesn’t often engage in. 
  • One partner hasn’t been experiencing orgasm, and one or both are distressed about it.
  • One partner either takes hardly any time to reach orgasm, or “too long”, and it is distressing
  • One partner hasn’t been experiencing orgasm, but the other partner thinks they have; discussing it will reveal the deception.
  • One partner experiences painful sex and is afraid to bring it up 
  • One partner has anxiety about sex that results in various misunderstandings and difficulties
  • Erectile difficulties or other sexual function challenges create misunderstandings 
  • They don’t know how to talk about a perfectly normal difference in level of desire
  • Now that sex has settled into a routine, one or both partners are a little bit bored 
  • Something one partner is doing in bed is somewhat anti-erotic to the other, and the sexy-hot vibe has cooled enough for this to be a problem. 

I could go on, and on. There are many, many sex-related issues that crop up at this stage of relationship.

Now let’s go back in time, to the earlier stage of the relationship. Our couple has been dizzy with love for several months. They have eyes only for one another. They play together, look forward to seeing one another, talk about everything under the sun, revel in every discovery of commonalities. They are having so much fun together, they don’t want this stage ever to end. They are also becoming exhausted by staying up too late at night and they haven’t been able to find time for friends, or mundane tasks of daily living. 

This is the first stage of relationship, and is referred to as symbiosis. (I’m deeply indebted, by the way, to Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson for this concept, and for creating the Developmental Model of Couple Therapy!) In the symbiotic stage, we look for, notice, and maximize all the ways we are similar to one another. We bond. We give and receive love, and feel cherished. We create as much same-ness as we can, in an effort to create emotional safety. We stretch ourselves to get curious, agree, try new things, explore. We want to share activities and interests with our new love, even if it is a bit of a stretch, and this can produce some pretty amazing personal growth outside of the previous restrictions of our comfort zone. All of this bonding is very important; it creates a foundation that is (hopefully) solid enough to hold us together as a team as we face life’s inevitable challenges. But symbiosis is only the first stage; there are other stages still to come, and each stage has some important aspects that lend support to subsequent stages.

The next stage is differentiation, and it usually starts when one or both partners start to notice some differences between them. Remember the dishes left out, hyper-clean counters, and sexual disappointment? If the couple succeeded in creating some significant amount of emotional safety in the symbiotic stage, it can feel like there is a lot to lose if the relationship doesn’t work out. That fear, the fear of losing the relationship, acts as an inhibitor to disclosing things we think our partner might have a hard time hearing as we start noticing differences and feeling uncomfortable feelings about it. (Refer back to the list of sex issues that often crop up, and consider the many other aspects of life in which such differences might emerge.)

So, now we have a couple who are disappointed, in love, fearful, hopeful, exhausted, probably somewhat out of touch with their friends, and sexually frustrated. They are trying to figure out how to stay connected while making sense of sudden realizations of differences between them. They might be questioning their judgment, making decisions about whether to stay or leave, or just trying to figure out how to have a conversation about sexual pleasure in a culture where we don’t generally do that. For most people, not much in life has prepared them to be able to do this easily, or in a way that fosters connection and increased intimacy. 

So you can see, sometimes the spark just gets lost in the shuffle. None of the above are sexy scenarios, and most people are terrified to talk about sex under even the best of circumstances. 

That’s why, even if it’s not entirely inevitable for the spark to fade from a relationship, it’s extremely common–and it’s pretty hard for people to know what to do about, especially since what will ultimately help (speaking up and saying the scary thing you’re afraid your partner won’t want to hear) feels like the worst possible thing to do, as it threatens the comfortable illusion of sameness that was created during the symbiotic phase. 

Things look tough for our couple now–but hope isn’t lost! Tune in next week, when I’ll discuss how couples can navigate the tricky transition from dizzy-in-love into a more mature stage of their relationship–and what you, as a therapist, can do to help. 

Working With Relationship Problems in Individual Therapy

A few weeks ago, I asked my readers to answer this question: “What is your single biggest challenge when working with clients with sex issues?”

I’m so grateful for all the thoughtful, nuanced answers I received. I’m still sorting through them (and they’re still rolling in; bring it on!). Over the next few months, I’ll be answering as many of those questions as I can, beginning today. 

A few people wrote to me about the challenge of working with an individual client whose partner has problems that they are unwilling or unable to work on in therapy, and which are negatively affecting the relationship dynamic. This can manifest in a huge variety of ways. Perhaps the partner has a medical problem that is affecting both their lives, but they are unwilling to seek treatment. Perhaps they have difficulty self-soothing and managing emotions, and that’s contributing to unnecessary stress and tension in the household. 

In any case, it can be a tremendously frustrating position to be in as a therapist. What do you do when you know that you have interventions at your fingertips that could help your client and your client’s partner, but you’re unable to directly reach the person who needs them the most? 

  • Consider bringing them in for a joint session. This hinges on your client’s partner being willing and able to access therapy. But if it’s an option in your case, it’s a great idea. You can get a fuller, more accurate picture of the dynamic at play, and speak directly to the partner. I often provide a bunch of psychoeducation about sex in this manner, so one partner isn’t in the position of carrying information home to their partner from me, some of which might be a little challenging to hear, and some of which might lose something important in translation. In particular, if sexual satisfaction, desire, orgasm, or consent/willingness are part of the issue, I always prefer to see both partners together if possible. 
  • Consider collaborating with a relationship therapist. Again, this hinges on your client’s partner being willing and able to access therapy. 
  • Get some inspiration. I often suggest the book It Takes One to Tango to clients in this situation. It’s written by a Developmental Model therapist, Winifred Reilly, and is about how she used the Developmental Model to transform her relationship–all without her husband’s participation. If you want to help your client feel empowered to make a change in their relationship single-handedly, in ways that are compatible with the Developmental Model, this is a great place to start. 
  • Focus on your client’s part. Part of the challenge of being an individual therapist is that, when you’re talking about relationship dynamics, you only get one part of the story. Everything you hear is coming through the filter of your client, and they are almost certainly missing important aspects of their partner’s perspective. It is incredibly tempting in individual therapy to focus on the many annoying things their partner does. Don’t do it! Instead help your client identify their own meaningful goals for change…within themselves. If their primary distress is relational, ideally the things they decide they want to change will have something to do with improving how they show up in their relationship. At the end of the day, all any of us can change are things that lie squarely within us. 
  • Help your client show up as the partner they aspire to be in their relationship. If your client lacks insight into what they might be able to change that will make a difference in their relationship, here are some very common areas of potential focus:
    • Does your client self-soothe well? 
    • Are they able to figure out what they want, feel, and think? 
    • Are they able to communicate those things to their partner in non-dramatic ways?
    • Can they tell the difference between things that are about them, and things that are about their partner? 
    • Can they hold steady when their partner is telling them something they find difficult to hear? 
    • Can they take action on their own? 
    • Can they recognize a desire to set a boundary, and then set one? 
    • Can they hold that boundary warmly if pushed by their partner?
    • Does your client listen well, and then are they able to get curious about what their partner’s experience is?
    • Can they express empathy, even if they don’t agree?
    • Can they show love even when they are annoyed or disappointed? 
    • Can they feel their partner’s love even when they are annoyed or disappointed?