3 Ways to Handle New Relationship Bliss That Support a Long-Term Healthy Relationship

This is the second post in a three-part series about sex and differentiation of self in relationships. If you missed the first post, about the phases relationships go through, and how that development can get stuck, check it out here.

Think about those exciting early days at the beginning of a relationship. All the hormones and novelty work together to ease much potential distress around sex. This is a stage where we don’t generally see our partner very clearly. We see all the things we agree about and love about them, based on quite limited experience from a few dates, or a few months together. Then we invent the other 98% to support the story that they are perfect for us. We see the best in one another, and see how much we can change ourselves to be as much alike as possible. This phase is called symbiosis. Over time, the new relationship energy starts to fade, time goes by, and at some point we look around and realize “they’re not who I thought they were”. We start to notice we have differences, and some of them are big. Some are huge. Who IS this person?? This is the beginning of a natural transition from symbiosis to differentiation.

You (or your client) can set yourself up for an easier transition from one stage to the next. If you know that in past relationships you’ve tended to lose yourself in your partner, setting aside your own interests or habits for theirs, and becoming dependent on their approval or attention, this is valuable information to take into future relationships. You can get better at holding on to what makes you a unique and separate person from your partner without losing the joy and intimacy of a loving partnership–in fact, that joy and intimacy will only be heightened, ultimately, by the vulnerability you can find in welcoming your partner into the truth of your innermost self. Here are a few important steps you can take to prevent getting stuck:  

  1. Don’t tell “kind untruths” like  “I always had an orgasm with you” or “I never use a vibrator” or “I only think of you when I fantasize”. Any kindly-meant bending or breaking of the truth will certainly come back to bite you later on, and when it does, it will seriously undermine or destroy your partner’s trust in you.  
  2. There is nothing wrong with seeking to grow as a person, but don’t give yourself up to your partner entirely. Grow to be more the person you want to be, not simply more the person you partner wants you to be.
  3. Don’t give up any parts of yourself that are a major part of the “juiciness” of your life, like independence, career aspirations, major life goals. The healthy business of the symbiotic stage of your relationship is to bond and stabilize, but if you take it too far and eliminate all of the things that are most important to you, you will find yourself without a sexual spark later on. Ask yourself (or your client):
    • When do I feel alive?
    • When do I experience joy?
    • If I stopped doing _____, would I miss it five years from now? Ten?

When you answer these questions you must go further than “when I’m with my partner”.  Get down to an answer that is just about you.

The things that make you feel alive are the things you must keep. In fact, they’re probably the things your partner was attracted to in the first place. Unless you want to feel flat in 5 years, prioritize those things. This creates a foundation for a relationship that has room for you to be happy!

In my next post, I’ll zero in on some reasons couples struggle when moving from symbiosis toward differentiation. I’ll talk about the Big Choice couples are faced with, between the path of differentiation (risk) and the path of assimilation (safety).

Sex and Differentiation of Self

This is the first post in a three-part series about sex and differentiation of self in relationships.

Sex is perhaps the area of human experience in which we feel the most vulnerable. In sex, we are exposed, naked before another human being, both literally and figuratively. With vulnerability often comes anxiety: how will my partner react to my body, my sexual preferences, my fantasies? How will they react to my discomfort, awkwardness and uncertainty? What if I don’t get hard or stay hard? Will I be able to figure out how to please them? What if they don’t reach orgasm, or if I don’t? What if I suggest something they think is gross?

Sex is a place where our deepest sense of desire and our deepest vulnerabilities meet. In this tender intersection, it can feel like the future of the relationship rests on whether our partner is pleased by us or, heaven forbid, turned off by us. We look for any sign of the latter so we can adapt, and quickly. “Oh, did you think I said vibrator? I didn’t say that, I would never say that! I absolutely agree with you, vibrators are gross!” or “Yeah, that was DEFINITELY an orgasm. Absolutely. Awesome.” There is a whole lot of nonverbal communication going on, as well as people working hard to accommodate one another before there is even a sign of distress. Before you know it, you have an entire narrative about who you and your partner are together sexually that is based on, in part, false assumptions and kindly-meant untruths.

Where did the connection go, to say nothing of the pleasure? How did sex become a performance, frequently ending in hurt feelings or tears? Why isn’t sex spontaneous any more? What happened to all that super hot desire?

Let’s just pause there for a minute; think about those questions. What is your theory about what happened? And how might you approach that as a relational therapist?

Helping couples work with questions such as these used to be VERY difficult for me, because the level of distress the partners were experiencing was hard to handle in therapy. How directive should I be? How can I join with everyone? How can I shift unrealistic expectations effectively? Also, what expectations were realistic? Where does psychoeducation fit in? And certainly, how can I get the partners to calm down sufficiently to hear one another, and me? Improving communication is a great goal, but not if nobody can hear.

Some days felt like a win, others most definitely felt like a loss. I researched couple therapy in every way I could. I knew I needed to get much more effective. I borrowed some ideas and techniques from others, and I developed some of my own. I knew deep down that differentiation of self had to be at the root of the solution, but most couple therapy modalities focused on attachment to the exclusion of differentiation.

That’s when I discovered the Developmental Model. The DM incorporates aspects of attachment, differentiation, and neuroscience. Not two opposing camps but one cohesive whole, informed by science. What’s not to love? I looked deeper. I took webinars and then training from Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson the developers of the model. I took every opportunity to learn from them, and I took pages of notes. I replayed webinars again and again. I memorized. I took very specific interventions to my clients, and right away, my life got easier. I collected those interventions like precious stones. The more I had, the better things got. Naturally, I applied what I learned to my own clientele, and noticed the difference in progress. Of course I wanted to train with Ellyn and Pete.

As I learned more about the Developmental Model, I came to understand that relationships progress through stages. There is a connection between getting stuck in a developmental stage and experiencing relational problems. This provided a road map of sorts for therapy, and a non-pathologizing one at that. As a relationship develops, the couple’s experience of sex changes, too–providing an opportunity for relational and personal growth.

So how can you or your clients build a healthy sexual relationship that doesn’t suffer when the new relationship energy dissipates?  In my next post, I’ll discuss the early, symbiotic phase of the relationship, and I’ll share some tips for setting up an easier transition into the differentiation phase.

Click here for the second post in this three-part series. 

The Discovery That Turned My Practice Around

When I got out of graduate school, I had taken one and only one course in couple therapy. I was lucky to have a very gifted teacher, and I loved the class and learned a lot. But in my internship, I was faced with some extremely challenging couple clientssome of the most challenging clients I have ever had. This trend continued into my residency.  I was struggling, and I felt stuck. I realized I needed to learn a lot very quickly if I were to work successfully with couples.

I began a quest for boots-on-the-ground strategies for working with the toughest couples. I needed a way to understand why they were so stuck, and how to help. I researched theories, I tried a broad variety of interventions, and I developed some strategies that helped a lot.

As I learned more, I became convinced that at the root of the matter was differentiation of self, which is the ability to know yourself, tell someone else about your preferences and desires without freaking out, and stay grounded when they return the favor. Nonetheless, I found precious little focus on differentiation of self among couple therapy theory. I took every seminar I could find, and I still couldn’t figure out how to be as effective as I wanted to be. I wasn’t sure the training I needed even existed.

Finally, I stumbled upon a free webinar presented by Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson of the Couples Institute. It was a revelation. Their Developmental Model of Couple Therapy combines aspects of attachment, differentiation, and neuroscience, and frames stages of couple relationships in a way that normalizes and creates context for the struggles we all experience in relationships. It was the missing piece in my practice that I had been seeking.

I listened to Ellyn and Pete’s talk four times, and took 5 pages of notes. I wanted their exact words, which seemed magical in their ability to shift an entire dynamic. I applied the intervention I learned in their webinar that very same week. I felt the shift right away; I finally felt like I was in control of each session, and had a plan. I have been using these interventions ever since, with every single couple. That was a turning point in my career.

I felt excited about couple therapy again. The Developmental Model meshed exactly with the things I had developed that worked, and also went SO MUCH FURTHER! I was elated! I stopped feeling like I had to re-invent the wheel, breathed a sigh of relief, and began to train in the Developmental Model.

Currently, I’m starting my fourth year of training with Ellyn, and my third year being mentored by Ellyn and Pete. In the mentoring group, I get to spend time in person with these master therapists and ask them for clinical advice whenever I want to; what an honor!  And this duo gives away a ton of excellent information. Everything they produce contains another nugget I can use immediately.

Learning about the Developmental Model was the turning point in my therapy practice. Maybe it can make a difference for you, too. If you’re curious about how it works, check out this interview Ellyn gave at the Gottman Institute. It’s a great overview of the philosophy that underlies the Developmental Model.

I’ve written about differentiation of self on this blog before. You can learn more about differentiation in the context of sex with my post When Sex Doesn’t Go As Planned, or read about how our cultural ideal of a perfect relationship inhibits differentiation of self in my post Better Than Better Half.