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.

Does Everybody Need to Differentiate?

Recently, I wrote a three-part series on differentiation of self. If you missed it, you can find it here: part one, part two, part three

After I wrapped up the series, I realized I still had more to say. In fact, I want to address an aspect of differentiation of self that is not often discussed: cultural considerations. 

Differentiation of self is very important to my work, and it is the lens through which I tend to approach relationships. Most of my clients get very excited when I talk about the three aspects of differentiation, and are very interested in building that skillset. They may not know how to get there, but they can see how their life and relationship would improve if they increased those skills. They’re on board. 

But what if you have a client who doesn’t actually want to differentiate, doesn’t believe in differentiation, or is very conflicted about it? Not everyone aspires to be seen and accepted as a unique individual. Some people, and some cultures, believe in upholding the family connection or carrying forward cultural norms, and hold those things as higher goals than individuality and unique expression. They may or may not want to shift to cultural values that include individuation. 

Additionally, there are some people who have discovered an aspect of their personal expression or identity that is in direct conflict with family or cultural belief systems. In that case, they will have to make some very hard choices. If they choose to differentiate, there will probably be significant losses associated with that choice. They may stand to lose family, friends, or an entire cultural identity. If they choose to stick with their cultural or family values and beliefs, they will have to let go of some dreams and desires, and possibly even some important parts of themselves. 

Rebellion is not for everyone, nor is it a higher form of being. Shifting cultures is a big deal. It’s not something we should assume is preferable, or push our clients towards. The world is a diverse place and there is a lot of room for differences between us. I don’t want to work at cross-purposes with my client’s values or belief systems, or set them up for family or cultural consequences that they don’t see coming and freely choose. Being differentiated ourselves, as therapists, requires us to recognize that our clients may make different choices than we would. 

I have often had clients who are wrestling with an internal dilemma: differentiate from family belief systems, or don’t. When this happens with an individual client, the first order of business is to resolve that impasse. When it happens with one partner in a relational therapy, the first order of business is to help each partner express their thoughts, feelings, and point of view so they can understand one another better, and ultimately come to a decision as a team. 

There is no one-size-fits-all rule book for life. Honoring diversity means upholding the right to differ. Supporting differentiation means deeply listening to and grasping the thoughts and feelings behind any point of view, not just the ones that are comfortable to hear. Our work in therapy is not to push our clients towards any one resolution, but to allow them to voice all sides of their impasse fully, so that they can make their decisions on their own terms. If, at the end of that process, they decide that they value their closeness with their family or their connection to their culture over expressing their individuality, that is a valid choice, and a good outcome for the therapy.

Desire Discrepancy Lesson #1: Normalize Variation

Last week, I wrote about why desire discrepancy can be such a challenging issue for couples therapists to work with. If you missed last week’s post, you can read it here.

If you think about it, it’s not all that surprising that desire discrepancies are common. People vary widely from one another in preferences, desires, experiences, and beliefs. Of course they’re going to vary in terms of their level of desire for sex. It’s completely to be expected!

You wouldn’t assume that two partners would have the exact same preferences about how clean to keep their kitchen, what they like to do for exercise, how much money they want to put in savings each month, or how often they want to travel. Couples have desire discrepancies of all kinds, in all sorts of areas, and very often they are able to resolve them gracefully, while acknowledging the validity of each partner’s perspective. So why do we so often expect our partners to have similar levels of sexual desire to us, and feel such pain when that is not the case?

Our cultural ideas about love and romance are responsible for some of the distress. We are taught to think about love as “two souls merging into one.” Romance upholds similarity as the marker of a good relationship–two perfectly-matched people meshing seamlessly together.

That messaging is particularly strong when it comes to sex. Rather than acknowledging that everyone is unique, and that strong couples can (and must!) learn to value and embrace their differences, our culture teaches us to see differences in sexual desire between partners as a flashing warning signal that something is terribly wrong. In this way, what starts as a perfectly normal variation in sexual desire between partners can get so loaded with shame, stigma, and pathologization that it begins to drive the partners apart.

That’s why I make a point to normalize variation whenever I can. There’s no “normal” or “right” amount of desire for sex. Some people want lots of sex, and that’s healthy and okay. Some people want no sex at all, ever, and that’s also perfectly healthy and okay. Also, it is very usual and expectable for desire to shift over time, with age, stress levels, physical health, and hormone changes. It is just not productive or helpful to pathologize your own or your partner’s (or your client’s) level of desire.

Normalizing variation, and helping your clients see their desire differences as simply one aspect of their unique individuality, and not a sign of something wrong in the relationship, is a wonderful first step.

Stay tuned for more on working with desire differences and associated stresses, and I commend you for diving in to conversations about sex and sexuality with your clients!