Lessons in love – understanding changes in your relationship
Couples frequently tell me that they are surprised about the changes that they witness in their partner. The sentiment that is often expressed is one of melancholy and sadness for the early days of the relationship when both partners went through an intense and wonderful period of connection and excitement. For couples who have been in long term relationships it might often be very hard to remember what the early, heady days of courtship were like. The partner they experience now is quite a different one.
So, what happens in relationships that makes us view our partner from such different perspectives? After all, the person we are still in the relationship with is essentially the same one, isn’t it?
Most partners in long term relationships will have experienced a moment in time when the gloss of the early days has come off and the partner is seen in a different light. This might be a deeply connecting moment or a deeply troublesome one.
In couples therapy I mostly come across partners who think of the changes in their relationship as troublesome. Often the relationship at this stage feels like hard work, difficult, frustrating, suffocating, and stuck. Both partners feel very hurt and tend to look at each other with a lot of scepticism, firmly pointing the blaming finger the other way.
At this stage in the relationship both partners wonder where the partner who they were so madly in love with, who was wonderful in every way and who they desired to have a deep connection with has disappeared to.
A good starting point is to look at what happens early in our life when we learn to form relationships.
You are the sunshine of my life
As human beings we are born to bond. Our experiences of the world are mediated through the eyes of other people. We develop a sense of ourselves only through relationships with others. For example, if another person laughs, I know that I am humorous. If another person listens intently to me, I know that what I have to say is interesting. Through the reflection of others, we experience ourselves. The most important reflection is that of love: we need to see ourselves (positively) reflected by the people who matter most in our lives; the people who we love and who love us. If another person shows me love, I know that I am loveable.
The initial reflection happens through our primary caretakers, i.e. for most people this would be mum and dad. If mum and dad were not around it might be grandparents, older siblings, or other care takers. By mum or dad holding us in their arms, cooing and smiling at us we know that we are loved, and we develop our sense of self. Our early experiences of love form a template for later relationships in life. We are always (unconsciously) drawn by similarities between our early experiences of love and our later ones.
This is true of positive as well as negative experiences. We might be attracted to a smile that is like dad’s way of smiling or we may be drawn to a person who is quick to fly off the handle like mum. If your parents were very tactile hugging and kissing you a lot you incorporate this into your ‘love’ inventory.
Arguably adult, romantic love is a continuation or replacement of parental love. Our parents offered us the first sense of connection and care taking.
How deep is your love
So, when looking for a partner in our adult life we are looking either for a partner who offers us love akin to that of our parents or we are looking for a partner who offers us the opportunity to heal aspects of our earlier experiences of love that need revising. If there is ‘unfinished business’ we may be looking to finish it with a positive ending.
When looking at our partner we are looking at a mirror that reflects us back in a positive light. We get a lot of wonderful mirroring in the early stages of our relationship. Over the course of a relationship these early positive reflections in the honeymoon phase of the relationship might be more distorted as the mirror develops cracks.
In our relationships we pay very close attention to the cues that tell us whether we are ok in the relationship or not. A raised eyebrow or a frown might immediately make us feel unsafe with our partners. It might take us back to a point in time when mum was about to tell us off. We may interpret these almost imperceptible signs as an indication that our partner is angry or critical. These kinds of interpretations happen all the time and with people in different contexts. They may not cause us problems a lot of the time.
However, if there is a lot of unfinished business from the past this may interfere with our relationships. Problems arise if these signals are always interpreted as potentially hostile. If you experience your partner as hostile you will arm yourself accordingly. Sometimes of course your partner might indeed be angry and frustrated with you, but there also be many occasions when you prepare unnecessarily for an attack.
When you notice a shift in your relationship with your partner, for example a sense of disappointment that your partner doesn’t ‘see’ you in the way that they used to, it would be helpful to take note of your own expectations. The following questions may be helpful in clarifying what you are experiencing.
- What do you hope to gain from your relationship or your partner?
- What does my partner do that reminds me of earlier (frustrating) experiences with parents/siblings/teachers/friends? How do I respond?
- What are traits of your partner that you find very troublesome? Do these traits remind you of someone else?
- What needs do you want your partner to meet? What happens when these needs are not met? How do I react?
The road to a more mature relationship entails the capacity to reflect on earlier relationship templates and to identify whether these templates still serve you well. Some interactions that you have learned earlier on may still work very well in your adult relationships. Others may require some revision.
For example, if you had very busy parents who didn’t have much time for you when you were younger, you may have learned that you got your parents’ attention when you performed well at school. So, you worked very hard, got excellent grades and very positive mirroring from your parents. In your adult relationship this template can play out in many different ways. You might get frustrated and hurt if your partner doesn’t give you the praise that you think you deserve. Or you might get irritated if your partner does not meet your exacting standards.
We all act on our relationship templates in our adult lives. The key is to have the capacity to notice our templates when they cause us difficulties, to review them and to develop new ways of thinking and behaving that may serve us and our partners better.
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