Relationship issues are
particularly tricky. It is rare that someone has all that they want in a relationship, and
your satisfaction with a relationship has as much to do with your expectations as it does
with your partner.
That is not to say that dissatisfaction should be ignored. Indeed, it
can be tragic to spend years with someone when you just dont fit together, or when
your partner is toxic to you.
On the other hand, it is unrealistic to think your relationship will
always be smooth, that you and your partner will always be close and want the same things,
or that your partner will give you everything you want.
We encourage you to read more in the following topics:
The Stages of Relationships
through a series of stages. Your feelings, actions, and satisfaction in the relationship
will vary depending on what stage you are in. (These concepts are derived in part from the
work of Ellyn Bader, Ph.D. and Peter T. Pearson, Ph.D., as described in their book, In
Quest of the Mythical Mate. We have modified their ideas to fit our own
conceptualization of relationships.)
The first stage is the
"merging" stage. You are amazed at how alike you are, how many things you see
eye-to-eye on, how you enjoy the same things, etc. During this stage, each person is most
accommodating, most giving, and least demanding. It is the time when you are just getting
to know each other and falling in love. You think it is great to have found someone so
right for you. You might even get married.
The next stage involves
differentiating yourself again as an individual. You start to realize your partner is not
perfect, after all, and actually does some pretty annoying things. You also recall parts
of yourself that you have neglected -- things you used to like to do that you gave up
because your partner did not share those interests.
During this stage, you are less giving and more self-centered, and
there are more opportunities for conflict. You may struggle with doubts about whether you
really fit with your partner.
Basically, this stage
is about rediscovering yourself as an individual and coming to terms with the ways you and
your partner are different. This is expressed by pursuing activities apart from your
partner and by asserting your opinions and wishes more emphatically.
The next stage involves
balancing your need for autonomy and your sense of caring and appreciation for your
Consciously or subconsciously, you engage in an ongoing evaluation of
the costs and benefits of being with your partner. The strength of your commitment to the
relationship varies depending on this evaluation.
If the balance is maintained reasonably well, the people can have a
good, solid relationship that goes on indefinitely. On the other hand, the relationship
can end (or linger in a resentment-laden dependency) if that balance is not kept.
The final stage, which
many never achieve, involves developing mutual interdependence. You are secure in your
unique identity, and you also find ways to integrate your two identities together in some
mutually satisfying and supportive relationship.
You realize that your
life is better because you share it with your partner, even if you have differences
between you. You want to be with your partner and are happier because of it, but
you do not need your partner to make you feel happy. Basically, you place great
value on your partner and relationship and it would take something catastrophic to break
Problems in Negotiating These Stages
Before we go further,
let's state the obvious: Many relationships end in the differentiation stage, when the
flush of new love is over and you realize you just do not belong together. That is not a
failure to negotiate these stages. It is just common sense. On the other hand, if you never
get far beyond the initial romance, there may be a problem that is worth looking into.
The Merging phase is
usually a time when people feel better than in any other circumstance, and it is almost
intoxicating because of that. Once you start to drift out of that phase into
Differentiation, you are likely to feel some anxiety and sadness.
Your ability to move through these stages successfully can be helped or
hindered by your experiences. If you have had good role models for relationships, you will
find it easier to negotiate your own relationships. On the other hand, if your role models
have been poor, these stages can present quite a challenge.
Your beliefs about relationships, your expectations, your personal
maturity, and your personality style all play key roles in your ability to maneuver
through these stages.
interdependence takes considerable maturity in both partners, a secure sense of self, and
a fair amount of luck.
During the Merging Stage:
Sometimes, people try
to abort these natural stages because they do not want to face the changes (and the
possible loss of the relationship). For example, this can occur if the person has not gone
through the normal process of establishing their own adult identity (as can happen if you
go straight from family of origin to marriage, straight from the child role to the spouse
In these cases, the relationship is defined by excessive dependence
without differentiation. The person views the process of differentiation as a betrayal and
resents their partner for wanting to be an individual. This can lead to a relationship
marked by hostility, but also an unwillingness to break apart. These relationships can
last a long time but are usually unpleasant, unhappy, and strife-ridden.
During the Differentiation Stage:
Some people have such a
strong need to maintain their autonomy and individuality that they cannot tolerate being
in a relationship for long -- they want complete independence (without ties or
responsibilities to a partner).
In these cases, differentiation occurs quite successfully, but there is
no mutuality left afterward. For them, the balancing stage is never quite reached.
Another problem during this phase occurs when the people do not really
fit together but neither wants to make the break. They see the incompatibilities as they
differentiate, but they do not act on them. Sometimes, people in this situation just tread
water, staying with their partner until a new relationship comes along.
During the Balancing Stage:
Problems in the
balancing stage can occur in a couple of ways. One occurs when a person has a great deal
of ambivalence about the relationship. They might genuinely love each other and see
reasons for being together, but they are never clear that the benefits of the relationship
outweigh the costs.
Another common cause of breakdowns during this stage is the failure of
the partners to keep the relationship in balance. People start taking each other for
granted, they take more than they give, they neglect their partner, or they let themselves
go and stop trying to be an appealing partner (in behavior, appearance, etc.). It is not
that people need to be perfect, but neither should they be slovenly in their approach to
These problems can lead to a relationship where there is not much real intimacy, mutual interest, or
involvement. Sometimes, the couple can end up with a relationship where they are more like
roommates than partners. For some couples, this is what both partners are comfortable
with, and the relationship can go on indefinitely. It is just kind of empty.
However, if one partner wants something more, considerable
dissatisfaction, irritation, and resentment are likely. There can be quite a lot of
conflict, which is frequently based on the demand by that person for more involvement and
effort by the other, a demand that is unlikely to be met. If the couple tries to avoid
these conflicts, the dissatisfaction can be expressed indirectly. For example, the
disgruntled partner can become depressed or develop vague somatic problems.
The Ingredients of Success
Success in a relationship involves knowing what you want, wanting
reasonable things, finding someone who can provide many of those things, and being able to
give enough in return so that the relationship is balanced and fair.
Success also requires both people to maintain their individuality
within the context of a mutually intimate coexistence.
Also, your relationship will be better if it is based on mutual values.
Although you do not have to have precisely the same value system, you do need a lot of
You also need to know what you carry in your bag of junk. We each have
our own bag of junk unreasonable expectations, biases, memories that shape how we
react to things, etc. That bag of junk is your responsibility. If you dont know what
it holds, and deal with it yourself, it can taint your relationship with your partner.
Another key to successful relationships is communication. Relationships
often break down when partners stop talking, or stop really listening.
In relationships, "talking" means giving information about
your wants, hopes, expectations, feelings, and disappointments in a way that respects your
own dignity, as well as the integrity and dignity of your partner.
To really "listen" takes the same mutual respect. You have to
work hard to hear what your partner is trying to convey, without distorting what is said
with your biases and assumptions.
It is very easy for us to assume that we know what our partner was
thinking, feeling, or intending when they did something that bothered us. Many
disappointments and misunderstandings are not intentional, but we often assume they are.
Unless we set our assumptions aside, we have trouble talking and
listening in ways that clarify what we felt, why we felt that way, what was intended, and
what could be better the next time.
Here are some possible signs that your relationship could be in
- You hate your partner or find him/her repulsive.
- You spend much of your time angry or resentful toward your partner.
- You do not respect, admire, or appreciate your partner, if you really think about it.
- You and your partner want very different things, and those things are significant (like
whether or not to have children).
- You and your partner have few, if any, values in common.
- Lying is a regular part of your relationship, so you never know what is true or false.
- You would almost always rather be alone than with your partner.
- Your sexual relationship is not satisfying.
- You cheat on your partner, or are consumed with temptation to do so.
- Your partner becomes angry if you want to be with friends or family, or just be alone.
- There is physical or sexual violence in your relationship.*
- There is emotional abuse (repeated humiliation, threats, or mistreatment).
a relationship is violent, it is advisable to try and get away. Call the police (911)
and/or contact your local shelter. In the Tuscaloosa area, call Turning Point at 758-0808.
If it is not safe to do so at the moment you realize you need to call, do it as soon as
you can. Tolerating abuse almost certainly will increase the frequency and severity of the
Relax...It's Not a Problem
What is not a sign of problems in a relationship:
- Sometimes wanting to be alone or with other people, without your partner.
- Sometimes you do not feel as close to your partner as at other times.
- Noticing other men or women, and finding them attractive.
- Fantasizing about a fling now and again (without acting on it).
- Wondering occasionally what life would be like without your current
- Low frequency sex, if that fits the actual drive level of both partners.
- Occasionally being angry, aggravated, or disappointed with your partner.
- Disagreeing about certain values, attitudes, or beliefs.
The Role of the Psychologist
Psychologists can be helpful in several ways:
First, the psychologist can help the couple honestly evaluate their
relationship -- the things they like and dislike, their feelings toward each other, and
what they are willing to give to have a successful relationship.
The psychologist can help the couple negotiate the stages of the
relationship. When there is a problem with negotiating these stages, the psychologist can
identify it so the couple can make choices regarding what they need to do (and what they
are willing to do).
Third, the psychologist can help the couple define their values and
goals, which should guide their behavior in the relationship.
Fourth, the psychologist can guide the couple in learning better
Finally, the psychologist can support the couple in making decisions
regarding the future of their relationship.