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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 don’t 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

Relationships go 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.

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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.

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The next stage involves balancing your need for autonomy and your sense of caring and appreciation for your partner.

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.

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Mutual Interdependence:

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 it apart.

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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.

General Thoughts:

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.

Achieving mutual interdependence takes considerable maturity in both partners, a secure sense of self, and a fair amount of luck.

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Problems 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 role).

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.

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Problems 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.

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Problems 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 the relationship.

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.

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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 overlap.

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 don’t know what it holds, and deal with it yourself, it can taint your relationship with your partner.

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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.

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Warning Signs

Here are some possible signs that your relationship could be in trouble:

  • 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).

*When 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 violence.

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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 partner/relationship.
  • 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.

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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 communication skills.

Finally, the psychologist can support the couple in making decisions regarding the future of their relationship.

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Disclaimer:  You know, we see a disclaimer like this in every ad that lawyers put out, and it probably is a good idea for us to use one, too:  "No representation is made that the quality of the psychological services to be performed is greater than the quality of psychological services performed by other psychologists.  The outcome of assessments or psychotherapy, or individual client satisfaction, cannot be guaranteed and is dependent on many factors.  Material on this site regarding symptoms, disorders, and treatment is informational only.  Diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders requires the expertise of a trained professional."

The information on this site regarding psychological disorders and treatment comes from many sources that cannot be credited, simply because they have been integrated over the years into our general knowledge base. However, one important source is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (1994) published by the American Psychiatric Association.