When Danielle met Mark, she found him interesting and handsome. He was of course immediately attracted to her beauty and liked her outgoing personality and wit. He asked her out and wined and dined her. Soon they were seeing each other two or three times a week, and they called each other in between. Mark would go to great lengths to do things for Danielle, writing little notes that she would find in unexpected places, leaving work early to get her a present, and even writing a poem or two, though he was hardly a poet. Danielle loved the poems anyway.
They married a year and a half later. Several years after that, Danielle was wondering why Mark did not communicate with her. It had been a while since he had even told her he loved her. Mark was tired of her talking “all the time,” and he often thought she was silly in how she looked at things. They got in arguments over how the house was kept. Mark liked things neat, but Danielle complained that she didn’t have time to keep things to Mark’s “immaculate” standards.
What happens between the initial infatuation we have and the rejection of our partner down the road? Danielle and Mark’s story is all too common. It may be more or less extreme than what you have experienced, but it represents the process of our chosen mate going from the “perfect” lover to the person who would be better if they were just different in this or that way.
There are two stages in a relationship that are important to recognize if we are to be happy with our partners in the long run. In fact, it may be important to recognize them if in some cases the relationship is to survive at all.
We all recognize the first stage of a relationship, romantic love. In this stage, the other person can almost do no wrong. We think of him or her as perfect. Often in this stage, we also notice all the similarities we have with the other, whether it is taste in activities, behaviors, politics, experiences, sense of humor, music, or whatever. In fact, these two traits characterize this first stage—perfection and sameness.
It is almost as if two personalities could merge and be happy in doing so. For this reason, this stage is called symbiosis. There is even research showing that the brain chemistry of this stage supports attraction to the other person in obsessive ways.
With time, however, we notice things we do not like in the other—imperfections or incompatibilities that are significant. We find out that the other person is different than we are in ways that bother us. We may have known about some of these differences before but overlooked them through romantic eyes. Or we may discover differences that we didn’t know about before. Either way, the differences matter.
This stage is called differentiation, because if we can allow the other person to be different, the relationship can survive and be harmonious. The problem arises if we do not allow differentiation. If we try to remain symbiotic by expecting our partner to be what we want them to be and the same as we are, trouble arises.
An important lesson when the romance has faded and conflict arises is to understand that your partner is different than you. Many times people will say, “Well, I would do it this way. Why doesn’t he?” or “I think of it this way. Why doesn’t she?” The simple answer is, the other person is different. Allowing the other person to be different can be a huge step to resolving conflict.
Research also shows that if we allow differentiation to occur, certain brain processes support long-term attachment. Feelings of calm, security, social ease, and emotional bonding are possible in “companionate love.” A key here is to accept the differences in the other while being able to assert one’s own essential character.
This is Glenn Stevenson with Self Sense Counseling and Coaching, inviting you to accept your partner as different than you and not fall out of love.