Sam was a brilliant businessman, intellect and romantic. He married Tia, a lovely aspiring singer, taking her to a beautiful, remote spot in a foreign land to propose. It literally mirrored a scene from a movie they saw together when they first met and fell in love. Marrying a beautiful, equally intelligent and charming woman who would make an attractive partner and who also held strong family values was about the best thing he could imagine happening to him. He was happy to support her aspirations to perform, however a few years into the marriage, when Tia began to find success, travel more and be emotionally consumed in challenging projects he felt cheated.
This is not what marriage was supposed to be like! Dinner was seldom on time, the house was often disorganized and his wife emotionally unavailable. Tia felt disappointed as well. Where did this stodgy business man, with his household budgets and demands for domesticity come from? Tia longed for the romance of her courtship and rebelled against the expectation that she become a domestic goddess. She began to doubt her attraction for her husband, comparing him negatively to the liberated actors on stage with her. These disappointments were unmentioned but their anger and conflict over small things mounted.
The ‘honeymoon’ stage of newlyweds or in early courtship is a wonderful time during the relationship when we try to present our best selves to new lovers whom we tend to idealize and who idealize us. Serious relational conflict is avoided. This phase is not always present in every relationship 100% of the time, but it is present often.
This is an important developmental time for relationships and it typically lasts around 6 months. During the first stages of marriage, we often see it last 6 months – two years, seven years is a long honeymoon phase.
Couples find that the honeymoon phase of their relationship inevitably ends -as it should. Couples eventually experience internal or external changes (childbirth, pressures from extended family or social networks) that require facing their unresolved conflicts as well accepting opportunities and invitations for increased intimacy. During this time, I often see couples experiencing conflicting worldviews on marriage which were supplied by their distinct experiences in their families of origin.
Many couples are devastated when their expectations are unmet, and when unexpected and competing marriage “contracts” threaten their previous domestic bliss. The marriage contract is a set of both conscious and unconscious expectations we hold for ourselves and for others about fulfilling the roles of “wife”, “husband”, “lover” etc. Not until we are deep inside the relationship do we discover what we really mean by “married”.
During the bonding stages in marriage and courtship, part of the natural idealization of the partner includes embedding in our love relationship all of our unconscious hopes and dreams for the resolution of all our previously unmet needs “ Ahh…now I will finally be loved perfectly by the one who is perfect for me”. Nearly everyone who has the courage to fall in love believes and hopes for perfect love. Often that hope lies beneath our awareness, and evokes a quiet disappointment that builds over time as we work to maintain our belief that our lover is perfect for us. This hope is created by a deep desire that all our deepest wounds and fears of inadequacy will be healed. During the honeymoon phase we are willing to forgive a temporary lapse in our loved one.
To some extent, elements of merger and emotional fusion in early marriage are inevitable and normal as part of the early enchantment of love. But well into the marriage, we have to face that some of these lapses are not temporary and that awakens our fears that we might not have secured the perfect, reliable and endless love sufficient to meet our appetite!
During therapy Sam and Tia identified their silent expectations for marriage. Sam realized he hoped his wife would surrender more willingly to traditional wife and mother roles, even though that isn’t the “type” of woman he sought. In part, his satisfaction as a husband, and self respect was hinging on his capacity to hold her in such a role. He recognized that these expectations mirrored the style of his own family and the way his mother functioned as a wife. Tia acknowledged that she was in part hoping that like her father, Sam would be gratified by supporting her dreams financially and make as few demands as possible – thus freeing her to focus on her career. Both partners used therapy to unravel their own hopes and dreams for marriage from the assumptions they brought with them from their families and share them with each other. Using that as a foundation, they were able to successfully resolve the conflicts – like Tia’s music career and Sam’s traditional expectations. These were deeply important matters which they chose to overlook in the flurry of courtship, wedding and honeymoon life.
Finding ways to hold onto the best and let go of the worst from youth is an important part of individual as well as relationship development. Marriages serve a valuable “incubator” purpose in helping us do this part of growing up and enter adult hood emotionally. But they do not magically resolve our unmet needs or emotional wounds. That is individual work. So, as the honeymoon phase of relational development comes to an end, marital partners began to struggle to shore up their individual identities. Negotiating an acceptable balance between individual and relationship identities is an essential skill. Developing that skill isn’t always easy.
Some of the signs that individuals are struggling with maintaining their own identity that cause difficulties in the marriage are:
- Aligning with families of origin, friends and work life against their partners.
- Emotionally disengaging from each other.
- Withdrawing emotionally from sex.
- Withdrawing sex.
- Placing the focus on areas of weakness in their partner.
- Consistently yielding self-interest rather than allowing conflict.
- Cultivating diminishing gender attitudes like “men (women) are so stupid!”
- Withdrawing from friends and family.
- Avoiding alone time.
It’s both wonderful and very hard to risk falling in love, and it’s also very hard to face the disappointments of our idealizations. However, moving through conflicts and finding not only resolution as a couple, but a clearer personal identity is the gateway to real intimacy.
There are a number of strategies couples can use to support a healthy balance between individual and relational lives. Create in the relationship a wide area of respect and celebration of differences – after all, differences are what attract us in the first place.
Support one’s partner’s emotional differentiation; autonomy and individuation, if necessary seek therapy to do this. Work for one’s own emotional differentiation, autonomy and individuation, if necessary in therapy. Emotional maturity is hard won, but it is the foundation of true intimacy.
Sex and intimacy can be two of the areas first affected when the honeymoon stage ends. Some of the issues couples may face include subtle shifts in their sexual connection when differences in sexual desire become apparent. Sometimes a loss of romance and shift in the relational dynamic occurs when children arrive or external factors like competing needs or families exert pressure on the marriage.
Common misconceptions couples cloud the thinking partners about sex and intimacy. Some of these misconceptions are:
- That old married couples don’t have a better grasp of “hot sex” than young married couples!
- That their partner should fulfill all their unmet emotional needs.
- That sexual differences are based on gender.
- That by virtue of falling in love and committing to marriage, they know all of what it takes to be married and have a great sex life.
- That they can upgrade to a better partner without changing themselves.
- That they can have a great marriage without growing and changing as an adult.
How can couples keep “the magic” that existed during the honeymoon stage for a longer period of time? Strong marriages come from couples who are willing to risk falling in love, willing to risk facing their disappointments and willing to resolving their conflicts. Couples who believe sufficiently in themselves and their partners can sustain their marriage even when the magic crumbles. That initial magic will soon be replaced by a deeper, more intimate and intensely more erotic bond.
For a therapy appointment with Betsy Ritzman in Oak Park, IL or background information on her please visit her profile.