In this article I aim briefly to explore the four stages of relationships from a psycho-analytic perspective and provide some clarity on the nature of relating in romantic relationships.
My view is informed by psycho-analytic thought and based in particular on attachment theory initially developed by Dr John Bowlby and elaborated upon by Kleinian object-relations theory.
The aim here is to provide a broad outline of the typical trajectory of most romantic relationships and to track some of the narratives of couples in therapy to ascertain the phase where they may be stuck.
The ultimate goal is to explore alternative avenues in relating besides breaking up or ending up in divorce court.
Stage 1: Attraction
In terms of psychoanalytic thought, intimate relationships are guided by unconscious factors.
What we experience as random attraction is almost always more calculated than that, even though we are almost always unaware of these calculations!
Healing Childhood Wounds
In essence, intimate relationships offer us the greatest opportunities to heal our childhood wounds. The person to whom we are attracted will, very likely, share some significant traits with the parent who gave us the most trouble in childhood.
If we follow the attraction through to a committed relationship, we will most probably have the same discord or difficulties in interacting with our partner that we had with our problematic parent.
Many people in therapy indicate that they are surprised by the above notion as they often verbalize that they consciously chose partners who were very different from their parents.
For example, very often people from a home where alcohol or drug abuse was rife state that they consciously chose a partner who did not drink or abuse substances.
They then may find themselves in a situation where their partner does not abuse alcohol or drugs, but seems cold and distant or difficult to relate to in conflict situations.
The reality is that we do not consciously put ourselves in upsetting situations – we unconsciously choose – in adulthood - psychological dynamics that are most familiar to us from our childhood.
In essence, in adulthood we have greater personal resources and a better chance of standing up for ourselves than we had in childhood. If we succeed in working through these (unconscious) problems with our partner, we will have a double reward!
We will not only have a more meaningful and fulfilling relationship, but also address the reparation of childhood wounds.
A real life example
Lucas is well-read, generous, energetic and good looking. He also happens to be opinionated, loud and domineering. Abigail falls hopelessly in love with Lucas.
Her father was also opinionated and loud and her sense of self (personality structure) developed during childhood in the shadow of a powerful father. In order to get along with her father, she developed traits that served to accommodate her father’s needs.
To keep the peace, she learned to say “Yes” and keep quiet. In essence, her childhood experiences trained her to be a match for Lucas.
In the first stage of attraction she will, in all likelihood, remain quiet and tolerate Lucas’s opinionated views when they socialise with others.
She will focus on his generous qualities and fail to be conscious of the signs that she is tolerant of offensive aspects of Lucas’s behaviour. This sets the stage for the development and growth into the phase of romance.
Stage 2: Romance
If all goes well, attraction turns into romance. Lovers live in a special state of consciousness that is quite selective at this point. Everything about their beloved is intensified and all else fades into grey.
Romantic love is a psychological and spiritual experience but essentially the degree to which we are swept away by our romantic love is also the extent to which we have been psychologically wounded.
Filling the void in our intrapsychic world
In essence, falling in love is an attempt to fill the void in our own intrapsychic world by being with the one that we think we love. Often partners during the romantic phase of their relationship will use terms such as “he/she is my soulmate” or “this feels like a homecoming” or “I will love you forever”.
Eye gazing, obsessing, daydreaming and physical desire is rife during this phase during which there is little time for anything else than the partner. What this ultimately changes into is up to the partners.
Most short-lived flings end during this phase, and most affairs are characterized by the dynamics of this phase where partners perceive themselves as being insulated against the demands of the world in a symbiotic bond of blissful merging.
Symbiosis is built on the erroneous assumption that “you and I are the same”. For couples trapped in this phase individuation is often not an option. Hence the short-lived nature of this phase and of relationships who only operate in this phase.
If we try to possess the essence of our lover and appropriate it to fill our own vacancies we are ensuring that the relationship will not grow into mature love that is built on individuation.
Stage 3: Power Struggle
This stage of romantic relationships is the least fun but the most fertile for growth. When the “magic” has worn off and your partner begins to irritate and annoy you the consequences of having made an unconscious “match” with your partner (who shares problematic traits with your parent) start coming into play.
In childhood you did not get your needs met and you now (unconsciously) demand that your partner gets the job done!
In reality, your partner is often not a willing collaborator in this enterprise and power struggles to have unmet childhood needs ensue. During this phase most relationships end in divorce when partners are unable to communicate their needs and preferences to a receptive audience member (partner).
Having your needs met
During this phase the best prospect of healing the wounds causing during childhood is achieved if the partners are able to communicate successfully or enter into therapy in order to have their needs (conscious and unconscious) met.
During this phase defensive structures inflict the most damage as partners tend to deploy similar defensive mechanisms to those they used in childhood.
For example, some people may turn silent and enforce a zone of safety around themselves to protect themselves from what looks and sounds like the real threats they experienced in the past.
The defensive arsenal is ready to be deployed at the slightest provocation and an unsuspecting or even well-intentioned partner can stumble over a childhood slight and never know what set off the attack.
Typical defences are deployed and denial (“I had no choice”, “It wasn’t my fault”) or projection (I ascribe to you things that are true about me, and that make you an extension of me) is often seen in this stage of relationships, causing havoc to wounded children trying to communicate as adults.
Essentially, two people, each with unconscious defences, come together in a situation where their defences become entangled. In psychoanalytic literature, it is well-established that partners tend to exhibit similar wounds and complementary defences.
The deeper the wounds, the more defensive we become, because we have learned that other people can hurt and scare us. To control the pain we resort to defensive mechanisms. The power struggle phase is essential to reach the stage of mature love.
Stage 4: Mature Love
In the mature love stage, the relationship continues to flourish from new insights and interactions that were put in place to meet the demands of the power struggle.
The partners have learned how to balance the requirements of closeness and separateness, how to create a sexual life that satisfies them both, how to solve problems effectively, and how to talk and listen to each other so that their differing points of view are understood and honoured.
In addition, they have learned how not to inflict wounds consciously and are able to give and receive love that is offered.
This type of love is perhaps best summarized as follows: the desire for connectedness never changes, even though the balance of closeness and separateness changes over the course of a relationship.
Everyone has a yearning for connection
Everyone has a yearning for connection, regardless of the ability to maintain it. People enter into relationships with varying degrees of self-awareness.
Ultimately, our experience of intimate relationships is formed from every important relationship we have ever had. The dynamics of any relationship reveals the ghosts from each partner’s past.
Mothers, fathers, former lovers, best friends, coaches, special teachers, therapists – these ghosts are remnants from both positive and negative experiences – all of which left their mark.
Feel free to contact me.