Relationship Basics

by: Dr. Marty Tashman

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The Five Stages of Relationships

Before you begin actually working on your relationship, you need to start by understanding relationships in general. You have probably heard couples say, "We knew the moment we saw each other across the room that this was THE ONE and we have been happily married for 45 years." Although we all wish we could experience love this way, the reality is that for most of us, relationships go through certain stages. Relationships and marriages that evolve successfully generally go through five phases of development: Honeymoon; Accommodation; Challenge; Cross Roads; and Rebirth.

Phase 1: The Honeymoon (Love- ain't it great!)

This is the romantic, passionate, stars-in-the-eyes phase. The sex is good and there is never enough of it. This doesn't happen for all couples but as a rule, this strong attraction stage is laced with thinking about and wanting to be with, your new love.

Phase 2: Accommodation (O.K, so love isn't perfect)

Even Romeo and Juliet had they been married, would have had to deal with the day-to-day realities. In the Accommodation Stage roles are established, expectations are set and compromises are made. It is here that disillusionment sets in and power struggles become evident. The other person's habits, needs, anger and withdrawal patterns become uncomfortably clear. Intense conflict has the potential for developing during this stage. It is most advantageous to learn about problem solving, conflict management and communication during this stage.

Phase 3: The Challenge (Trouble in paradise)

A couple doesn't really know how strong a relationship is until they deal with the challenges that life brings. Whether it is starting a new job, unemployment or the unfortunate occurrence of an accident or family illness, we all face challenges in life. The Challenge Stage lets the partners know what they can expect from each other during these demanding times.

Children and family crises are important factors during this stage. Each partner sets their own rules and expectations for raising children and how extended family issues should be handled. The challenge here is to be aware of this fact and find a successful compromise in meeting each other's rules and expectations.

During the Challenge Phase there is a certain amount of disillusionment. The relationship is not what it was dreamed to be and one or both partners may be increasingly attracted to other people of the opposite sex. Sometimes, there is fantasizing about past loves. This is a time when the relationship is very vulnerable to unfaithfulness. How couples deal with this phase will determine the direction that it will take in the Crossroads Phase.

Phase 4: The Crossroads (What do I do at this stage of my life?)

Once couples reach this stage they have already experienced some challenges (e.g. medical or money problems) and now other life decisions will have to be made (e.g. to have children, where to live, how to spend money). This stage is different from the Challenge Phase because a number of challenges have already occurred and the couple has learned how each other responds in these situations. The emotional patterns of each are clear and they have established patterns of dealing with their differences. It is common for problems to arise in this stage, but because you have already experienced a great many shared challenges, you stand the best chance of working through these issues and getting to the Rebirth Stage. The three most common negative patterns for individuals to engage in during this stage are:

  1. Being resigned to sticking with the bad decision of staying in the relationship;
  2. Emotional withdrawal;
  3. Trying to force the other person into being different.

Phase 5: Rebirth (New marriage)

It is estimated that only 15% of all couples reach this stage. At this point, folks have figured out "the real person" they have married. To achieve it they will have successfully dealt with the Accommodation, Challenge and Crossroads Stages. In this phase, couples learn how and when to compromise and they truly (not on the surface) accept areas of differences with minimum resentment. In this stage couples learn to re-appreciate and re-love each other and:

Focus on what is right with each other;
Give each other the benefit of the doubt in conflict situations;
Successfully manage and truly accept frustrations, disappointments and hurts;
Agree to disagree and fully value each other even if they are totally unable to see things the same way;
Have a give and take sexual relationship on a regular basis;
Communicate in such a way they really listen to and hear each other;
Can disagree with each other and be O.K with that;
Recover from their disagreements within a short period of time;
Constantly find things to appreciate about each other;
Spend time relaxing and having fun on a weekly basis;
Spend time talking about issues that come up in their relationship.

Four Ingredients in a Good Relationship

In working with many couples over the years, I have come to recognize common themes that run through both the successful and difficult relationships. There are four important factors in a good relationship:

1. Feeling accepted;
2. Feeling as though your partner has influence over you;
3. Not telling your partner something she already knows;
4. Keeping judgments about the other person's issues or problems to a minimum.

1. Feeling Accepted

People get married or make long-term commitments because they want to feel accepted and validated and to feel good about themselves. The guideline for all relationships is: Relationships go well when partners are making each other feel valued. Everything else flows from this core reality. When one partner says something to make the other feel valued and important it strengthens the relationship. In contrast, when one partner says something negative and causes the other to feel badly (regardless of small it may seem), it breaks down the relationship.

Action to take using this information: Keeping this in mind, you can begin working on improving your relationship by looking for things to say that will make your partner feel valued. For example: "Mary, you are working hard at not yelling when you talk to me;" or "Jack, I appreciate that you are calling before you come over to the apartment." Look for something that your partner is doing well and be positive about it. The caution here is to be genuine and not patronizing.

Action to Avoid: Stay away from saying things that your partner will hear as criticism.

The importance of looking for something positive about your partner is a simple guideline you can consistently follow in your journey towards rebuilding your relationship. This doesn't mean you don't get upset or disagree, but that you communicate these thoughts and feelings in a way that does not make your partner feel devalued.

Fights and feeling accepted

A particularly vulnerable time for relationships can be during disagreements and fights. These can occur because of different points of view, something that one person forgets to do, or actions that are annoying, offensive, or hurtful. While fighting is an important part of a relationship it is also dangerous because there is a strong possibility of saying hurtful things that can make your partner feel devalued. To avoid this, the conversation needs to focus on the specific issues at hand. It is especially helpful if you find something positive to say about your partner even though you are expressing disagreement. The following examples state the area of disagreement but also acknowledge your partner in some way: "I know you want our home to look nice but I'm concerned about the expense;" or "I know how important it is to you to have a nice car, but I'm upset that it will put us into debt." People are different and their priorities vary. The goal here is to discuss the differences and be clear that while you do not agree with your partner's priority, you respect it. You can disagree in an agreeable way. In fact, some good relationships are characterized by an on-going expression of differences. People in these relationships often say, "We fight all the time. We need to express ourselves and get our problems out in the open." The success of these couples though is most likely due to the way that their "fighting" is done.
To further explain how this can work I will take the story of Mark and Anna, who are separated. When Mark comes to visit, he sees Anna correcting the children and feels that she should leave them alone. The best way for Mark to handle this would be to say something such as, "It's hard for me to see you speaking like that to Sally (their child), but I know you have your reasons. I may not agree, but I do understand that's it important to you." Yes, there can be trouble with this exchange, but it will at least limit the conflict more than if Mark said, "Why don't you just leave Sally alone?" That statement does not allow for differences and does not acknowledge Anna's perspective and causes even more distance between them.

2. Feeling As Though Your Partner Has Influence over You

As a marriage counselor I often hear "She doesn't listen to me;" "She's going do what she wants no matter what I say." All of us want to feel that we have influence over our partner. This does not mean however, that our partner has to do everything we want or agree with us on everything. It does mean though, that we need to believe our partner has heard us.

Having influence is especially important when a marriage is on the verge of ending. We all need to feel that a great deal of thought and weight is given to our perspective and that the other person takes our opinions seriously. Letting your partner know that you have given thought to your conversations can go a long way. Statements such as, "I'm not sure what I'm going to do, but I have been thinking a lot about what you said;" or "Even though I don't agree with you I think you are right about..." are much less likely to produce negative feelings in your partner. These statements don't mean you completely agree, but that you have given thought to your partner's opinions and ideas, they are important to you, and you have spent some time thinking about them.

3. Not Telling Your Partner Something He Already Knows

It is essential to understand that when you are frustrated or angry about an issue and repeat to your "meaningful other" something he already knows, it will have a negative effect on the relationship. Men in particular often experience this as nagging. For example, restating the obvious with statements such as, "You have to do your taxes or you'll be in trouble;" or "I told you we are lost, why didn't you ask for directions?" will often result in a counter attack or withdrawal into angry silence.

To help avoid these types of responses it is most important that you deal with your own feelings of frustration. A statement about your feelings and reactions rather than an accusatory statement is the ideal way to communicate this information. Let's go back to the statement, "You have to pay your taxes." This might be heard more positively by saying, "Do you want me to help you get some of your receipts together?" or "Do you want me to remind you about the deadline date with the taxes?"

An attempt to help with the solution rather than saying something that could be perceived as a criticism gives the other person some control over future communications about the taxes. The more options people feel they have the less defensive or angry their response is likely to be.

4. Keeping Judgments to a Minimum

Another key element in making relationships work is having verbal exchanges that are non-judgmental. When we were growing up we often heard judgmental types of message from our parents. They would say things such as: "Don't be lazy, do your homework;" or "What's wrong with you, can't you listen to anything I say?" It's easy, if not natural, to pick up habits based on our childhood experiences and often, we don't even realize that we are being judgmental.

Judgmental types of communication are also triggered when one partner is feeling hurt or angry. When we feel that our significant other is negatively judging us, we feel diminished and devalued and the result is a defensive or passive-aggressive response. We also stop listening and the argument and bad feelings are no longer about the original subject of discussion but are about "ego repair." We actually become focused on trying to feel better about ourselves. These are the difficult times because negative statements cannot be taken back, even if we make an apology. It can take a great deal of repair work to fix the damage done by disparaging ego statements.

Ego repair can be an extremely difficult task and the offenders will have their work cut out for them. They will need to modify their behavior or their partners will continue to respond in a negative manner and feel emotionally damaged as well. It can also be difficult for those who have been offended. They are the injured party and yet if they say something hurtful in return, they too are now responsible to do some ego repair. The offended partners are in a real bind; they are the ones who have been injured and yet cannot sit back and do nothing.

Now that you have some basic information about relationships, it is time to start your journey toward the ultimate goal - the "Rebirth Stage." Be mindful though, that it is not about "fixing" things so your relationship returns to where it used to be. It is about creating something far better; a relationship full of trust, security and passion and ultimately, a deeper love.

Dr. Marty Tashman has been in practice for over 30 years. He believes that combining compassion and common sense with formal training and experience is the most effective way to help a couple deals with challenges they are facing. Marty tells his clients that therapy should help change come about during the very first session. Of course, problems are not solved immediately, but every meeting should bring the couple to learning how to become closer to each other. Relationships can be "fixed", if both partners want things to work they have taken an important step towards being a couple.

Dr. Marty holds a doctorate in Clinical Psychology; he is a licensed Marriage Counselor, and a certified Social Worker. He holds a master's degree in Counseling. He specializes in short term marriage counseling. Dr. Marty also works with couples where one partner is struggling with addiction.

Dr.Marty can be reached at: (732) 246-8484 or [email protected]
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