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After the Honeymoon Phase

If you do a web search on “phases [or stages] of relationship”, you will find many different takes on how intimate relationships progress over time. Below I have included links to some of the web pages I found.

Experts differ in the number of stages, the timing, and a number of other characteristics. Most of them, however, agree that the first stage, infatuation or romance – colloquially referred to as “the honeymoon phase” – eventually ends. Long-term relationship satisfaction requires navigating that change. (Don’t worry, the end of infatuation doesn’t mean the relationship becomes drudgery thereafter!)

Two common ways of describing the post-infatuation stage are “disappointment” and “power struggle”. The infatuation phase feels incredibly good, and is often compared to addictive drug experiences. Indeed, infatuation increases brain chemicals that get you “high”, very like certain drugs. When that experience becomes less intense with your partner, it is like your drug supply is drying up. You feel disappointment and frustration. You want another fix, and you want your partner to give it to you.

The actual experience is usually not that dramatic, since it happens gradually over time. Nonetheless, as the infatuation neuro-chemicals in your brain diminish, you start seeing all your partner’s imperfections in a different way. Traits that you once saw with sympathy and affection become annoying. The differences between you that were once fascinating become tiresome.

This often leads to the power struggle, as you try to change each other into, or back into, the person you believe you want to be with. In the infatuation phase you perceive your partner as bringing out the best in you; in the disappointment phase you may believe that your partner is bringing out the worst in you. This makes you all the more certain this is all your partner’s fault, since you inevitably believe that you have never acted badly this way with anyone other than your partner.

My experience as a couples counselor has been that relationships rarely fail because the partners are fundamentally incompatible. It is more common for relationships to fail because one or both partners are unable or unwilling to accept disappointment as a valid part of the experience of relationship. When they can’t accept disappointment, they stay stuck in longing for something they don’t have rather than focusing on discovering the satisfaction that is possible with their sometimes-disappointing, sometimes-wonderful partner.

If the only goal you have for your relationship is to get back to the blissful feelings of the infatuation stage, your relationship is likely to end in the disappointment phase. Blaming each other for your exile from paradise, you each dig in your heels and withhold affection from each other, each demanding that the other change first.

When you get stuck in this phase, it usually means that you are clinging to the belief that the disappointment is a “wrong” feeling. You are sure that the disappointment and power struggle indicates a problem that is specific to this relationship with this person, a problem that should not exist if the relationship was good.

Being stuck in disappointment also probably means that you believe either that your partner is the only one with the power to change the relationship, or that fairness requires that your partner be the one to make changes. Sometimes people holding the latter view are those who have (or believe they have) been consistently required to change themselves to benefit others in the past, and they are attempting to stand up for themselves in a new way.

People who are stuck in the disappointment phase often refuse to let go of the expectations they developed during the infatuation phase. They are certain that the disappointment they feel is happening because their partner stopped trying or changed in some way, and that their partner can therefore restore the good feelings by changing back or trying harder. They may find it difficult to accept the idea of a disappointment phase, especially if they are determined to not let their partner escape unpunished for their transgressions.

There is no going back, only forward. Exiting the disappointment phase requires starting over in some ways. You have to discover, or rediscover, meaningful reasons to be together other than “because it is easy to be together”. You will likely realize that the two you have some different desires and priorities for the relationship, and you will have to accommodate those differences. You will have to open yourselves to being changed by the relationship and by each other.

This process can be scary, but it can also be exciting. When you consciously create your relationship together, you move to other phases of relationship. Those phases are described by words like stable, mature, committed, and supportive. The excitement of the relationship will come from creating a life that you both want and sharing your true selves with each other, rather than the blissful but temporary high of infatuation.

Other websites that talk about relationship phases:

Five Stages in a Relationship

5 Stages of Relationship

Five Stages of Relationships

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