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It strikes me that in the life cycle of a typical romantic relationship, there is a strange part which occurs just after the heady early days about which very little is ever written. It’s a time where, depending on your level of personal happiness and equilibrium, you may cope either very well or quite poorly on not knowing which way the two of you are headed.
This is what Churchill called ‘the end of the beginning’ and it is a classic stage where anxiety and fears start to intrude, especially if you find it hard to communicate with your partner and if you have a particular type of attachment style.
This is the period in which the relationship feels good and positive but there’s still a fair amount of unknowns. You don’t really know the other person yet; even if you think you do, there will be many aspects of him or her you’ve yet to meet.
There may be some perplexing questions too, such as: is this relationship really exclusive? What does your partner really want from this? What is their edge in relationship?
How come no-one snapped them up yet when they seem so open to intimacy and just generally fabulous?
How do they really feel about you? Are you someone to pass the time with or someone special?
If you hear about their past, can you trust their version of it, or their reasons for leaving their last partner? Especially if you hear a lot about psychotic ex’s: more than one of these in their history certainly says something, although jumping to conclusions is not what this article is about.
So here you are … you like them a lot but it feels too soon to tell your children if you have any. It feels as though they like you too, but a combination of past experience and inner knowing tells you that there is no train to catch, no rush to get to a destination.
The problem is … in the deepest part of you, you know that you’d like to be headed to that destination and be arriving TOGETHER. And something in you knows that it is too soon to ask about this; you might not get the answer you want, for one thing … and for another, you may feel like you are trampling over the delicate shoots of this great new thing by saying anything at all.
So how do you create a feeling of safety for yourself about this new relationship when in reality there is none? How do you go about feeling okay when there is no certainty that this will carry on? How do you be with your level of fear that this new fabulous thing you found could disintegrate and disappear tomorrow?
When you touch in with your fears about everything going wrong suddenly and unaccountably and the relationship ending, perhaps you experience a lot of other difficult feelings that can be quite hard to admit to because they feel quite shameful and desperate written down. The sort of stuff about time running out, about there not being enough decent men / women to go round, about yourself not getting any younger, about your desire, weird as it sounds, to not be spending another spring and summer on your own, another birthday, Christmas, whatever it is.
In our desire to hold fast to our hopes, we can be good at deflecting any negative thoughts about whether or not this person is deserving of our trust and respect, especially in that intoxicating early stage where we are literally experiencing a chemical reaction that maintains our attraction to them.
We can be quite good at hiding these kinds of feelings from ourselves but they can still be ticking away in the background informing our actions and causing us to adapt our behaviour to retain what we have or think we have. It is not surprising that many relationships break down at the three to six month stage, roughly around the length of time that people can convincingly act a role that is not fully themselves. This is THE classic time in a relationship for discovering some flaws or behaviours in your partner that feel off-key or of course might be downright unacceptable. Typically, this will be the time for both partners to take down and examine their projections onto each other, projections of the ideal partner that they have unconsciously located in one another, and to really start to see behind the mask they’ve been wearing throughout this early stage.
This point sounds and is scary but also actually provides a real opportunity for deepening the connection between you. Nonetheless, it is during this nail-biting, pre-committed stage that the relationship can be most anxiety provoking for us because the lack of certainty combined with the level to which we are invested emotionally understandably makes for unease.
Of course, if we are at this same stage but don’t really have any strong feelings of love for this partner, none of these fears will be coming up for us. However, the relationship is probably not going to make it through the next ceiling because we are not really wanting to make further investment, our feelings will stay sheltered and there will be no urge to deepen our involvement.
Where there is real potential, it can be hard to sit with the difficult feelings of lack of safety at this time. As you start to see more of who each other really is, flaws emerge, secrets may be divulged, cute habits become less appealing. The real essence of the person emerges and can even seem a little foreign, a little unfamiliar. A whole lot of feelings and sensations can get set up in us, from mild unease to acute panic, as we try to adjust our perspective on the change to our relationship.
I’m not saying here, stay with your relationship if you encounter too many ‘red lights’; but it is often the case that relationships with a lot of potential and positive things about them can get discarded because of one partner’s unmet inner needs to come out of the flow of relationship and seek to fix or restrict it, in order to experience for themselves a feeling of safety. Typically, this can be some kind of RELATIONSHIP TALK or agenda, born out of the overwhelming need not to have another failed relationship, or the imprinting of some imagined timescale or agenda on something that is essentially organic. This is real life and not Disney; unfortunately within the collective psyche is a belief in the happy ending as a destination we must reach with no clear idea often of what that might look like after we get there.
It is my belief that relationships have to flow and evolve; after the initial rush of euphoria, there needs to be a time for deliberation and taking stock, a time to take a breath and adjust to a potential future life in a relationship, and all that that means. Mindfulness as a practice teaches us how to be with our need for certainty, for the known, and why we have such an attachment to form. It is very hard for many of us to be in the Gap with relationship, by which I mean that limbo state where we have to literally not know and yet still be okay with that. In a way, these fears can arise in many areas of life but when we are choosing that special partner, they seem even louder than usual as we seek to avoid past mistakes and find that elusive fulfilment that we unconsciously long for.
Why is this? If relationships are such hard work and such a potential risk for pain and suffering, why do we not find a way to be content and fulfilled and just be on our own? Harville Hendrix in ‘KEEPING THE LOVE YOU FIND’ develops and explores this theme in great detail. He writes …
‘… what the unconscious wants is to become whole and heal the wounds of childhood. To this end, it is carrying around its own detailed picture of a proper match, searching not for the right stats, but for the right chemistry. And what is that chemistry? Nothing more than our unconscious attraction to someone who we fell will meet our particular emotional needs. Specifically, that need is to cover the ‘shortfall’ of childhood by having our mates fill in the psychological gaps left by our imperfect childhood caretakers. How do we go about that? By falling madly in love with someone who has both the positive and the negative traits of our imperfect parents, someone who fits an image that we carry deep inside us, and for whose embodiment we are unconsciously searching.’
With so much at stake, no wonder we feel dread and fear when our relationships feel precarious or uncertain or there is any threat or doubt as to their longevity.
Taking time to just be with what is and trying to stop over-functioning is a good practice here. Notice why you want to be with this other wonderful individual and be patient and relax as they reveal more about themselves, how they think, how they react. Know that any tension or fear is detrimental to you because it restricts you coming into full connection with your partner, it literally stops you from experiencing each other fully and robs you of true communion.
But most of all, nurture yourself. Be on course sailing towards your own personal dreams and goals outside the relationship.
Be all that you need to be for yourself; don’t look to the partner you are with to fix everything in your life. Keep the things in your life that you loved when you didn’t have a significant other … apart from the dating element. If you feel you want to be with the person you are with, discourage other ‘suitors’. There is a common practice called ‘circular dating’, which is essentially continuing to date whilst you have no firm commitment in your current relationship. It is your choice and I have both done and not done this; my feeling is that whilst relationships can feel like an unacceptable risk in terms of your suffering unwanted emotional pain, if you enter into them consciously and from a life that is well structured and balanced, what do you really have to fear? Relationships, looked at in one sense, are an invitation for growth.
Essentially, you can best help yourself to be in a state of ease and peace in a new relationship by taking account of some of the following:
Be open and listen with all your senses to what your partner chooses to bring in; beware of weaving a story for yourself that has a fairytale ending and a movie soundtrack; enjoy daydreams but don’t get lost in them; be with the reality of the situation; establish that everything you really need for yourself can be met elsewhere and does not depend on this relationship enduring. Have the rich emotional life you had prior to the relationship; most definitely keep up your hobbies, friends, and interests; stay in touch with what rocks your world; be in a fulfilling career or be working your way towards one; …. and lastly … be open to the deeper context and meaning of this relationship to you.