Why Men and Women Fight, Part 8: Romance and Arrested Development

The Romance App

So far, we’ve considered two “software apps” that download into our psyches just because we’re part of this culture. Feminism and Capitalism shape our thinking and our way of being outside of our conscious awareness and give us lots of fodder for fighting. Let’s talk about the Romance app that downloads automatically, as well.

Hollywood, Harlequin, and Pop Music do a phenomenal job of fashioning a fantasy about how love is supposed to go. Boy meets girl; boy saves girl from some horrible fate; boy and girl fall in love; boy and girl get married and live happily ever after. Or something like that.

These days, boy and girl meet and have sex on their first date—to the sound of an orchestra in the background, or a favorite love song on Pandora. Unless of course, they’ve found a closet at work to consummate their serendipitous meeting.

What to Expect When You Fall in Love

The “happily ever after” part is assumed. The truth is, Hollywood, Harlequin and Pop Music mostly reference the first stage of a relationship, a stage Bader and Pearson call symbiosis, borrowing from Margaret Mahler’s research on the natural stages that mothers and newborns go through as a child individuates over the few years of life. (See In Quest of the Mythical Mate, 1988.)

Symbiosis refers to the “honeymoon” phase of a new relationship—the phase when we feel the other perfectly completes us, will forever anticipate and meet our every need and desire, and who entertains us with the most adorable habits we’ve ever encountered. During this intoxicating bonding phase, we experience the similarities we have with the other, and minimize, miss or ignore differences. This phase, the Hollywood phase, is driven by the powerful hormone oxytocin, and is meant to last about a year, at most.

What to Expect After You Fall in Love

In the natural course of relationship development, a couple gradually move into the differentiation phase during which the couple begins to identify their differences. Disappointment often accompanies these realizations, which represent the shattering of the fantasy formed in the symbiosis phase. During this stage, the habits that were so adorable in the symbiosis phase become downright annoying. Navigating differences requires frank discussions, clarifying needs and values, learning to communicate with respect, listening without defensiveness, refraining from blaming and shaming. Done well, this phase is part of the foundation-building for future phases. Done not so well, the fighting during this phase can lead to a break-up.

If the couple survives the differentiation stage, however, which may span several months to another year, they will naturally move into the practicing phase, during which the couple tests their separateness, trusting that the boundaries established during the previous stage will hold the relationship together while they explore their individuality.

What to Expect When You Love

If a couple weathers this phase, a phase that rarely lasts less than a year, the partners will move into the next phase: rapprochement. By the time they reach this phase, the couple has established an appreciation for their differences, and can even seek the personal strengths of the other to compensate for personal weaknesses in themselves. They can look back on the foundation they’ve established with a sense of pride at what they’ve accomplished as a team, and they each derive genuine happiness from contributing to the happiness of the other. The power and management struggles of the last two phases have gotten easier by the time they reach this phase.

After a good while in rapprochement, a couple can enter the mutual interdependence phase—the phase that Hollywood sometimes glorifies as much as symbiosis, and indeed it can be as satisfying, but in a very different way…and buoyed up by a different hormone: vasopressin. This is the phase in which a couple can derive much fulfillment from the hard work they’ve done and the life they’ve created together. Cooperation, mutual openness, implicit trust and flow are now the rewards of the coupleship. Hollywood’s archetypical picture for this is the older couple holding hands as they sit on the swing together.

In glorifying the first and last phases and omitting the stages in between, Hollywood, Harlequin and Pop Music feed the lie to our unconscious psyches that if the relationship is worthwhile, it should come easily. Just the opposite is true, however. Achieving a solid relationship requires an intentional march toward increasing emotional maturity, and this occurs as couples, individually and together, face the difficulties of life with their primary focus on growth…willing to delay the gratification of personal happiness. Happiness and well-being must be earned, and if we believe we’re entitled to them without having to do our part to acquire them, we will be sorely disappointed. And conflictual.

What to Expect from Love’s Arrested Development

How each individual in the partnership works through this disillusionment will determine whether the relationship will flourish, flounder or fail. When you realize that you partner is a real person rather than a fantasy, your relationship has more hope of survival and more risk of failure than ever before.

Some couples fight because the individuals don’t progress through these stages at exactly the same time or in exactly the same way. Sometimes, one partner wants to stay in symbiosis while the other partner tugs at the relationship to move it more naturally forward into differentiation and beyond. If the couple finds themselves two phases apart, the relationship isn’t likely to last.

When both partners get stuck in the symbiosis phase, the relationship will atrophy without the strengthening exercise of negotiation. Conflict avoidant couples will strike a pseudo-agreement in which both sacrifice essential parts of themselves in favor of accommodation, preventing them from developing tools to use when life slings its arrows of outrageous misfortune. The long-term result: a passionless relationship.

Others couples get stuck in a hostile-dependent spin of the symbiosis phase, preventing them from moving through the natural phases of relationship development. These couples fight intensely, attempting to manipulate the other into remaining the fantasy figure of their symbiotic demands. Blaming, shaming, defending, acquiescing, resigning, stonewalling, criticizing, mind-reading, reacting and projecting are some of the hallmarks of a relationship that has gotten stuck in this potential sub-phase of symbiosis.

Love Beyond Arrested Development

Popular media does little to present the reality of normal, healthy relationship development, which naturally includes some fighting, forcing the individuals of the coupleship to grow up. If they can manage to do this, most couples decide that the relationship is worth keeping. When couples fight respectfully and engage mutually in working together toward problem solving, they reach the best decision for them both.


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