As a counselor to couples for many years, I’ve learned to spot the distinctive stages we travel through over the course of an intimate relationship. I wrote this book to share what I’ve learned about the Merge, Doubt and Denial, Disillusionment, Decision, and, finally, Wholehearted Loving.
Although these stages are predictable, even inevitable, we have the power to choose how to travel through them as self-aware actors who are in charge of our lives.
Cycles and Choices
The first stage, the Merge, fueled by a delicious and powerful love potion, may lead us to fall in love with an inappropriate partner. Despite the power of the potion, we choose what to do with our feelings. Do we fan the flames of a fire, which signals danger, or do we control our passion and turn our attention elsewhere?
If we choose to move with our partner into stage two, Doubt and Denial, we wake up from our trance of infatuation and begin to wonder whether this relationship is really the best choice for us. During this second stage, the spotlight shines on the flaws of our beloved. If we decide to remain in the relationship, typically we now invest a lot of energy in getting our lover to become our ideal partner.
At the same time, we also catch glimpses of our own least-likeable parts, for example, how we react when our partner doesn’t agree with us (press our point harder) or complains about something we have or haven’t done (perhaps we counterattack with a complaint of our own.) Each of us is forced to give up our dream of perfect, unconditional love in which our partner always sees the best in us and says the right thing, never embarrasses us, and reads our mind so that he can please us in every way possible.
As our disappointment escalates, so do our biological responses to stress: we prepare for war, we retreat, or we don camouflage.
Welcome to the third stage: Disillusionment. As differences continue to emerge, your proclivities to defend and preserve yourself may grow even stronger: you may believe that you’re always in the right and that everything should be done your way. Alternatively, perhaps you’re the kind of person who cannot bear conflict. You shut your ears to every dissonant chord and pretend everything is wonderful — or at least tolerable.
Choosing How to Respond
The point is, you have chosen how to respond. You will continue to make choices as you move through love’s stages. As Disillusionment sets in, we can try our best to offer goodwill and kindness, even as tension thickens. As the “Why aren’t you me?” argument gathers momentum, we can decide to loosen up a bit and allow more than one truth to be present in the relationship.
In this third stage, when our brain signals major alarm, it is particularly vital to choose to move from reactivity to rationality. When we are calmly present, we are free to act for the highest good of the relationship rather than out of fear and neediness.
Of course, because we’re thoroughly human, we won’t always respond to our lover from our highest self. At times, jealousy, anger, hurt, and pride will get the best of us. Then what? Can we apologize, make amends, and take responsibility for how we behaved, despite what our partner did to upset or annoy us? We have the power to make that choice.
Let’s say that when we reach the fourth stage — Decision — we make the choice to part ways. Can we wish our former partner the best? If that’s too hard, can we at least not wish him or her the worst?
If our partner decides to leave us, the situation presents a particularly rich opportunity to grow. The child in us may wail, “There are only two reasons a person would leave me: Either I’m bad, or he is!” Or we can choose to listen to the adult inside us who knows that one person can leave another without either one being bad. It is a life choice that may hurt us, but it will not destroy us. Alternatively, if we decide to remain together, we have the opportunity to learn the lessons that will help to make us the best person we can be, while also giving our relationship the chance to grow and deepen.
Practicing the Six Cs
How do we begin to love this way — from the inside out? I suggest that you start by practicing the “Six Cs,” which are choice, commitment, celebration, compassion, cocreation, and courage. If you and your partner commit to developing these qualities and behaviors, you will succeed in the fifth and final stage of love — Wholehearted Loving. Let’s take a closer look at these Six Cs to get a sense of the purpose and power of each one.
Choice. A chief component of a healthy relationship is recognizing that our every act — physical, financial, sexual, spiritual, and emotional — involves a choice, even when we imagine ourselves to be helpless. There’s an irony here: only when we feel capable of living well on our own can we choose intimate partnership freely and fully. To be able to say yes to a relationship with a whole heart, we need to know we can also say no and thrive on our own. We’re the leaders of our own lives.
Commitment. When we are committed to someone, our participation in the relationship is unqualified. We mean to stick around for the entire ride, not just to enjoy the side trip of romantic love before jumping off. We promise ourselves and our partner that we will work hard to enrich and deepen the relationship, which includes taking the time to make it a priority. Commitment also involves an honest examination of the fears and other limitations in ourselves that make love and collaboration with our partner challenging. Commitment includes a pledge to ourselves that we will do the inside work necessary to make the relationship flourish.
Celebration. First and foremost, let your partner know that he or she is fantastic! Learn to pay attention to what works between the two of you; discover small rituals of connection; and find times and ways to play, enjoy each other, and make love that you can integrate into your everyday lives. At the same time, understand that your primary job is to find your own unique purpose and fulfill it. All spiritual traditions emphasize that each person has his or her own calling, and that to discover and celebrate it is our life’s work. Self-actualization and connection can be nurtured at the same time — one doesn’t exclude the other.
Compassion. Each of us struggles with the human condition, and we must extend compassion to ourselves and to our partner. Note: Compassion is not the same as indulgence. We can maintain clear boundaries and honor our needs for safety and accountability, even while understanding each other’s struggles and vulnerabilities. We can stretch to see conflicts from the other’s perspective rather than remaining mired in our own point of view. We can make the effort to cultivate interest in each other rather than passing judgment, and to respond with openheartedness even when our instinct is to close up like a clam. We can forgive ourselves and forgive our partner, again and again. Our stumbles are as much a part of the journey as our successes.
Cocreation. One of the most powerful skills a couple can develop is the shared creation of effective ways to manage conflict, communicate, share decisions, and support each other in difficult times. Cocreation can also involve the pursuit of common interests that extend the relationship beyond its customary “you-me” borders. It’s healthy for couples to broaden their lives together, be it through family or community connections, creative projects, intellectual pursuits, sports, music, travel, spiritual practice, friendships, or other endeavors that you both find rewarding. We cocreate when we discover satisfying activities to do together rather than just being together. These joint endeavors can create larger meaning in our relationship.
Courage. Bravery is a prerequisite to moving forward as a couple. We need the courage to confront ourselves and our partners with awareness, honesty, and love. Courage means squarely facing our fears and limitations. It involves challenging our expectations and assumptions about who our partners are, about who they should and shouldn’t be. It means making changes when they are called for. It is feeling compassion for the whole of our human condition — mine, yours, that of our families, and even of people we feel have wronged us. Bravery is finding a way to laugh at ourselves, too.
From the Inside Out
The people who come into our lives enrich and challenge us. Through these relationships, we’re able to see ourselves more clearly. The health of our connections with one another depends a great deal on what goes on inside us — our inner resources, our lingering demons, and our motivation to grow and change.
Some of us are lucky enough to have the same partner for a long stretch. But as good as a relationship can be, our emotional and spiritual life journey begins and ends within us. In this sense, every relationship is an inside job. Inside us is where it starts — and where it finishes, too.
Joseph Campbell, the great American mythologist and writer, believed that the world’s most important myths and legends share a similar theme. The journey for each of us, as a hero or a heroine, is to search for the “magic elixir” — our true nature. We may think of this as our higher self, our spiritual nature, or our mature self.
The hero’s journey is a powerful metaphor for the couple’s path. Two people walk the road together for a time, giving each other the strength and courage to discover that magic elixir within. This is not a quick or easy undertaking. It is best taken on by the courageous and practiced by the patient and has been most elegantly described by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:
“For one human being to love another human being; that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been given to us, the ultimate, the final problem and proof, the work for which all other work is mere preparation.”
Love has the power to help us heal old traumas and bear unimaginable burdens. It can open us to the deepest wellspring of what it means to be a human being, taking us into the mystery of oneness, of joining and letting go, of accepting the frailty of our humanness while celebrating its magnificence. Our faith in love brings us back again and again to love’s journey, the journey to whole-heartedness — the journey home.
©2014 by Linda Carroll. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.
Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love
by Linda Carroll.
About the Author
Linda Carroll, MS, has worked as a couple’s therapist for more than thirty years. In addition to being a licensed therapist, she is certified in Transpersonal Psychology and Imago Therapy, the highly successful form of couple’s therapy developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, and is a master teacher in the PAIRS Psychoeducation Process. She has studied many modalities of psychological and spiritual work, including Voice Dialogue, Holotropic Breathwork with Dr. Stan Grof, the Four-Fold Way with Angeles Arrien, the Diamond Heart Work of A. H. Almaas, and training with the Couples Institute of Ellyn Bader and Dr. Peter Pearson. She is also certified in the Hot Monogamy program, which helps couples create (or re-create) the passion that makes relationships thrive. Visit her website at http://www.lindaacarroll.com/
Watch a video: Linda Carroll speaks about relationship and other topics.