When we are with someone for a long enough period of time, we go from an initial ‘idealization’ phase in which they can do no wrong, to an eventual ‘devalue’ phase in which they disappoint us, leading to resentment and disconnect.
Remember that feeling you had when you were first going out with or dating your spouse?
You couldn’t get enough of them. You probably spent hours with them or talking on the phone with them.
You thought about them and just the thought of them made you feel good and warm inside.
You not only viewed the world through your eyes, but through their eyes as well: “Sally would love this”, or, “Johnny would hate that”.
This is only natural.
Some people call it the ‘butterflies’ stage, or perhaps the ‘honeymoon’ stage.
I call it the ‘idealization phase’ of the relationship.
And many people call it ‘in love’.
As you’ll see in my new book, Don’t Get Married! (Unless You Understand A Few Things First), these natural stages in a relationship are universal and mostly predictable. But they are also a major contributor to marital discord, misery, and eventual acting out behaviors which lead, in many cases, to divorce.
What we need to do is to begin to learn how to go from the ‘in love’ or ‘idealization phase’ of our relationships, through the ‘devalue’ phase, and onwards to the real work of getting to actually know the person we are with.
Not very romantic, I realize.
But VERY real.
And it works.
We need to view marriage (as described in the new book), as an Emotional Laboratory where the main object of exploration is ourselves.
Just take a look: First we date someone, then we ‘choose’ them somehow, then maybe we marry them. THEN the problems begin. (If they haven’t already.)
There is a WEALTH of information about ourselves here.
Why did we choose them?
What disappoints us?
What are our expectations of them?
What are our expectations of our lives?
How do we handle disappointment?
Sadness, despair, loss?
You can begin to truly see why marital and other long-term intimate relationships are Emotional Laboratories for self-exploration.
And there’s a simple reason why this is so; i.e. why marriage and other long-term intimate relationships are unlike ANY OTHER relationships we’ll ever have. And that’s because our spouses occupy the same spotlight on the stage as our parents once did.
Let me say that again:
Our spouses occupy the same spotlight on the stage as our parents once did.
That means we have different subconscious expectations of them; ones we don’t fully know about, if at all. We hold them to a higher (sometimes impossible) standard, at least subconsciously.
And ‘subconsciously’ is exactly the way we often react towards them; in fact, it’s the subconscious, unknown stuff which actually fuels our strong reactions and behaviors towards them.
In other words, if my spouse occupies the same spot as my parents once did, she will inherent all of my resentments, disappointments, childhood rages and injustices, etc., that I have stored away from my childhood when I had no real power or control in that all-important parent-child relationship.
So when she and I marry and I finally have some ‘adult’ power and sway in this NEW most-important relationship, I can finally act out some of these strong subconscious feelings towards my parental stand-in; i.e. my spouse.
In fact, all our spouses need to do is to push the same buttons that were formed in our earlier relationships with our parents and, BINGO!, we’re off to the races!
Maybe it’s the ‘shame’ button.
Or maybe the ‘control’ button.
Or the ‘guilt’ button, the ‘blame’ button, the ‘punitive’, ‘unfair’ button; or the ‘I don’t like you and never have’ button! (Yes, children can sense when we parents don’t like them because they’re being a ‘pain’ or are somehow inconvenient for us at the moment…see my LVAC Nation! book for more.)
SO, back to the ‘idealization’ and ‘devalue’ phases.
As I mentioned, the eventual goal is to go through these phases, and to get to a place with each other where we are actively working on getting to know each other for real.
NOT as each other’s parents or children, but as peers; as true adults.
The way we begin to do this is to behave ourselves with each other.
Yes, we actually have to behave ourselves in our relationships.
That means Listening to the other person, before Commenting, two steps from my LVACTM mnemonic which stands for Listen, Validate, Ask, then Comment last.
It means not interrupting them when they are speaking to us.
It means thinking about them, even when we don’t want something immediately in return from them.
And it means really, truly caring about them, not as a replacement for an emotionally less-than-competent parent, but as somebody else’s messed up, hurt child.
That’s right folks, we are all just somebody’s messed up kid, so let’s work on having more empathy for one another and let’s also look at what we’re expecting from each other.
Let’s use Restraint, which is one of my ten major adult Emotional Competence skills, along with Anger Modulation, and Anxiety Modulation (all of which are listed in the new marriage book.)
Let’s work on Engagement in our lives so that we don’t expect happiness from our spouses but from ourselves. Marriage is NOT a cure for loneliness or for an unhappy life.
Let’s also practice and learn more about identifying and feeling our pain, rather than acting out our pain towards each other all the time.
And, finally, let’s not forget to say, “Thank You”, and, “I’m Sorry”, when called for.
Remember, it’s pretty common to idealize someone, then, eventually, to become disappointed and to devalue them. That’s not the real problem.
The problem is not knowing why this is happening and what we can do about it, so that we can get through these phases and take our relationships to the next, more mature and more real, level.
Anthony Ferraioli, M.D.
Author, Don’t Get Married! (Unless You Understand A Few Things First)