Partner Choice and Stages in Relationships

Carlos Durana, Ph.D. practices individual counseling, psychotherapy, and couples counseling, at A Caring Approach in Reston, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Bethesda, Maryland.

The choice of intimate others in relationships appears to be influenced by two important needs whose fulfillment results in completion, wholeness, and the development of higher capacities such as compassion, forgiveness, and kindness for couples. First, we are attracted to differences; we seek partners with qualities that we are missing ourselves. These traits were repressed or underdeveloped during our socialization. Second, in an effort (mostly unconscious) to repair early wounds, fulfill unmet needs and restore basic aliveness, we choose partners who embody the positive and negative qualities of our significant caretakers. Inevitably, early wounds will be reactivated during the course of the relationship, offering the possibility for their healing. An intimate partner is similar to the person(s) who wounded us during our development as well as being someone who can potentially help us heal those wounds.

The growth in intimate relationships resembles the development of the stages of attachment in early childhood. During the stage of romance and falling in love (attraction and infatuation) we feel whole; we fuse with our partner. We perceive him or her as not being different from us; individual boundaries melt, and boundaries form around us as a couple. A veil of illusion conveys the false impression that all will be safe and happy and that we will not be wounded as before. This stage is similar to the symbiotic stage of attachment (from four to six months) when the infant perceives the mother as part of the self, as fusion. In romance, there is a chemical high accompanied by the fantasy that we have found someone just like us. Nature, for the purpose of procreation, rewards couples in the euphoric stage with many feel-good chemicals.

This state, however, does not last for very long. Although reinforced culturally as the end all, it is not sufficient for the development of intimacy and growth in close relationships, since it is partly based on immature assumptions and expectations – “If you really loved me, you would know what I want without my having to tell you and would give it to me regularly and easily,” “You would give me what I long for,” “You would make up for what I didn’t get early in life,” and “You would want the same things I want.”

Sooner or later, differences and conflicts surface, disillusionment sets in, and the power struggle emerges. The stage of differentiation is a necessary and difficult stage, a prelude to the development of healthy attachment and intimacy. During symbiosis, we give up ourselves to avoid seeing differences. Differentiation, however, acknowledges our differences and the separation between self and other. In childhood, this stage is necessary for the development of autonomy as the child begins to explore the world and find a separate sense of self while remaining connected.

Naïve romantic love is supposed to end; and conflict, a natural part of an intimate relationship, will occur. During early development, differentiation must occur; we go from fusion to the development of uniqueness, self-definition and boundaries as we explore others and the world. During this phase of intimate relationship we realize that the world is not just our partner. Old wounds may be reactivated, and different coping maneuvers (withdrawal, criticism, etc.) are used to get the other to care – the power struggle. Unwittingly, we may even provoke or evoke tendencies in our partner similar to characteristics of those who wounded us in childhood. We may also be threatened by the emergence of a separate self in the other with different needs, and we may wish to remain enmeshed, hoping that most of our fulfillment will come from our partner. Self-soothing is of the essence to manage anxiety as couples balance closeness and independence.

Distancing and/or dependency versus interdependency may emerge. In healthy childhood development, the stage or rapprochement (18 months of age) requires that the child move from attachment to individuation, back and forth. Likewise, in adult relationships, the development of intimacy requires a balance of attachment and individuation, back and forth, as complementary rather than opposing tendencies. Successful navigation of the differentiation phase leads to a stage of mutual interdependence, healthy attachment and intimacy.

Healthy, established relationships share similar characteristics. Rather than faulting our partner (“I’ll be happy when you change”), responsibility must be taken, for our own healing as we stretch to assist in each others’ healing. The projection process is part of relationships, but couples must take responsibility to uncover and solve those projections and trust the other to do the same. Equal responsibility, friendship, respect, caring, forgiveness, love and commitment are all necessary ingredients – not to be taken for granted.

There also has to be enough room for the growth of the relationship and of the individuals. Relationships take work. Our minds and hearts are clouded over by illusion, unsatisfied yearnings and expectations that act like filters which distort our perceptions, our feelings, and our experiences. These filters can confuse us to the point where we don’t even know what we are arguing about; often the argument may be about repetitive yet superficial issues rather than about the hidden issues that need to be negotiated and healed – power, valuing, acceptance, caring, and so on. The development of awareness and the awakening of the heart are keys to the healing of ourselves and our relationship(s) – our connection to the inner self and to the other(s). Working on ourselves and our relationships can be done successfully in psychotherapy and couples therapy.

Carlos Durana, Ph.D. practices counseling, couples counseling, and psychotherapy in Washington, D.C. and Reston, Virginia.

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