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Stage of Love #2 - The Power Struggle: The Things Disney Never Told You About Love!

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Stage of Love #2 - The Power Struggle: The Things Disney Never Told You About Love!

Couples often expect the first stage of romantic love to last a lifetime. Some of us succeed in keeping the flame alive forever. However, the initial euphoric infatuation will have to undergo adjustments to allow space for deeper familiarity and more authentic intimacy in the relationship.

Up until now we have been on our best behavior. We rounded sharp corners and put our best foot forward. Gradually, however, we run out of steam. Attitudes and behaviors we kept hidden so far, start to emerge. Our imperfections and vulnerabilities start to show. We hope for our partner to accept and love us just the way we are. Here our past wounds from childhood or prior relationships claim space and recognition. We bring our psychological baggage into the relationship, whether it is a suitcase or a U-Haul, in hope to be fully accepted and healed.  

As we reveal additional dimensions of ourselves, our partner does the same. The idealized porcelain image of each other cracks and we are exposed in all our human imperfection. The magic of initial fantasy dwindles, the carriage turns into pumpkin, and we find ourselves wondering if something went wrong.

Our hope for the love to heal all our wounds and transport us beyond all our limitations fades, leaving us disillusioned.  We become more aware of our mutual differences and shortcomings. It is a sobering awakening. We try to return back to the primal bliss of the honeymoon through repeated attempts to mold our beloved into the ideal partner we thought they were.

Criticism, passive aggressive behavior, emotional manipulation, guilting, sarcasm, silent treatment and withdrawal might show up in the relationship as strategies to control each other. Traits we loved about our partner suddenly turn upside down. If we loved how funny our beloved was, now we feel like they can’t take anything seriously. Our partner’s great sense of style that used to impress us now looks like a marker of self-absorption. Creativity turns into flightiness, social ease into wordiness, sensuality into sluttiness. I do exaggerate a bit to give you a sense of what this stage of love is all about.  

During the honeymoon we saw our beloved as the source of our happiness. Now we see them as the source of our frustration, anxiety and hurt. The sweet milk and honey turned sour (temporarily) and it feels like our beloved is to blame.

Neither of the partners have really changed, but the lens of infatuation through which they looked at each other has shattered. The “I will do anything for you” becomes “I love you, but…” Personal needs and wants that have been suppressed so far not to burden the relationship, now emerge. We demand of our beloved to be the partner we need them to be and to fulfill our craving for wholeness and healing. The motto is “If you love me, you will do this for me.” Mutual expectations and demands create tension as well as opportunities for frustration, upset, anxiety, guilt, hurt and a tug of war. Who will have the upper hand in the relationship? Whose needs will be fed first?

The power struggle phase introduces a fuller experience of each other as multidimensional beings and helps negotiate boundaries in the relationships. Questions of shared vs personal time, delineation of space and touch, introduction or exclusion of certain feelings and ideas in the space between us, creation of the relationship culture and scripts, all take place in this stage of conflict.

During the power struggle many couples seek couples therapy. In my online couples therapy clinic I see clients from all around California – Los Angeles, San Francisco, Palm-Springs and San-Diego. One of the main reasons couples reach out to a couples therapist is conflict. They find themselves stuck in a cycle of arguments, anger and hurt that feels unresolvable. Our work in couples therapy is to help each partner complete the tasks of this love stage.

Stage of Power struggle has several potential conclusions. During this phase we take a more sober look at each other, seeing our beauty and strengths along with our faults and shortcomings. We are faced with the question whether this is the person I would like to spend my life with? Is this relationship for me?

Sometimes the answer is “no” and one or both partners decide to leave. This might be a healthier solution than staying together, but failing to resolve the conflict. Unresolved conflict yields two types of stuck configurations: Conflict-avoidant and hostile-dependent couples. In both cases the partners disengage emotionally and have their guard up. Conflict avoidant couple adopts tactics to avoid and defuse the conflict, rather than address and resolve it.  Hostile-dependent couple integrates the conflict into the structure of their relating and make it the center-pillar of their dysfunctional bond. Neither of these relationships allows for personal growth and deepening of shared intimacy.

Alternatively, a constructive completion of this stage comes with acceptance that we both are imperfect. Here each of us have the opportunity to take back our power and accept responsibility for our relationship. We lead with acceptance, good will and compassion both for ourselves and our partner, acknowledging our differences. We take the opportunity to embark on a journey of building a genuine partnership with our beloved and move into the next stage of love – partnership.

Markers of the Power Struggle: Disillusionment, Conflict, Mutual blame, Tension, Anxiety, Doubt.

The Task of the power struggle phase: Differentiation and establishment of the “I” within the “We.” We carve our space in the relationship and confront the truth about who we are and who our partner is.  Once we are able to genuinely see and accept each other for who we are, we are presented with the question of whether to establish a genuine partnership with your beloved.

The Obstacle of this stage is difficulty excepting responsibility for the relationship challenges and the tendency to project blame unto our partner. Constructive navigation of the conflict is dependent on our willingness to introspect and take our share of responsibility.

Failure – getting stuck in the conflict cycle will result in either a breakup or emotional disengagement. Emotional disengagement comes in two forms. The hostility and conflict can be overt and ongoing. This dynamic in the relationship is called hostile-dependent couples. Alternatively, partners can work to avoid sharp corners – conflict-avoidant couples. In both instances the relationship does not feel safe for each partner to be fully present, vulnerable and engaged.

Duration – Usually the onset of power struggle is second year of the relationship and it continues for as long as it takes to either break up or establish a genuine partnership. Couples therapy can be an excellent support in resolving the conflict and renegotiating the relationship.

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