Happiness — 28 October 2003
How couples sustain happiness

What is the difference between couples who are happily married and others who find this description a desirous but elusive one? Why do some pairs enjoy good communication and easy interactions, while others struggle to feel heard and understood? Are the happy mates just lucky to have found just the right partner or are they doing something differently from the unhappy couples?

The complete answer is complex and may not be fully understood yet. However, partial explanations are available and enlightening.

Marriage and long term relationships go through three relational stages: the first is the Romantic Phase, the second is the Power Struggle and the third is the Healthy Relating stage. Happily married individuals get to the third phase, couples who are unhappy are stuck in the second stage, or end up in divorce.

The romantic period for couples is often quite euphoric. Two people are attracted to each other, create fun time together and continuously adulate each other. The “in love” condition is exciting, exhilarating and stimulating. During this period lovers delight in their good fortune of having found the best possible mates.

The overwhelming excitement comes from the sense of full appreciation and acceptance. “He told me I have the most beautiful eyes he has ever seen”. “She likes everything about me”. The view of the partner as perfect comes from projected hope of having found a person who will continue to cherish me and attend to all my needs. Psychologically it is similar to the hungry infant’s thrill at the sight of his mother. The baby expects that he will be fed, safe and nurtured. The infant is unable to recognize any faults with his caregiver.
Similarly, first stage lovers are blind to their partner’s undesirable characteristics. To see those will shatter the hope for being loved unconditionally and forever.

It is clear that this unrealistic view can not be sustained. Sometimes later, (usually between six months to two years), the partners awake from their dreamy state. The first episode of an unmet need is responded to with bewilderment, disappointment and hurt. “You always said you couldn’t wait to see me every day – now you come home so late.”” When we were dating you made me soup when I was sick, now you tell me to get well and you go to bed”.

These are the voiced perceived changes, many others are not even spoken. They just get translated into a feeling of not mattering as much and not feeling loved. The fear is that he made a mistake in assessing her kindness. Perhaps she is not who he thought she was and thus would not end up getting his needs met by her. The fear is that the newly seen behavior may represent a dark, evil quality that is unchangeable. “What if she is really a selfish, cold, hard woman?” No man wants one of those. “What if he is really cheap, but acted generous only during courtship?”

With the disappointments and confusion comes a lowering of one’s goodwill toward the partner. “If I am not accepted and loved as I hoped to be, then I have to protect myself.” This decision alters the partners’ view from lovers to guarded mates – and the struggle begins.

A power struggle is not about gaining power over the partner; it is about fighting to resume the previous state of bliss. It is about a new fear of not being loved. It is about disappointment, concern about misjudgment, worry about being unsupported and alone. As babies cry and scream to get noticed and cared for, mates resort to their own brand of tantrums; criticism, accusations, name calling, and fights. These behaviors serve them poorly in gaining acceptance and love.

When partners reach the third phase of healthy relating, they are fully aware and accept each other’s imperfections, they are realistic about how and how often their own needs can be met, they feel and act respectfully toward each other. Above all they realize that their partners also have their own unmet needs, often related to childhood experiences. They relate to each other as mature adults.

These three stages may also be termed: optimal infancy, childhood, and adulthood. About fifty percent of couples divorce – they are the ones who never made it to relationship adulthood. Others stay together miserably ever after- stuck in stage two. The mature couples expedite the second phase and move to healthy relating early in their partnership. The shorter the second phase is, the stronger and happier the marriage is likely to be.

What do you need to do if you are stuck in the power struggle?

  •  Realize that it is a changeable phase. (Research found that most unhappy couples who stayed together reported being happy five years later.)
  • Decide to accept and love your partner as he or she is. Attempting to change others is a doomed mission.
  • It is not your partner’s task to make up to you for whatever you may not have received in childhood.
  • Ask for support, help and attention directly and openly.
  • Provide loving energy to your mate. Kindness begets kindness.
  • By deciding to be positive, attentive and caring you may model the right behavior and expedite getting to the “happily ever after” stage.

If you do act as a loving adult and the relationship is still not to your liking, seek professional help.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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