More Than Chemistry

What makes relationships tick.

Why First Marriages Fail

How to avoid the pitfalls of an immature relationship

Let’s face it, with the ever-increasing life span, most people will marry more than once. “'Til death do us part” used to mean 30 years, but today the same promise could last 80. It is unrealistic to think that a union will thrive over such a long period. Multiple partnerships have therefore become the norm. The good news is that second or even third marriages have the potential to be more fulfilling than the first because of a shift from immature to mature love.

Given the longer life span, marrying a high school sweetheart may not be the smartest thing to do. Adolescent relationships are best used to figure out what it means to be in a relationship, not to select a life partner. Teenagers are emotionally and intellectually undeveloped. At this stage, they have yet to discover who they are as individuals, let alone as relational partners. People need time and experience to acquire the skills needed for a healthy, long-term union.

So are you doomed if you married your first love? Thankfully no. Humans have the ability to self-reflect, which means we can analyze the immature patterns that were set in motion during the teen years to identify how they have shaped our present-day bond. Partners have typical ways of communicating, resolving conflict, and having sex. These patterns develop early in a relationship and unless conscious effort is made to change them, they endure.

Everyone knows couples with an immature style or have at least overheard these partners in public. They use belittling language, talk in whiny or condescending tones, and have a demand-withdraw interaction style, wherein one partner instigates while the other retreats. Observing such relationships is painful and often embarrassing. The challenge for immature partners is to change their ingrained patterns. This task is difficult and requires effort from both people. If one partner is unwilling to put in the work, it may be time to reconsider the relationship.

Immature love is insecure, whereas mature love is secure. Insecure people worry about losing their partner and use controlling and manipulative strategies to keep them. These individuals restrict their partner’s development and freedom. Those who feel secure and at peace with themselves do not need a relationship to feel complete. Instead, they seek partnerships to enhance their already satisfying lives. Secure partners celebrate the growth of their significant other and appreciate their unique attributes.

Researcher Carol Rusbult coined a term called the Michelangelo phenomenon, referring to the idea that in healthy relationships, partners mold and shape each other into ideal selves. If partner X wants to cultivate their artistic abilities, partner Y will encourage and possibly even pay for their art classes. The Michelangelo phenomenon is a defining characteristic of mature love.

Immature love is selfish, whereas mature love is selfless. We live in an individualistic society and people tend to make decisions based on what is best for themselves rather than their relationships. Interestingly, by nurturing our relationships, we personally benefit because good relationships help us thrive, whereas bad ones make us deteriorate. So even those with selfish intents will reap the rewards of shifting to a relationship-first orientation.

Remember that your daily habits define your relationship. Do what is needed to keep your relationship pleasant, which includes greeting each other with a smile, expressing gratitude and affection, and seeing the best rather than the worst in each other. If your partner asks for change, try not to react with defensiveness. Instead, listen to their concerns and work as teammates to make improvements. Often times, we treat our significant others worse than we treat strangers. Make sure this is not true for you. The people who are closest to us deserve the utmost respect.

The ideas expressed here are not new. Spiritual traditions such as Buddhism and psychologists such as Maslow have long advocated for reaching one’s full potential. I recommend that this practice be extended to close relationships. Given the influence of our relationships on health and well-being, optimal outcomes will be achieved through uplifting, rather than detrimental partnerships. When both couple members are working toward this goal, the possibilities are limitless.

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Kelly Campbell, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at California State University, San Bernardino.

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