Rediscovering Love

How to identify behaviors that undermine love—and how to avoid drifting apart

The Honeymoon Doesn't Have to Be Over

Too much early positive interaction can signal relationship failure.

So many intimate relationships begin with ardor and hope for longevity. Partners who are newly in love hold one another in awe and offer unbridled devotion. When threatening differences emerge, they most often do whatever they can to suppress them to ensure the beauty of their perfect union.

Unfortunately, the majority of newly intimate couples are much more likely to foster the false security that a lack of dissent appears to offer. Focusing on each other to the exclusion of anything and anyone else, they anticipate serious disagreements and cut them off before they are capable of damaging their equilibrium. Partners who are insecure in love push the hardest at the beginning for a stress-free relationship. They will go to almost any length to make sure their partner feels no pain, regret, or disappointment, even by suppressing their own needs. They fear that too much conflict will threaten the bond they’ve created.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

As in any relationship, the choice to avidly pursue harmony and carefully avoid conflicts cannot hold over time. Within just a few months, even the most compatible of partners find their differences coming to the surface. What once was a gentle rhythm of sweetness, forgiveness, and acceptance of faults, gives way to more negative and disturbing outcomes. If those “disconnects” increase and the reservoir of commitment depletes, the relationship begins to cost more than it gives. The feared “honeymoon is over” phase of their relationship emerges, bringing with it the fear of dissolution and concern that they may not be able to preserve their love in the presence of too much negativity.

I have faced so many patients in therapy who are confused and addled by experiencing potentially great relationships that seem to fail within the same period of time, often without clear warning. They cannot understand why they have lost yet another chance to find their long-term partner after having given their absolute best to someone they felt they truly loved. They wonder why their relationships start out so seemingly positive yet often fall apart. What could they do to lessen the probability of that outcome?

A major, but often overlooked, reason is that new lovers create too much “positivity”. They strive for continuous conflict-free experiences and do everything they can to eliminate any significant disagreements. This unbalanced ratio of positive to negative interactions lulls its participants into a false sense of security. They do not realize that they are avoiding necessary conflicts and not learning the skills they will need later when their natural differences emerge. Resistant to “rock the boat” when their love is strong and might more easily handle it, they miss the opportunities to delve more deeply into each other’s inner worlds.

Those choices may initially produce very little conflict and a great deal of sweet involvement, but do not produce the innovative, conflict resolution tools that the new couple will certainly need later. Without those stress-learned skills, the natural consequence when their passion quiets down will be, inevitably, “the honeymoon is over” stage. So many relationship partners lose each other at this point. They sadly become prematurely disillusioned when they find themselves unable to cope with emerging conflicts. Without having developed the confidence and desire to know each other’s emotional vulnerabilities and reactions to dissent, they didn’t learn the tools that those challenges require.

Resolving those differences early on and in an effective way actually makes a new relationship stronger and more enduring when passion, as it must, subsides. Great relationships can only emerge from a balance between security and disruption, and new love is the most ideal place to start creating that balance. To attain the most potentially successful long-term outcome, newly-in-love partners must search for an optimum balance between too much and too little comfort from the beginning of their relationship.

What is the perfect positive to negative risk ratio for a new couple to reach for? How much should they reach for the comfort of positive, stress-free experiences and yet intentionally actively challenge the relationship when it is appropriate? Current research coming from many areas of interpersonal relationships is demonstrating that an optimum balance is somewhere between three and four positive interactions to each potentially negative challenge. It appears that too many negative, non-resolved interactions will predict potential failure and too many positive over negative interactions can also predict a relationship’s demise.

When couples understand the importance of keeping that balance from the beginning of their relationship, they intentionally embrace and deeply investigate their disagreements when they emerge and focus on their more comforting reactions when they feel the stress level is too high. Knowing that risk without successful conflict resolution can harm their relationship, they practice skills that increase their ability to find innovative ways to engage in future disagreements when they are disrupted. Willingly facing their challenge with commitment, grace, and skill, helps them build a stronger bond.

A newly intimate couple who is willing to respect differences early in their relationship, maintain a more exciting connection. Conflicts require that the partners become activated and focused. In so doing, they are motivated to reinvestigate who they are to each other. Repeating those more passionate patterns, they not only have a chance to get beyond their “honeymoon’s over” bump, but often actually thrive into possibilities they could not have predicted. They know that the best time to “rock the boat” is right from the beginning when love is plentiful and forgiveness is more automatic. Using that plethora of good will to their advantage, they use their stressful interactions as opportunities to know each other better and to work on what could later have been a problem. The natural resilience of new love will shoulder a great deal of exploration and innovative solutions if those experiences are bathed in the confidence of easy “bounce-back” and predictable “make-ups”.

The perfect balance between challenge and comfort is, of course, different for each couple. But the willingness for new partners to search for it, to take the chance of temporary distress, and to keep at discovering each other’s vulnerable places when it feels better to pull back, are always present in successful relationships.

Here are some important questions that may help you figure out where your relationship stands on the continuum between challenge and security. You and your partner should answer them first for yourselves and then share your answers. That process, in itself, will help you see how you are doing and what you may want to change.

  1. When you and your love seem on shaky ground, do you avoid challenging what is happening or delve in to find out what is actually happening?

  2. If your partner is disappointed, hurt, or angry with you, what do you normally do?

  3. If everything is going so well in the relationship that you never fight, are you likely to stir things up a little or choose to maintain that comfort?

  4. When there is a disagreement or conflict, do you try to solve it quickly, or use the situation to uncover what might be under it?

  5. Do you prefer a relationship where you and your partner try to ignore your differences?”

  6. Do you welcome differences as a way to know each other more deeply?

  7. Do your “make-up” sessions take in to account what you’ve learned about each other and lend substance to a better skill set the next time?

  8. Have your prior relationships ended because you felt you “had nothing more to say to each other?”

  9. When you and your partner fight, do you come back together with a better understanding of each other’s needs?

  10. Can you embrace your different ways of looking at situations and use them to search for deeper ways to connect?

Just opening up this dialogue with your partner will help both of you to see which way you may be leaning. Don’t be surprised if one of you pushes more often for secure, predictable interactions while the other wants more “edge,” more often, in order to feel continued interest. Many couples are drawn together to challenge each other’s initial style. The goal, of course, is to show the other the benefits of the other’s point of view.

Remember, there are four important issues here: the first is to find that perfect balance between how many positive to negative interactions you have with your partner. The second is to know when to lean in the direction of re-establishing equilibrium by focusing on the experiences that reliably create harmony between you. The next is to recognize when you are avoiding conflicts that could be used as a way to know each other more deeply and to intentionally face them. The fourth is to build excellent communication/conflict resolution skills that will make those disruptions successful foundations for the next phase of your relationship. Successfully negotiating these four issues will give you the best chance to keep that honeymoon going.

Randi Gunther, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor practicing in Southern California.

more...

Subscribe to Rediscovering Love

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?