Rediscovering Love

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

"I" to "We"–Blending Independence With Committment

Making the transition from being single to permanently partnered

Not that many years ago, most young adults married within a few years after they sexually matured. Unless they could afford to travel or attend college, they moved from their families of origin directly into their own households.

Today, in sharp contrast, only 20 percent of young people marry before they reach their late twenties. During the intervening time, they leave their childhood homes and establish themselves as individuals. Most live either by themselves, with other peers, or in temporary intimate, sequential relationships. As single people, they enjoy the freedom to experience many close relationships before they commit to a long-term, intended-for-forever partnership called marriage.

When young people move through sequential intimate relationships, whether just “hooking up” or participating in longer-term interactions, they have a lot of time in between them to develop their own preferences and priorities. They can explore new ways of thinking, being, and loving and grow more slowly into the kind of people they want to become. Along the way, they develop their own personal priorities and desires.

Eventually, “true love” beckons. They meet that special person with whom they wish to share a forever future.  Two “I’s” become a “We.”

At first, with love’s lust and passion pervading, the blending of their mutual appetites seems relatively easy. As time passes, that mystical state of compatibility becomes more realistic. The new partners must now make room for the other’s priorities. Some required compromises will not become problematic but others may cause unexpected distress and even threaten the relationship’s future.

In my four decades of practicing psychotherapy, I have often helped newly committed couples through similar rough spots. Transitioning from being in charge of one’s own life to become an intertwined unit of mutual responsibilities is challenging even for deeply committed partners. Even when they have been totally open and authentic from the beginning, they still may not have the negotiating expertise to weather their differences.

Although each relationship is unique, some of these problem areas commonly emerge. Facing them in advance can help a couple master the skills they will need to grow beyond these potential limitations.

Here are the most typical conflicts that arise and some guidelines for solving them.

Sexuality

It is an established fact that married people have more sex than singles, perhaps because they have more continuity. Nevertheless, single people do need to meet their sexual needs, often without a partner present. Moving from the “I” of auto-eroticism to the “we” of love-making can be problematic if people are alone for long periods of time.

Intimate relationships usually begin with a courtship process that builds to sexual involvement. The arousal and orgasmic stages naturally follow, and are concluded with what many lovers call “pillow talk,” the post-coital revelations of vulnerable feelings. When a person meets his or her sexual needs alone, the first and last stages are not present. 

As a result, the movement of auto-eroticism to partner intimacy often requires a significant adjustment even when people have engaged in many sequential relationships. That is also true within established relationships. Sexual intimacy is best achieved when the partners communicate openly about their own bodies and what works best for them. Sharing such deeply personal matters is not always easy early in new relationships and many keep those thoughts to themselves until the partnership looks like it will develop.  

Sharing of Resources

Time, money, energy, love, religion, friends, family, hobbies, and self-care are all resources that we choose to prioritize. The amount of energy behind each can be anywhere on the continuum between ho-hum and intense attachment.

When people are single, they can allocate those resources according to their own needs and schedules. For example, if a resource is time, some people like to organize the way they spend it in advance, carefully preparing when and where they will do whatever they wish to. If they’ve counted on the freedom to behave that way when they’re single, they can get very frustrated with people who like spontaneity or wait until the last minute to make social plans.

What if going on a daily morning run was never a problem in singlehood but now interferes with a partner’s love of early morning sex? Or, some people can’t enjoy life without a bevy of friends and social activities. That might become a problem if the other partner wants more alone time together. Some people want to hold on to private time with old friends that can make a current partner feel excluded. Families don’t interfere heavily at the beginning of most relationships but can become a real problem once the couple is established. Many couples fight over when and where to spend or save money.

As a long-term relationship matures, the partners learn that what is important to one partner may be trivial to the other. Taking the time to understand what each other’s priorities are and under what conditions they may emerge is one of the most important tasks they will face.

Communication

Single people generally categorize their communications into 3 areas: practical interactions, social media connections, and conversations that are special to intimates. Women are more likely than men to talk about relationships and men are more likely than women to talk about business, sports, and politics. Single people rely more on same-gender friends, supporting the differences in their preferred subject matter. When people make the decision to commit to a long-term relationship, their communication styles and subjects may have to change to include what is important to both.

In addition, current communication has become more succinct and result driven. More people report that they are more skilled at social media connection than they are at deeper, more meaningful conversations. In a long-term relationship, both partners must learn to listen for greater nuances and more vulnerable feelings. They must also explore and bring mutually interesting topics to each other to ensure the relationship will maintain its capacity for continuous discovery. As the couple gets to know each other’s past stories and their current interests, they will create a new history together and be more accountable for the outcome.  

Because the newly committed partners intend to wake up each morning together, they know that they will create a history together over time. Both hurtful and loving statements gain momentum. Now, every word, facial expression, voice intonation, and body posture will become memorized and important.

Being betrothed to another means that both partners must be willing and able to create a third language that incorporates both of their prior independent ways of communicating. Reading each other accurately and challenging misperceptions become crucial skills that both must acquire so that rehashing is at a minimum and genuine transformations are a regular part of their relationship fabric.

Dreams

Single people have dreams about their lives but they have only their own needs to consider as they make plans to accomplish them. For most men and more often now for women as well, those dreams are about careers and financial accomplishments. For most women and some men, as the veritable reproductive clock ticks, there are considerations about how children can fit into other priorities, such as well-established careers that might have to be altered to allow for more time at home.

Some couples are in conflict about whether to have a family and if so, how large. If the partners are of different religions, they may struggle as to how their children should be raised. Some singles have moved around a great deal and like the freedom of mobility. What if they marry someone who deeply believes in being close to their original family, can’t imagine living away from their support? Or, what if one partner wants to enjoy one exotic journey a year while the other would rather buy his or her dream home?

Individual dreams must now be woven together, allowing for each partner’s development and transformation while holding the relationship sacred.

Fidelity

Single people have the option to stay in a relationship as long as the couple remains interested in each other. If their feelings change, they are free to move on. If they are comfortable dating more than one person at a time, they can do so. The rules for singles regarding the continuum between monogamy and polyamory are open for each to decide. They may not always choose to tell each other everything they are doing when they are first together, but will most likely work that out over time.  On the other hand, most newly committed couples prefer and ask for fidelity, if for no other reason than to engage in a safer and fully informed sexual connection.

When marriage was first established, people only lived until their mid-thirties. Now, if they marry in their late twenties or older, their promise of fidelity can stretch to more than fifty years. Most understand that the lust of new love will not stay the same and that they will need to replace it with a deeper, more sacred love, but they cannot always accurately predict what the future will bring. For a couple to choose to be sexual only with each other for the duration of their relationship, their commitment to fidelity must be regularly fueled by quality time with just each other.

It is a well-established fact that having children can put a huge damper on intimacy even when they both wanted those children. Heavily focused on rearing successful progeny, the once-focused lovers too often live in parallel to that commitment. That often leaves their regenerating time woefully inadequate. Work frustrations, unexpected illnesses, money problems, and other demands also can sorely drain the love commitments of a well-meaning couple.

When families lived closer together, a committed couple could turn to them to relieve their burdens to make room for themselves. With so many couples far from extended families, or unable to utilize busy friends, couples can be overwhelmed with daily stressors and fantasize what it would be like to be less burdened. Sometimes they take their frustrations out on each other, or begin to explore the possibilities of other relationships.  The Internet makes that all too easy and creates a formidable temptation.

When or both partners loosen their grip on their sacred vows of fidelity, the relationship can be in trouble. If that loosening turns into an actual affair, the partners will change their interactions with each other until the betrayed partner finally realizes that trust has been broken. Whether the affair is emotional, short or long term, the relationship is never the same afterwards.

Because this is such an area of potential relationship loss, couples must talk about their feelings about continued fidelity from the beginning and frequently revisit it when the relationship is under stress.

Some Guidelines that will help you go from a “Me” to a “We”

The deepest question asked when a single person commits to a treasured other is, “How do I balance my personal choices with caring for my partner’s needs?”

There is a freedom in being single that many are loathe to lose. They like deciding what they want to eat, where they want to go, who they want to spend time with, even which side of the bed they want to sleep on. Being with someone or being alone allows them to have as much or as little closeness as they wish, given their options.

There is also a beautiful scenario when people joyfully commit to a long-term relationship. Sharing experiences over time, creating a secret language that is only their own, learning each other’s secrets and preferences, and knowing they share an emotional home are magical experiences in beloved partnerships. Only each unique couple can decide which life choice is better.

If you choose to be in a successful, committed relationship, here are some basic guidelines:

1)      Great long-term relationships do not hinder personal freedom as long as both partners agree to make room for each other’s most important issues. They kneel in parallel to an altar place of their own creation that dictates what ethical and moral rules they choose to live by. That altar place can be transformed by the desires of both partners but must never be co-opted to another behavior that is not mutually agreed upon.

2)      One does not submit to a committed relationship. It is more of a chosen sacrifice. The choices made to give up the autonomy of a single life in exchange for the blessings of a committed relationship are willingly given. There cannot be resentment or martyrdom, or the relationship will eventually erode. Those givens are seen as gifts to the other, not as losses of individuality.

3)      In “we” relationships, each partner keeps the other always in mind and heart, even when that partner is not around. They promise each other that they will not do something behind the other’s back that would not be okay were the partner there.  

4)      Both partners know that successful relationships must be open to continuous scrutiny and regeneration. They believe in transformation and are willing to support each other in that process, knowing that anxiety and ambiguity are likely to be part of those choices.

5)      Both partners are willing to talk about any feelings of entrapment immediately and upfront. The partners know that there are many innovative ways to reform new goals and more flexible agreements if one or the other needs more freedom. The commitment to authenticity and transparency is not open for argument.

6)      The absolute willingness and ability to compromise is required in any committed relationship. Single people have many more options and are solely responsible for the consequences. When people agree to wake up every morning responsible for what has taken place before, they must make certain that they are always “weaving.” That means that yesterday is part of today and today is part of tomorrow. Single relationships may be likened to snapshot photos. Long-term committed relationships are more like motion pictures.  

7)      It is easy to forget to tell your partner what you love and appreciate about them. Research has shown over and over that people need to be appreciated and recognized for what they give. There are many more compliments and validations made, whether honest or not, in sequential relationships than there are in long-term ones. When people have been together for a long time, they often feel that their partners “know” that they love and treasure them. Even if that is true, the verbal validation makes a difference. Critical remarks are less likely to cause permanent harm if they are uttered in the midst of repeated statements of support.

8)      When people participate in sequential relationships, they can opt out when they feel that their needs might require too much compromise. When the relationship is new, they may be willing to put those needs aside, but, as the partnership matures, those priorities are likely to re-emerge and the demand for conflict resolution increase. Successful long-term partners understand that different people need different things at different times, and are always willing to reprioritize resources to help each other stay okay.

Finding the person you think you want to spend the rest of your life with is easier than keeping that love and commitment regenerating over time. Many couples are unprepared for the changes that await them as they give up their independence. They have to have faith that a committed, forever relationship will be more than worth it. Leaving life as a single person should be a decision made without resentment or conflict.

If two single people decide to intertwine their lives together, they should ideally be well-informed as to what that option entails. Armed with the foreknowledge and skills, they are more able to commit fully to their new path without holding on to what they have had to give up.

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

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