The person you imagine your beloved to be as you are falling in love is just that — an imagined perfect partner you've conjure up in your head. Being human, we can only live up to someone else's "superhero fantasy" for a limited amount of time before the mask falls off, and we reveal just how human we really are. The habits you were able to ignore in the beginning of your relationship — toothpaste cap off; dirty dishes in the sink; nail biting; always needing to be right; always needing to be early, etc. — begin to get on your nerves, and the quirkiness you once found adorable now becomes abominable.
Love really does seem to blind us to a lot of our partners' flaws in the early going, but once the blinders come off, relationship patterns learned in early childhood may turn them — and us — into partners who are less than ideal.
Like Love, Until It's Not
When we fall in love, we are actually falling into limerence. Limerence is that early stage in a relationship that has been described as a period of intense longing for, and even obsession with, a potential partner (Tennov, 1979). It’s that luscious period when you can’t think of anyone but the object of your desire. It can feel delicious if your feelings are reciprocated, and you and your "bae" or "boo" are spending every waking moment together that you can. (If this desire is not reciprocated, it can be immensely painful.) This is the stage when your partner can do no wrong, and their potentially offensive idiosyncrasies are seen as endearing rather than irritating.
Unfortunately, limerence doesn’t last forever, and behaviors that you were easily able to ignore or forgive begin to cause a bit of annoyance that can morph into frustration if your hints at behavior change are ignored. If the relationship cannot grow beyond the intense, obsessive state, it’s doomed to end, either like a dud firecracker or a spectacular firework explosion.
Early Patterns of Engagement
Before you or your partner uttered your first word, your distinct relationship patterns were already being learned. Small children’s brains soak up a great deal of information in those first few years. Psychologists suggest that there are four basic patterns of early attachment behaviors — secure, anxious-resistant, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). If you observe even young children, you can see how these patterns shape their social behavior. The ways that children handle themselves in social settings with peers or authority figures illustrates the strength and flavor of the relationship between the child and their caregiver.
Secure Attachment: This, logically, is the most robust and healthy form. It reflects the development of secure attachments to caregivers over time as a child learns that their basic needs will be met by the adults in their world. Such children grow up believing that the world is a good place, and that people who care about them will support and care for them. They tend to give as much as they expect to get in a relationship and have few issues with trust or fidelity.
Anxious-Resistant Attachment: This is often called ambivalent attachment and may spring from the presence of a caregiver who is overly unavailable. Young children need the love and support of their caregivers, but in these cases, the caregivers were not adequately present in the relationship.
Anxious-Avoidant Attachment: This describes a relationship between a child and a caregiver who may have introduced abuse or neglect into the bond. The need for attachment is present for such individuals as adults, but the futility of seeking engagement keeps them from initiating it.
Disorganized Attachment: Disorganized attachment manifests as seeming confusion in terms of response to the presence, departure, or absence of a child’s caregiver. This may arise from a child’s inconsistent experiences with a caregiver, which leads to a confused, disorganized response whether the parent is absent or present.
Childish Behaviors in Full Grown Adulthood
Ambivalent kids may grow into ambivalent adults, who desperately long for warmth and interpersonal connections, but lack the skills needed for the mutual give-and-take necessary in healthy relationships. Not knowing how to engage in a healthy and mature relationship, this partner may err on the side of “too much, too soon.” Co-dependency with a partner and tendencies towards enmeshment can put the brakes on relationships once limerence wears off. This type of partner encourages you to engage in behaviors that are less than healthy in an effort to create situations in which she can be your hero or he can come to your rescue. When a partner encourages you to do things that you know are not in your best interest, it’s time for a serious conversation about the future of the relationship.
Avoidant kids may grow into romantic partners who are always just out of reach, but not necessarily out of touch. Having been wounded deeply in personal relationships early in life, this individual may be hesitant to place trust in another person, even someone with whom they are romantically involved. The expression, “once burned, twice shy” is an apt description of the relationship-avoidant adult. Although they may deeply long to be open, honest, trusting, and emotionally intimate with a partner, they may have no idea how to achieve these goals. They can be that “on and off again” partner whose lack of dependability and inadequate accessibility keep them just out of reach.
Developing a disorganized attachment style in childhood can produce an adult who is always on guard, afraid to fully trust, and ready to spring into action or retreat if threatened. Partners who have internalized this attachment style may spend their energy creating chaos and dysfunction in their relationships, as this is what's most familiar to them (Siegel D. And Solomon, 2003).
“Can’t You Just Act Like a Grownup?”
There’s an old saying that children learn what they live, and so if your partner is stuck in their 2-year-old relational patterns, you may need to patiently model and encourage behavior change. But remember that change generally doesn’t happen unless there’s a good reason for it to take place.
Here are five suggestions for helping to begin the process:
2. Help your partner understand where you are coming from when you ask for things to be different. Knowing "why” makes doing the “how” a lot easier to handle.
3. Let your partner know how you’d like to see them behave differently. If you just tell someone, “Don’t do that anymore,” without offering an alternative, it might feel like a guessing game, and no one ever wins those.
4. Remember that our behaviors are shaped over decades. Learning how to relate in new ways might be a trial-and-error experience. Be patient and always bring realistic expectations to any relationship.
5. Keep in mind that you’re as much a product of your early raising as your partner is. Be as willing to take an honest look at your own behavior as you’re asking your partner to be.
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Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum.
Tennov, D. (1979). Love and limerance: The experience of being in love.