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Making Relationships Last Past The Honeymoon Period

Giving a relationship a realistic chance before deciding you're incompatible

Jen and Todd met through online dating. The first dates were ecstatic fun. They liked each other’s looks, touch and kisses—amazing compatibility. They discovered that they liked the same movies and music. And when they talked about how they dealt with life’s challenges they were both impressed by each other’s commitment to fairness, generosity, open-mindedness and honesty. They had both been online dating for a long time and though there had been occasional good dates, nothing lasted. Maybe this one would be different.

Jen’s mom had been a stickler about table etiquette. On their fifth date Jen made a slightly snarky comment about how Todd held his fork. He responded with a parody of etiquette that to Jen felt like a put down. That night in bed he made a slightly snarky comment about her occasional drops into baby talk, and she got defensive in ways he found alarming.

Their response to each other’s feedback was disappointing. There were some cold moments, a sudden distance as both began to wonder if maybe the other wasn’t as committed to those moral virtues as each had claimed. As they drove out to dinner for their seventh date they were both wondering whether it should be their last.

The joke goes that you’ll know that the honeymoon is over when instead of saying sweet nothings you start saying nothing sweet. That’s extreme but there’s something to it. These days, a lot of relationships survive the honeymoon period just fine, but fail as it fades.

Of course, sometimes it should fade because the incompatibilities turn out to be just too great. And anyway, some of us don’t mind moving on quickly, harvesting the honeymoon’s sweetness and throwing away the rest.

But if your real goal is to establish a satisfying long-term relationship it’s worth inventorying what is likely to go on in the post-honeymoon hump, and what it takes to get over it.

The honeymoon is generally a celebration of your compatibilities. The post-honeymoon hump is marked by a sobering recognition of, and reluctant response to the inevitable incompatibilities. Three things start changing just as you begin to assess realistically whether you can make the relationship work: How many incompatibilities are there going to be, and how much energy am I going to have to put into negotiating and managing them.

Here are the three things that start changing:

  1. You’re both surprised, disappointed and frustrated that there are incompatibilities which makes you grumble about them or get snarky, as though you had bought a product that seemed fine at first but ended up not performing as advertised.
  2. You both slowly, reluctantly, impulsively, and erratically pull out your negotiating toolkit, half-thinking you really shouldn’t have to; half-thinking you’d better draw some clear boundaries right away.
  3. You slowly wake up your toolkit for adjusting your negotiating styles to each other’s sensitivities and styles, your tools for finding ways to maximize your negotiating efficiency together.

Ideally, the transition ends with you discovering that you have compatibility in how you negotiate the incompatibilities. Trouble is, in this post-honeymoon transition period you can’t tell how close to that ideal you’re going to get since you’re assessing in the midst of the transition, trying to guess what you can achieve while your ramping up to achieve it. If you don’t get close to the ideal, negotiation is going to be a whole lot harder, perhaps not worth it, which leaves you one or even two feet out the door.

At dinner on their seventh date, Jen joked again about the fork thing and Todd said that he couldn’t tell from her comment whether she was asking him to change. She felt like blurting, “Of course I was asking you to hold the fork right you idiot.” Instead she noticed that she hadn’t really asked. She was reluctant to ask, since up until then it had all been sweetness and roses.

So she said “You’re right. I didn’t ask. And it’s not a deal breaker for me. Still, I would prefer that you hold it the way my mom always said we should.”

Asked that practical question, Todd didn’t mind considering changing for her. He didn’t know the right way to hold a fork actually, so when she showed him he said sure, he’d be happy to work on it to accommodate her.

It was a relief to both of them, evidence that the negotiations wouldn’t be so hard after all, little things not becoming big ones, easy to check off their to-negotiate list.

Something sweet again. Turns out they made it over the post-honeymoon hump.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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