What Are the Seasons of Your Relationship?
Understanding the cycles that influence your relationship throughout the year.
Posted Jan 05, 2020
With the holidays over and the December solstice behind us, we now find ourselves fully entrenched in the belly of the winter beast. Though winter is not everyone's favorite time of year, every season has its detractors. For some, it’s not the snow and cold of January that grates on them, it’s the heat and humidity of July. For others, it’s the spring and fall seasons, with their bipolar weather patterns and destabilizing clock changes, that require the greatest adjustments.
Each season has its own rhythm, and in my clinical work, I have found that every relationship experiences cyclical periods of harmony and discord at different times of the year.
Some of you may recall the famous '60s folk song Turn, Turn, Turn, which speaks to the changes of human activity through the seasons. In their adapted rendering of the book of Ecclesiastes, the Byrds remind us that “to everything, there is a season: a time to plant, a time to reap… a time to laugh, a time to weep… a time to build up, a time to break down… a time [to] embrace [and] a time to refrain from embracing…”
Though Turn, Turn, Turn is mostly remembered as an anti-war ballad it can also be understood as a psychological atlas for navigating through the year’s seasons. Each season beckons a different set of personality traits, which is why I often recommend to couples to avoid making major relationship changes (e.g., moving in together, getting engaged or even breaking up) until they consider the decision through four full, consecutive seasons.
All couples need to adapt to the varied ways they interact during each season. Many people look to the summer months to provide them with energy and confidence. For those of this type, the expanded hours of daylight and warm temperatures motivate them to pursue their goals and try new things.
Conversely, when these individuals reach the winter months, they fret about being slowed by the weather (e.g., needing to spend extra time warming up the car and putting on extra layers of clothing) and they feel abandoned by friends who stay in to avoid the dark and cold. Depression and frustration are common for them during the winter months as they struggle to find alternative outlets for their energy and ambitions.
In contrast to these "birds of summer" are those who thrive in the fall and winter. For these individuals, the slow pace, cool temperatures, and expanded hours of darkness offer a reprieve from the demands of activity that are common in the summer months. The cold seasons provide a comfortable backdrop to pursue their favorite indoor pastimes without fear of being called a “couch potato.” Cozying up with a John Grisham novel or watching a full season of Game of Thrones is often all that’s necessary for them to be happy on a Friday night in February.
However, when the summer months arrive, these "polar bears" are likely to feel overexposed, fretting about the oppressive sun and being pressured to attend barbeques or family functions. As such, they are likely to feel anxiety and agitation during the summer months as they struggle to find refuge from the ubiquitous sunlight, heat, and social engagements.
Regardless of whether you and your partner are a matching pair (of summer birds or polar bears) or a mismatched pair, it can take several years to adapt to the patterns of change in your relationship through the seasons.
Beyond the seasons, each person exists at the crossroads of many other intersecting cycles. Biologically, our circadian rhythms give all of us daily fluctuations in hormones, like cortisol and melatonin — which collectively affect our arousal, appetite, blood pressure, and metabolism. Women are additionally affected by the changes associated with their monthly menstrual cycles.
On the level of social activity, weekly cycles of work and leisure bring different aspects of our personality into relief based on what we are doing and the specific people we’re seeing. For example, many people tend to be more patient and understanding after attending their respective worship service on the weekend than they are after a hard day of work during the week. Alternatively, it is not uncommon for people to have an anxiety spike that peaks around Thanksgiving and lasts throughout the holiday season, based in part on the family members they know they will be forced to see during the holidays.
These cycles represent a small fraction of the patterns that regularly affect us, and each of our own personal cycles interacts with those of our partner in different ways across the seasons. As such, there are times during the year when even the healthiest of couples will find themselves out-of-sync with each other.
Being out-of-sync with your partner can manifest in different ways. On a physical level, it can mean that one person’s sex drive is significantly higher than the other’s for weeks at a time.
Being out-of-sync can also manifest emotionally, with one person being emotionally vulnerable for a period of time and the other being emotionally callous, unaware of the impact of their words and actions. Being out-of-sync in this way can yield frequent episodes of invalidation and hurt feelings, sometimes bringing couples to the brink of separation.
Periods of relationship discord, like those described above, can last anywhere from days to months, but if they last longer than two full seasons, it may be helpful to re-center your relationship by attending an intensive couples retreat or committing to weekly couples therapy.
However, if the period of relationship discord has lasted just a few weeks, you may find that simply changing schedules is all that's needed to get your relationship back in sync. Believe it or not, small changes like getting up an hour earlier to have coffee together, going to bed an hour later to watch TV together, or scheduling an unimpeachable date night into your weekly agenda, can sometimes make a big difference.
In closing, it is important to remember that different aspects of our personalities manifest each season, and knowing the seasons that you and your partner are most likely to experience harmony and discord can be very helpful for maintaining relationship balance.
However, not all periods of relationship disharmony require a radical change: sometimes, simply waiting for the current season to change is all that’s required to restore balance. Here, it is good to heed the wisdom of the Tao te Ching: “Stir muddy water and it will stay cloudy; leave it alone and it will become clear.”