“Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to the truth but not its twin.” ~ Barbara Kingsolver.

Relationships are complicated. So too is the brain and our memories of our first relationships in life. Most trauma takes place at the hands of people; most trauma comes by way of a relationship of some kind.

Let’s look at a particular type of relationship, the love/partner relationship. When you are looking for that special man or woman to spend your life with, what might you expect in terms of the development of that relationship? What are the red flags being supplied by your Limbic system? What are the warning signs this might be a return to an old emotional crime scene?

We ended the last blog with the mention that we would cover the developmental stages involved in a love relationship. I also promised to help you learn to map your current relationships and their connections to the past. Let’s first look at the developmental stages involved in falling in love, mating and dating.

Applying the Psycho Social Stages of Infant Development to the Adult Love Relationship

In infancy, the first developmental stage is known as Normal Autism. Normal autism is the time in an infant’s life when they self-stimulate and have not yet developed the ability to form an attachment. People are necessary for survival, but little else. Often we see the infant in the first three months of life staring into space, watching his or her tiny fingers, and seeming to be otherwise satisfied with just being in his or her own world.

When in discomfort, hunger, or pain, the infant will make noise and learns, in time, the meaning of cause and effect. The infant will learn a cry produces the appearance of a parent.

A newly-formed couple experiences a stage of normal autism as well. In this stage, the individuals in the couple unit are primarily self-concerned. Each person of the potential union is fantasizing, looking dreamily at the other, and not really in the present world of life as usual. Each person is thinking far ahead into the realms of what is possible. Fantasy is the operative word. The same is true in early infancy. A bond has not yet taken place between parent and child; a bond, in dating, has not yet occurred between two people looking for love.

Normal autism in the couple relationship is a type of symbiosis. In the early days or weeks of mating the couple is inseparable. They feed each other and intimately explore one another. The individuals are not aware of separateness in this stage. It is typically a rather all-consuming union involving sexuality, food and the sharing of secrets. It is a type of premature intimacy.

As in child development, this stage is not meant to last. In couples therapy I hear, “He changed.” Or, “In the beginning she wanted to have sex all the time, then she changed.” The normal autism stage of symbiotic union needs to change in order to have a fully mature union. This will mean something different for each couple, and some couples can hold on to the bond established in the dreamy stage of normal autism while they add other stages into the mix.

The second psychosocial child developmental stage is called hatching. In childhood, this is the age from three to six months. In the couple relationship it follows a similar time frame. At this part of the child relationship, the infant is learning differentiation of self from others. An infant is now able to notice a stranger and bonding is further secured between the developing child and parent.

In the couple relationship they are more fully bonded and begin to look at how they are the same and how they are different. You notice what your partner likes and dislikes and you notice their habits. You are able to distinguish you from her. You are able to see more realistically.

The third stage of child development is known as the practicing phase, and this lasts from approximately six months to twelve months. For the child, they practice moving away from their mother, but likewise never really has her out of sight. The baby likes to pile up toys on mother’s lap and to explore the environment. Trust is developing for the child, as he learns he can leave and come back and mother is still there.

The couple in this stage of development is doing much the same thing. They can move safely away from one another and trust the other will be there when they call, come home, go to visit, or set a time to go out. There is a predictability and couples need this in order to firmly establish a healthy bond.

In childhood, as well as couple development, the most difficult stage is the one that lasts from eighteen months to twenty-four months. This stage is known as the separation individuation stage of development and it is the fourth psychosocial developmental stage.

This stage is characterized in childhood by what we call the terrible twos. There is irritability, whininess alternating with good humored affection, and a tug and pull within the child and between child and parents. This is when there are more rules being placed on the child due to the child’s increased mastery of mobility and exploration of everything from what lives under the sink to what is in the back of dad’s tool shed.

For the developing couple, this is a difficult stage as there may be more arguing and position taking. It is essential during this stage of a couple’s development to secure independence and dependence. The couple must learn they can be independent of one another, while at the same time be dependent in healthy ways in regard to one another.

The next blog will finish up on the developmental stages. We will then look at red flags and the past emotional crime scenes and how they make their way into the present.

Take care and be well,

Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, PhD