“Happily Ever After.”
How many times have you heard that phrase?
Speaking for myself, it is many, many, many. And every single time I hear it, I wince.
Since the phrase is used so often to describe the hopes and expectations of people in relationships, I do find myself wincing a lot.
Every couples therapist knows that happiness in a long-term relationship does not come easily. Both members of every couple must fight for their love each and every day. Anyone who has successfully navigated a successful long-term relationship or marriage knows that there is no such thing as happily ever after.
Nevertheless, common culture continues to promote the notion that when you find the right person, things should naturally flow in a positive direction. Nothing could be further from the truth.
One of the worst enemies of happiness in a relationship is stagnation. The couple that stops growing together ends up growing apart. In every successful relationship, each member of the couple must be challenging the other to grow and change in meaningful ways.
It’s not about changing into a different person for your partner; it’s only about listening to your partner’s feelings and needs and making an honest effort, out of love, to meet them. As long as your partner is asking for healthy things (even if they’re painful or difficult), this is a process of pushing each other to grow. That is the hallmark of a successful relationship.
When you are truly in a relationship that is working, there must be friction to keep both partners growing. The friction shows that you are being honest with each other and that you are willing to fight for the relationship. The changes you make for each other are both an expression of your love and a product of your love.
Every healthy relationship follows a predictable, productive pattern. This pattern is the hallmark of a healthy, stimulating, growing, resilient relationship.
Harmony — Rupture — Repair
- Harmony: This is everyone’s favorite part of the relationship cycle. It’s the feeling you have when things are going smoothly between you and your partner. You’re enjoying each other’s company and you are getting along. No fighting, no friction. This is what people are imagining when they utter the phrase “happy ever after.” And it’s the picture that popular culture likes to paint of successful relationships. Everyone would like to believe that this is how relationships are supposed to be. But actually, this stage must be earned not just once, but over and over again.
- Rupture: It is actually not humanly possible for the Harmony stage to last forever. Every single coupling of human beings on this earth is on a path toward rupture. It’s not a matter of whether a rupture will occur; it is a matter of when. But the good news is that ruptures are not bad. They are actually opportunities to deepen, enrich and enliven the relationship. The rupture holds the passion and the clash brings out the feeling. And feeling is the glue and spice that makes every relationship valuable and worthwhile.
- Repair: The Repair phase is where the real work happens. What do you need your partner to do to fix this problem, and what can you do to make him happy? Working out a new understanding or a compromise, or deciding to work toward a change communicates love and care, shows commitment and builds trust with each other. When you do this phase right, you continually learn more and more relationship skills that you can use over and over again, making problems become less and less painful as they happen. Going through rough waters together and coming through to the other side intact propels you into the Harmony phase, where you enjoy the love and dedication and care that has been there all along.
If you grew up in a family that avoided conflict, squelched emotions or discouraged meaningful conversation (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), you are at great risk of avoiding or squelching the healthy rupture your relationship needs or being unable to initiate and/or tolerate the meaningful conversation to repair it.
If you grew up with CEN, learning that rupture in your adult relationship is not a failure but an opportunity can open doors to building valuable communication and emotion skills and to a much more rewarding and resilient relationship.
Harmony – Rupture – Repair – Harmony – Rupture – Repair – Harmony – Rupture – Repair. On and on it goes, one phase following another. It’s not a sign of a problem, but a sign of health and love and commitment.
The harmony brings the joy, the rupture stokes the passion and the repair builds the trust.
And that’s what “Happily Ever After” actually looks like.
To learn exactly how to take the steps to connect emotionally with your partner, see the book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, your Parents & Your Children.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.