Its the biggest challenge of your life. How to sustain fulfillment in a long term relationship. No one teaches this course, nor is there a roadmap. As I watch the flow of couples into and out of treatment, I observe many common threads that hold them together, or split them apart. Most prominent is this: Provisions. What fundamental notion is provided, from one partner to the other, genuinely and consistently, from the heart. It starts there, and it can end there. It is the perpetual providing of something so vital, extended from one human to another. This is so powerful that it draws two random people together on this earth, and guides them to committing to a lifetime together. Must be some pretty good stuff!
What is this cocktail of provisions that is so powerful? Why do people soar when they are “in love”? Whether it is more physical or more psychological at first, it is the feeling of finally being recognized in this chaotic world, intimately and profoundly. Someone comes along, and offers to us this gift of pure attention and actual admiration. Someone gets us, wants us, and there is is nothing more potent. Psychologist and author David Richo calls these provisions the Five A’s: Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection, and Allowing. I like to add the very important one of Admiration. This combination sends the endorphins soaring. The relationship grows, as the attunement solidifies. Everything is acceptable, what a relief, and liked, and appreciated. How wonderful. There is consideration and effort, and it all points to feeling special and acknowledged.
In walks reality, and over time, and the universal human condition of getting comfortable.
In walks distractions, and other priorities. Career, family, social life, on and on. It is quite difficult to maintain the original focus of the intimate couple. So many pragmatic things to put effort toward… understandable. While there is of course a natural progression from intensity to baseline, the transition will affect the couple one way or another. Some grow with it, but many are derailed by it. It is usually a slow transition from the initial phase to this phase, hardly even noticed as life hurries on. And because it is a slow and silent evolution, partners go on without addressing what is actually changing. In comes resentment; I call it the silent intruder. Silent just for awhile…
Well what actually happens inside each partner as they drift along on this trajectory? What do they feel, miss? What do they believe? It always points back to their story, their history. Like it or not, that is the lens through which we all perceive. I get to hear all those perceptions. I see it in the body language as couples angle away, as eyes roll. Fascinating. Much of my work with couples is to untangle the old stories from the present moment. And then, critically, to restore the original provisions. A realignment for sure.
What happens when attention and admiration fades away? It hurts. It is sad. It is missed. It often feels like rejection or disinterest. What reactions occur at the hint of losing this vital gift? Interesting to observe. Defensiveness of course. Partners run the gamut from passive aggressive behaviors to fight or flight responses. Shutting down is often a common result. Perhaps its complacency, or complete shut down; Stonewalling is the term coined by couples experts John and Julie Gottman. It is a defense and a resignation. I call it the “Why Bother” syndrome.
During the work of Couples Counseling, we begin to unravel the timeline and the messages given and received along the way. This is the exciting part of the work. Partners wake up and re-attune to the world of their partner, and reconnection begins. I am privileged to bear witness to the amazing turn of events at this point. What couples learn is that they are together for the very reason of bestowing this gift to their life companion. That is the foundation of this long term pairing. If that is not prioritized, there is no glue to sustain this relationship. The Gottmans refer to “daily deposits in the bank”. Small gestures that express “hey I really do like you”, “ I do actually think about you during my day”, “ I am curious about your world”, and so forth. It really is not so much work; however it does need to be on the schedule. What transpires is subtle, but accumulative. It becomes the rock solid foundation that will sustain all the curve balls life may throw in the years ahead.
Not bringing awareness to this is like giving a gift, then taking it away. Bewildering to many couples. Destructive. Hurtful. We can choose positive affirmation over negativity. It is a conscious choice. And when there is stuff to fix, the positive override paves the way for conflict resolution.