Seana McGee and Maurice Taylor, married psychotherapists and authors of The New Couple, explain how understanding the phases of your relationship can help you stay in love.
These are the days of wine and flowers, when the mere prospect of seeing, or hearing the voice of, our beloved is capable of producing a thrill. For many of us, it is the only time we let ourselves lapse into a fantasy of being in and feeling unconditional and perfect love ― and also idealize and create a positive distortion of our new mate. It’s a delicious high, better than drugs or alcohol, where neurochemicals, such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, rule the day. We’re not in love just with our partner but with the entire world ― and this first stage of romantic love has the power, at least temporarily, to blot out the pain of our insecurities and imperfections ― hence its bittersweet name.
Unfortunately but predictably, the euphoria of oneness and complete acceptance erodes; we “get used to” each other. It’s not that we’ve fallen out of love or our partner’s evil twin has shown up. Rather, our relationship is littered with “flashbacks,” where we are acting out the unhealed trauma of our younger years. This power struggle is something we all go through, like adolescence or “the terrible twos.” In previous generations, most couples didn’t have the luxury of education or tools to “resolve” this touchy phase. And here is the kicker: the power struggle has little to do with our mates. It’s an opportunity to learn relationship skills that support our highest selves ― and to understand the psychobiology of both ourselves and our partners. Though fraught with emotional triggers and land mines, this time can be one of the most healing and empowering periods in our adult lives.
Ah, at last. The preservation of your sexual and best-friendship chemistry is defined not by intoxication or romantic obsession but by the genuine high of the personality and sexual connection you have with your partner. You have greater emotional literacy and a backpack of tools, including deep listening, anger management, and conflict resolution skills ― for when your flashbacks appear. And they will with great frequency, yet they will no longer define your relationship. The work of relationship is never entirely over ― all couples are works in progress. It’s not about perfection but genuine commitment to growth. Still, it gets much easier, and soon the “wow of relationship,” which we experience when our initial chemistries actually endure, is on its way.
What Triggers a Flashback?
The situation: We were working with a couple on “listening sessions,” and week after week, the husband avoided the sessions. He just couldn’t sit and listen ― which frustrated his wife and left her feeling like she was never heard.
The trigger: When we explored his avoidance, the husband discovered that he was flashing back to experiences with his mother: “Young man, sit here and listen,” she would say, and then proceed to verbally assault him for half an hour.
The choice: To turn this around, he did individual trauma work about his mother power abusing him by forcing him to sit while being berated. Prior to this, it was completely unconscious and unrecalled when he was talking to his wife. Now he understands the trigger. And he knows he is not trapped and has a choice.
Simple Agreements: Saying "Ouch”
Our relationship is a petri dish, just like everyone else’s. Maurice says, “Let’s go!” like an enthusiastic camp counselor, and Seana experiences it as a punch in the face. “The intensity of his energy frightens me,” she says. “In my childhood, I was exposed to adults acting out their anger by screaming, so I would hide.”
“Because I know I’m being triggered, I now say ‘ouch.’ It’s our new timeout. It’s simple, it’s easy ― I don’t have to rehash or reveal, and it is a clear signal to Maurice.” And Maurice lowers his decibels ― and he feels compassion for Seana because he understands her story. It’s not our partner’s job to re-parent us; however, we can be compassionate. We don’t have to rub salt in their wounds.
In the sober light of day, we can agree to use the ouch tool. When we are feeling vulnerable, or frustrated with a partner, we can say “ouch.” We are diffusing an escalating situation. It is self-loving to practice an appropriate fight response instead of an inappropriate response. It is healthy vulnerability ― showing your white underbelly while also protecting it. This is interpersonal martial arts that couples can learn with each other. Many problems with couples stem from them forgetting to use the ouch or using it too late.― As told to Karen Bouris