Free Sample Chapter
Bottom line: Why do relationships that start out feeling so wonderful end up causing so much pain?
Over the last 30 years as a relationship counselor, I have seen
literally thousands of people who were in tremendous pain from
what was going on in their relationship – and most often they were genuinely confused, and struggling desperately to figure out what went wrong. But there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the years: When a relationship is in crisis, when a couple is experiencing the kind of conflict, pain, and frustration that typically leads people to
seek counseling, there are always very concrete, practical, and specific reasons that these problems have occurred – which also means that there are very concrete, practical, and specific ways of turning things around and getting them moving in a better direction again.
The key insight that literally revolutionized my work with couples several years ago was this: Looking at all the dynamics of all the problems of all the couples that came in to my office, the root
causes were always the same.
There is a very typical progression that takes place in relationships. Every marriage that I have ever seen – including my own – I have seen go through this progression.
It’s a series of nine stages that people go through that I have come to think of as the “R-Cycle” because each stage can be summed up with a single R-word.
Here is the R-Cycle. As you read through this, see how much of it you can relate to in your marriage:
1. The first R in the cycle is the Romance stage. This is the time frame all the way back in the very beginning (that you may have trouble remembering at this point) when you had all those warm fuzzy, hot passionate feelings about your partner. There’s a sense of real euphoria about this person and the relationship; it is, in essence, the intoxicating feeling of “falling in love.”
Even if you’re having trouble remembering what that was like for you, I would say that – unless you had an arranged marriage! – there had to be some emotional element that drew you to your partner strongly enough to make you want to be with them – that is never a purely rational process.
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that experience of romance. For whatever combination of reasons, I think we’re hard-wired biologically to have all those feelings – maybe just to give us a glimpse of how good things can be if we’re willing to do the work required to make it last permanently.
But there is a downside to that Romance stage: We’re really only seeing about half of the other person and the relationship. We tend to be hyper-aware of everything positive, and totally oblivious to all the negatives, the challenges, and the potential pitfalls.
My wife and I have joked that, for both of us, back when we were dating that if one of us had found out that the other was an axe-murderer, we’d have found some way to dismiss that in our mind as insignificant! That’s exactly the way we all tend to think when we’re “in love.”
2. The next R in the cycle is what I tend to think of as Rules. All of us come into our relationships with a certain set of “rules” or “expectations” about how a relationship is supposed to work – rules about how I should act if I really love you, how you should act if you really love me, how we should handle conflicts and disagreements (or whether we should ever even have any conflicts or disagreements), and rules about a zillion other aspects of the relationship.
Now all this is perfectly normal, of course, but here’s what makes it problematic: These “rules” or “expectations” are usually not things we think about consciously – they’re just our collection of ideas that have accumulated over the course of our lifetime, usually based on the family we grew up in (or a negative reaction to the family we grew up in) and perhaps previous relationships as well.
Even if we are consciously aware of these “rules,” we usually don’t talk about them openly and directly with the other person – in fact, many of us have an attached rule that says, “I shouldn’t have to tell the other person – if I have to tell them, it doesn’t count.” So we operate out of the assumption that the other person’s “rules” are the same as ours – or at least they should be!
The truth is, your partner came into this relationship with their own set of rules, expectations, and ideas about relationships that may be very different than yours – but are every bit as valid as yours. And if you’re like most of us, you and your partner never sorted all this out prior to getting married.
Which leads to the next R in the cycle…
3. The Reality stage. This generally first hits anywhere between six hours and six months after the wedding (or any other major act of commitment, like moving in together). For most of us, it’s a reality moment where all of a sudden we realize that what we thought we were getting here ain’t what we got.
That sense of disillusionment can be very painful, and very anxiety-provoking. We’re usually having thoughts like, “Oh my gosh, what have I done here…don’t tell me this person isn’t going to be the way I thought they were going to be, and they’re not going to do all the things I thought they were going to do…” There’s often a state of near panic that’s driven by:
a) feeling like we’ve made a horrible mistake;
b) feeling like we’ve already “passed the point of no return” and it’s too late to go back and undo; and
c) having absolutely no idea what to do about any of it.
The way that most of us will initially react to that anxiety is we’ll go about trying to get the other person to be the way that we thought that they were going to be. So we get into our own “home improvement” project on the other person and we start trying to push the right button, pull the right string to get the responses from them that we need in order to feel loved – and that’s what leads to the next R in the cycle…
4. The Resistance stage. Now, both of us are trying to change each other – we’re pulling and tugging on each other, getting into power struggles, and the tensions and frictions start escalating.
Because most of us don’t know how to communicate constructively about these things, we usually fall into one of three patterns. We tend to either:
a) Fight and argue, doing and saying hurtful, damaging things to each other;
b) Avoid, ignore, and tiptoe around the conflict ridden areas, hoping they’ll go away on their own; or
c) Go back and forth between the two. This is where you say yourself (through gritted teeth), “OK…this is not worth fighting about…I’m just going to keep my mouth shut…” But then something – usually something minor – pushes you over the edge, and everything that’s been building up for so long explodes out in a very uncontrolled (and unattractive) way – in which case you get a very negative reaction from your partner, so you go back to saying, “See…I knew I shouldn’t have even bothered trying to talk to them…I should’ve just kept my mouth shut…” Until, of course, the next time that too much has built up again.
The inevitable result of all of these patterns is that nothing really gets resolved, and the couple creates more and more “emotional land mines” in their relationship that blow up with ever-increasing frequency – which then leads to the “having to walk on eggshells” feeling.
Because most of don’t know how to break out of these patterns, we usually end up in the next stage of the R-Cycle…
5. The Rejection stage. At this point in the cycle there are two things going on simultaneously. The part that we’re usually more aware of is the fact that we are feeling rejected, unloved, unappreciated, uncared for, criticized, and misunderstood by our partner. The part that we’re usually less aware of is the fact that, at the same time, we are also becoming rejecting and less loving toward our partner. Our needs aren’t getting met, so we give less; we’re not feeling emotionally safe and comfortable, so we pull back and go into self-protection mode.
And all this usually – very quickly – spills over into the next R in the cycle…
6. The Resentment stage. As more and more unresolved issues and unmet needs accumulate, hurt and frustration quickly turn to anger and resentment – which build up inside you like a huge wall of toxic sludge. The Resentment stage (which I also tend to think of as “everything sucks” mode) is essentially the opposite of the Romance stage, because now all you can see is the bad, and everything you dislike about your partner and the relationship. You know that you’ve hit the Resentment stage when you find yourself constantly being triggered – constantly irritated, agitated, and annoyed – by everything your partner does (or doesn’t) do, maybe even things you would’ve thought were cute during the Romance stage. I recall a woman who sat with her husband in my office one day and venomously stated, “Sometimes when we’re lying in bed at night, just to listen to him breathe pisses me off…” (pardon the expression, but that’s a direct quote). That’s what it feels like in the Resentment stage.
Since most of us can’t physically or emotionally sustain that level of negative energy indefinitely – and since most of us don’t know what to do with all those negative feelings – we usually end up going into some version or variation of…
7. The Repression stage. This is where you just try to push it all down, pretend it’s not there, and just act like “everything’s fine.” This is the point in the relationship where you’ve essentially just “pasted on the smiley face” and are just trying to be “nice” (read: civil) to your partner. During this stage of the relationship, there may be no visible signs of conflict – you may look like the “perfect couple” to your friends, or even your kids. But it’s not because you’re happy together – it’s because you’re so totally disconnected from each other emotionally. The wall of resentment has morphed into numbness and indifference, and you feel more and more distance growing between you and your partner. What you’re probably most aware of is that you’re feeling very dead, very empty, very numb inside. You wake up in the morning and you’re lying there next to that other person, and you just feel totally alone, like you’re a million miles away from each other. This is when you’re having those thoughts of, “I know that I love this person…I’m just not in love anymore. What happened to all the good feelings I used to have?”
And the truth of the matter is that all those good feelings aren’t truly dead or gone – they’ve just gotten buried so far under the huge pile of unresolved stuff that’s built up for so long (and so deep and so wide and so high) that now you can’t even see your partner clearly on the other side of it – let alone actually reach out and touch them. Ultimately, people tend to end up on one of two paths: Resignation or Rebellion.
8a. Resignation. Some people – for religious reasons, for financial reasons, “for the sake of the children,” or for a combination of other reasons – just resign themselves to the belief that “this is as good as it’s ever going to get, and I just have to suck it up, live with it, and endure it.” It is essentially resignation to a permanent state of dissatisfaction and unhappiness, with the only comfort coming from the belief that they are martyring themselves to some greater good. I’ve seen people live in this state for decades, and I suspect that many of us saw our parents living in this kind of marriage.
8b. Rebellion. This is not nearly so much of a conscious process as the word “rebellion” might imply (ok, I admit it, I just couldn’t think of a better R-word), but sometimes people just get to the point where something snaps and they say, “I can’t live like this anymore” – and this is where you see people exiting their relationships in both obvious and not-so-obvious ways.
The more obvious relationship exits are things like filing for divorce, moving out, having an affair, starting to drink (or drink heavier), etc. But there are also subtle ways that people abandon their relationships by getting overly invested in other things that may not necessarily be bad in and of themselves. This is where people become food-aholics, work-aholics, shop-aholics, golf-aholics, exercise-aholics; this is where parents often become overly invested in – and overly enmeshed with – their children. Essentially, we feel driven to do anything to fill the void that exists in our marriage, and to escape the pain that we feel in that relationship.
So what’s the ninth R in the cycle? Simple:
9. Repetition. Once the cycle begins, people tend to rotate through many of these stages over and over and over again. Keep in mind that this is not a one-time-only progression. You can cycle through several of these stages twenty, thirty times a day: Your partner says or does something, you have a short burst of those intense negative emotions, you sigh (or growl) to yourself that it’s “not even worth dealing with…” And…boom! It’s just another brick being slammed down onto the wall of resentment that’s building up inside you.
So that’s the R-Cycle.
Again…any of that sound vaguely familiar?
The good news is that it really is possible to turn all this around at any point in the progression of things – and The Online Marriage Counseling System will show you how to do that.
A quick observation about what doesn’t work. As soon as the Resistance stage begins, what most people will do is:
– try to figure out what’s going on;
– try to figure out why it’s going on; and then
– try to fix it themselves.
What they’re usually not going to do at that point is go to a professional marriage counselor. What they usually will do is…
…try to find a book they think will address their issues
…buy a set of CDs to listen to in the car
…talk to friends or family members (usually a bad idea – rarely unbiased)
…ignore it and hope it goes away on its own (the most common – and most dangerous – approach)
The frustration that people generally hit with all of these “fix it yourself” approaches stems from the fact that when you’re in the middle of something, all that you can really see is the surface symptoms of what’s going on. So people will tend to do what I call “shooting at symptoms.” You think that the “problem” is:
– “We’re not having sex as much as we were”
– “We’re fighting about money”
– “We can’t agree on who’s going to do what around the house”
So you go to work on that particular issue and you put a lot of energy into it, and as you’re focusing on it you find that it starts to get better. But what happens is that then something else pops up behind you! So you turn around and start concentrating on this new issue, and it seems to get better…then something else pops up…then something else…and after about three or four rounds of that, you just get tired. You’re putting all this energy into trying to figure out how to make things better, and it seems like nothing that you’re doing really works long term. Again, this is simply because what you are seeing, and what you are readily aware of, is surface symptoms. You can’t see the forest for the trees, as the saying goes. When you’re in the middle of something, it’s extremely hard to see root causes.
At this point I’m going to lay something out for you that creates a truly invaluable framework – something that crystallized in my mind several years ago. Over the last 30 years, what I have recognized is that in order for a relationship to succeed there are seven specific positive ingredients that must be built into the relationship, layer by layer, in a very specific sequence.
Picture in your mind a pyramid with seven layers. The strength and stability of each and every layer hinges upon the strength and stability of each layer beneath it.
Conversely, if any of the layers are weak – perhaps from not being built strongly enough to begin with – all the layers above it will be shaky or vulnerable. To ensure that the pyramid is strong and stable, you must ensure that each level is adequately built and reinforced, working from the ground upward.
Your marriage is exactly like that. It has seven specific layers that you have built – consciously or unconsciously. The quality of each layer hinges upon the quality of each layer beneath it. Conversely, if any layer is weak, it will affect all the layers above it. Starting with the foundational layer and moving upward, if there are any gaps or weaknesses in the structure, everything you try to build on top of that is going to have problems.
Here’s why this is so important, and why most approaches to marriage and relationship improvement don’t work: Most approaches to marriage/relationship improvement are “top-down” approaches that focus on the “top layers of the structure” – in other words, the obvious, visible, surface symptoms. But those things are always the result of deeper issues.
A much quicker, easier, and more effective way of helping couples make positive, permanent improvements in their relationship is more of a “bottom-up” approach.
I discovered many years ago that if I help people quickly identify where the “gaps” or weaknesses are in their structure, and then help them put a little energy into filling in those gaps, starting with the deepest layers and working upward, then everything in the marriage starts to improve. The “top level” issues take care of themselves to a great degree, and you don’t have to work nearly so hard at them. Again, thinking about a pyramid (or a house or a building or any other kind of structure), it’s a whole lot easier to build it from the bottom up, and nearly impossible to build it from the top down.
So here are the seven key layers of every relationship – keep in mind that, just like with a pyramid, each layer builds upon – and is supported by – each layer beneath it, and the quality of each layer hinges on the quality of each layer below it:
Let’s think through each of these seven layers, starting with the top and working our way downward.
The top layer is what I would call Romance & Passion. It’s that ultimate state I think all of us would love to experience with our partner, the state where all of that emotional intensity is there – where you’re having great sex, you have all these incredible feelings about each other, and its really like your whole life just totally revolves around this person. Again, I think all of us would love to be able to experience that with our partner – at least sometimes! Now the reality is that even in the best of relationships you don’t spend 100% of your time in that “zone” – but it sure is great to have frequent and ongoing experiences of being there.
The layer immediately under this is what I would call Intimacy & Partnership, which is actually comprised of multiple elements. When I talk about intimacy, I’m talking about that incredibly strong sense of emotional connection that you have with your partner – the “soul mate” feeling, the feeling that you are locked together at the heart with this person. The partnership element comes into play in everyday life as you learn how to work easily, effectively, and enjoyably together on mutual tasks, goals, and responsibilities. It’s when you get to the point where you really work well together as a team on finances, kids, housework, in-laws, etc. and there’s a strong sense of collaboration. It’s also about creating a meaningful companionship, where you just really enjoy doing things with your partner, and you genuinely consider them your best friend.
The next layer down is the Communication layer. Keep in mind that when I use the word “communication” I’m talking about more than just words; I’m talking about all of the ways that we express things to the other person – consciously or unconsciously. This involves not just the words that we use (although that’s a huge part of it), but also a lot of significant non-verbal ingredients as well. Communication is really about all aspects of your behavior in the relationship – all the ways that you treat, act toward, interact with, and relate to your partner.
Here is what’s vital to recognize about these top three layers:
I often have couples come into my office whose initial presenting concern has something to do with the top two levels – things like “we’re not having sex anymore” or “I just don’t feel the way I used to feel about this person” or “we fight about money all the time” or “we just can’t work together on anything!” When that’s the case, I can tell you with absolute certainty that it will do no good whatsoever to target those issues as the solution, because the real cause is always about what’s going on at the communication level – and we’ve got to address that before anything else is going to change.
It’s kind of like “happiness.” If someone comes into my office and says, “I just want to be happy,” there is no magic formula that I can give them for stepping out of my office and suddenly being happy. There is no way to flip a switch in their brain and turn that on. Happiness or unhappiness is the indirect result of other things going on in their life, many of which involve their own behavior patterns and thinking patterns.
The same thing is very much true of the top two layers in a relationship. If you want more romance and passion in your marriage, if you want a greater sense of intimacy and partnership with this person, there is no single step direct pathway to that. But there are some things that will have to change about the way you’re communicating with each other. So again, when things aren’t working in the top two layers, the only way to make it better is by improving what’s going on in the communication layer.
But now we have to look a step further.
I use to believe – as I think a lot of therapists do – that I could help anyone solve their relationship challenges just by teaching them better communication skills. But over time I discovered that there was a large percentage of couples for whom that was simply not the case, and that a communication-focused approach ultimately was not enough. As I analyzed the more subtle dynamics of a relationship, I realized that there are four sets of ingredients that underlie and support the Communication layer that have all got to be in place for anything else to work.
Directly beneath the Communication layer is what I would call Emotional Management. Sometimes people have difficulty communicating effectively because of the emotional state that they’re in. They may even know better communication skills, but they’re incapable of using them in the heat of the moment – the intensity of their emotional reaction gets in the way. A lot of us, quite honestly, don’t manage our emotions in very healthy ways, and we don’t stay in a consistently healthy emotional balance. Without addressing these emotional ingredients, it’s impossible to develop better communication habits.
Keep in mind, I’m not saying this is always the case; sometimes it is just a matter of learning some new communication tools, and practicing some new skills. But for a lot of people there are anger issues, stress responses, personal insecurities, and other emotional dynamics that have to be dealt with as a prerequisite to good communication. In order to change the communication patterns, you first must address the feelings that are driving those patterns.
The next level down is what I would call the Commitment layer. When you ask someone what commitment means in a marriage, most people will think of things like “not being unfaithful” or “’til death do us part.” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Those things might help a marriage last longer, but they’re not enough to make your marriage truly great. Creating a relationship that really is incredibly meaningful, fulfilling, and satisfying requires some other types of commitment that most people don’t necessarily think of.
At an even more foundational level is a layer that I have always thought of as Vision & Values. Most of us go into our marriage with no clear vision of how we want the relationship to be, and what we want it to become. For most couples, the problem is not that their ideas are in opposition; the problem is that there’s no clear, shared definition of those ideas and ideals. This fundamental lack of clarity ends up being a highly destructive force in many, many relationships.
Ultimately, all six of these layers rest upon – and are driven by – the most critical ingredient of them all: Personal Responsibility & Proactivity. We’ll be diving head first into this bottom-most layer as we move into Phase 2.
The Online Marriage Counseling System® will give you everything you need
to make all seven of these layers rock solid in your marriage.
Just so you know, six of the thirteen Phases will address the Communication layer, since that’s where the most skill-building will need to occur.