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What Went Wrong? When Relationships Go From Hot to Cold
Everything was great. We had been dating for 6 months. We shared the same interests, felt very at ease together, had (often) discussed future plans and had even spent some of the holidays together. Our relationship seemed right on track and just right in general. Then, without warning, he said he "needs some time to think and figure things out." He stopped calling and rarely returned my calls. When he did, I was often met with silence on the other end of the line. When I asked "what happened", I just got a verbal run around of excuses about how busy he is and/or how much stress he is under right now. What happened? What did I do? I don't know what to think.
Does the above scenario sound at all familiar? If so, you can relate to being confused and stunned over the sudden change in a boyfriend's/girlfriend's behavior. Now think about this - What if your relationship wasn't what you thought it was? What if unspoken issues had existed all along? What if there were signs you chose to ignore or just didn't see? Are any of these possible? Probably.
This sudden change in a couple's relationship is reported quite a bit by individuals who have just broken up with a significant other. Unfortunately, it leaves the person who has been "dumped" with feelings of low self-esteem, regret, inadequacy and anger. There is often no real closure, as the couple is never able (willing) to talk through what went wrong or was never right with their relationship.
So, how can you know what the problem was and hope to avoid a repeat of this hurtful experience? You can do this by examining your failed relationship and gaining insight and understanding about what just wasn't right between you. In order to assist you with this; I am providing a basic framework of the relationship stages a couple must pass through TOGETHER in order to get to a place of shared intimacy and commitment. If either person's feelings change before, during or after one of these stages; it is not necessarily the "fault" of the other individual. It is simply a statement about the individuals' rightness (or not) for each other. It is also a reflection of each individual's relationship readiness and ability to handle long-term, committed intimacy.
How an individual handles their changing feelings and resultant behavior toward the other is a subject for another article. Relationships have stages. We have all read articles and books by authors who have come up with their own unique number or names for these. I will try to take a very basic approach to this and keep it simple and as universal as possible.
This is the first stage. It is physical, intellectual and emotional - on a very surface level. Girl sees boy and vice versa. They flirt, talk and get a very basic sense of the other. They are usually responding to a physical pull. He/she is cute, funny, charming, interesting to talk to, etc. Without attraction, first dates wouldn't happen. It can therefore be assumed that the other person finds us attractive if we have gotten to a first date.
In a way, this is the easy one. We are unknowns to each other. Things progress from this point or they do not. Hurt feelings are minimal. We usually chalk up rejection to; "I'm not his type". There is no need to analyze or wonder what went wrong.
If both people feel a strong enough level of attraction continues to exist after a few dates, they usually move along to stage two. However, if one finds the other has unattractive characteristics or behaviors, this can lead to an abrupt change in the relationship. Remember, these behaviors or characteristics would be ones that would manifest in the very early stage of dating. Some examples: frequently late, never offers to pay, dresses or grooms sloppily, rude to waitress, etc.
In this second stage, couples begin to test out the idea of themselves as a unit. Dating is no longer brand new. It is more comfortable and predictable. Sharing romantic dinners and exciting special interests are typical dates during this new and fun time in a growing relationship. During this stage, flowers are given for no special reason and loving cards are slipped back and forth with words like "thinking of you". It's a happy carefree time, when lovers tend to idealize, romanticize and overlook that which can be right in front of them. The relationship seems effortless and spontaneous. Affection is shared openly and frequently. One's partner seems perfect. There is rarely conflict during this period. The partners often share the unrealistic belief that their relationship is so special and unique that it will always stay this way.
This stage can last from three or four months up to more than a year. It is actually the shortest stage that any long-term relationship goes through. It is also the one we wish we could hold on to forever and long for when it is gone. This is the stage that love poems speak about. It is also believed (falsely) by many that this is what long-term committed love will always be like. Many relationships begin to stumble at the end of this period. For that is when reality begins to set in. As partners begin to experience some disagreement, conflict and/or shared challenges- the relationship shifts as do the dynamics between the partners.
Though many relationships move past this stage, a number do not. Why? There are many reasons. These can include:
lack of readiness for the challenges of the next stage
issues with commitment and fidelity
immature beliefs about what relationships should be
being stuck on an idealized, romanticized notion of love
If one of the partners is not ready for a less than perfect and more demanding stage of love, they will exhibit this in their behavior, language and overall level of openness and availability towards the other. This is when the couple begins to think more seriously of a future with each other. The focus tends to be; how well do we get along, do we share similar interests and do I want to date this person exclusively?
Growth Through Negotiation
This is a very challenging and growing time in all relationship building. Reality comes into play as the couple settles into the comfort and predictability of their togetherness. Little issues can become blown-up into large conflicts. The individuals begin to compete for their share of control and their place in this growing union. Differences can become highlighted instead of minimized. This is often the period when couples experience their first fight. Hurt feelings can occur as that once loving and completely accepting other person airs a criticism or voices annoyance or concern. Often, the individuals believe it is the other person who needs to change.
This is where the need for (or lack of) communication, problem-solving and negotiating skills becomes apparent. For without an adequate measure of these, disagreements can break down into screaming matches where insults and recriminations are fired like missiles. If the individuals can listen, be supportive of each other's feelings, compromise and not lay blame, they have a good chance of working through this stage and achieving a true intimacy. This does not mean they will share all the same beliefs and opinions or that they will necessarily even like the other's view. However, having and showing respect is a cornerstone of a healthy relationship.
Not only will relationships fail without these relationship-building strengths, they can also abruptly end if one of the partners decides that they don't feel the same way about this person in their less than idealized state. The reality may not be to their liking or just something they are not ready for in general. Either way, they will pull back, present differently or disappear without warning. How they handle their changing feelings is further information about their level of relationship readiness and maturity in general.
Intimacy is the reward that is gained when a couple has successfully worked through the difficult last stage of negotiation. It is almost like a new coming together with much greater self (and other) awareness. This new information can work to solidify the union or give one of both individuals enough new information about the other to require a reassessment of their desire to remain together. Each person looks at the other in their (naked) state and asks; "Is this the person I want to be with?" Here their individual differences are highlighted. The early romantic haze has cleared. What they have to offer to each other and to a future life together comes into play.
This is a time when couples often begin to contemplate each other's attributes in a more practical way. They look at the other's strengths and weaknesses. They evaluate each other's potential as a future spouse, parent, provider, caregiver, partner, etc.
Relationships can be tested more during this time. Infidelity is one dysfunctional way that some individuals do this. Often, this leads to the end of the relationship.
When differences can be seen, aired and accepted, the couple has a good chance of moving on together from this place. Essentially, they have decided they want to be with the other, warts and all. When the behavior of one or both partners change, it is generally because they have made a conscious or unconscious decision regarding the wrongness of the other for them or for the type of relationship they seek.
This is the final stage of relationship building. Once individuals have reached this place, they are ready to cement their bond. While much growth and work will lay ahead in a future life together, they are ready to begin this life soon.
New challenges arise during each stage, and will happen here as well. However, if the couple has successfully worked through the previous stages, they should have many of the tools they need. The external problems and pressures that come with life will test their resolve and commitment over the years. They may need to reassess, re-negotiate and renew their feelings and commitment. Fortunately, they will be in possession of the basic tools required. If they choose well to begin with, they should be successful.
As you evaluate your failed relationship, note the stage you were in when the change occurred. Chances are that the necessary level of readiness and maturity was not present in one or both of you. Perhaps one of you decided that this is not the kind of partner or relationship I am seeking. This new information and insight should help you to choose a future partner who is better suited to you and desirous of the same kind of relationship that you are.
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Toni Coleman, LCSW
© Copyright 2008 Antoinette Coleman. All rights reserved.
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