How to make love last
"We can stay enmeshed, where we see our partner as an extension of ourselves rather than a person in his or her own right." Photo: Getty Images
There's no such thing as a relationship without its challenges and rocky patches - as wonderful as they can be, healthy partnerships are no walk in the park.
And 'growing apart' is no exception to the rule: while a two-to-a-penny deal-breaker, many of us are underprepared to deal with what is essentially a very natural stage of a relationship, as inevitable as the intoxicating first flush of love.
Love has a lifecycle which goes through three main phases. The first is the romantic, giddy life-of-it’s-own stage when the alchemy of mutual attraction and affection gives us a sense of a better self and a better life because our beloved is at the centre. Our individual boundaries merge to give us a comforting sense of oneness. And this is important for our initial bonding.
But as lovely as it is, this stage inevitably wears off. Research tells us it is usually between six months and two years. Some people make the mistake at this point of thinking that because the luster has worn off, this partner is no longer for them, and end the relationship. They form a new one with a new love and everything is bliss…for another twelve months or so.
The romance stage is only the beginning -- it is not enduring enough to see a relationship into the long term. Romantic love is based on how the other person makes us feel. It is loving the bits of another person that are similar to, or complement us. But what happens when we go through periods of difficulty or conflict, as healthy relationships inevitably do? Will we believe that if we are not happy, then it must be because of our partner? Are they really right for us? With these doubts the bond we created in our first stage will be sorely tested in the next.
Growing apart is the next step in relationships. It’s a time when trust has been established and we relax. With this, we start to drift a little. We may go back to spending time with friends or activities we don’t have in common. Take separate trips or focus on career goals. We re-establish some independence and turn our attention to broadening our own personal boundaries.
This is good for our relationships. If we don’t go through this stage (and support our partner to do the same), we can stay enmeshed, where we see our partner as an extension of ourselves rather than a person in his or her own right. Growing apart introduces more differences into our partnership – which is also a good thing. It is the continual development, revealing and sharing of ourselves that keeps long-term relationships fresh and keeps them growing. But this stage, like the first, needs to be managed: if we become too close, we can lose ourselves, but if we let ourselves get too far apart, we will inevitably lose the relationship. Sometimes it’s a delicate balance.
The final stage of a relationship is what I call “Growing Together”. But it’s not something that just happens; it takes effort, as if tending a garden. Growing Together is about taking our differences, our unique perspectives, backgrounds and desires and building a partnership that is big enough to encompass them all. It is not loving the other person for how they make us feel, but for who we are. It’s the skilled and sometimes challenging work of co-creating interdependence: needing to be ourselves, allowing our partner to be their own, and wanting to be with them. Growing together instead of growing apart.
Elly Taylor is a relationship counsellor and author of Becoming Us, Loving, Learning and Growing Together.